This past October, after a year of planning and preparation, the Mount Rainier Institute successfully conducted its first two pilot programs down at Pack Forest!
The idea first germinated with Professor Greg Ettl and the National Park Service several years ago. Since those early meetings, one of the driving forces behind the program has been John Hayes, environmental education program manager at Pack Forest. Working in close partnership with the park service and the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, Hayes has been drawing up the blueprint for a residential environmental learning center that uses the natural and cultural resources of Mount Rainier National Park and Pack Forest to nurture the next generation of environmental stewards and leaders.
Students from Sequoyah Middle School in Federal Way conduct forest surveys around Pack Forest.
The program would invite school students from all backgrounds—and especially from diverse communities with limited access to parks and other natural spaces—to spend three nights at Pack Forest.
With hands-on experiments and projects within Pack and at Mount Rainier, the goal would be for students to explore science and nature, build confidence in being outdoors, generate interest in careers involving resource management, and generally cultivate a greater appreciation for resource management, national parks and the environment.
After so much work getting the curriculum ready for a test run, Hayes and other project partners were especially excited to welcome the first pilot group from First Creek Middle School in Tacoma—22 students, mostly 7th and 8th graders, and their teachers, Donna Chang and Deb Sanford—for a three-night stay at Pack Forest.
They arrived on October 14, and because of the government shutdown at the time, they were not allowed to visit Mount Rainier until their final morning. But the students had plenty to keep them busy in and around Pack Forest. They visited Alder Dam on the Nisqually River to see hydroelectric power in action, practiced taking photos in the forest, wrote poems, did other journaling and cultural projects, and also conducted a few forest ecology experiments. One group, for instance, looked at plant diversity in old growth compared to younger forests, while another compared wildlife between the two forest types, including doing bird surveys.
“What was special about that is they really went through the scientific process,” says Hayes. “They were given a question in the morning, developed a hypothesis, came up with some methods, collected and analyzed data, and then gave a presentation at the end of the day. They had a great time with it!”
With three overnights at Pack Forest, each group got to spend plenty of time around the campfire.
And that was just while the sun was shining. In the evenings, in addition to enjoying campfires and songs, students learned about the history of the region, from the park service to local tribes and other historical figures, like Fay Fuller, who in 1890 became the first woman to summit Mount Rainier. On the second night, they presented their research findings at the science symposium, and on their final night they went for a night hike to explore adaptations of nocturnal animals—and also how humans react to low visibility. “It was really exciting for a lot of them to be out in the woods without flashlights,” says Hayes.
A week later, the second group, led by teachers Dan Borst and Amy Heritage, arrived from Sequoyah Middle School in Federal Way. Their experience was similar to the first group, except this time Mount Rainier National Park was fully open again, so students got to talk to park staff, visit Paradise and experience much more of the mountain. “For many of them, it was the first time they’d been to the park, and that was a pretty amazing experience,” says Hayes.
Greatly enhancing that experience were several folks from Mount Rainier National Park, starting with Park Superintendent Randy King, who has been a strong supporter from the beginning. “Our National Park Service partners were working along with us shoulder to shoulder throughout the program,” says Hayes, including education specialist Brandi Stewart, education program manager Fawn Bauer, and volunteer program manager Kevin Bacher (who took the wonderful photos featured in this story!), as well as Casey Overturf and Maureen McLean.
Another important component of the curriculum was teaching the kids about different ecosystem services nature provides, from forest products to recreation, building houses and providing jobs, cultural, spiritual and other aesthetic functions. One of the most poignant demonstrations to that effect involved doing a timber cruise and calculating the value of a stand of timber. “That was a real eye-opener for a lot of them,” says Hayes. “They never thought about how valuable forest products are to people, and how much, in a practical sense, it’s worth to cut down and harvest timber. That was contrasted throughout the week with other choices we make in managing our resources.”
Students didn’t just get to conduct experiments in the forest. On the second night, they got to present their findings at a science symposium.
“Given that it was pilot, nothing was perfect,” says Hayes. “We actually only did about a quarter of what we had planned to do, and there are a lot of things we will change and refine in the future. But the teachers were very positive about the experience, and many of them are already trying to organize a trip to come back next year, which is what we’re hoping for.”
Yet for a program designed to train and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards, perhaps the most promising result of the pilots was the enthusiastic reaction from the students. By the end of their few days at Pack Forest, many were openly wishing they could stay longer or come back in the summer. And in interviews with students afterwards, a number of them expressed—nearly verbatim—the messages planners hoped they’d take home.
As one student said of the overall experience: “Now that I have done this Sequoyah to Mount Rainier Institute test run thing, I won’t look at the mountain the same. I used to just look at the mountain like it was just there, and it didn’t like mean anything. But now that I’ve like actually been there and done this, I’ll like always remember the things I’ve done and that I also want to come back here, but I don’t think I can because I’m going into high school. But I want to go back to Mount Rainier someday, and I actually want to climb to the top.”
For many students, this was their first visit to Mount Rainier, and they had a great time exploring the mountain (and having snowball fights, of course).
Or as another student reflected on the science projects they completed and presented at the symposium: “I liked that we put purpose to what we did. We didn’t just do it and forget about it. We like actually did something when we got back, so it wasn’t like we were just doing it, we did something with it.”
That kind of feedback has Hayes and the rest of the institute team fired up to get the program fully up and running. They’re hoping to kick off the first full season in the fall of 2014, with the target of reaching about 1,000 students in that first year.
“It’s a daunting goal,” says Hayes, “but one we’re going to push hard to try to make happen!”
Want to learn more or get involved? Contact Hayes today!
All photos © Kevin Bacher/NPS.