Educating the Educators - Environmental Literacy at Tryon & Beyond

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Marilyn Ellis stands by the front door of the Nature Center on a misty, spring morning encouraging visitors to pet the soft fur of the coyote pelt draped over her arm. She speaks to them calmly about habitat, survival and coexistence. The pelt, is one of her favorite teaching tools made available to her as a volunteer for Friends of Tryon Creek.

Though Ellis is already a Oregon Master Naturalist and a Certified Interpretive Guide and has volunteered as a wildlife rehabilitator, docent and taxidermist for a half dozen organizations, she has sat through the 20-hour volunteer training class at Tryon twice now and expects to do so again in the fall. “It’s required the first time. But there’s always more to learn, no matter how much you think you know,” Ellis says. “I took it the second time because it was a great way to go get the juices flowing, to see my fellow naturalists again and to refresh my familiarity with the programs.

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This is exactly the energy and attitude that Erin Cathcart hopes will continue to emerge from the training classes she puts on for adult volunteers at Tryon Creek State Natural Area. Cathcart hopes her classroom at Tryon can be a hub of outdoor education that reaches to other organizations and agencies throughout the region.

“We talk about working with groups, group management, teaching technical ways to facilitate conversations and learning,” Cathcart says. “We’re not just teaching: Here’s a pileated woodpecker, but instead, how does that woodpecker fit into the programming as a whole.”

This kind of approach is not just useful at Tryon, but for volunteers at any of the region’s parks, river groups and green spaces where children and teachers spend valuable time on field trips. Cathcart sees that her volunteers crave more information, more resources and more teaching experience. She knows that Tryon’s superstar volunteers might be in the park one day and leading trips down the Tualatin the next. As this broader approach to training and education evolves, each of the partner organizations will take a turn hosting classes. Content would change depending on the group’s focus, experiences and expertise, she says. By strengthening environmental education in the region and creating a universal training program, visitors will walk away from their experiences with good, consistent, positive information.

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“All of us educators and organizations can then support each other with a larger goal of achieving environmental literacy both in the classroom and outside,” she says.

In 2009, House Bill 2544 was passed and signed into action by Governor Ted Kulongoski. Along with the so-called “No Oregon Child Left Inside Act” came the Oregon Environmental Literacy Plan.

Outside of the education circles, it’s not often seen or referred to, but it’s nearly 50 pages long and to put it briefly, states that kids need to spend time outside. The act, according to the document, is an effort to “further understand the interrelationship between our environment, society, and economy” by ensuring “every student in Oregon becomes a lifelong steward of the environment and community, willing and able to exercise the rights and responsibilities of environmental citizenship, choosing to interact frequently with the outdoor environment, equipped with multifaceted knowledge of our relationship to the environment and its resources, and prepared to address challenges with sound decisions for the future.”

Whether she’s holding a coyote pelt, the skull of a woodpecker or a stack of photographs, encouraging an understanding about relationships and connections between humans and natural systems is Marilyn Ellis’s main goal when she’s volunteering at the park.

She doesn’t mind reviewing those ideas each year in Cathcart’s class. She loves connecting with other naturalists and being part of a community that is truly appreciated. And just like the young students who arrive on schools buses each fall and spring, she learns by repetition. “It doesn’t hurt to hear something again,” she says. “Every time you’re in nature, it is new and wonderful and unexpected,” Ellis says. “There may be a goal for the program, but within that framework we can stop and talk about discovery. Everything is interconnected. It’s a sense of wonder and discovery and joy of observation that students can take with them everywhere.”

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