Representing the "scientist" career at a job fair, I smiled when the group of wide-eyed high school students on the other side of the table asked me one of my favorite questions.
"How did you know you wanted to be a scientist?"
Outdoor School—the Multnomah Education Service District program enabling sixth grade students to learn science during a week in the forest with new friends and high school role models—is the reason I am a scientist.
As a scientist, here are my hypotheses as to how Outdoor School profoundly changed my life:
Hypothesis 1: Learning forest ecology is more fun in an actual forest.
Cody's teacher was in disbelief. The student that had yet to complete a single assignment or make it a week without breaking out into a fight beamed with joy as he held out his drawing of a caddisfly. Cody not only listened as his Student Leader described how some species can tolerate higher levels of pollution than others, but he participated with the group in catching critters and was proud of his work when he drew the caddisfly that took 15 minutes of concentration by the river to catch.
Cody is not alone. Many students that struggle in the classroom thrive at Outdoor School.
The Outdoor School textbook “chapters” (the field studies of plants, animals, soil and water) are written in words every child can understand. Students learn by touching, seeing, and experiencing each field study throughout an entire day of hands-on activities.
Throughout a full week at Outdoor School, students have enough time to process and make connections between field studies. There is nothing more rewarding than a student asking a question about water quality or plant adaptations in the middle of a lesson on soil particle size. I have seen countless students in awe of how interconnected the plants, animals, soil and water really are. I feel it too.
I finally understood why this feeling of awe can be so powerful when Dr. Kelly Swing, the director of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador, quoted an Amazonian tribe leader in a presentation about deforestation:
“We only know what we see; we only love what we know; we only care about what we love”. This has become my personal mission statement.
Hypothesis 2: I realized I had the power to make a difference.
Huddled below a tarp in the pouring rain in a forest of Bigleaf Maples covered in moss, I was a high school sophomore surrounded by a circle of five inquisitive sixth graders. We were testing the dissolved oxygen of the Salmon River when one of the sixth grader's eyes lit up and she exclaimed, “I never knew I could learn all of this!”
Rosa spoke Spanish at home and was learning English as a second language, which was partly why she was so enthusiastic about being able to understand science at Outdoor School. But even beyond mastering the science concepts, when this sixth grader before me in a yellow poncho two-sizes-too-big-for-her realized she was capable of understanding the natural world, I witnessed her begin to care about this world she was discovering—and in this same moment I saw my potential to make a difference. I knew I would spend my life creating opportunities for students to realize how much they care.
Some days I feel powerless. Numbers can be defeating—statistics on global carbon emissions, deforestation rates, biodiversity loss, increased poverty, inequality in human rights, and school shootings lead me to question whether I can have a positive impact. Science gives me hope; through science, more people have a reason to care.
Hypothesis 3: Mentors and students inspired me to become my best self, and together we built a community where everyone could belong.
Hot tears streamed down faces, streaking the crowd that was slowly being herded to the buses, which marked the end of a week. Shifting collectively in clumps, students soaked in precious seconds with their cabin group and Student Leader. As much as Outdoor School illuminates how water, plants, soil, and animals depend on one another, the structured mentorship program was designed with equal intention to point out how much we depend on each other.
Four separate science classes arrive at the beginning of the week, as discrete as each day of field study that covers a distinct area of ecology. Students earn a different-colored bead after each successful day on field study to hang on a safety pin from the string of their "wood cookie" name tag. These beads interlock, so after a full week at Outdoor School, these individual beads spin together as one—just as the four field studies together make up ecology, but also as the students from four different classes become the sobbing clumps of community known as cabin groups. How does this happen in only five days?
"There is no such thing as an unimportant day."
I can still see the rainbow-colored "fortune cookie" slip of paper with that quote against the misty morning air with sun rays beginning to light up the moss and Douglas Firs boughs. For the first time, I realized I could choose my own happiness that day. That tiny piece of paper and the shift in my perspective came out of a morning meeting with my Outdoor School staff mentor.
Before Outdoor School, my fragile confidence prevented me from forming a sentence out loud without counting down to myself, and even then it frequently tumbled out in a stutter. As may be a common adolescent experience, I was paralyzed by my fear of not having friends, not being liked, not belonging.
But when my mentors, Canopy, Roots and Coho, showed me they cared and gave me positive feedback, not only did I feel a sense of belonging, but a growing sense of self. My emerging identity had a joy for life, and was growing increasingly good at asking students science questions. That spring crisp morning, holding a tiny piece of paper from one of the many people supporting me, crystallized this identity that I chose to cultivate, both in living joyfully and in the work that I now continue to do.
Now as a woman in science with a lab coat and a pipette, I know I belong because I have always belonged from the beginning of my science career, with a wood cookie and my Outdoor School name, “Robin.”
Who I became as “Robin” led me to science, but also shaped the way I do science. Inquiry and curiosity drive my research questions, and I teach undergraduate students in the lab exactly as I did that day by the Salmon River—together as a team.
I learned how truly important this is when I returned to work on staff as a Field Instructor. I was struggling to develop an introductory curriculum that I felt could fully prime students to feel that awe when they understand how everything connects. But then I realized, from watching my high school volunteers laughing with their students as they "rained" on their sticks-and-sand watershed model, that community was the secret ingredient generating passion for science. In moments of discovery and connection to community: that is where change happens.
And here's the best part. All students can equally access this change at Outdoor School as long as all students have an equal chance to go to Outdoor School.
In case you haven't heard, giving all students an equal chance of a career in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—matters. Collectively as a nation, we invest a lot of time and money towards programs to increase and maintain diversity in STEM fields, which can be absolutely worth it for several reasons. First, since STEM fields tend to lead to higher-paying jobs, diversity can more evenly distribute social equity. Second, we need a talented workforce to tackle the tough challenges ahead of us, such as feeding a growing population in a changing climate. Maintaining diversity enables more voices to answer the questions we face. Finally, science is more sound when people who are more likely to think in different manners can draw the same conclusions.
Outdoor School provides equal opportunity access to science for all students. It's such a great way of learning about what our future holds, and learning that only we can change it: we're the creators of the mold that shapes our lives.
So just keep the candles burning; don't let the fire go out too soon.