I am conditioned to find examples of innovative technology and engineering, everywhere. It is just who I am. Whether I am in the grocery store ringing up my own purchase with a self-scanning machine, reading the newspaper about the new solar cell project, or simply evaluating the new gadget or app that comes out onto the market to make my life easier, as an engineer, and an engineering educator, innovation catches my eye. But recently, I’ve realized that as an engineer – someone focused on the study and creation of the human made world – I have been missing out on all of the science – the study of the natural world – that goes on right under my nose. And what a world it is…
I first recognized my lack of natural connection after reading a very well-known book about the importance of nature in child development, by Richard Louv. The Last Child in the Woods lays out the author’s theory that kids today are suffering from what he calls Nature Deficit Disorder, not a clinical term, but one that is easily understood when described. As I read the book, I very quickly identified myself in Louv’s description of the consequences of being raised without a connection to nature. And this realization bothered me. How had I lived my life, up to this point without realizing and taking advantage of all that nature had to offer me, not only as an engineer or scientist, but as a teacher, a parent, A PERSON ??! (As a follow on, I’ve recently begun reading Louv’s latest book, “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder”, that was inspired by adults who approached him after “The Last Child…” to insist they suffer from NDD, as an adult. Highly recommend both books, the latter is more current, though Last Child … is still very accurate)
And so when I came across the opportunity to apply for a local naturalist training program for adults interested in environmental education, I immediately jumped at the chance. Nature University, as it is called, is coordinated by the agency in Portland, Oregon Metro, which manages much of the natural resources in the urban area. Nature U is by application only – to be accepted you must have either a background in environmental or natural resource programming or experience working with youth in formal or informal educational settings AND a desire to share nature with the community. The program is structured very much like it sounds, a 10 week university level course that introduces and engages participants in all aspects of environmental and naturalist education. It is a free course, but in exchange, participants must commit to giving at least 40 hours of volunteer time, within 12 months, in the form of hosting and leading field trips at the local natural areas and parks managed by the organization.
To say that my eyes have been open to a new world would be an understatement. In fact, the first skill we learned was how to increase our nature awareness through “Owl Eyes” (vision), “Deer Ears” (hearing), and “Fox Walking” (silent walking) – all intended to give us a better chance at observing nature in its, well, natural form. We’ve begun to learn to interpret Bird Language, the calls, postures, and behaviors of birds to determine what is happening in the nearby area, Animal Tracking, observing the imprints left behind by wildlife in soil, snow, mud, or other ground surfaces to tell the story of the animals in the immediate eco-region, and overall nature interpretation, using story telling to convey the interrelationships between all living species.
The experience has been amazing and inspiring, as it seems I am being introduced to all of Science through a new lens. And in fact, I’ve been trying to document the experience through a literal new lens, the camera that I received for my birthday in January. I’ve included some of my recent photos below. Since beginning this course at the end of January, I’ve been to more natural areas, wildlife refuges, and preserved wetlands than I have in my entire life, all to try to soak in all that I’ve been missing. The bonus is, that these experiences are perfect for sharing with children, and have given me some wonderful ideas and excuses for spending time with my own children. I can confirm that spending time in nature is a perfect universal experience that allows for shared learning and bonding – exactly what a family should be doing!
The lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes we don’t have to look very far to find science in the world, sometimes all it takes is a new perspective. If you are looking for new ideas for your classroom or even just a way to connect with your students or your own children, get outside, take a walk, look up and down, listen and learn! See the list below for tips to experience nature (excerpted from koransky.com)
Tips for Experiencing Nature
- Clear the mind of all clutter, worries accumulated during daily living. This can occur naturally during an extended stay in the wilderness.
- Let go of time. Live in the now, not the past or future. Don’t fret about the past, don’t worry about the future. You are not on a schedule out here.
- Walk slowly and see more.
- Sit down. (“If you were to sit under an oak tree for an entire day, you would have enough information to write an entire book.” – John Burroughs.
- Let go of worries. Identify what is worrying you and let it pass.
- Be alive. Pretend you only have a week to live and every moment matters.
- Be quiet. Silence in nature is the rule, noise is the exception. (example: walking through woods)
- Don’t analyze (I.E. calculating gallons/sec of waterfall).
- Try without trying. Can you get to sleep when you try to get to sleep?
- Don’t try to name things. Names can’t describe!
- Nothing is commonplace. Each plant is unique, each animal different.
- Follow your heart! John Muir was asked, where are you going? “Anyplace that’s wild!” If something looks interesting, check it out. Follow your instincts and urges and you will be surprised!
- What will people think? Who cares! Let go of inhibitions! Force yourself to do something crazy and you’ll find it easier to follow your heart.
- Let go of prejudices. You never know what is going to be around the corner.
- Immerse yourself. Jump into the swamp, get dirty, play in the mud! (example: hiking in rain with cliff)
- Ignore discomforts, cold, hot, etc.. (remember as children?)
- Become that child!
- Best teachers are plants and animals.
- Nature is everywhere! Why do we have plants? To remind us of our connection to the earth. There is much to learn from a single potted plant.
- Deep relaxation, meditation can help! See below. Stalking can also get you into this relaxed alpha mind set.