August 31, 2017

ENVS Blog: Employing critical thinking skills at Tualatin Hills Nature Center

Julia Benford (’17), a graduate of the  Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College, reflects on how critical thinking and inquiry skills she gained through ENVS course studies are especially useful when teaching environmental education at Tualatin Hills Nature Center.

I have to admit, it feels a little strange to be writing an alumni post. Less than three months out of college, the feeling of being an adult out in the real world has yet to sink in. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to land myself a job: a seasonal position as an environmental education instructor at the Tualatin Hills Nature Center. In the few weeks that I’ve been there so far, I’ve realized how truly unique Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies Program is. I work with people trained in many different fields—biology, teaching, and of course other environmental studies programs. Each of them brings unique strengths to the table, but I’ve found the critical thinking and inquiry skills that I gained through ENVS to be especially useful.

At the Tualatin Hills Nature Center, I work with children ages four through six, an age group notorious for asking questions. Lots of questions. Tough questions. A query as innocuous as “Why aren’t there monkey bars in the nature park?” can quickly turn into a question of what makes something natural enough to belong in the nature park in the first place. Why are there paved paths and metal gates, but no monkey bars? With children, it can be especially tempting to oversimplify, to give quick answers that require little in the way of time-consuming explanation. It’s not easy, but I try to avoid oversimplification as much as possible. Instead, I turn the question on its head. “Well, why do you think there aren’t monkey bars in the nature park? Does the nature park need monkey bars? How would the people and wildlife in the park be affected if we installed monkey bars?” Staff members are encouraged to promote scientific inquiry and the use of the five senses to answer questions, but I also like to encourage campers to think about questions that may not have a right answer—those big, sticky evaluative and instrumental questions that drive us toward environmental studies in the first place.

My role at work also involves encouraging environmental stewardship among my campers, which leads me to spend a lot of time considering the impact that campers should be having on the nature park in the first place. One of the cardinal rules of camp is to stay on the trail during hikes, partly for practical reasons (we don’t want campers getting poison oak), but also partly to prevent campers from trampling the plants on the side of the trail. However, we also have designated off-trail areas that are open to educational groups for outdoor play. This often leads to questions from campers about why we can go off-trail in some areas but not others, which I have yet to find a good answer for. After all, the off-trail play areas are selected because they are large and easily accessible, not because they are somehow less ecologically valuable than other areas of the park. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter if a couple preschoolers step on a plant? If we lived in the Pacific Northwest in an time before the forests became concrete and asphalt, would we still be creating areas where human influence was off-limits? Of course, I still try to keep campers on the trail, because I want to respect the rules of my workplace. But the ability to think critically about rules, to understand the philosophies behind them, and to have the ambition to improve them are all skills that Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies Program has instilled in me. ENVS has prepared to “make a different difference” out in the real world by encouraging me to ask the questions that matter, and that’s a skill that will remain with me much longer than any fact or figure I could memorize.