EPNA Interview #4: Bethany Thomas, Ecology in Classrooms & Outdoors

This is a new series of posts in which I interview Portland personalities that are making a difference in connecting children of this region to nature. Richard Louv, the premier voice in the children and nature movement, has written several times about our natureful city. In Last Child in the Woods, he remarked on Portland’s Greenspaces program’s “call for the creation of a regional system of parks, natural areas, greenways, and trails for both wildlife and people;” PSU students’ research on possible greenroof design in downtown; and the 40-Mile Loop. In The Nature Principle, Louv commented on research in Portland on the health benefits of nature (outdoor “prescriptions”); profiled a teacher who worked as an assistant for a study of small mammals in an urban green space (Marshall Park); described Mike Houck’s work to make room for nature in a big city at a time when the consensus was that nature and wildlife were elsewhere, not within where people dwell; and how the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides access to nature via the bus system. There are other mentions of Portland, too. Patrick, Catherine, and I feel lucky to live in a city that values what the Earth gives to it. Moreover, we feel privileged to share this city with folks who strive to not only instill a love of nature into its citizens’ minds and hearts, but in providing better access to that nature.

Please contact me at darwinsbulldog@gmail.com if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.

Today I talk to Bethany Thomas, Co-Director with Ecology in Classrooms & Outdoors (ECO).

Bethany blackberry

Hi Bethany, welcome to Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. Would you please share with us your background – education, jobs, etc. that relate to nature in some way?

I’m a native Oregonian and I got my BS from the University of Oregon in environmental science and geography. I spent two environmentally-related service terms with Americorps – one in Salem with the BLM, and one in Bend with the Forest Service. In 2004, my husband and I moved to Portland so that he could set up a tea business, which has grown into Townshend’s Tea Company and Brew Dr. Kombucha. While he was getting that going, I worked as a GIS Tech, and started volunteering with a few of Portland’s many environmental organizations, like SOLV, Wolftree, Metro’s Master Recycling Program, and others. In 2005, I co-founded a nonprofit called Ecology in Classrooms & Outdoors (ECO). Our mission is to “connect students to the world around them through exploration of their local ecology.” In doing this, we bring pairs of Scientists in Residence into elementary school classrooms in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties to present a series of hands-on ecology lessons. We also often facilitate student-driven service-learning projects, assisting students in creating rain gardens, outdoor classrooms, native habitats and in removing invasive species on their school grounds. These service-learning projects give students an opportunity to bring about positive change in their community, and help them to recognize that even at their young age, they are capable of contributing to their world.

Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.

I connect Portland kids (and kids in surrounding counties too!) to nature through my work with ECO. Our Scientists in Residence present a series of hands-on ecology lessons to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. We typically visit a student’s classroom six times in just one year. Often, we’ll visit the same students year after year; we form relationships with the students and their teachers that ultimately make our programs more impactful than they would be if we could only visit once or twice. Our lessons are aligned with state educational standards, which is important when asking teachers to make time in their busy day. As our name implies, we work with students both in the classroom and outside. Overall, our programs are designed to enhance students’ sense of place, instill an affinity for science, and build on children’s innate interest in our natural world.

Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?

I was lucky enough to grow up here, and the time I spent in the outdoors with my family connected me to this place. We often explored Oregon’s beautiful places- on Mt. Hood, in the coast range, and on the high desert. I love Oregon. Multnomah County’s Outdoor School also had a big impact on my decision to work in environmental education. I experienced it as a sixth grader, a high school mentor, and a special needs assistant – it’s truly a wonderful program that brings so much to our community. When people, children especially, have the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of our natural world, they start to build a real connection and enhanced sense of place that can blossom into genuine concern and stewardship.

Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.

I do! I have two boys; a three year old and a 15-month old. My three year old loves to go hiking, although we never travel too far along the trail because there are just too many cool things to explore along the way. My 15-month old is thrilled to do anything his brother does.

Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.

Portland offers amazing opportunities for kids to participate in nature, and that is so valuable. Our parks and open spaces, programs, and events provide multiple possibilities for getting outdoors and connecting to the natural world. Portland kids are also lucky to live in a place where recycling and composting are commonplace, where public transportation is accessible, and where people are aware about earth-conscious behaviors. Although across economic and cultural spectrums, access to Portland’s resources are not always equal. That’s something I see has much room for improvement.

Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?

I hope to see Portland students become more connected to their natural world. We have such a wonderful network of organizations working to make that happen, inside and outside of schools. Unfortunately, a lot of terrific programs are just unknown outside the environmental community, and access to these programs amongst underserved kids needs to improve. The Conservation Education petal of Metro’s Intertwine is working to increase visibility and link more interested parties with the wealth of resources Portland’s environmental community offers. I also appreciate the camaraderie that the Intertwine, and the Environmental Education Association of Oregon provide amongst environmental educators and organizations. We’re all working toward the same greater goal, and working together makes us all stronger.

Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?

With two young boys, I understand how a parent might be overwhelmed by the idea of “getting to nature” – planning the trip and packing up all the gear and working around naps and driving all that way. I think it’s important to remember that nature is all around us, and while a trip to an “away” place is definitely amazing, and memorable, you really don’t have to go far in order to get to nature. I also believe that by teaching kids that nature is all around us, it suddenly becomes much more relevant in their lives. Nature doesn’t have to be this far away thing – it’s right outside your door.

What is your favorite natural space in our city?

It’s tough to pick a favorite. I enjoy taking our boys to Balch Creek in Forest Park, just behind the Audubon Sanctuary. It’s close, and very accessible for young kids. It’s a nice mix of structure and wild. And, the Audubon Sanctuary is fun to explore as well (plus, it has bathrooms!). Our next trip will be to Tryon Creek State Park – great place to explore, and also close by too!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Bethany! Perhaps my son or forthcoming daughter will benefit from ECO’s programs in the future.

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