The Science of Nature – The Nature of Science

Today at work I spent the day with 80 young girls from Project Scientist, a summer camp for girls interested in STEM fields. We went on a nature hike, built model buffer zones as water filters, made leaf rubbings, and played field games. At the end of the day the girls had a chance to ask us questions about our jobs and interests. The questions were sweet and thoughtful and generally fell along the lines of “who inspired you to become a scientist?” “what’s your favorite part of your job?” and “when did you know that you wanted to be a scientist?”

I spoke about my love of being outdoors and the mentors I’ve had both at school and in my work without too much deep thought, but as we wrapped up the day and the campers loaded onto their buses, water bottles and lunchboxes in hand, I was struck with the realization that I had, at least to a certain extent, achieved my childhood dream. While many of the goals I had as a young girl have absolutely not come to pass (everything from competing in the Olympics to starring in my own musical show about how much I love snack time), I had just told 80 young women that I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember and now I am. I had told them that my childhood idols included Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson and now I too hold a degree in environmental science. Of course, I have a long way to go – many more years of school ahead of me and countless frustrating research projects still to come – but I had never before stopped to call myself a scientist and bask, even momentarily, in that achievement.

I feel pretty lucky that I get to apply all the knowledge and skills that I spent four years collecting at Davidson to my work every day. Many of my peers left Davidson to enter worlds of finance, consulting, and business that may or may not be completely unrelated to their fields of study in school. Of course, that’s the magic of a liberal arts degree. We learned the skills necessary to succeed anywhere. We learned to write, to think, and to be critical so that we could go on to be leaders in anything we chose to pursue. There’s nothing wrong with that. For me though, there’s something special about being able to explain the process of eutrophication in simple terms to a group that’s come to spend the day paddling with us on a Thread Trail Blueway or to teach a school group how to identify native plants and remove invasive ones. When my co-workers talk about forest management techniques, I can lean on my ecology classes to help me keep up with their conversation. I have the daily opportunity to take my theoretical knowledge, gained in the classrooms and labs of Davidson College, and put it to work in the field as a Carolina Thread Trail Impact Fellow. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know at what particular moment one becomes a scientist. Was it when I received a microscope kit as a birthday present and took to examining every leaf, blade of grass, and insect I could find in minute detail? Was it when I walked across a stage in front of Chambers and someone handed me a piece of paper with the letters B.S. stamped on it? It was probably somewhere in the middle of those events. I can’t point to the exact moment but somewhere in the midst of tromping through the woods to collect data, creating endless excel spreadsheets, and this moment now so close to the end of my fellowship, I became a scientist.

I am a scientist. And I have to say, I’m pretty proud of that.

Nature Matters… and Advocacy Does Too

My time at the Arts & Science Council (ASC) has been spent doing things I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do in a professional setting. So far these things have included hiking, promoting a documentary, observing teaching artists in Pre-K classrooms, managing a professional web designer, event planning, and learning how to code. These four months on the job have been a whirlwind of excitement and growth. To state it simply, I’m feeling an immense amount of gratitude for these diverse experiences and the DIF program overall.

Nature Matters... and Advocacy Does Too

The DIF position at ASC is situated in the Education Department. Our team of seven is split between two locations due to our offsite, out-of-school program called Studio 345 which offers free classes for high school students in music, screen printing, mixed media, photography, and film. It takes everything in my power to stay away from that place (read: you can find me there most afternoons). During the summer, Studio 345 offers the Journeys Program which is also free to students but relies on an application process to select its participants.

I was fortunate enough to participate in this program as a mentor to fifteen deserving, creative, extraordinary high school students from Charlotte. Our local hikes to Crowders Mountain, the RibbonWalk Nature Preserve, kayaking on the Catawba River, and a weekend spent at Appalachian State University prepared the students for a week spent at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. There, the students were immersed in outdoor education sessions where they tested water quality, practiced orienteering, participated in a University of Tennessee citizen science research initiative on Salamanders, spoke with Park Rangers, all while developing a newfound relationship with the outdoors. The lack of cell service forced students to turn to alternate sources of entertainment. Most nights I found the whole group playing a rowdy game of Uno or singing loudly, accompanied by our resident troubadour Ukulele player.

Nature Matters... and Advocacy Does Too

Over the course of one summer spent in nature, these teenagers transformed. I saw it with my own eyes. From a lifestyle devoid of walking and with much of their time spent buried in their phones, these young city people have now experienced the wonder of a quiet forest and the serenity of a mountain stream. Many of them now hope to attend Appalachian State University after having spent time in a college dorm room. Most of them have created art inspired by these trips that they’ve shared with family and the greater community. Most notably, one of our students wrote her college application essay about the things she experienced while on the Journeys Program this summer. Here is a quote from her essay:

“[Over the summer] I learned that I desire to be an outdoor educator just like ones we met at Tremont. I learned that I want to take others out into nature and give them the experiences that the wonderful Tremont staff gave to us. Before entering Studio 345, I had no idea that my life would take a completely different turn. I transformed from a misplaced person to a focused individual in a single summer. This is all thanks to the summer I spent with the Studio 345 Journeys Program.”

Nature Matters... and Advocacy Does Too

Last year’s Journeys Program spent their culminating week at Yellowstone National Park and took a film crew along. The students’ transformative experiences are documented in ASC’s second advocacy documentary entitled Nature Matters. I was proud to organize the film’s premiere just two weeks ago where it was viewed by a sold-out crowd. I’d encourage everyone to attend an upcoming screening in order to witness the benefits of exposing a nature-deficient generation to the wonder of the great outdoors. For more information and to see the trailer, visit NatureMattersFilm.com.

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