Not long ago, Shannon Browne was sitting at a desk in San Francisco, etching out a promising career in marketing and advertising.
From the outside looking in, Browne was ahead of the curve — the paychecks were rolling in, even better opportunities were almost certainly right around the corner and there’s no shortage of things to do for a 20-something in the Bay Area. But inside, something wasn’t quite right. It was a good job, no doubt. But was it her passion, her calling?
“No, definitely not,” she says now. “Things were good. But ultimately, I just felt like I wanted to contribute something else.”
That something else turned out to be Southern Oregon University’s Environmental Education master’s program, for which Browne and 10 of her fellow graduate students have spent the past year planning this year’s Fall in the Field program, a collaborative capstone project that exposes children in grades 2 through 8 throughout the Rogue Valley to the biologically diverse Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.
The classes that participate are from all over, from Ashland’s Helman Elementary and Walker Elementary to Medford’s Griffin Creek Elementary and even a fourth-grade class from Rogue River. Beginning on Sept. 13, Fall in the Field instructors will guide students through a series of hands-on lessons four days a week over the course of seven weeks for a total of 28 days of instruction. Fall in the Field also includes an overnight program at the Deer Creek Center in Selma.
“We have been writing, marketing, sort of doing outreach,” said Browne, 28. “We’ve written all the lessons, we’ve targeted all the standards, we’ve reached out to all the schools and now it’s manifesting. So, now we’re coming down to the wire, crossing all of our T's and just getting ready to go.”
The Fall in the Field site was chosen specifically for its biodiversity, according to Jeanine Moy, SOU environmental education alum and outreach director for KS Wild, an environmental advocacy group in Ashland. Situated at the junction of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is home to a wide variety of plant species, including evergreen forests of the Cascades, desert plants of the Great Basin and oak savannah and countless shrubs.
In other words, it’s an ideal place for boys and girls to learn about community ecosystems, food webs, insects, watersheds, plant communities and geology, all of which will be covered by the Fall in the Field instructors.
Katie Boehnlein, 28, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental education and English from Seattle University before enrolling at SOU last summer, said part of what makes Fall in the Field special is how dedicated the graduate students are to the project and its objective. For them, she said, it’s more than a box to be checked off on their way to a degree.
“Everybody in our cohort who goes through this program is just really passionate about it, and really passionate about teaching kids and teachers and parent chaperones about why they should care, about why it’s important to care about what’s in our backyard,” Boehnlein said. “So I think that that passion really comes through. And, we’re really excited to get some hands-on (teaching) experience.”
The program has been around since 2010, she added, but since it’s handed off to another group of SOU grad students every year it’s never a rehash.
“It’s very unique, so every single year each of the graduate cohorts bring a different flavor to the sites,” Boehnlein said. “So each of those sites stays the same every year, but every cohort develops something new, a different program, a different theme, different lessons that are written specifically for that site. So I think the uniqueness of it is really exciting. Kids won’t be getting the same program year after year. Even if they come back, it’ll be something different.”
Last year, the Fall in the Field program served 750 students from 15 different schools throughout the Rogue Valley. This year, the program filled up faster than ever, according to Browne, and even required a waiting list.
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.