Julie Phillips

Julie Phillips

College Instructor & Nature Based Teacher for over 27 years | Tule Elk Biologist and Researcher | Environmental Educator and Education Advocate for over 40 years

Podcast No.2 – Introduction to Nature, Nature Based Teaching and more…

What is Nature? What is Nature Based Teaching? What are the Natural Sciences? What is Environmental Science?

Topics:  An overview of the key elements of Nature, Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences and Environmental Science.  Environmental Science is a “Problem-solving Discipline” applied to environmental challenges at the local, regional, national and international (global) levels.

This is Nature Based Teaching Podcast #2 & I am Julie Phillips, your host for these Nature Based Teaching podcasts!

Podcast #2: Introduction to Nature, Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences and Environmental Science

NBT Podcast #2 continues our Nature Based Teaching Podcasts series on Nature, Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences, Environmental Science, Science, Teaching and Learning and more!

Why am I so passionate about Nature and Nature Based Teaching? As I look around me and see the beauty of nature along our coasts, in the mountains and forests and along the open valleys and rivers, what do I see? Why have I spent most of my life as a citizen, family member, student, scientist and educator on this journey to educate others and defend and protect Nature? I have been blessed (as I discuss briefly in Podcast #1) to have had mentors and educators who helped me learn about our amazing Planet and its natural systems! Nature became a passion for me and was such a critical component of my educational journey that inspired me (maybe pushed me) down the pathway of studying nature and teaching others through education, civic engagement and activism. I feel so lucky to have had developed this incredible passion for Nature and wanted to work with others through education and outreach to help protect Nature and those natural systems and processes that sustain all of us! And do this not just for us but for future generations as well. As soon as I learned what was at stake and the potential impacts on my family, friends, the public, our community, country and the world, I knew this would be my life work.

And to have had the great honor to get to study an animal that was on the brink of extinction was another key factor in my sense of urgency to educate others. The Tule Elk of California once numbered over 500,000 elk in California and by the late 1800’s the Tule Elk had been reduced possibly to less than 20 individuals! Through the efforts of a small group of stewards and leaders, the Tule Elk were protected and eventually their numbers increased. That is another case study in an upcoming podcast as, in my opinion, the Tule Elk still face an uncertain future and it is highlighted in my Tule Elk Lesson Plan and Guide available to you. It is an amazing Case Study that can be applied to every region of our country (and the world) and other species and is a critical lesson plan and example of the influence that humans can have on other species. It is also an opportunity to learn from those case studies about a more sustainable approach to protecting wildlife and Nature.

I want to share a short story with you as to why I left a career as a Research Scientist to go into public education. I loved being in the field and tracking and monitoring elk and other wildlife and envisioned myself continuing on that pathway but one day I had an experience that changed my direction and career pathway. I think it is good to always be open to the signals or key events that occur in our lives that take us in a different direction.

I had been tracking Tule Elk throughout parts of California for about 7 years, which included my Graduate work and also contracts to study the reintroduction of Tule Elk, habitat use, home range movements,  herd acclimation and more. During that work I had seen the impacts of poaching and other activities on the elk sub-herds I was studying as well as their movements. It was discouraging, at times, to say the least. I also observed this absolute anger and disdain for this amazing animal from people throughout the regions of California. People saw the elk as a “threat” and we had not really addressed the primary reasons that the elk were sent to the brink of extinction in the first place. This created conflict to say the least.

Part of my responsibility was to monitor the elk using radio telemetry and this helped in locating both the main sub-herds as well as individuals. One day I received a call from the team that did the aerial monitoring of the elk (again using radio telemetry for the locations). They said that there was a mortality signal for one of the elk that we had been monitoring for quite awhile. It was my responsibility to go to that location and identify the elk and retrieve the collar, etc. I had done this on other occasions before and although it was always sad and troubling, I realized it was a part of my job. So I hiked in to the location and eventually came upon this elk that was obviously dead and it was also caught in a barbed wire fence. The barbed wire fence is comprised of 3 strands of barbed wire and the fence stands about 5 feet high. It is an easy jump for a Tule Elk and normally would be no problem. But on this day, it was a problem and the elk didn’t clear the fence as it attempted to jump over it. Instead, the elk’s front leg fell down between the barbed wire strands and caught the elk as it moved over the fence causing the elk to flip upside down and end up with its feet entangled in the barbed wires as it lay on its back. The elk was dead when I came upon it entangled in the fence and had been there for several days. I walked up to the elk and saw this poor animal and the way it had died and my reaction was quite surprising. I had seen a lot of dead animals before, but this one was different. That poor elk laid for hours even days upside down and wore the skin off its leg from rubbing it up and down trying to get free. It died a terrible and painful slow death in very hot weather. It takes several hours for the mortality mode to activate, so it was unlikely we would get there prior to its death.

But my reaction was something I did not expect. I had been trained as a scientist that you do not “react” to circumstances in your research and that mortality and loss of individuals you are studying is a part of the process. I sat down next to the elk and remained there for quite a long time, I could not move. I could not believe what this poor animal had endured and felt sad and angry about the loss of so many other elk that I had been monitoring over the years. Death of elk had become a big part of my work.

I decided on that day that I had to talk about what was going on with wildlife in the field and that we needed to have a bigger vision and plan for the long-term survival of large mammal species. Going from a scientist to an advocate. I decided that I needed to go back into the educational system and teach students and others about the state of our environment and the challenges that native species face. It seems we have never really addressed the issues and challenges that caused many species of wildlife to disappear in the first place.

I started teaching in a local community college in 1988 and began a journey to not only teach science and the scientific method but also develop curriculum and courses that teach students and the public about environmental challenges and problems as well as developing solutions. I had begun the transition into Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences and the Environmental Sciences!

This lead me to the place where I created a new department called the Environmental Studies Department (I would have preferred the Environmental Science Department but the politics of science and disciplines on college campuses, helped us make that decision).

I began the process of developing a new field of study and career option for students at a local community college that had learning about the environment and nature as its “core”. A new discipline and field of study was created and many courses and programs came out of that effort and I was passionate and honored to lead the process! It was not easy, but I knew it was important!

At the core of this new discipline focused on protection of our environment and nature was the vision of modeling and teaching students about stewardship, leadership and team-building skills as well as how to form community-based coalitions through inclusion and civic engagement. The South Ridge Case Study in Santa Cruz County (and helping to save one of the rarest ecosystems on Earth) taught me about community and civic engagement and forming teams to solve environmental challenges!

It is amazing how one moment can change your direction in life and lead you on a new journey! The death of that one elk was a pivotal moment for me and I knew I had an absolute duty and responsibility to work within the incredible educational system to create a new pathway of study that included a “problem-solving” component (which is not traditionally taught in science). It takes a team effort and process to solve the many environmental challenges that we face.

The vision and courage of Dr. Martha Kanter, the president of the community college that I worked at during those early years, as well as generous partners and community members, was amazing! Steve and Michelle Kirsch (gave the lead gift on a building for Environmental Studies) and the Morgan Family (the Morgan Family Foundation created a permanent endowment for Environmental Studies)! We all understood the importance and value to students of our vision of creating a “Building that Teaches” about Nature and the Environment and developing teaching and learning spaces that facilitate “team work”!  We understood that energy efficiency, green building and renewable energy are the front line of defense against climate change! This building, our ES Department and our partners served as a model for students, educators, the public, elected officials, our community, the state and nation!

This vision and effort led to the first LEED Platinum Green Building in the Community College System (and nationwide), an effort that I was involved in for nearly a decade. It was not an easy process.

***But I understood the difficult road and at times the reluctance to invest in these green trends. The reluctance and uncertainty for some, I believe, was because people simply had not learned about or been exposed in their educational journey to the concepts and importance of Nature, Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences and Environmental Science and ultimately long-term sustainability for us all.

What is Nature? Nature encompasses those Natural Systems and Processes that sustain all life on Earth! Those natural systems can also be called the Earth’s Systems! We are totally dependent upon water, air, soil, species, ecosystems, the native landscape, energy and minerals to survive and sustain ourselves and all other species on Earth. We are a part of Nature, not “apart” from Nature! We are dependent upon the Water Cycle as our bodies are 70% water and this water sustains us and transports nutrients and oxygen throughout our body. The cycling of water on Earth (79% of the Earth’s surface is water) is essential to all life on Earth. The Earth’s freshwater and saltwater systems are essential to us and other species! We are totally dependent upon the Earth’s atmosphere (the gaseous layer that surrounds us) to protect us from the harmful rays of the sun as well as heat the Earth’s surface so it can sustain life on Earth. Without our atmosphere, there would be no life on Earth. The cycling of essential elements like Carbon (Carbon Cycle) and the process of Photosynthesis carried out in the land and water systems by the great “producers” (like plants and phytoplankton) are essential to our survival as “consumers”. Without these great producers, that take in the radiant energy from the sun and convert it to carbohydrates through the process of photosynthesis, there would be no life on Earth. Nature also encompasses the incredible diversity of species on Earth – from the microorganisms to the incredible diversity of plants, animals and other organisms on Earth! And those incredible units of life on Earth called Ecosystems that provide us and other species with Ecosystems Services that are essential for all life! All these incredible components of Nature sustain us all providing us with these natural functions, systems, services and goods that are the foundation and basis of Human Systems and our entire infrastructure. We are totally dependent on these goods and services for all life on Earth!

What is Nature Based Teaching? Nature Based Teaching is the pathway to creating a more sustainable present and future through education, outreach, inclusion, teamwork and leadership through our educational system! The focus is on teaching and learning about nature and its importance as an integral component of the daily lesson plan throughout the K-12 system as well as a part of the general education requirements in colleges and universities. At the core:  Students work in Teams to solve problems and develop solutions at times! Within the team some are writers, some like math, some are team leaders and facilitators, some are science focused, some are readers – they form this team with a variety of skills to solve a problem!

What are the Natural Sciences? The Natural Sciences is a field of science that has “nature” as its core and is also called and referred to as Nature Based Teaching and the field of Environmental Science. Historically courses associated with “nature” where called the Natural Sciences and this field has largely been replaced in colleges and universities by the term Environmental Science or Environmental Studies.

What is Environmental Science? Environmental Science is a field of science that has “nature” also called the environment as its core and is also called and referred to as Nature Based Teaching and the field of the Natural Sciences.  There will be more on Environmental Science in upcoming Nature Based Teaching Podcasts!

I hope this history, overview and the various terminology used in this discipline has been helpful to you! There have been different approaches to educating about nature and our environment and my hope is to bring some clarity and direction to this discipline as we address the challenges ahead!

I hope you will join us for Podcast #3 as I give an overview of the Science and the Scientific Method in comparison with the Nature Based Teaching, the Natural Sciences and Environmental Science the topic for today’s podcast.

I am Julie Phillips and thank you for listening to the Nature Based Teaching Podcast #2! It will be an honor to work with you!

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