Outdoor Education

One of the most unique classes I’ve taken at SAMi so far was Outdoor Education. Every Tuesday and Thursday of the fall semester my freshman year, I hiked the trails of Point Defiance Park with 20 other students, led by teacher Maria Jost. This course is one that only SAMi has to offer. It provided me, and many others who have taken it, with an enhanced respect for our park and its flora.

Before class, we made our way up the hill to the Fort Nisqually Shed where we took our vests/raincoats (depending on the weather) and left our backpacks. On especially muddy days we could opt to grab a pair of rainboots. Taking the only pair in my size always made me feel like a waterproof sort of Cinderella. Those of us who wanted an Exceeding participation grade for the day would take a trash grabber. That accomplished, we would set out on our hike.

Each day, we would walk a few miles until stopping at a new species of plant. We would then jot down its common name, scientific name and abbreviation, and a few characteristics and fun facts from Jost’s short lectures. We proceed to take individual notes from observations we made on the specimen, e.g. types of leaves and leaflets, fruits/nuts (if applicable), texture and color of different parts of the structure, and so on. After collecting all the necessary information, we drew one to three scientific sketches of the plant in various magnifications and locations, then put our pencils and field journals back into our roomy pockets.

Once our time at the plant ran out, we continued on our route winding back up to the shed. On the way we picked up trash with our metal grabbers. This became such habit that, even today, I instinctively think to pick up any random piece of litter with a grabber that I don’t have.

While hiking around the park and observing plants may seem easy, it was actually a difficult course. Our class observed a total of sixteen plants from early September to mid-December. By the time each test rolled around (after about every four or so plants), we needed to have memorized at least two characteristics and the scientific names of each specimen. This in and of itself was not too difficult, but studying without physical copies of the plants was a challenge. My friends and I usually combated this by getting into study groups and using Google images.

The weather conditions were not always a joy to endure. At the beginning of the school year, the temperature was hot and dry, and I was always grateful that my water bottle fit in my borrowed vest’s pocket. Towards the end of fall, we had the exact opposite problem: The woods were freezing cold. Gloves, multiple layers, and constant movement all combined could not keep the chill away. On some of the coldest days, my fingers became so frozen that it was very difficult to write. Perhaps the hardest part, however, was that our final test was close to the beginning of winter and even some of the more persistent leaves were beginning to fall away. We had to rely on our knowledge of each specimen’s bark and general shape to succeed without the more telling characteristics of the leaves and fruit to guide us.

This aside, Outdoor Ed was a class I enjoyed going to. I was fortunate enough to form a close bond with several of the other people in my class, which meant every eighth period was a time to talk and laugh and enjoy nature. The mandatory lack of technology, while at first obnoxious, became an aspect that I truly did appreciate. I was able to fully focus on my friends and surroundings without being concerned about who had just texted me.  

Outdoor Ed. this year has varied from when I experienced it. Jost no longer teaches the class in favor of Neuroscience and Trail Running. Instead, Dustin Matthews and Sara Siemens-Luthy have taken over and added their own twists – For instance, Sara’s third period’s final is not an exam on plants, but rather a project for each student to design an “interpretive walk” around the park. As the years go on, Outdoor Ed. will likely change more and more. For me, it will always remain a reminder of the beauty of our sprawling campus.