Exploring the Salish Sea

Rain or shine, “Introduction to the Salish Sea” finishes up their most exciting field trip yet: a three-day camping trip to San Juan Island.

Students gather around WWU Professor, Mira Lutz,
WWU and WCC students gather around WWU Professor, Mira Lutz, who is providing instructions for clam surveying. Photo curtesy of Ian Stacy.

“The trip to San Juan Island was a fun experience because I got to apply the knowledge I obtained over the course of the quarter to the real world,” said Kimberly Medley, a WCC student.

“Introduction to the Salish Sea” started in the spring of 2019 and introduces students to the complex ecologies and human experiences of the Salish Sea region, which is located along the coast of British Columbia and Washington and includes bodies of water like the Strait of Georgia, The Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but also cities like Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham, Victoria and Everett.

Within this class, students learn content in the areas of natural and social sciences and indigenous ways of knowing, while learning process-based skills in inquiry and critical thinking, problem-solving, multimedia project development, and tools for advocacy and policy engagement.

“Being able to look at a specific place through a multidisciplinary lens while also helping people create a connection to the place in which they live to sculpt their minds to think about places the same way once they move from here is really powerful,” Kaatje Kraft, one of this year’s teachers, explains. 

For the past few years, several professors have curated teaching this hybrid class, which alternates between in-person field trips and online content.

Haida 'grizzly bear' Totem Pole
Students observe the Haida ‘grizzly bear’ totem pole at the Peace Arch Park on the United States and Canada border. Photo by Mattie Sickafoose.

“Most of our students have grown up here [in Bellingham] and it’s good to introduce them to the place where they live for if they move away, they’ll be able to use the multidisciplinary skill set to look at different parts of their new residence wherever they go,” said Ian Stacy, another of this year’s teachers.

During the first two weeks, the content of this class normally consists of introductions, a course overview, and an understanding of the Salish Sea, all inside the classroom. However, by the third week, the classroom and classwork move outside, moving from Locust Beach to the Whatcom Museum, from Maritime Heritage Park to the Peace Arch Park, and even including a three-day trip to San Juan Island – all of which are connected through the history of the land and the people who were here before colonialism.

“We started with five co-teachers, however because of the pandemic we flipped the structure around,” said current teacher, Ian Stacy. “We have two teachers on at a time, one in their first year in the class and one in their second. Currently, we are looking for an addition for the class when [Kraft] is leaving at the end of this quarter.”

According to a study analysis from the Natural Medicine Journal, children who participate in outside education gained improved self-esteem and confidence compared to those who only participated in indoor learning.

The average child in the United States spends only four to seven minutes playing outside but spends over seven hours in front of a screen (tv, iPad, tablet, phone, etc.). Being outside regardless of if there is learning to be involved, can build and provide several different skills and benefits that are key contributors to kids’ social and regular well-being. Being outside can build confidence, promotes the usage of imagination, creativity, and all five senses and lets the brain rest from trying to ignore distractions.

Ferry to San Juan Island
WCC students involved in Introduction to the Salish Sea take a ferry trip to San Juan Island for the weekend of May 19 to 20. Photo curtesy of Ian Stacy.

Teaching and/or learning in an outdoor environment in the way Kraft and Stacy implement in their class can lead to all these skills and benefits, but also helps in retaining more information by connecting the information to their actual environment.

Introducing new information in a classroom can be hard for some teachers and students alike to be able to grasp the information but moving it outside takes it to a whole new level.

Kraft has been teaching at Whatcom Community College for eight years, after moving to Bellingham from Arizona where she taught for 16 years. Kraft has a master’s degree in Geochemistry and a Ph.D. in Science Education.

Stacy on the other hand has been teaching at WCC for ten years after three years at Central Washington University. Stacy has a Ph.D. in history with a focus on environmental history and a master’s degree in geography in GIS work.

Both report equal contributions to the content and environment of the class and their enjoyment of teaching the class. However, it takes a lot of money to run the class.

“It is honestly not entirely run by student tuition. Tuition gets put into a big pot and every department has their share, but some more than others,” Stacy said. “For example, the history department side of the class gets about $250 but it costs $1 per mile, so one field trip costs something like $100.”

As long as funding continues, WCC offers this class once a year, in collaboration with Western Washington University – generally during warmer weather to make sure students get the most out of the outdoor-oriented classroom. This five-credit class has no requirements and can be applied to students’ social science distribution to complete a portion of their degree requirements.

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