Discovery Southeast education coordinator Kelly Sorensen talks to a student from Harborview Elementary School about what feeds on the trees during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Discovery Southeast education coordinator Kelly Sorensen talks to a student from Harborview Elementary School about what feeds on the trees during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Discovery Southeast turns 30 with a flourish

The nonprofit has been showing kids the outdoors for three decades

Local educational nonprofit Discovery Southeast will turn 30 years old this year, and not without fanfare.

“We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year and we’re doing a couple things to commemorate that,” said Kelly Sorenson, DS’s education coordinator.

Among those is the “30 for 30” program, a challenge to teachers to take their kids outside for 30 minutes as often as practicable.

“They send us a text or an email with a photo. There are some teachers who have multiple entries,” Sorensen said. “Some teachers have turned it into a weekly ritual where they take Monday morning or Friday afternoon and spend an hour outside.”

Discovery Southeast naturalist Bess Crandall talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Discovery Southeast naturalist Bess Crandall talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Gwenna Corvez is a kindergarten teacher at Harborview Elementary, and one of the teachers participating in the 30 for 30 program.

“We have collected leaves to sort, compare and draw. We learned how to build fictitious bonfires by finding kindling and building up from there, as well as how to build lean-to shelters,” Corvez said in an email. “Recently we made a collection of 100 pine cones for the hundredth day of school. In the snow, we have been sledding and building all sorts of snowmen and snow sculptures.”

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Corvez said they mostly go to Evergreen Cemetery, usually for an hour on Monday mornings or whenever the first day of the week falls. The unstructured time outdoors allows for exploring nature and can help the students reconnect with each other outdoors, which encourages imagination, cooperation, and physical activity, Corvez said.

“Discovery Southeast took us on a “five senses scavenger hunt” in the fall. Children had to find something soft, something that smelled good, something being moved by the wind, listen for bird songs,” Corvez said. “This was a great way for students to tune in to their senses early on in the school year and be very purposeful about discovering their surroundings.”

Discovery Southeast naturalist Bess Crandall talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Discovery Southeast naturalist Bess Crandall talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

DS believes that introducing children to the outdoors can enhance their connection with the world around us, and nurture their sense of exploration, according to the website. But taking a bunch of elementary students outside can be a nontrivial exercise in coordination.

“We take our kids outside a couple times a year,” Sorenson said. “There’s a lot of uncontrolled variables outside which can be scary.”

DS does a lot of work teaching teachers how to run small outdoor expeditions, and the kinds of lessons and techniques they can employ to keep the whole venture on the rails.

“Some of the teachers say, I’d love to take my kids out, but what can I do? And we hit them with three or four ideas,” Sorensen said. “We’re building up a bank of good ideas. Some things have changed but what I’ve found digging through our old resources is that the landscape hasn’t changed that much.”

DS comes up with lesson and activity ideas tempered to the season and the age of the class, Sorensen said. Fourth-graders, for example, require different handling than younger kids.

Teacher Diane Antaya talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike supported by Discovery Southeast near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Teacher Diane Antaya talks to a group of 2nd graders from Harborview Elementary School about the states of water during a nature hike supported by Discovery Southeast near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Feb. 20, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

“Spending time outdoors as a class shows children that we value nature and hopefully motivates them to spend even more time outside and become stewards of this beautiful land,” Corvez said. “Discovery Southeast’s commitment to getting Juneau students outdoors has been inspiring. It feels good knowing that there is a well-respected organization in town that is advocating for more outdoor education for all students and working toward giving teachers the tools they need to have a positive and successful learning experience.”

But DS isn’t planning on resting on their laurels, Sorensen said. There’s more and better yet to come.

“We’re kind of in a good place right now,” Sorensen said. “We’re thinking of expanding up in the middle school and down into some preschool stuff.”

DS’s award banquet and auction event is also coming up, to be held at the JACC on March 14. A number of items are up for auction, including airline tickets, cruise berths, and sports equipment. Tickets for the auction are available on DS’s site.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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