<span class="neFMT neFMT_PhotoCredit">Discovery Southeast staff photo</span>                                Above and at right, <p> Outdoor Explorer Campers participate in a Discovery Southeast summer camp.

Discovery Southeast staff photo Above and at right, Outdoor Explorer Campers participate in a Discovery Southeast summer camp.

STEM Corner: Use observations to make connections on the trail and in the mind

Where is Here?

At Discovery Southeast, this is the question we gravitate toward when fostering curiosity and understanding in our natural environment.

In our community, I hear more and more about people losing a sense of connection — connection to other people, to the community, to the natural environment, and to ourselves. We can reawaken this connection by being present in the natural world and letting our inner curiosity arise.

Discovery Southeast’s mission is to deepen our connection with nature through exploration and education.

Naturalists teach young children the skills of observation and making connections that will be the foundation for future science and math lessons with their classroom teachers.

Teachers know that students learn by being curious observers of their world.

When students learn to pay attention and connect to what is around them, be that people or the natural world, they become better prepared to navigate our increasingly complicated world.

On my field trips, we always have a goal in mind. Our focus may be landforms or the lifeforms residing on them. Yet always at the core is the experience of fully engaging with our whole body in the place itself.

This connection to place that develops is what creates the foundation for children’s ability to draw connections to what they are learning.

How do we foster that connection?

My outings often begin with an activity I call “Opening the Gate.” I guide students and adults to quiet down into stillness, thus connecting their “Observer” to the present environment through their senses.

I have children focus on tiny details like air moving across the skin of their face, distant sounds of birds, dappling light through the trees.

By connecting with their bodies, they calm the nervous system, which primes their attention to land here, now. This awareness potentiates curiosity and wonder, the gateway to exploration.

Once the “gate” has opened and we are walking in the rainforest, typical exclamations from students go something like this: “It’s colder out here than I thought.”

“This hill is steep!”

“This plant feels like …”

“Are we lost?”

“I love it out here!”

“It’s so awesome to see that.”

There are myriad questions that arise: “What is that?” “How did that get here?” “Can we go this way?” — all from the Observer within them. Children learn about their natural environment while also learning about themselves and each other.

Going “off trail” is my main method for inviting the Observer to arise organically. Traveling on uneven ground requires attention.

Often, we use trails for access and egress, yet, when we wander away from the purposeful construct of trails, a new kind of exploration ensues. We are given an opportunity to reclaim ourselves from the overzealous do-er that is inside us all.

Instead of doing something outside for the purpose of exercise, accomplishing so many miles, getting to that one viewpoint, we can be present.

Instead of an autopilot walk down a maintained pathway, our bodies must navigate other life forms, mainly in the way of brush, roots, mud and other obstacles.

Our attention comes sharply to focus on what is right here in front of us. Flying branches, devil’s club and uneven ground are expert at helping us be more present.

I invite and encourage you all to try this yourselves: Go outside, mute your phone, take a favorite trail and give yourself permission to turn 90 degrees and take a dozen steps off the trail.

Intentionally, deliberately and step off the “beaten path” and notice what you see, smell, touch, and hear.

Make some room for your Observer to arrive in the place you are standing or sitting.

Simultaneously have a sense that you, the Observer, are also the Participant. Connect with yourself; connect with the place you are in.

Where is Here?

There is no such place as Nowhere.


• Steve Merli has been a naturalist with local nonprofit Discovery Southeast for 28 years, teaching nature and science education for Juneau elementary classes. He is also a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner. STEM Corner is a monthly column about Science Technology Engineering and Math in Juneau, written by a rotating group of Juneau STEM Coalition members.


More in News

This photo shows the National Archives in the Sand Point neighborhood of Seattle that has about a million boxes of generally unique, original source documents and public records. In an announcement made Thursday, April 8, 2021, the Biden administration has halted the sale of the federal archives building in Seattle, following months of opposition from people across the Pacific Northwest and a lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General's Office. Among the records at the center are tribal, military, land, court, tax and census documents. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
Biden halts sale of National Archives center in Seattle

Tribes and members of Congress pushed for the halt.

This photo shows Unangax̂ Gravesite at Funter Bay, the site where Aleut villagers forcibly relocated to the area during World War II are buried. A bill recently passed by the Alaska House of Representatives would make the area part of a neighboring state park. (Courtesy photo / Niko Sanguinetti, Juneau-Douglas City Museum) 
DO NOT REUSE THIS PHOTO WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM JUNEAU DOUGLAS CITY MUSEUM. -BEN HOHENSTATT
Bill to preserve Unangax̂ Gravesite passes House

Bill now heads to the state Senate.

After over 30 years at 3100 Channel Drive, the Juneau Empire offices are on the move. (Ben Hohenstatt /Juneau Empire File)
The Juneau Empire is on the move

Advertising and editorial staff are moving to Jordan Creek Center.

The state announced this week that studded tires will be allowed for longer than usual. In Southeast Alaska, studded tires will be allowed until May 1 instead of April 15. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
State extends studded tire deadline

Prolonged wintry weather triggers the change.

COVID at a glance for Monday, April 12

The most recent state and local numbers.

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, April 11, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Gavel (Courtesy photo)
Court sides with Dunleavy in appointments dispute

The court, in a brief order, reversed a ruling by a superior court judge.

The Juneau Police Department are seeking Brenda Jay Gallant, 40, after she was indicted recently for her alleged role in a 2021 vehicle arson. (Courtesy photo / JPD)
Police seeking woman indicted for arson

The indictment for the August fire came this March.

Most Read