Wildsight turns the page on 20 years of education

The year was 2000. Dial-up internet, no smart phones. Y2K bug discredited. The prime minister was Jean Chrétien and BC’s premier was Ujjal Dosanjh. And in the East Kootenay, Elk Valley resident Lee-Anne Walker was exploring how to immerse students in environmental education.

“We wanted to create an ecosystem awareness program for students to become literate about our own backyards,” recalls Walker.

Walker’s young daughter was a fan of the famous, fictional Miss Frizzle and her Magic School Bus, and an idea formed to bring Miss Frizzle’s enthusiastic educational model to Basin kids through hands-on learning outside the classroom.

The result was the Magic Basin Field Trip. Wildsight, then known as the East Kootenay Environmental Society, launched the program in 2000 to classrooms from Revelstoke to Rossland, Castlegar to Cranbrook, Valemount to Fruitvale. Students began exploring local wetlands, grasslands and forests, guided by Wildsight educators keen to get kids learning in and about their wild backyards.

The goal of this localized learning was, and still is, to ground students in their local environments. Because our belief is that kids who know about the world around them will grow to be adults that take care of the world around them.

Lee-Anne Walker

The present

Walker says she never could have dreamed how those first Magic Basin field trips would transform into the full suite of Wildsight Education programs offered today.

“Twenty years is beyond my original hope or expectation,” says Walker. “I wanted kids to get excited about their own backyard. One day, they are going to become decision makers. And we want them to make sustainable decisions for themselves, for their community, but also for other living things that share our landscape.”

Walker praises the leadership of Education Director Monica Nissen for the continued strength and adaptability of Wildsight Education in today’s changing world.

Monica Nissen

Nissen started with Wildsight as part of the education team, moving into the lead role after Walker stepped down to pursue other passions. Nissen loves leading the group of 24 educators who work to bring nature to life for Kootenay kids.

“I think we are getting closer to the goal of having place-based, environmental learning as a vital component of students’ education here in the Columbia Basin. And I am proud of our Wildsight Education team for being part of that,” says Nissen. “If every student in the region can come to experience that they are part of nature and not apart from it, then I think we have done some really important work.”

The programs

Wildsight Education extends through the entire Columbia Basin for students from K-12, with eight distinct programs. Students feel the weight of wonder, listen to the symphony of nature, and experience the energy found outdoors as they explore environmental education.

Winter Wonder opens up the world of our snowiest season to students in Kindergarten to Grade 3. Nature Through the Seasons brings primary students to explore the changing seasons throughout the school year. The Magic Basin became Classroom with Outdoors, which turns intermediate students into ecosystem scientists during full-day field trips.

For more immersive, deep dives, EcoStewards takes students from knowledge to action, to help protect those ecosystems at risk. Beyond Recycling brings students on a 24-week journey to explore energy, water, consumption and the impacts of our lifestyles on the planet. Know your Watershed, a Columbia Basin Trust program administered by Wildsight for Grade 9 students, enriches appreciation and understanding for local watersheds. Go Wild! immerses high school students in multi-day hiking excursions, while Columbia River Field School soaks students in the landscape and governance of the Columbia River basin as they paddle its waters and sleep on its banks for 15 days.

2020: The Year No One Planned For

In early 2020, we marked the calendar with big plans to celebrate 20 years of Wildsight Education and the 87,000+ students that have gone through Wildsight’s Education programs over that time.

In human years, we’re somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. In education years, we’ve gone from preschool to university. Wildsight hit the 20 year milestone this past school year, an extraordinary feat for programs dependent on grants, teacher buy-in and deeply knowledgeable, local educators working in the field, day in and day out, year after year.

We tossed that milestone graduation cap in the air and, before it could even hit the ground, we were on to our next challenge. No gap year for us. We are just hitting our stride at 20 years old and have turned the obstacles of 2020 into opportunities in the field of education.

We knew we wanted to continue the learning, even while COVID-19 swept across the world. Our education team whirled into action in the last months of the 2019/20 school year, creating engaging online education materials that can be used at school or home.

“We did a quick pivot to providing online education resources, and the response was great,” says Nissen. “Teachers, parents and students from here, across the country and even internationally, drew on these offerings to learn about nearby nature in a time of uncertainty.”

The 2020/21 school year is throwing even more curveballs as schools adapt to COVID restrictions. Our educators, with new protocols, continue to work alongside teachers to bring environmental education to students.

Youth Climate Corps. Fall 2020

The Future

For more than 30 years, Wildsight has led conservation efforts to protect and restore our ecosystems, 20 of those bringing our conservation values to students across the Columbia Basin.

And now this past fall, we’ve piloted two pieces of work addressing the climate crisis. The Youth Climate Corps inspires young adults to implement solutions to the climate crisis through targeted employment, training, mentorship, community engagement, and personal leadership development, and a Grade 11/12 Climate Change program promotes an understanding of the research, the adaptation, and mitigation of climate change in a local context.

So what’s next? Stay tuned, because at Wildsight Education, we’re just getting started!

Thank you to all our funders over the past 20 years, including the Columbia Basin Trust who have supported this work since the very beginning. Current funders include: Ambler, BC Hydro, Columbia Basin Trust, Columbia Power, Columbia Shuswap Regional District, Community Foundation of the Kootenay Rockies, Consecon Foundation, Kimberley & District Community Foundation, Province of BC, RBC Foundation, Real Estate Foundation of BC, Regional District of Central Kootenay, Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, TD Friends of the Environment, Teck Coal and Teck Trail. We would also like to thank the many generous individuals who donate to Wildsight Education, your support is very much appreciated.