By Yuan Yuan
By the time Kristen Schulte graduated from college, she was already an experienced environmental educator who had led trail crews and given educational tours in 10 different national parks across the country.
“Most people wait until they’re juniors or seniors to do an internship,” Schulte said. Instead, she took her first internship at the National Park Service after high school. During college, she went back and forth between the classroom and the national parks.
The “learning through doing” ethic she created for herself helped her relate her practical experiences to classroom learning and vice-versa. It’s also a connection she uses every day in her role as education coordinator for Missouri River Relief, a Columbia-based not-for-profit organization that helps further people’s interest in the Missouri River through cleanup projects, educational events and stewardship activities. She joined the group in June 2015 and led her first Missouri River summer camp in July with 12 students aged 12 to 18.
Heidi Allemann, 16, went on the summer camp trip with Schulte. “She always knew exactly what was going on,” Allemann said. “She had all the information — not written down, but in her head — and I thought that was pretty cool.”
The Missouri River not only is what Missouri named for, it is the longest river in the United States. Rising in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, the river flows east and south through 10 states before entering the Mississippi River north of St. Louis, according to U.S. Geological Survey. “The river historically has been important to people for a long time — it was a means for people to travel west at the very beginning, around the 1670s,” Schulte said. “You can look at cities and how they developed geographically; they were all along the river.”
Nowadays, the largest source of drinking water for Missourians is surface water from the Missouri River, which serves 43 percent of the population, according to Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “And most concrete that you walk on is going to have sand in it from the Missouri River,” Schulte said. However, the river also becomes a dumping ground for wastewater, trash and other pollutants.
Missouri River Relief is committed to protecting the river, connecting people to the river and educating people about its importance. According to its 2014 annual report, Missouri River Relief cleaned 107 river miles, collected 76,000 pounds of trash and educated 5,000 people in 2014. Its educational programs include festivals, speakers, water-quality monitoring events and educational river trips.
“The river is more than a classroom or a laboratory,” said Jeff Barrow, the director of Missouri River Relief. “This tremendous resource provides a huge campus that can teach lessons to people of all ages.”
A Natural Teacher
Kory Kaufman, current vice president and the education committee chairperson of Missouri River Relief, appreciates Schulte’s passion as an educator.“I have never met another educator like Kristen,” Kaufman said. “She had extensive experience in everything we were looking for; experience with developing an education program, fundraising, grant writing, outdoor skills experience, and probably the most important, love for the Missouri River.”
Nature is all around us. However, younger generations are losing their connections to the outdoors, Kaufman said. The River Relief brought Schulte in to build the connections between young students and the river.
When Schulte brings her students out into nature, she encourages them to observe and ask questions instead of taking everything in the nature for granted.
Schulte developed a teaching philosophy for the River Relief’s youth programs with the goal of looking at how to nurture students’ wonder and curiosity about the natural world and empower them to explore the Missouri River more. “We do that through experiences and place-based education — talking about what’s right there in our own community and our own backyards,” Schulte said.
One of the great things of Missouri River is that it runs through so many people’s backyards, she said.
“We’re not super interested in wanting them to know the name of this tree,” Schulte said. “But we want them to be knowledgeable enough to understand why that tree might be living there and why the other ones around it are there.”
She wants her students to walk away competent at being “knowledgeable ecologists, insightful historians and conscientious community members.”
Allemann experienced that during her camp trips with Schulte last summer. “One morning, we got up super early — it was not even light outside when we left,” Allemann recalled. They met with some researchers who were catching birds with fine nets. “They showed us how to measure them and all the information they recorded from each bird. They put a band on it that had a number on it, and then they would record the number and let the bird go,” Allemann said.
While the students were doing bird watching, “a lot of the time Kristen was telling us all about how the birds connected to the river,” Allemann said. “It was really cool to connect all the dots between the animals and the river.”
A Traveling Explorer
Schulte’s interests in nature and environment started with when her parents decided to take their kids to camping rather than enroll them into sports. As a Missouri native, Schulte did most of her camping trips around small tributaries of the Missouri River and the Ozarks.
To explore the surroundings, she carried a backpack full of naturalist’s book about plants and animals. “I was crazy,” Schulte said. She would take out a flower book right before spring and start memorizing all the flowers.
“It was one of the only places that I felt smart,” Schulte said. “It was satisfying to be out there and have your brain pulled in so many different directions at once.”
“When you are sitting in school, you can only think about the thing that you’re doing then or there,” Schulte continued. “But when you are out in nature, there’re so many different noises and things to look at.”
Trees swing gently with the wind; creeks run wildly singing in a cheerful mood; flowers nearby shimmer in the sunlight; deer snort occasionally leaving the bushes quivering…“It’s multidimensional,” she said. “You cannot possibly see it all, but you definitely try to.”
In fourth grade, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and transferred to a special school from her previous public school. She remembers sitting in a small room with five other kids, all with learning disabilities and behavior problems. Although she used to fail her science classes, eventually she found that nature helped her to relate. It’s a way to understand what she had been taught in the classroom.
After graduating from high school, Schulte took a six-month internship working for the National Park Service at Oregon Caves National Monument. She worked on top of a mountain, an hour away from the closest grocery store, and led cave tours. She got a taste of her dream job there.
She took another internship working at the Round Springs Cave in Missouri’s Ozark National Scenic Riverways based on the Current River. “There were no educators around the Current River then,” Schulte said. Out of the passion for getting people to learn outdoors, she convinced her boss to start letting them go out on the river and educate people while they were floating and paddling the river.
She never thought about going into graduate school until she accidentally learned about Teton Science Schools Graduate Program, in which students are able to focus on field science education and to teach in schools. She got interested in and enrolled in the program.
The Grand Teton National Park was the campus. She lived in a cabin and sometimes walked a long distance to class. “One time I was walking with a map in my hand. I looked down and a bear was crossing in front of my path,” she said.
When she first started to work as an environmental educator, she thought she had to know “every single name of all the trees and plants, and birds and animals before I go on this hike with these kids.” But she later realized that the key to learning and teaching about the environment is being able to make observations.
What she loves about her job is that she can be “a sponge,” absorbing fresh observations and new knowledge from the nature and the people around her.
She sometimes asks her students questions like, “What do you think that might be?” or “Why is it growing out there?” Even though she may or may not know, she helps the students find the answer.
Environmental education used to focus on hot topics, such as climate change, water rights and endangered species, but that has changed, Schulte said. The educators found out that, for example, when they talked to the second graders about saving the disappearing rainforest, they would get scared. “Those are important things to talk about,” Schulte said, “but never to lead with.”
Schulte appreciates that her current job does not require her to be always in the field or always in the office. “This job is the first one that let me do both, and the most satisfying thing is to do both,” she said. “I can write a grant, go give a presentation and spend time on the river with kids.”
She now works on various programs for the River Relief. Besides pairing educational programs with river cleanups, she helps launch a new partnership with Columbia Public Schools to better incorporate the river into the school curriculums. The joint program was announced March 12 at the Big Muddy Art auction fundraiser.
The new partnership includes teachers’ workshops, summer camps for students and an after-school program starting next school year. It is meant to be widespread.
“We have a major river running right through our town, which people don’t even understand at all,” said Mike Szydlowski, the science coordinator of Columbia Public Schools. Although the river has a great economic and environmental value, when teaching earth sciences or eco-systems, “we really didn’t incorporate the Missouri River,” Szydlowski said. “It’s not because we don’t want to; it’s because a lot of us don’t understand it completely ourselves.”
As Szydlowski learned more about the river with the River Relief, he decided to bring that experience to Columbia Public Schools’ classes. “We need to make science relevant to students,” Szydlowski said.
After traveling for a long time, Schulte wants to settle down in Columbia, at least for a while, and get people more involved with the river.
She also has her hands full. “I got a dog recently,” Schulte said. “She’s been really helpful for being like ‘there’s other thing besides work — like me.’”