JUNEAU - Discovery Southeast is celebrating its 20th year of connecting people with the natural world.
Discovering Southeast: Local organization celebrates 20 years 020409 OUTDOORS 1 CCW Staff Writer JUNEAU - Discovery Southeast is celebrating its 20th year of connecting people with the natural world.

Photo courtesy of Discovery Southeast

Naturalists lead students on nature hikes where they learn about the natural community ithat exists in their own backyard.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Story last updated at 2/4/2009 - 12:27 pm

Discovering Southeast: Local organization celebrates 20 years

JUNEAU - Discovery Southeast is celebrating its 20th year of connecting people with the natural world.

The nonprofit organization's mission is to strengthen the relationship between Southeast Alaskans and their natural environment through a variety of educational programs and special events. Discovery Southeast operates primarily thanks to donations from businesses and private members, fundraising events, government contracts and grants from private and public foundations.

Volunteer Ashley Saupe helps run the behind-the-scenes elements of the organization's programs and also works as a naturalist for their in-school Nature Studies program at Gastineau Elementary School.

"We bring nature to them," Saupe said. "It's all about hands-on learning."

Last week, Saupe taught a first grade class about seaweed. The class made sushi and tasted seaweed candy as a learning tool. Saupe said that they try to make lessons relative to things that children might be able to see in their own backyard.

"The kids loved that experience," Saupe said. "Getting them excited about nature makes me excited."

Scott Burton, the lead naturalist at Gastineau Elementary, has worked with Discovery Southeast for about five years and loves the fact that his position allows him to get outdoors with kids.

"It's amazing to see how much fun and how much learning we can have at the same time while being outside," Burton said. "They are great observers. They see a lot of stuff that I don't see anymore."

Burton described the program as a process of "inquiry-based learning." In the classroom, he and fellow naturalists prepare students for what they may encounter in their surrounding natural environment, then they go outside and experience it firsthand.

Classes go on extensive hikes, often spending more than two hours on the trails. Naturalists help the kids look for and correctly identify flora and signs of wildlife. They also talk about things like trail safety, proper outdoor attire and supplies to bring along.

"In a way, we're like the grandparents who take them out for ice cream," Burton said. "We come in for a few hours and we're the rock stars. It's such a natural place to teach and share information with kids outside. It's a natural, sustainable teaching environment that allows good relationships to develop."

Although Discovery Southeast is probably best known for its programs for children, it is a common misconception that everything they do is geared toward kids. During the summers, different courses are offered for teachers in which they experience different wilderness areas such as Admiralty Island, Icy Strait and Tracy Arm. There are also a variety of family-oriented events for all ages.

The first of several upcoming events in which Discovery Southeast will be participating is Kid Safe, arranged by Bartlett Regional Hospital. The event will take place Saturday, Feb. 7 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Centennial Hall. A variety of organizations will have booths and displays all relating to family safety in the home and abroad.

The following holiday weekend will feature the second of three Discovery Days held on Feb. 16 at Eaglecrest. At 10 a.m., kids ages 10-12 can embark on a snowshoeing adventure led by a naturalist. A brown bag lunch will be held in conjunction with a presentation by Eran Hood, environmental science professor at UAS. At 1 p.m., kids can hit the slopes on skis then head inside for hot chocolate and a nature ski movie. Space is limited, so guests are encouraged to pre-register by phone. Snowshoes will be provided, but participants must bring their own skis, available for check-out at local schools. The final Discovery Day for this winter will be held on March 27.

A 20th anniversary celebration for Discovery Southeast will be held Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. at Thunder Mountain High School. It will begin with a nature hike with naturalist Richard Carstensen followed by cake and a short historical program about the organization at 4 p.m. All are welcome, although space is limited for the hike.

The organization's annual fundraising auction will be held on April 4.

For more information about Discovery Southeast visit discoverysoutheast.org and to pre-register for any upcoming events, call 463-1500.

Libby Sterling may be reached at libby.sterling@capweek.com