It’s been an extraordinary year, one full of challenges and uncertainty. And while we may never return to the world as we knew it before the pandemic, there are certainly some things we can look forward to.

Live music fills our valley once again. We welcomed the grand opening of a beautiful new library, and Missoulians packed its hallways and rooms on opening day. Many of us are feeling relief and joy from simple, everyday social interactions as we head back to our offices.

And dare we say it—a slow return to travel? Ecology Project International (EPI)—a nonprofit that runs science-focused student and teacher travel programs with an office in Missoula–is cautiously optimistic.

“We’re excited to see increasing interest in our travel programs, though there’s definitely been a need for EPI to adjust to a changing world,” said Admissions Director Kyle Watson. “In addition to an already robust risk management protocol, we’ve added COVID-related measures like a clear criteria for program cancellations and daily health screenings on our programs.”

It doesn’t hurt that the nature of EPI’s courses—which focus heavily on outdoor science education— mean the majority of the programs take place in an outdoor setting. Since its beginnings on a Costa Rican beach with 61 local students in 2000, EPI has connected more than 44,000 students and teachers with scientists on active research projects in ecological hotspots.

Today, the organization offers programs in Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize, the Galapagos, Hawaii, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Program success in the past few months has also given EPI a reason to be hopeful. Since the vaccine rollout, the organization delivered 38 successful student courses and five Teacher Fellowship programs, or field-based professional development programs for educators.

The Fellowships took place in and around Yellowstone National Park and along Costa Rica’s remote Caribbean coast. Participants spent more than a week working alongside scientists and researchers in the field, collecting data on vulnerable species and learning ways to incorporate science education into their own classrooms.

“My favorite part was working in the sea turtle hatchery at night,” said Costa Rica Fellow Patty Brunet, science department chair at Cypress High School in Orange County, California. “I was able to witness baby turtles climb their way out of the nest. This was the complete circle for me; from watching the mother lay her eggs, to seeing them emerge, take data measurements, and escort them safely to the ocean.”

All of EPI’s travel programs were unsurprisingly put on hold last summer, and the 2021 Fellows were elated at the chance to finally get back into the field, connect with other teachers, and refresh their teaching methods.

“One of the best things about it for me was having a small, intimate cohort of teachers to share the experience with,” said Raja Bhandari, a secondary science teacher from Chattanooga, Tennessee. “We laughed and bonded and really got to know each other, and we shared a lot of great knowledge and ideas along the way.”

That said, EPI Teacher Fellowships are intended to be much more than a chance for educators to relax and make new memories in some really beautiful places. The programs are designed to give the Fellows tools to teach their students about critical environmental issues impacting our world today, like climate change, deforestation, and the impacts of consumer plastic. EPI also strives to foster much-needed empathy, communication, and commitment to local communities at a time when we might feel more divided than ever.

The hope is teachers will use what they’ve learned to inspire their students to think critically about their own global impacts—something we could all use more of as wildfires light up the West and the U.S. continues to take the lead in global plastic use.

“I am so excited to share every part of this experience with my students, so they hopefully can share in my passion for conservation and field research,” said New Hampshire-based high school biology and physical science teacher Drew Groves. “I seek to open their eyes to the importance of field study, and collecting data to better understand how to maintain balance in ecosystems.”

That’s great news for this year’s participants and their students, but what does this mean for us here in Missoula? Thanks in part to EPI’s connection to our community, the organization selected two local teachers in the last several years to attend Costa Rica Fellowships, including Becca Carson, an English and creative writing teacher at Big Sky High School and Betsy Craske, a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at Sussex School.

Craske described her experience participating in leatherback sea turtle research and conservation as “a dream come true.” Ultimately, the Fellowship inspired her to study trophic interactions in multiple ecosystems as part of her Masters of Science in Science Education (MSSE) at Montana State University.

She also went on to incorporate what she learned into her Missoula classroom, despite the fact that the natural environment here in Montana is a far cry from the rainforests of Costa Rica.

“My students may never see a leatherback sea turtle, and some might never see the ocean,” she said. “Ultimately, I developed a unit on climate change with lessons spanning the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and a student-led inquiry project that incorporates field research on carbon dioxide levels in and around Missoula.”

Student exposure to lessons like this are what it’s all about for Watson.

“EPI’s Teacher Fellowships—and really all our programs—are about getting students excited about field science and the outdoors in order to change the dispositions and behaviors that have led to the climate crisis,” she says. “It’s a long-game solution, but it’s the most critical aspect of the work EPI is trying to do.”

EPI recently announced the application period for 2022 Teacher Fellowships, and are pleased to offer highly subsidized course fees ranging from $300-$600 to cover the cost of instruction, meals, and lodging. Interested teachers can find program details and a link to the online application at www.ecologyproject.org/teacher-fellowships. The deadline to apply is September 1, 2021.

Neala Siegle is a Missoula native and the Marketing Coordinator for Ecology Project International. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for the Home ReSource eNews via their homepage here.

Missoula’s Farmers Markets. Eat local now through the early fall! The original Farmers Market at the north end of Higgins runs every Saturday 8am-12:30 – information here. The Clark Fork Market is now located at 101 Carousel Drive near Dragon Hallow, runs every Saturday 8am -1pm – information is here.

Sunday Streets – August 8. This annual Missoula open streets celebration is back – this time hosted by the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood! Walk, bike or bus on down! Noon – 3pm. Details here.

Western Montana Fair - Aug. 11-14. Volunteer for the Zero Waste team at the Fair! Help set up and maintain Zero Waste stations. More information and sign up here. While at the Fair, check out the Creative Reuse Division!

Bike to Barns tour - Aug. 14-Sept. 30. Explore local farms and flavors on a 15-mile bike tour through Missoula’s Orchard Homes and Target Range neighborhoods. Check back here for more info.

Fixit Clinic - Aug. 21, 11am-3pm. Save the date for upcoming Fixit Clinics, hosted by Home ReSource! Bring your broken items and work with skilled repair coaches to learn how to fix them. More information and sign ups here.

River City Roots - Aug. 27-28. Help out with sustainability efforts at River City Roots! Volunteers are needed to sort trash, recycling, and compost, and to help out at the bike valet. Check this page for more info and sign ups.

Spontaneous Construction – Sept 18th. Missoula’s festival of creative reinvention! Reuse. Compete. Create. Enjoy! More info and team registration here.

Missoula’s third annual Clean Energy Expo – Sept 25. Climate Smart Missoula and Montana Renewable Energy Association are back to hosting this premier event at Caras Park. Save the Date.

Materials donations to Home Resource keep the wheels of reuse spinning in our community; and remember that everything you need to know about what to do with your unwanted stuff is at www.zerobyfiftymissoula.com.

Find more local activities and events at Missoulaevents.net and on Montana Environmental Information Center’s Conservation Calendar. And you too can help organize events – here’s the 2021 Calendar of Environmental Awareness Days – month by month break down of world day campaigns.