Welcome Back Overnight Mountain School!

How are you connected to the North Cascades?
By MK Kirkpatrick-Waite

In September 2022, North Cascades Institute will be opening our doors again to local 5th- and 6th-grade students for three-day Mountain School sessions! We are so excited to have students back at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for multiple days of learning, bonding and fun.

We were only a few weeks into the 30th anniversary year of Mountain School when the pandemic and school closures shut everything down in 2020. Since that abrupt change, our staff pivoted and came up with creative ways to bring Mountain School to students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents and students brought Mountain School into their homes through our online Mountain School at Home lessons. This content helped students delve into topics like nature art, phenology, adaptations, sit spots, and one of our favorites, Mountain School Trail Cookies! Mountain School at Home also included videos on raptors and composting, and “Hello, It’s Tree!”—an amazing song about identifying native trees set to Adele’s Hello, It’s Me.

Another way we have been keeping the Mountain School experience alive is through the Choose Your Own Adventure program we created in Fall 2021. We adapted Mountain School into an outdoor day program in order to make the experience as safe as possible for students. Instructors traveled down-valley to Bellingham for the day to connect with students in parks near their schools, while students located closer to our campus joined us for a day on the trails around the Environmental Learning Center.

Bellingham fifth graders joined us at Whatcom Falls Park for our adapted Mountain School in Fall 2021.

These outreach programs helped the Mountain School team stay connected to local communities. Still, we love in-person instruction the best, stretched out over several days, and so couldn’t wait until students could join us for longer than just a few hours! The Environmental Learning Center is clean and fresh with new coats of paint, the lodges and bunk beds ready to be slept in, trails ready to be explored, and our new Chef Charles Claassen—a member of the team that originally opened the Environmental Learning Center in 2005!—is ready to prepare delicious, vegetarian, kid-friendly meals to fuel young learners!

Here are some exciting things about Mountain School Fall 2022:

Brand-new Curriculum

Students discover a giant cauliflower mushroom on the trails around the Learning Center.

This fall, we are finally rolling out our brand-new curriculum! In March of 2020, Three Circles Center for Multicultural Environmental Education, along with stakeholders from local schools and the community, rewrote Mountain School’s framework, then passed it on to North Cascades Institute educators for developing and customizing. We are thrilled to pilot this curriculum with students this fall! (Read more about our new curriculum.)

Mountain School’s updated curriculum objectives include:

  • Demonstrate interactions in an ecosystem
  • Ask questions about climate challenges in your community
  • Build empathy among peers
  • Identify personal connections to people and place
  • Describe how your experience can impact your future habits

The curriculum objectives are guided by an essential question that the students will answer in two parts: How am I connected to the North Cascades? and Why does connection to a place matter?

To learn about stream health and macroinvertebrates, students use magnifying boxes to look at water samples from Deer Creek.

Before a school arrives, teachers rank the curriculum objectives in order of their priority, based on what students are currently learning. Instructors reflect on this ranking, and then dive into what they would like to focus on based on their personal skill set, interests, and the seasonal changes around them.

When students arrive on the first day of Mountain School, they create a community contract with their trail group. Then, instructors invite them to share what they would like to learn about through an activity called “Mind Mapping”, and then modify their learning plan based on the group’s interests. This encourages personal inquiry, and creates a more student-centered learning experience—something our new curriculum is all about!

Mountain School Staff

An integral part of implementing the new curriculum is, of course, our staff! The Mountain School Leadership Team is made up of our Mountain School Manager, and our two Mountain School Coordinators:

  • Eric Buher, Mountain School Manager, attended Mountain School when he was a student in La Conner. He was also a part of North Cascades Institute’s 17th M.Ed. graduate cohort. Eric brings experience as a classroom teacher and a summer camp director, and has a vast amount of knowledge and connection to the North Cascades; we are lucky to have him!
  • Hannah Black, one of our Mountain School Coordinators, grew up in the Seattle area, and has been a part of environmental education programs all around the Western United States. Hannah brings a comprehensive understanding of the intersections between science and education, and brings us lots of joy as well—including establishing “Glitter Fridays” at the Institute!
  • MK Kirkpatrick-Waite is our other Mountain School Coordinator. She is originally from California, and taught environmental education for several years in the redwoods. Since moving to Washington in 2020, MK has worked for North Cascades Institute in various positions, where she brings her deep love for nature connections and forming interpersonal relationships!
The whole crew, ready to welcome students back for overnight Mountain School!

Mountain School instructors this fall are coming from various places and exciting backgrounds. Returning instructors include:

  • Sarah Hersee, a lead instructor, is joining us after being an instructor of Youth Leadership Adventures (YLA). Sarah’s BS in Childhood Education will bring the team a bounty of excitement and compassion for students.
  • Sydney Kahl is also rejoining us after an amazing season with YLA. Sydney is an avid mountaineer who loves to ski around the North Cascades.
  • Taylor Woolsey, one of our lead instructors, is staying with us after supporting Institute summer programs for the past two summers. Taylor has excellent dance skills we are excited to see in upcoming campfires.

And meet our new instructors:

  • Grace Aey is coming from working in Yellowstone National Park for their Youth Conservation Corps program.
  • Theo Hoss is passionate about forest ecology and has led tree walks around the University of Washington.
  • Al Kahn was a kayak guide around the San Juan Islands this past summer.
  • Genevieve Keckemet studied Environmental Education at Western Washington University and worked with local youth that also came to Mountain School.
  • Elisha Klco was born and raised in western Washington and is extremely interested in the medicinal and edible uses of plants.
  • Amanda Leemann is an avid birder who is excited to share fun information with our students. 
  • Liz Lozinger is a ski and snowboarding instructor in Pennsylvania during her off season.
  • Elly McFarland is coming from a season working with the forest service as a trail crew member in Stanley, Idaho.
  • Alex “Poz” Pozarycki has worked as an educator in Oregon, California, and Hawaii.
The Mountain School team takes a moment to drink in nature during a training exercise.

Refreshed Environmental Learning Center, new curriculum, amazingly talented educators, and renewed excitement about our mission to create transformative learning experiences in nature. Mountain School is back this Fall and we are so excited to welcome you to the North Cascades!


Please help sustain Mountain School for years to come by making a gift today at ncascades.org/donate.

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