The one area where I’ve always felt Mount Rainier National Park lags behind its sister national parks in the state has been as an educational institute.
The North Cascades Institute is a wonderful, modern facility on the banks of Diablo Lake. NatureBridge at Olympic is nestled among tall pines on the shore of Lake Crescent. Both offer an array of educational programs for students, adults and families. They take full advantage of their natural surroundings to immerse participants in topics such as the restoration of the Elwha River, the geology of the Olympic Peninsula, or the cultural history of the Upper Skagit River Valley, or to help them earn a master of environmental education degree.
Mount Rainier has an in-house education program, housed at the Education Center that opened in 2006. But the reach of that program is small in comparison with those at the other parks.
The idea of a Mount Rainier Institute has been kicked around for years. I remember discussing the possibility with former park superintendent Dave Uberuaga several years ago. At that time, he was awaiting word on a potential donor who could kick-start the program.
That donation never came to fruition.
But it didn’t stop the discussions. And now, those efforts are paying off.
The park has formed a partnership with the University of Washington and the Center for Sustainable Forestry at Pack Forest to create a Mount Rainier Institute.
John Hayes, who is the center’s environmental education program manager, has been given the task of getting the institute off of the ground.
Speaking earlier this month at a meeting of gateway community businesses and other park supporters, Hayes said the hope is to offer some pilot programs this fall, with official programming to begin in the fall of 2014.
The plan at first is to target students in grades four through 12, with the first groups coming from the South Sound, Hayes said.
Students likely will attend the program as part of their school curriculum. Hayes said the idea is students would be at the camp on a Monday through Thursday schedule. They would stay in the center’s cabins at Pack Forest, eat at the dining hall, and explore nature in the forest and the park.
“We want this to be a world class education center,” Hayes said. “There are several things we value, starting with this amazing place.”
By having the students on site, they can be immersed in the environmental program, rather than worrying about taking a standardized test, after-school events and homework. Hayes said organizers also want to break the connection to electronics. He cited a study that found that children ages 8-18 today spend 6 1/2 hours a day with electronic devices.
As he slowly builds the program, Hayes said he has been talking with the people who run the 13 other residential education centers in the region.
Some might argue why develop another center when so many already exist. The answer is: Because there is a need to serve the students of the South Sound and beyond.
“There’s at least 180,000 kids within 90 miles of here,” Hayes said while at the center.
There also is a need to create a connection between today’s children and the Northwest icon that is Mount Rainier.
“It will create that constituency of people who care about the park and will become stewards,” Hayes said.
“That’s what the Mount Rainier Institute is all about, getting kids into the outdoors. We’re trying to create the next generation of faithful supporters.”
I’ve seen the excitement kids have when they get to experience the outdoors in such an atmosphere. Suddenly, learning about biology is a lot more interesting when one can scoop a newt out of a lake. I’ve seen the smile on a girl’s face when she catches a fish for the first time. I still hear the stories, three years later, that assure me those are memories that will last.
The development of an educational center that uses the park as its primary classroom will not only fill a crucial need for students in our area, it will serve as an incubator for the next generation of park supporters.Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure