Becoming a certified California Naturalist...

Jul 31, 2019

Text and pictures by guest California Naturalist blogger Samantha McMillan. Original post appears in her Innovative Ideas for Inspired Classrooms blog. 

Last summer, I attended the Forest Institute for Teachers (FIT) workshop to deepen my knowledge of California forests and forest management practices.  My fondest memories from the trip were meeting the facilitators and teachers from across the state. One leader, Dan Webster, had a special way of sharing his passion with the outdoors. A Yosemite naturalist and educator, Dan engages audiences by demonstrating how to connect with nature on a personal level. I was so inspired by his depth of knowledge, ease of conveying information and insightful commentary, that I decided to seek out ways to further captivate audiences with the outdoors.

I enrolled in the UC California Naturalist Program, hosted by a non-profit organization in Palo Alto, Grassroots Ecology. Through a combination of classroom sessions and field trips, the cohort develops a deeper understanding of the environment and designs a plan to engage audiences on ways to protect California's natural resources.

Course Overview:

  • The eight-week course is divided into themes ranging from California geology to nature journaling. 
  • Each week the class meets for a 2.5 hour lecture and half-day field trips on Saturdays. The lectures were from a variety of scientists, professors and Grassroots Ecology staff. Field trips were to local parks and nature preserves (Jasper Ridge, Arastradero, etc.) around the Palo Alto and Cupertino area. Prior to each class, a corresponding reading is assigned from The California Naturalist Handbook
  • In order to graduate, naturalists develop and implement a capstone project to share knowledge from the course.
  • Naturalists require 40 volunteer hours to complete certification after the course is complete.
I enjoy hiking and learning about the outdoors but my science background is limited. The naturalists in my cohort had a range of environmental sciences and outdoor experience. By comparison, I was definitely a beginner. Some of the lectures and activities required a deeper background knowledge to fully understand the scope of the topic, but overall, the course is designed for all experience levels. 

Course Highlights: 

iNaturalist and Citizen Science 

A large component of course is sharing observations and connecting with others through iNaturalist. This app uses crowdsourcing to identify and record observations. Users can search and contribute to projects or start an original project. Each week, naturalists were expected to upload field trip observations to the app. I enjoy using iNaturalist because it becomes a digital scrapbook of all my locations and observations.
(Bay Checkerspot Butterfly, Mount Diablo, Recorded on iNaturalist April 2019)

Stevens Creek Water Quality Monitoring 

Each week, we visited a different location to apply the information we learned in the lecture earlier in the week. The field trip to McClellan Ranch in Cupertino was a highlight because we monitored water quality using bioassessment and water chemistry tests below and above the Stevens Creek Dam. We collected aquatic macroinvertebrate from the upper and lower watershed to test stream quality. We found that the upper watershed had macroinvertebrate that were pollution sensitive, while the lower watershed had macroinvertebrate that were pollution tolerant.
(Mayfly Baetidae larvae from lower watershed)
(Stevens Creek upper watershed has 7.8-8.4 pH, the slightly higher acidity is due to the limestone present in the creek)

Nature Journaling with John Muir Laws

One of John Muir Laws books, The Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, inspired me to record lecture notes and field trip observations in a nature journal.  Law's message is simple: nature journaling (or any type of journaling) will help you notice, remember and reflect more and stay present. Reflection is an important part of learning and can help deepen the experience. 
(Nature journal activity led by Laws)
(pages from my nature journal)

Jasper Ridge

The course provides opportunities to visit outdoor spaces and meet experts that you would normally not be able to. Our docent-led field trip to Jasper Ridge, a biological preserve owned by Stanford University, was an opportunity only accessible to the public by special request. Jasper Ridge is a outdoor classroom that hosts workshops and ongoing research projects that bring scientists and students to visit. We saw amazing stretches of native wildflowers and that inspired nature journaling during our visit in March.


Community Building 

The best part of the course was meeting people with similar interests and goals. I met activists, gardeners, docents, environmental professionals and students who were all passionate about the same things. To continue my education after graduation, I take part in BioBlitzes, where people participate in a biological survey to record as many living species as possible in one area within an assigned length of time. BioBlitzes are held in parks, preserves or any other outdoor space that needs attention. Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful is an organization hosts BioBlitzes in the San Jose area.

(Coyote Valley Summer BioBlitz at Anderson Lake in Morgan Hill, July 27, 2019)

(2019 Cohort of California Naturalists-Grassroots Ecology
photo by Lynn Hori)

My Capstone

To graduate, naturalists design and implement a capstone project that explores topics from the course in greater depth. The estimated capstone time commitment is eight hours. Being a middle school teacher, I decided to design a series of lesson plans to use in the classroom. Students complete a scavenger hunt (using Goosechase) to explore the outdoor elements of our campus. Groups will search and record native and non-native plants, trees and insects/birds that they find. Inside the classroom, students will analyze maps to identify local watersheds, bioregions and indigenous tribes that once occupied the area.

A few questions I want to explore:

How can exploring our community help us appreciate it?
What did you learn/notice about the outdoors that you haven't before?

The ultimate goal is to use the campus exploration to create an art project (either nature journaling or other environmental activism art) to communicate the importance about our environment.

Next Moves

I highly recommend becoming a part of the CalNat community! The best part of the California Naturalist Program is that any person living in California can apply and there are over 45 partner organizations around the state. Don't forget to ask partner organizations if they offer scholarships!
Text and pictures by guest California Naturalist blogger Samantha McMillan. Original post appears in her Innovative Ideas for Inspired Classrooms blog.