One year later: Gorge Ecology Institute director looks back, looks forward

“I wonder what’s in the stream, I wonder if it all can be seen. I wonder if it wonders too, I wonder if it wonders about you.” — Fifth grader participating on a SECRETS Field Trip

It has been a fulfilling year for the Columbia Gorge Ecology Institute’s (CGEI) Executive Director Drew Eastman. He led the efforts in a strategic planning process, was awarded his first-ever grant from Google, and despite having only one other staff member, saw significant growth in program participation from 800 students in all of 2013 to 700 students as of mid-June, 2014.

Although he noted that his most memorable highlight from the year was immeasurable, based on a conversation he had with a student as she asked, “Do you have kids?” Drew replied “no,” and she continued, “Well, you’re really good with kids.” And he is.

Born and raised in Ohio, Drew is reluctant to say he “grew up” anywhere because of his desire to play so often. As we met over lunch he had just come back from an overnight camping experience on Mt. Hood with his wife Christie and the aroma of campfire set the stage for his responses. “I just love exploring, and I want to share that passion for discovery with every student in our programs.”

Drew is looking forward to CGEI’s 2014 offerings and beyond. Their summer program, Gorge Explorers, features high school students using tablets to record and document their summer stewardship projects, resulting in an online documentary ready to share with other high school students.

The Gorge Explorers program is CGEI’s main summer offering where high school students mentor elementary school students in the morning and then take part in a variety of natural resource projects throughout the Gorge including “Pika Watch,” and tagging steelhead trout in the Wind River. Designed as an intervention for students that are not meeting benchmarks, participants in the Gorge Explorers program have shown significant improvement in academic achievement.

Though Gorge Explorers is currently a partnership with the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and North Wasco County ESD #21 in The Dalles, Drew hopes to bring the program to Hood River in coming years. He recognized the need for the program after listening to Hood River School’s Superintendent Dan Goldman, as he mentioned a desire to close the achievement gap in Hood River County School District’s reading scores through early intervention programming.

A new initiative for CGEI will be a morning day camp at the Discovery Center, running from Aug. 11-15 for second through fourth graders. The $70 fee includes a mid-morning snack and t-shirt with a curriculum designed to prepare students for the upcoming school year through daily themes such as water, wildlife, and geology.

Mid-August will also see the addition of Jesuit Volunteer Corps member Lynsey Spaeth, an AmeriCorps intern who will spend the next 11 months assisting with program delivery, volunteer recruitment and management, as well as enhancing curriculum for the Institute’s middle school program Science in Action.

When school resumes in September, the Institute’s flagship science program, SECRETS, will be delivered at May Street and Parkdale Elementary Schools, Trout Lake, and possibly Klickitat School.

Drew praised his cadre of parent volunteers as well as his HRVHS graduate co-worker Emily Kao, who have been instrumental in field trip and classroom facilitation. Other key volunteer needs are:

  • Website management, CGEI’s Blog, Facebook and newsletter
  • Office organization and administration
  • Board recruitment
  • Financial assistance —- as two of CGEI’s main programs are free for the students.
  • Prop and costume making/repair

Drew’s parents (both public school teachers) chose to take him as a child to many natural destinations to fish, canoe and hike. Drew brought that love of nature to the West when he earned an AmeriCorps outdoor education position teaching at the Cispus Environmental Learning Center in Randle, Wash. He loves to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of the natural world with students of all ages. And sometimes it shows. On one of the recent field trips a fifth grader asked Drew, “How do you put up with us?” Drew replied “Love, patience, and passion.”

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