Geoinspirations: Mark Bushman - Pushing the Boundaries Forward in Ecology, Education, and Beyond

March 4, 2020
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Mark Bushman of Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A.

In any given year, I meet hundreds if not thousands of wonderful educators, and one who stands out is Mark Bushman. When I visited him at an elementary school where he was working, it was clear to me that he is a visionary educator. I was so impressed by his ecoliteracy with young students’ work that I wrote about it in GeoNet. When people say that primary school-aged students can’t be involved in service learning, fieldwork and GIS, I join with Mark in saying “Not true!” As Mark’s work makes clear, these activities are not only possible, but they bring great benefit to students’ thinking, problem solving, and friendship building. It is my great pleasure to introduce Mark Bushman to Directions Magazine readers and, through his story, inspire you.

I asked Mark to describe his current position and background. He said, “I am currently the Schools Program Services and Outreach Manager at Eco-Cycle, in Boulder. Eco-Cycle is a social enterprise that does many things, including delivering an impressive 2,108 presentations and field trips on a wide variety of environmental topics in Boulder County and Broomfield County schools to 52,073 students and staff during 2018-2019 alone. I have worked in the environmental education field for more than 10 years.

“The Eco-Cycle schools program is recognized as being one of the most wide reaching and comprehensive waste reduction and environmental education programs in the country, specifically in relation to compost collections in classrooms, cafeterias and administration offices. A little more than half of Boulder County schools participate in Eco-Cycle’s Green Star Schools program which educates, launches and helps support students, staff, and custodians in sorting and collecting compost and recycling, while nearly every school in Boulder County, as well as a few in Weld and Broomfield Counties also receive environmental education lessons on water quality, waste reduction, air quality, forestry and other environmental topics. These programs are provided for via a coalition of funders including municipalities, counties, state sources, and grants, as well as donations from individuals and corporations. Thanks to this diverse funding base, the Eco-Cycle schools department is able to provide programming to public school teachers around Boulder County who contact us, without asking them to pay for the programming themselves. Registering, coordinating, and negotiating these presentations and funders is the bulk of my work here at Eco-Cycle, although occasionally I still get to go out to the classroom and teach.

“One project which I do get to teach for is the Farm to Early Childhood Education project, which allows Eco-Cycle to bring education on composting and recycling to Pre-K students at private childcare centers throughout Boulder. I contact childcare centers around the county, tell them about our opportunity for their students and schedule their visit. Each lesson is a fun day of hanging out with tiny 3, 4, and 5-year-olds to teach them about the active role they can take in helping to protect the planet and the environment – it’s a blast!”

I then asked Mark if there was a specific thing, or person, that inspired him to enter the fields he did. He said, “There are two people who were pivotal in my journey to this career. My wife and my eighth grade science teacher. After getting a history degree in college, my wife suggested that I apply for a job as a front line educator at a residential environmental education center. I did not even know what environmental education was, or that there was such a thing as a residential EE center. We moved to Jekyll Island, Ga., to work at the 4-H Environmental Center there, and the rest is history. I loved teaching nature science! I had always loved science, but the opportunity to teach it was something that I had not connected with, and environmental education was the pathway for me to get into a science field.

“That pathway began with teaching marine biology and ecology on the Atlantic Coast, first in Georgia, then in Alabama, Virginia, and finally Maryland. In Maryland, I coordinated education and outreach programs for the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, in Salisbury. At the Ward Museum I got to work on a number of special projects with some amazing public school teachers. These projects included education on climate change, watershed infiltration and citizen science. I also began my quest for a master’s degree in science with a focus on ecological teaching and learning from Lesley University in Boston. Although a long-distance learning program, it was considered a ‘partial’ residency program because I spent three weeks in the first and second summer in Maine and then Boston. This experience was pivotal and especially meaningful to me because it validated and taught me how to be a scientist­ – which I had always wanted to be!

“My eighth grade science teacher, Mr. Bradley, was a very special educator. He made a powerful impact on me and all of his students. In 1994, he took us onto the playground to show us how a GPS receiver worked. At that point a civilian GPS was about 11 pounds and 12 inches long, with an 8 inch antenna. It was accurate to an amazing 100 meters…Can you imagine finding your way to a restaurant with that kind of accuracy? He explained that the military maintained a slight lack of accuracy for civilian GPS algorithms out of an abundance of caution.  (Author’s note: I remember using my first GPS at the USGS in 1989 — it was so large that we needed a utility van to hold it. But for its time, it was quite an amazing innovation because it meant that we did not have to rely so heavily on the laborious process of plane-table traditional surveying. Also, Mark’s comments show once again the influence that a single teacher can have on a life. Bravo to Mr. Bradley and to Mark for paying close attention to what Mr. Bradley had to share!)

“About half-way through the pursuit of my master’s degree, my wife and I decided to pull up stakes and move to sunny Colorado where I found employment managing an after-school program at Force Elementary (Denver Public Schools) with the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver. This was a significant change for me. I had been teaching one, two or three different classrooms the same lesson about nature on any single day. Those students, in all likelihood, I would never interact with again. I went from this type of informal education setting to working with the same 100 or so students every day, for the whole year. For me this was transformative. I became a part of a community, which is to be a part of an extended family. I also learned a lot about using trauma-informed education techniques and the logistics of running a program for which you are directly responsible for the participants.

“One of the more important connections which I formed in this new environment was a mentor relationship with a veteran second grade teacher at the school, Mrs. Fisk. She supported and mentored me as I developed a plan for the action research project requirement of my master’s degree, which ended up being to develop ecoliteracy with the students in her class. While the form and content of the lessons about nature were mine, Mrs. Fisk guided me with tips, tricks, and recommendations that greatly informed my work along the way. I still volunteer at the after-school program at Force Elementary in Southwest Denver, and that community of students, teachers, and parents is always close to my thoughts.”

I asked Mark to identify the person, class, or topic that has most inspired him in his career. He said, “For me, the foundation of environmental knowledge is knowing and appreciating the watershed in which you live. As an educator, I often come back to this essential aspect of environmental literacy. Whether examining topographical maps for watershed delineations or visiting the nearest stream, water treatment facility, or drainage ditch, I have been harping on the importance of the watershed throughout my career. Projects based around testing water quality, categorizing and measuring the population of aquatic organisms, and reading maps of the watershed have been ubiquitous in every job I’ve ever had.”

What project or initiative is Mark the proudest of being a part? “I am very proud of the action research project which I completed as the capstone of my master’s degree. This project (I have created a story map to summarize it, which can be found here), focused on developing ecoliteracy with a second grade classroom at a southwestern Denver public school. The students at this school come from low-income families and live in a majority Latinx community. This project focused on watersheds, trees, birds and a few other of my favorite nature concepts. What made it really important to me were the students, themselves. It was the most important work of my career so far.” (Author’s note: Mark invited me to his school and truly, I was inspired, and the work that Mark and the students had done gave me great hope for the future.)

I asked Mark, “What do you think is the most important thing that we need to work on as the education/STEM/geospatial community? He said, “Diversity and inclusion. These are buzz words, but I believe that like so many of the sciences there remains work to be done to expand the geospatial tent to include more people of color, more Spanish speakers, more women, and more people who do not fit the stereotypical mold of GIS scientists.”

What is Mark’s advice to a new professional in the field of mapping, science, education or GIS? “Work hard, make connections and network. Initially there are more internships than jobs in this field, as is the case in so many fields, but perseverance, dedication and meaningful relationships will carry you to a successful and worthwhile career.”

I asked Mark to name his favorite map or book. He said, “Dune, by Frank Herbert, (which includes a map). Frank Herbert’s visionary book is one I have read and re-read numerous times. One of the pivotal characters (albeit short lived, spoiler alert!) is Liet Kynes, a planetary ecologist. What a cool job title, right? While this book is certainly exciting and well-written science fiction, the story revolves around and is driven by the geographical and ecological challenges and limitations of a desert planet. The crisis/conflict which is at the center of this planet’s struggles? Water…and the spice, too.”

Here are a few quotes that Mark wanted to share:

“Proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you have always known.”

― Frank Herbert, Dune

 “If you focus your awareness only upon your own rightness, then you invite the forces of opposition to overwhelm you.”

― Frank Herbert, Children of Dune

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