Author: Tamar Kupiec
When Liz Riggs Meder was finishing her masters after a ten-month IslandWood graduate residency, she attended a lecture by the founder of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). As a former ski patroller, guide at Mt. Rainier, and field instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, Liz had a strong interest in the subject. And as a newly minted curriculum designer, she could envision a role for herself at the organization.
That afternoon she had lunch with a friend, a nursing student. The crossover was immediately apparent. AIARE needed to think like they did in public health: Communicate hazards and help people make appropriate risk management decisions, as one would do with, say, nutrition education.
Liz approached AIARE’s founder, “Hey, I’m a student and I can work for free. I’m looking for a graduate project. Can I help you improve your curriculum?” Today Liz is Director of Recreation Programs, as well as interim Executive Director, at AIARE, where she develops avalanche safety curriculum and training programs based on best industry practices.
This kind of interdisciplinary thinking came naturally to Liz. She arrived at IslandWood not only an avid outdoorswoman but also an aerospace engineer. She brought “an engineer’s sensibility about design,” honed during a six-year career at Boeing, in which one starts with the desired outcome and works backwards. This approach proved a perfect match for education. “Teaching is not you telling someone what you know,” she came to understand at IslandWood. “Teaching is about realizing where the student is and where you want the student to be and figuring out how to get us there.”
Teaching at IslandWood, with its miles of trails and dynamic ecosystems, rather than in the formal classroom, was an obvious fit for someone with her connection to the natural world. “I want to share my love of the outdoors with people,” Liz says. “I wanted them to feel empowered to explore and be insatiably curious about the world around them. I was able to design experiences that took advantage of the rich environmental context to foster science learning and build community and self-awareness.”
At IslandWood, Liz found support, satisfaction, and challenge in being a part of a professional learning community, one which, as she and her classmates acknowledged, entailed the privilege of foregoing a paying job to study at IslandWood. “There were classroom teachers, experienced environmental educators, trip leaders, garden and farm educators, AmeriCorps members, and second career folk. We were cis, queer, single, married, parents, students only or working on the side, and honestly, overwhelmingly white and female. We engaged in lots of deep conversations about why that was and where the biggest lever was to changing that.”
Within such a passionate, alert, and ethical cohort, this “social learning” was of the most profound aspects of her IslandWood education. Today she works to replicate it with her adult students at AIARE by creating an environment and experiences that facilitate peer-to-peer learning. She may be the subject matter expert, but her role is not to keep and dispense knowledge. Instead, Liz guides them in making their own discoveries, as she and her cohort at IslandWood were empowered to do.