Learning options keep growing with islands’ admired ecological programs

August 31, 2011
Gulf Islands Driftwood
Elizabeth Nolan -

Gulf Islands students have been quick to benefit from 21st-century learning styles thanks to a series of ecological programs developed by Steve Dunsmuir.

Working with the Gulf Islands Centre for Ecological Learning as a model, Dunsmuir developed the idea further as part of his master's degree in environmental education and communication from Royal Roads University.

"The project was to look at the actions and philosophies and turn it into a year-round public program," Dunsmuir said, noting its model offers a summer day program through children's summer camps and family events.

As principal of Saturna school, Dunsmuir was also aware of declining registration and the constant threat of closure for the small school. Bringing in a new program, he figured, would attract the numbers from other islands to keep the school going.

The Saturna Ecological Education Centre started up in the fall of 2006 and immediately had good enrollment from high school students. The first semester was filmed as one of three schools across Canada demonstrating "21st-century learning ideas" for a documentary made by the University of Saskatchewan and featuring the philosophy's founder John Abbott.

Unfortunately, Dunsmuir said, high school enrollment dwindled after the first year. But at the same time a growing number of middle years students were getting excited about the program and were making a 12-hour round trip from the other islands each day to attend.

With the majority of students travelling from Salt Spring, the decision was made to move the middle years program to that island while the Saturna school continued to run the program for local elementary students. Teacher Sarah Bateman took the helm at the Middle Years Shared Ecological Education Centre on Salt Spring and is back this year for new and returning students.

Dunsmuir said that some wrinkles that surfaced during MY SEEC's initial year have been ironed out, mainly stemming from the fact that not everyone enrolled actually wanted to participate in a hands-on, nature-intensive format.

According to Dunsmuir, a variety of factors may have led to parents enrolling their kids in MY SEEC as an alternative to mainstream middle school without fully realizing what was involved, or considering whether their children would be as excited about the plan as they were. This year the school has done more to educate prospective families about what the expectations are.

An exciting new component for high school students will bring kids back to Saturna for a semester program that runs Sunday nights through Wednesday afternoons. Dunsmuir said participants have been busy at two recent work parties constructing sleeping cabins and other facilities.

Students will board together and will learn to live with sustainable and alternative options. For instance, they will cook their own meals together on a wood stove that will also be used to heat the learning facility.

"It's kind of exciting because they come off the ferry and it's so different - it kind of rocks their world a little bit," Dunsmuir said.

The courses they'll take are Environmental Communication, an English credit with books such as Into the Wild, the 100 Mile Diet and Watership Down ; Science and Technology - how to meet our needs in sustainable ways; Outdoor Pursuits - a P.E. course that includes hiking, kayaking, canoeing and other activities; Teaching and Learning; and an Independent Design Study on anything a student is passionate about.

With prospects like these, it's no wonder Dunsmuir recently received an award for Outstanding Educator from the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, although he himself was shocked.

"It was very surprising," said Dunsmuir, who didn't even know he'd been nominated and didn't believe the friend who informed him he'd won.

"There's so many people out there doing great work, but it's only those who have the supporters who take the time to nominate them who get the recognition, so I really thank them for that."

Dunsmuir said the program has received many other accolades, including from former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell and education minister George Abbott.

SEEC's high school program is full for this year with many students coming from the district's newest partner school, North Vancouver's Windsor House. The middle years program still has some spots available with a maximum of 24 students. Contact the school board office at 250-537-5548 for more info.