When students begin to consider potential professions, their career awareness is often limited to what they’ve observed of their parents, their parents’ friends, and their friends’ parents. This creates big challenges for attracting young, diverse applicants to new job opportunities, particularly in emerging technical fields like cyber security, biomedical engineering, and even wastewater management or climate change analysis. The young adults who overcome these patterns nearly always cite some early exposure, intentional or unintentional, that led to a new vision of themselves.
My dad introduced me to Central Pennsylvania streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes before I was old enough to go to school. Fishing and hunting were common activities where we lived so neither my parents nor I gave much thought to the long-term impact of those adventures. But now, as a field researcher and educator, I know early outdoor experiences are transformative for developing identity, discovering hobbies and interests, interdisciplinary and systems thinking, career selection, not to mention a lifelong connection to nature.
My childhood summers were spent exploring every body of water within the boundaries of parental permission with my brothers and friends. We would challenge each other to crawl through a three-foot passage beneath the two-lane road that formed the spine of our rural area. This meant overcoming our aversion to darkness and tangling with spider webs, but we all agreed this was the best method for catching the bigger, smarter fish hiding underneath.
I also remember our elementary school librarian, Mrs. Emrick, suggesting topics that might interest me, perhaps so others would have a chance to read the book I checked out habitually: The Fishes by F.D. Ommanney (Life Magazine nature series, 1963). At the time I didn’t realize my fascination with fish and fishing in our local streams and ponds was any different than other ten-year-olds.
As my curiosity and skill grew, I began to fish with lures rather than “worm-drowning,” and I wondered what living creatures those fishing lures represented. A neighbor noticed the fishing rod regularly attached to the crossbar of my bicycle and introduced me to fly fishing. He taught me to tie my own artificial flies, and that led to an educational deep dive into studying macroinvertebrates—the insects, crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and other aquatic life forms large enough to see without magnification. He also taught me how to teach others!
Later, as a high school sophomore, I was invited to the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Education Center at Penn State’s Stone Valley for the summer. We were introduced to many places and things, but my favorites were the cold-water lakes and streams. We discovered snorkeling was much more fun and interesting than exploring by wading. This is also where I saw my first otter, perhaps the animal I still identify with most.
When I returned to Penn State three years later to enroll in the undergraduate Wildlife and Fisheries program, I took PE classes in canoeing and water safety, as well as one of the most life-changing courses I’ve ever taken—SCUBA. My instructor, the Penn State swim coach, was offered certification through NAUI (National Association of Underwater Instructors), the developers of the SCUBA training industry. We did things in that training back in the early 1980s that are no longer insurable, but it gave me the confidence to go anywhere underwater. While most divers go off to investigate exotic coastlines, I was equally fascinated by freshwater experiences here in the mid-Atlantic. Now, as a SCUBA instructor, underwater archeologist, search and recovery diver, and underwater robotics researcher, I still do four times as many dives in freshwater than in marine environments.
These days, I spend almost every weekend somewhere along the 400 miles of the Potomac River. One of my favorite spots for exploring is just a couple of miles upstream of Little Falls, inside the Washington, DC, beltway and close to the CIA Headquarters. I go there primarily to fish, of course, but when the sun is highest and the fishing declines, I put my fly rod on a big rock and explore what lies beneath the surface. No need for fins or regulators—I just submerge with swim goggles, or maybe a mask and snorkel, and do my best otter impersonation.
Pulling myself upstream through small currents, I use the rocks as handholds, just as if I’m rock-climbing, while minnows dart in front of my mask. One of my favorite experiences is lying on the bottom of moving water and watching a smallmouth bass or sunfish use the micro-eddies created by my body to rest from swimming in the current. Less fun is when smaller fish nibble the air bubbles that form on your body hair, which they mistake for tiny eggs of other animals.
Those early exposures have formed the core of who I’ve become, and inform much of what I do. They influence not only my hobbies but the research projects and grants I pursue, the friends I spend time with, how I operate our riverfront farm, the trees I plant, and especially why I work with teachers and others to provide similar experiences for young people.
A few times a year, I get to conduct a MWEE (pronounced “mee-wee,” a Meaningful Watershed Education Experience) in our schools within the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These federal, state, and locally funded programs provide opportunities for all students, transforming elementary and secondary science classrooms and teachers everywhere.
A big focus of MWEE’s is the collection of benthic (bottom-dwelling) macroinvertebrates, an activity anyone can do on their own or with friends and family using nets (or even vinyl window screens), some white dishwashing tubs, large medicine droppers, and white ice cube trays for counting what you find. I carry a fishing license (easy to get online) on these excursions, as many states consider this to be bait collection, and I return all critters and rocks to where I found them when the lesson is done.
As wireless communication and data collection have become an increasingly integral part of modern life, I’ve been incorporating more technology into elementary and middle school MWEEs. By using electronic hardware to create sensors for environmental data collection, I’m hoping to expand the engineering and computing skills of young people already drawn to nature while also engaging those students who might not otherwise get outside.
Of course, the best educators are also life-long learners, so if you’ve got new ideas for exploring watersheds, I hope you’ll share them with me so I can share them with others!