APU Environmental Exploring STEM Podcast

Connecting with the Natural World through Science Education

Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Kristin Drexler, Faculty Member, School of STEM

Our relationship with and respect for the natural world is more important than ever. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU STEM professor Dr. Kristin Drexler about her science-based career exploring many aspects of the natural world from working as a Park Ranger across the U.S. to teaching conservation practices in Belize. Learn about environmental issues like climate change and population growth and why it’s so important for humans to understand that they are a part of nature, not apart from it, and have a huge responsibility to help sustain natural ecosystems.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Kristin Drexler, full-time faculty in the School of STEM. And today we’re talking about our human relationship with the natural world around us and how science education can inspire us. Welcome Dr. Drexler.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Thank you Bjorn. It’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for being here. I’m excited for this conversation. To kick it off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: My name is Dr. Kristin Drexler, full-time faculty at American Public University System, or APUS. I’ve been with APUS for about 12 years now. I teach currently geography, environmental science, earth systems history. And I’m creating a course on earth and planetary sustainability, which is a pretty cool course. It considers socioecological systems, which I’m happy to explain to you a little bit later on, but it’s a lot of fun.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for bringing up your background. And so my first follow-up question is how did you get interested in studying our relationship with the natural world? Why is this topic so interesting to you?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: That’s a great question. I think it started when I was young. I think with most inspirations, it starts when you’re young, right? So I grew up in the Black Forest in Colorado, which is a Ponderosa pine forest on the edge of a meadow. There was a pond nearby. So as kids, my brothers and sisters and I, we’d be catching frogs and salamanders and horny toads, and going out and climbing trees and hanging out in the field. So I think having that hands-on experience really inspired me or colored my world. I wanted to know more about the natural world.

[Podcast: Role of Soil Health in Climate Change]

While I was in college during a summer, I started volunteering for the National Park Service and it got ahold of me and I was a park ranger for six years. I had the best job. It didn’t pay well, but I had the best job. It was as an interpreter with the National Park Service. So what I did, imagine this, I took people on hikes and did nature walks with them and explained the natural world to them, how the ecosystem worked in that area.

I worked in Oregon, Oregon Caves. I worked in Sequoia Kings; Zion National Park in Utah; Bandelier; Assateague Island in Maryland; Flagstaff area parks, Flagstaff, Arizona. One of the most incredible things ever to be able to teach people about the natural world. And so I was hooked.

After that, I went into the Peace Corps. That also colored a lot of my worldview just in service. I was an environmental education trainer there. And all of these experiences that I’ve had, I’ve been extremely lucky to have the experiences that I’ve had, but all of these sent me in a trajectory.

And so after Peace Corps, I went into graduate school and studied natural resource conservation and then worked in the nonprofit and then private sector, and then pursued a Ph.D. in educational leadership. In that time, as an environmental scientist, working in New Mexico, I started working at APUS and the rest is history. Very lucky.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that you were a park ranger and you were in the Peace Corps, correct?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah, that’s right. I was in Belize, in Central America. For me, it was one of the most fantastic experiences of my life. It definitely changed everything for me. It changed everything. It provided me with direct experience. I worked in communities, but also at a research station, deep in the Chiquibul Jungle. And I learned a lot of biological monitoring methods and techniques and being in the field and the jungle was something, I tell you.

But all of these experiences, I just consider that I’m so lucky and so grateful to have had all these experiences, first as a park ranger right out of college in my last couple of years of college and then Peace Corps. And then from there, things have jelled into the professional career that I have today.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So what was that experience like, being a park ranger, interacting with the public? Did they respect what was going on and were they knowledgeable or was your job really to educate them and to help hopefully imbue a love of nature for them? Or was it more of just picking up after people?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: The idea of the national parks is to preserve and protect nature for future generations, but it takes all generations in order to do that. And as a park ranger in my twenties, I was in my twenties when I worked for the park service, I can tell you that the visitors, the travelers there, to each of these different parks that I worked at, I would say that they were knowledgeable to some degree about the natural world.

But perhaps they were visiting somewhere completely different. If they were the East Coast, if they were from New York City, for example, or from abroad and they flew into Las Vegas and they decided to come up to Zion National Park for the day or for the weekend or whatnot, they would join one of the free hikes or one of the free programs that the Park Service offers and they learn about that particular ecosystem. And so that was really fascinating to them. And they had a lot of questions, they were pretty inspired to know more. I was always really proud of that to be able to share something new with people who were traveling to the national parks for the first time often.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s excellent. My family and I, we live out in the West. So essentially, there are national parks everywhere, which is nice here in Arizona. One of the things we tell our kids is when you’re stressed, you go to nature, to go hiking and to experience nature and to really see the majesty and respect it. Now, you said that when you were growing up, you’re in Colorado and you’re right next to nature. And it really reminds me of my own experience.

Now of course, I did not become a scientist or anything as I got older, but growing up in the summer in Washington State with forest there and going on hikes and then living on the Island of Crete myself for two years, where there was so much nature and you’re able to explore a great deal and then living mainly in the desert, most of my life, there’s just so much out there that being out in nature, it can help you and that there’s just so much to learn.

Do you feel that a lot of people have that experience growing up or has urbanization, which is of course, very natural, has that taken a little bit away from people in the sense that they’re stuck in cities or in houses?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: I can tell you from my experience, I’m the same way as you, and the way you speak to your children in that if you’re stressed, if you need some sort of respite, nature’s a great place to find that. I’ve always found that to be true, really. And wherever you traveled to, if you’re traveling to the East Coast, you’re traveling abroad, you’ve lived in Crete before. I’ve lived in Belize before, I’ve traveled to a number of countries, experienced several different types of ecosystems. There is something special about each and every one of them. There’s some that you feel that creates some sort of a respite, some sort of relaxation. It helps with your stress. It helps with anxiety, it helps with whatever. It’s actually a really good prescription for doctors. If you’re a doctor, please prescribe getting out in nature and going on a hike to reduce your patient’s anxiety or whatnot, or they’re experiencing a trauma or they’re sad, nature is an incredible healing power.

I learned that in the Park Service, yes, but also in Belize during the Peace Corp. I was working as an environmental education trainer. And so my position was to train the park rangers of Belize. And in Belize, they have the forest department. And so they had the conservation officers that I worked with and we put educational campaigns together and went to schools, worked with community leaders to manage protected areas that they lived near. So it’s very important to have that local investment, local stakeholders, be leaders and coordinators of protecting their local natural resources.

So yeah, I guess going back to your question about how important it is for people to be able to have that, to have nature, intact forests, streams, coast areas, desert, how important it is for people to be able to explore and experience that, it’s a beautiful thing and something that should be sustained for certain.

In the last couple of days, we’ve heard about the UN’s IPCC report on climate change. This is just one small example, but it has big ramifications for us, right? As citizens, we have to engage and invest in sustaining our natural resources because that is what will help us survive and thrive as human beings. Right?

I know you asked the question about urbanization and urban folks having the ability to go into nature. And I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t know. I don’t want it to sound too judgy, like I’m in the West and I have all of these resources at the ready. Folks in urban areas, I used to teach a human ecology class and I teach this currently in my geography class, in urban areas, like in Washington, DC, for example, in the inner city, urban areas, there’s a severe lack of green space, even grocery stores where people can’t buy produce, healthy foods.

So there’s definitely a disparity between access to green space, access to nature, even access to healthy foods in these inner city areas. So wouldn’t it be great if we bolstered the program to help folks from inner cities get to experience nature and the benefits that come with exploring and accessing nature as freely as we can in the West, right?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And it’s tough because humans, we are the masters of the world. But in a sense, we can reshape our environment. And so most of humans today don’t live and die by that feast and famine or shelter. Now with that said, there’s a lot of people in the world who still struggle, of course.

I always find this an interesting conversation because people are just so busy living and working and, “struggling.” And oftentimes, when people get into trouble or have a heart attack or have health problems, if they go back to, and I’m not going to say a simpler time, but with good, simple foods, walking around, and an environment which is more conducive to activity, they could actually be healthier. And it is tough when people are stuck in say, urban environments, and that’s all they have are just miles and miles of concrete.

And that’s where I think the environment and environmentalism, to me, is not political. It shouldn’t be political because everybody loves a good walk, everybody loves a good hike. Everybody wants the world to exist for their grandkids. It’s just getting everybody on board.

And so that report to come out, it’d be interesting to see how that circulates and how it’s accepted or denied or different things like that. And this really leads me to the next question, which is education seems to be a common theme in your life. And so why education? And when I ask that, when important reports come out or just even stuff like why people who maybe are stuck in more urban centers and why they should go experience nature more, that all comes down to just people learning why.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Right. It’s a lot to unpack with what you’ve just stated. First, I want to go back to what you mentioned at the beginning of what you were saying just now. And that is, in my classes, what I try to impart on my students is one central theme or idea or principle that’s woven through my classes, right? And that is, that as humans, we are part of nature, not apart from it. And as such, we have a role to play in its sustainability. And we are interested in that. We want nature to survive, we want these ecosystems to thrive because that means that we will, as well. Nature has its intrinsic value. It is valuable because it is in and of itself, but there’s a lot of anthropomorphic value in nature, as well, as we’ve just discussed.

Healthwise, it’s important for people to release anxiety, breathe fresh air. All of these things can be found in nature. So being able to teach these principles in my classes is important to me. And so my Ph.D. is in educational leadership. And having that degree in education is important to me and having the experience in natural resources management and STEM is also important to me. So bridging these two, at APUS right now, teaching geography and environmental science and other courses, it’s important for me to pass on the principle that we are, as humans, part of nature and not apart from it, because that makes us stakeholders in what happens.

So bringing back that IPCC report, this is sort of a bleak climate change outlook, right? It’s something like, well, okay, we have to get serious about it. This is what little, I think she’s 17 now, maybe 16 or 17 now, Greta Thunberg, she’s one of the climate activists and one of the most effective climate change activists out there. She’s been telling us for years, ever since she skipped her high school classes or whatever, to protest this, that we have to get our stuff together. We have to be able to walk the talk. We do a lot of talking, right? But this IPCC report is saying, “You got to walk the walk now.” It’s time to do, it’s time to act.

We know, we’ve done the science. We know the science, we know the impacts of climate change. We see it, we have a million studies on it. It’s clear, it’s there, it’s apparent and it affects us. Okay, yep, yep, we know the facts. We’ve known the facts for a while and now it’s time to act.

So I think that’s what this report is. It’s saying, you see it as advertised as bleak. It’s not, it’s just a wake-up call. It’s just time for us to act, for us to do what we need to do. Also, we’re going to have to explore how we’re going to cope and how we’re going to adapt to climate change. This is just the way it is.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think, in a previous podcast with Dr. Danny Welsch, we talked about scientific literacy and the need for people to have better scientific literacy, which has always very tough at it. It all starts with education. And I’ve always been very inspired by Greta, that a teenager from Sweden can make that kind of impact. And she’s very passionate. When you’re young and you’re able to see, “the ills,” it’s easy to then comment about. And then it’s interesting to watch then all the adults in the room make excuses, honestly. Me, for my own life, there has been an Earth Day as long as I think I’ve been alive, or maybe since I’ve been a teenager. And since Earth Day has been around, things have gotten worse.

And it really reminds me of a University of Michigan report that came out a little while ago. If people just reduced the amount of beef that they eat, that can reduce greenhouse gases. Because if you just say, stop driving as much, that’s not going to reduce enough. And there’s so much waste and greenhouse gases that are created from animals. And so if you literally just reduce your beef and your chicken, a lot can happen. And part of that is education and nothing’s about people have to become vegetarians and they have to do, none of it’s that. But just as part of educating and being good nutritional choices.

And so this leads us to the next question is, can you tell us about Skype a Scientist, and your experience in doing that program?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Absolutely, I’d love to talk about that. It’s one of the most proud things I’ve done recently. First, before I do that, do you mind if I comment a little bit about what you were speaking to in terms of reducing beef intake and focusing a lot on diet and how that influences the environment.

There was a film called “Kiss The Ground,” that was an important film because it teaches us a lot about the difference between, it’s a film about soil health. But when you look at beef consumption and cattle and cattle raising, there’s a differentiation between, it’s an important one, between beef that is produced and consumed as result from cattle being raised in a feedlot versus open range or free range cattle. And so it’s an important distinction. So I wanted to highlight that, that if you’re conscientious about the beef that you’re consuming, that’s good. Free range cattle are actually good.

I like to encourage my students to examine, we do diet intake examination, and we talk about ways of reducing our carbon footprint, for example. And one of the ways I like to highlight is to purchase produce and meats from your local farmer’s markets. Not everybody has these. Some people are serving overseas, they don’t have the option to do this. But if you do have the option to do it, it’s a fantastic thing because there’s a triple benefit. One that you’re buying locally and so you don’t have these long transportation, these foods coming in from everywhere and being flown in, and the preservatives, that’s number two, the inputs and preservatives in foods. You don’t have that when you’re at the farmer’s market. It’s just farm to table pretty much. I’m a huge advocate of that.

Also, you’re buying right from the farmer. And oftentimes, you know these farmers. If you go to the farmer’s market regularly, you get to know these farmers and know how they operate, and you support them. You’re supporting your local farmer economically, which is huge. Without farmers, we have no food, right? So supporting the ones that are growing your food and raising your food in a sustainable and ethical manner, that’s the best decision that you can make.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I completely agree. And if people can watch “Kiss The Ground,” it’s, I think, a great documentary. It’s not preachy, it’s practical. Even in our backyard, my wife is a backyard gardener, and we’ve learned so much about soil health. And it’s amazing how a lot of farmers today, and it’s nothing against farmers today, but if they just go back to the olden days of farming without intense chemicals to enhance growth. And it’s great, modern farming feeds millions of people. And when you watch “Kiss The Ground,” you’re like, “No, we didn’t.” And that’s heartbreaking to think that almost 100 years ago, this great ecological disaster came about. And 100 years later, we are proud of ourselves for our brilliance, but yet we’re still not treating the earth the way the earth should be treated in the sense that it’s easily renewed and we’re using chemicals. And that will catch up to us eventually.

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yeah, exactly. I’ve done a few studies on this. The indigenous Milpa farming system in Belize, for example, and a lot of areas in Central America, the Maya have a Milpa farming system, which is a small, older farm. It’s family run, it’s a polycrop system where multiple types of crops are grown in the same area. They practice rotation so that the soil isn’t completely depleted.

Of course, when you have population growth and climate change and degradation, runoff pollution, things of that sort, you have bunch of stressors on the environment, of course, that environment is going to start to break down and we won’t be able to work with it as well. We have that system that’s struggling right now. But then you have the large monocrop agro industries that are using a huge amount of inputs. How sustainable is that? I don’t know.

We are a growing population. If you look at worldometer.com, it will give you instant anxiety to see the population growth, every second you’re seeing the population rise. What are we? If I looked online, we might be at 7.6 billion or something by now. We need a strategy, we need a good strategy. Climate change is a huge part of that. Also, our technology and tempering that with reason, common sense, in terms of sustainability, how can we manage this landscape to be sustainable and produce sustainably for us for a growing population? So it’s not just at the present rate, but we have to think ahead to the growing population. And then where that population, the majority of the population growth and momentum is happening, that’s another important aspect of management. So a lot of moving parts, and this is exactly what I try to teach in my classes and why I consider myself a socioecological systems person, and that there’s in these socioecological systems, there’s a bunch of moving parts.

Socioecological systems, by the way, it’s a complex lens. You’re looking at social indicators, you’re looking at economic indicators and political and environmental, health, psychology, religion, culture, language. All these different things that are a part of our human system, as well as the natural ecosystem and the relationship of those, of the socio and ecological systems, right?

So what we do and how we do it, what effect that has on the natural ecosystem and its ability to sustain us as humans on this planet, this is the investigation, the type of investigation that I’m interested in. And specifically when it comes to agriculture and being able to feed us, climate change and food security are probably the two most important things that we have to really focus on this planet.

For a growing population, we have to buckle up. We have to do it. The IPCC report, again, I come back to that just because it was so startling to see today. And it’s one of these things where it’s a call to action. It’s time to do it, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and do what you’ve been saying you know you should do. So buckling down.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I’m really glad you brought up all that information. Honestly, food security, soil, crops is extremely important, and it will be really one of the main focuses of the next generation or two. Honestly, everybody can’t eat meat all the time and have a sustainable world. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Actually, when you reduce your diet to having meat every once in a while, meat becomes much more special, and honestly, it’s more tasty. And so at this point, absolutely wonderful conversation, Kristin. Any final words?

Dr. Kristin Drexler: Yes. Well, thank you for having me. This has been really interesting for me to go through the process of how I’ve come to where I am. I have to reiterate the importance of education, the aspects of experiential learning and service learning. I want to talk to you more about that, perhaps you’d invite me back to come speak about that.

Just real quickly, one of the most prideful things I did this past year during COVID, this last year, has been a struggle for everybody. We’re all just climbing out of this COVID haze. But one of the things that kept me engaged last year was the Skype a Scientist program.

I want to tell you a lot more about it because it was so exciting for me. But basically, I was invited to a class, Ms. Eva’s class in California, a fifth grade class, to talk about science. Originally, it was just supposed to be a one-off visit. I was supposed to go in and talk to the class about the scientific method and be a mentor for their science fair projects.

And I think it’s important, as educators and as scientists, to make sure that young people know what’s happening, they know the current state of science because of course, science is constantly evolving, constantly changing, constantly being informed. And we’re building on science as we go.

And that’s the best part about science is that it’s not just a right or wrong, black or white, cut and dry, it is something that is constantly evolving and we’re learning more and more and we’re building on more and more of our knowledge. So it’s important for young people and college-aged people, of course, everybody, to learn about this.

But one of the services that I did last year during COVID was build this Science Talks with Dr. Kristi and Friends. So the science talks originally was supposed to be a one-off visit for a science fair mentoring and teaching the scientific method, turned in to be a year-long, weekly visits to this class. Every Tuesday afternoon, I’d go into Ms. Eva’s class, Zoom in to her class, and we talk about some aspect of science that was important to the students, was relevant to them.

So, for example, we might talk about climate change, we might talk about fires because in California, there are, right now and back in last year, there was a terrible fire season. We could talk about that for a whole podcast if you want. We talked about wildlife conservation. And I screened a film that I helped produce, called “Yochi,” and I would be happy to give your listeners that film so that they can watch it and tell me what they think. The students had a chance to screen that, talk about wildlife conservation issues.

I invited geographers, biologists, marine ecologists, a suite of my friends to come in different weeks to talk to the students about what they’re most interested in. It was a really great experience for me. It’s important, again, as an educator and as a scientist, to give back to especially help educators, especially when they’re thrown a curve ball, a pandemic and quarantine and teaching from home using Zoom.

So this was just my effort to help to try to mitigate those impacts of stress to the teacher and to share what I knew and what I was inspired about with the students. I can tell you that the fifth graders are smart. They are smart, they’re sharp. It was a real pleasure for me to visit the classroom and share what I could with them. And some good relationships developed, I’ll tell you later on our next podcast.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And thank you for doing Skype a Scientist. It sounds like an absolutely wonderful program. And especially during COVID. Not that an entire year of learning was lost, but learning has been a challenge for many people, no matter what your age is during COVID.

And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Kristin Drexler, and we’re talking about our human relationship with the natural world around us and how science education can inspire. Thank you, Kristin, for everything. And of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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