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Volunteer Spotlight: Bruce Birdsell, Educator For All Ages

Posted by KristenM on November 19th, 2018

by Sara Richmond

Two men in jackets beside river.

Volunteers Bruce Birdsell (right) and Joe Hasuly teach students how to seine for fish in the Rhode River.
(Credit: SERC)

When Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) volunteer Bruce Birdsell was retiring, he attended a SERC Open House and learned about volunteer opportunities. Eventually, he signed on with SERC’s education program, where he has been a volunteer for the past six years.

According to Bruce, volunteering aided the transition into retirement. In addition to helping fill a newly open schedule, it was refreshing to work outdoors after a career in corporate management.

As an education volunteer, Bruce assists with several activities in the Shorelines Connections program, a field trip for third- through 12th-graders. This program gives students hands-on experience in watershed modeling, exploring oyster reefs, using seining nets to catch fish and invertebrates, and examining plankton under microscopes. He also leads canoe trips, guiding students along Muddy Creek and the Rhode River as they look for wildlife and discuss SERC research.

“The real reward is when you get the ‘aha moment’ from the kids,” he says. When this happens, their excitement over seining or other activities becomes visible. “You can see in their reaction that a lightbulb has gone off.”

Seated man talks to kids in life jackets on floating dock.

Education volunteer Bruce Birdsell leads a water quality station on the SERC docks as part of a visiting field trip. (Credit: SERC)

Not all students arrive at their “aha” moments in the same way. Bruce recalls one field trip with students who had not spent much time outdoors. They were hesitant about some of the field trip activities, particularly canoeing.

“But they had a great time, and they did fine,” he says. “When they get their ‘aha’ moments after that, it’s really cool.” Another student visitor who was scared of canoeing shared that it wasn’t from lack of experience: Her dad had taken her canoeing and purposely flipped their boat. By the end of her visit to SERC, she had regained her confidence.

“I told her she could go home and tell her dad she’s a pro now,” Bruce said.

Two men giving thumbs up signs in front of white board

Bruce Birdsell (left) and Steve Myers teach younger students about responding to “non-verbal cues.” (Credit: SERC)

Bruce was also part of the first group of volunteers trained as docents. SERC docents lead public tours of SERC’s facilities and serve as ambassadors at SERC-hosted events. To date, SERC has trained 10 docents (not including android docent Pepper). Bruce explains that the tour itinerary depends on the group, but it may include a tour of the Mathias Lab, a stop at the Beaver Pond sampling weir, a walk along the marsh boardwalk, or a visit to the Reed Education Center and dock, along with a discussion of ongoing research and outreach programs.

He hopes that tour participants and students leave SERC with a better understanding of humans’ impact on the environment and ideas about what they can do to make a difference.

For those considering volunteering, he says, “Check into it and see where you fit in,” whether it’s in the education, citizen science, docent or other programs.  “You may have one idea coming in about what you want to do, but find multiple opportunities that fit.”

Want to join the team? To learn more about volunteering with our education programs, contact Karen McDonald (mcdonaldk@si.edu). To learn about about citizen science volunteer projects, contact Alison Cawood (cawooda@si.edu).

Teachers: Learn more about SERC field trips and how they fit your curricula

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