At Cully Critter Cruise, youth take a closer look at nature and careers in sustainability

By Alix Danielsen, a PSU student in the Professional Science Master program. 

group of children gather around a table at Cully Park

As a Professional Science Master student in PSU's Environmental Science and Management Department, I am exploring the different ways people engage with nature. This focus drew me to a local partnership of organizations working on a community event at a new Northeast Portland park—the Cully Critter Cruise. The Institute for Sustainable Solutions, through their Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative, supports this valuable community partnership and my participation in and research stemming from the event.

I haven’t spent much time in front of a classroom, and when I have it’s been with adult learners, but recently I found myself preparing four classrooms full of 5th and 6th graders for a big day: the Cully Critter Cruise at Thomas Cully Park, dedicated to science and exploration for students at Scott School Elementary in NE Portland.

At Scott School, I taught the students how to use the iNaturalist app on iPads, technology they would use for their upcoming adventure. App users can take pictures of living things (wildflowers, bugs, trees, birds, etc.), add their observations and location, and then upload them to the greater iNaturalist community to help them identify specimens and contribute to a general catalogue of biodiversity around the world.

On June 9th, over 90 students from Scott School Elementary attended Cully Critter Cruise and learned about biodiversity in an urban setting, stormwater management, native plants and ethnobotany, entomology, and careers in construction and design. The children wore their scientist hats, seeking out their subjects and then using the app as part of the scientific method, forming hypotheses based on their detailed observations. We also took a closer look at bugs in the Community Garden, collecting specimens in vials and learning about them from PSU entomology students.

student uses iPad to take a closer look at natureStudents used iNaturalist in a variety of ways and applied their skills and experiences differently. Diversity in learning is powerful; that was the take home lesson for me, and emphasized how people engage with nature and their surroundings in their unique ways, whether guided by age, culture, background, individuality, or beyond. Our parks and green spaces need to reflect this diversity of engagement, and lay the groundwork for the many ways in which people find joy in the natural world around them. Cully Critter Cruise at Cully Park was a living laboratory for young, curious explorers. Using the iNaturalist app was one way to encourage the children to look closer at the living plants and wildlife wherever they are.

Cully Park is a new park offering many amenities such as walking paths, an off-leash dog area, a playground with traditional and nature play aspects, a soccer field, native habitat restoration, a community garden, and an Intertribal Gathering Garden on its 25 acres. The space, originally a landfill, was developed to cater to more than 400 families in Northeast Portland who have limited or no access to green space or natural areas.

Cully Critter Cruise is made possible by the partnership of Living Cully, O’Neill Construction, Columbia Slough Watershed Council, the City of Portland Parks and Recreation, the Bureau of Environmental Services, Hacienda CDC, and Portland State University.