Giving Science Heart

By Allison Fagan/El Inde

The late afternoon sun peers behind a mix of nearby hills and mountains. It’s close enough that I can make out the shrubbery that peppers their sides, but far enough that I cannot identify what the plants are. Beneath me is a meadow, golden tall grass mixed with the occasional flower that hints that spring is coming. Bugs bounce around the field while birds chase each other, disappearing and reappearing above the grass. I can both see and feel a gentle breeze, it connects the landscape in front of me back to myself; my knees are tucked into my body to keep warm, my butt aching from the hard, cold rock beneath me. My arms tug at my jacket. Despite this, I am comfortable. 

I am on a backpacking trip, miles away from my Tucson, Arizona home in the Gailuros Mountain Range with my Advanced Field Science class. We’ve made it to the final level of our trip, and perhaps our class: the solo. For two hours my fellow classmates and I are given simple instructions: sit and exist alone, nothing more and nothing less. 

Two students navigate the grass during an orienteering field trip in Las Cienegas National Conservation Area (2018). Photo courtesy of Kirsten Fulgham.

As easy as it sounds, the task was nothing short of difficult. The stresses that come with being a senior in high school mixed with the troubles I had at home hardly allowed my mind to experience an ounce of silence. But I was a perfectionist when it came to my school assignments, and I would perfect this one just as I did all the others. 

I began to focus on the pebbles beneath me. I removed my hand from my grip on my walkie talkie, my remaining tie to human civilization, and my soft fingers found the hardened texture of the rock bits, every pebble unlike the next. Perhaps these pebbles had never been touched. Perhaps I would be the last human to ever touch them. 

As my fingers worked to physically ground myself, I let my eyes and mind wander to the space in front of me. Slowly everything that I was, every problem every stressor faded from existence. And finally I had become a piece of this moment. 

Kirsten Fulgham and Frank Draper are coworkers, mentor and mentee, and stepdaughter and stepfather. “Step” and their last names imply that they were not related but in reality Draper is more of a father to Fulgham than her biological father ever was. They also happen to be science teachers and the ones that facilitated my meditative experience on that backpacking trip back in 2019. 

I met with the two of them over coffee recently, trying to make sense of that experience they took me on four years ago. I wanted to pick their brains about what this class was and still is and how it came to be. Each time we met for coffee, they wore the same outfits: Draper always with a hat to protect his face from the sun, big circular eyeglasses, and loose fitted button-down pants and shirt, typically in a variation of earthy neutral colors. Fulgham wore the same loose fitted pants, but tended to prefer graphic tees to button downs, with the shirts typically coming from National Parks and or displaying nature related images. Where Draper wore a hat, Fulgham always wore protective sunglasses outside. The duo was practical, always appearing ready for the unforgiving climate of the Sonoran Desert. 

Their Field Science and Advanced Field Science classes are available to junior and senior students at Catalina Foothills High School. First established by Draper when the high school opened in 1992, the classes continue to flourish under the hands of Fulgham, though Draper remains a mentor and present during certain class projects and field trips. 

“[Field Science] is an integrated science course. There are no field scientists, but in any kind of research of hard or soft sciences whether it be geology, biology, sociology, history, archaeology, any of that where you are going outside of the building, you are doing work in the field, a field study,” Fulgham explained. 

So rather than learning just one specific area of science, Field Science classes combine them all into a field context. 

And outside of the building is where students spend most of their class time. 

One project had us creating our own field study. We squared off a section of our nearby desert wash and identified and counted disturbance plants, plants that grow in recently disturbed areas such as the remnants of a forest from a fire, or a recently flooded area. From there we as a class determined what areas were most recently disturbed. We took what we learned in the classroom and used it to determine real world consequences. 

I remember on the first day of junior year, back in 2017, I walked into their classroom wide eyed in wonderment. Even inside, there were reminders that there was more to find outside. 

The class was held in two rooms combined, with your typical thirty desks and chalkboard on one side, and on the other a computer lab and lounge mix with long tables scattered with animal bones, plants, and field guides. Walls were covered in posters of national parks and informational nature posters, pictures of former students on field trips, and a taxidermy condor and elk head. These decorative choices came from more than just trying to make the space look interesting.  

“I remember all the blank walls and everything,” Draper recounted. “I wanted the room to be one where if they daydream, they pay attention to something on the walls.” 

In order to graduate, students must complete a year of Biology, Chemistry, and a science class of our choosing between Astronomy, Physics, Advanced Placement Biology, Advanced Placement Chemistry, Anatomy, and Field Science. Field Science often got the reputation of being the “easy” science class, as students often got to go outside, learn about animals, and go on field trips regularly. And it was, depending on how much effort you put into it. 

“Students are always like, ‘this is an easy class,’” Fulgham said in a high-pitched mocking voice. “What they don’t realize is that it’s only easy if you actually do the work.”

As a science hater, Field Science seemed like the most plausible choice. I never thought I would enjoy the class as much as I did, even less so that I would like it enough to continue with it in my senior year with Advanced Field Science. 

Many of us may not be interested in science because it’s simply not accessible to many of us, especially women. Draper has a theory about this.

“To put it into a social and political context, a lot of science is reductionist, to when you take this geology class or this physics class, you’re learning tiny little pieces of it. And that’s a very masculine way of looking at the world, and to me the more integrated stuff is more feminine. And I don’t want to say it comes more naturally to women, but there might be a point to that. And I think for some young women they’ve told me that Field Science was the first time that they really enjoyed a science class because it’s put together and makes sense to them.” 

Field Science students help create and clean pathways for future trails.
Photo courtesy of Kirsten Fulgham.

A number of my classmates have gone on to work in the sciences, like my fellow classmate Irene Meikle, who just graduated last spring from the University of Arizona and is working to get her master’s degree in order to be a science teacher. Or Catalina Foothills High School’s former art teacher Tammy McCue, whose daughters both shifted from art fields to science fields after taking the class. There is also former Field Science student Priya Sundareshan, who is running for Arizona senate, with one of the most topical issues on her ballot being the environment. 

“One of the things we’re both really proud of are the number of women that decided they can go into science after taking field and advanced,” Draper said. When asked he approximated 2-4 female students per year, and that was just who he knew about. 

But how did this whole class start in the first place? For Fulgham and Draper it started with a  trip. 

“I grew up camping,” Draper said. “My first camping trip I was told I was in diapers.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, every summer Draper and his family would camp in the Sierra Nevadas mountain range. Thus it was only natural for him later in life to take up studying biology in college, where he met Fulgham’s mother, Kathleen. 

“I thought [biology] was dense until I started taking field courses. We’d take like a plant identification class or we’d have to do a huge plant collection so we’d go out every weekend to the deserts, to the mountains out of L.A. and collect stuff like that. And so I’d have all these different classes about plants, animals, and geology, but it was up to us to put it all together,” Draper explained. 

With this experience in college, Draper began to question these systems in education. 

“Any time there’s an integrated class like that, it was for freshmen and they’d have to find the details later. And I always thought that was kind of backwards to me, knowing those details about each field would help you put it together in a more meaningful sense, and I just had that in the back of my mind.” 

While Draper and Fulgham’s mother were students, Fulgham was a child, taken along on these field trips. 

“I would go with them on camping trips for field work in their classes,” Fulgham said, as early as two years old. “My parents would sit there and meticulously talk about how many petals, and stammens, and sepals, and pistils and the arrangement of everything and I just thought that was what life was.” 

For those unfamiliar with botany, stammens, sepals, and pistils are the main components of a flower. 

As Fulgham got older, she began to take an interest in doing science work herself. During a six week summer camping trip across the western United States, a young six-year-old Fulgham was in a book store in Cedar Briggs National Park in Utah. Using the allowance she had saved up, she bought her first “A Golden Guide From St. Martin’s Press” field book on birds. 

“Her five dollars was burning in her pocket,” Draper joked. 

Fulgham was not fully sure on why she picked it out, but it was likely because she wanted to be just like her parents, picking out what flora or fauna she would see out in the field with them. 

“I would go through it page by page and did it with a butterfly one, and a tree one, and read each tree and each species and horse or whatever to the point that the pages were frayed,” Fulgham said. 

For the two of them studying the outside world was practically in their blood. 

 “I would point out things in nature to other kids because I just thought that was what everyone was doing, I was like, ‘Oh don’t you see that? That’s a blah blah blah,’” Fulgham recounted using a higher pitched voice for her younger self. “And I would be out in the yard entertaining myself and I would come in and tell my parents, ‘There’s a bohemian waxwing bird outside!’ And they’d be like, ‘How do you know that?’ and they would look in my field guide and see the bird and they’d be like, ‘She’s right!’” 

At separate times during our coffee shop visits, both Draper and Fulgham swore they would never be teachers. 

For Draper, as an industrial chemist and biological researcher, teaching never sounded interesting to him. Despite this, he would later realize he had been doing it for years already as a national park ranger for the Minnesota State Park System. 

And for Fulgham she did not consider herself much of a people person. And this coupled with watching the work her stepfather put in as a teacher and seeing the low pay and disrespect that pushed her teachers at one point to go on strike in the 1970s made the career not seem all that appealing. She eventually came to the understanding that teaching did not have to be as conventional as she thought. 

“I realized I worked every summer as a girl scout teacher teaching them to ride [horses]. It [just] wasn’t in the formal sense, so I didn’t think of it as being a teacher,” Fulgham explained. 

While Fulgham pursued college, an accident at work and a chance opportunity to teach in the west convinced Draper to take the step to become a biology teacher at Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson, Arizona in 1978. 

They may have entered teaching later in life, with Draper becoming a teacher in his late twenties and Fulgham beginning to teach at age twenty-nine, but both believe it gave them an advantage when it came to giving students a good education. 

“We had different experiences besides school. I was an industrial chemist and did biological research, and I knew how it was used and recognized there’s a place for it out of the classroom. And the construct of school is so different than how the rest of the world functions,” Draper explained. 

During his time as a science teacher at Orange Grove Middle School, the school district was planning on opening up a high school. It was then that Draper suggested an integrated science class for students. 

Sequestered in the northeastern foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Catalina Foothills community is just outside of Tucson city limits, surrounded by miles of local fauna and flora.

The developing Catalina Foothills School District agreed to Draper’s proposal, even allowing him to pick and design his classroom as he saw fit. 

“There’s a whole bunch of these urban and suburban kids who have never been given permission to go outside and observe nature, and if I can teach this stuff it might just light some sparks for kids. It’ll give them the permission they never had to fall in love with nature,” Draper explained. 

For Fulgham and Draper, they grew up in an America where parents sent them outside to play and expected them home by dinner. Since then, childhood has changed dramatically, and kids like myself have found ourselves less in this unrestricted outdoor environment, and more in a sheltered, virtual one. Draper mentioned himself that he remembered a student once saying that prior to this class he believed the outdoors to be simply, “the space between buildings.”

While getting his doctorate and setting up the curriculum for the class, Draper read about researchers studying learning separate from school institutions. From midwives in Guatemala, to tailors in Nigeria, Draper learned that oftentimes people were taught by a mentor showing the apprentice how to become the mentor themselves. 

“School is ‘here’s this person in front who is the font of all knowledge, and your job is to tell that person back what they told you,’ basically. And so I tried to set up Field [Science] where the very first week of school, whether [Fulgham] was teaching or I was teaching, where we’re outside and you’re watching us try to identify the birds and lizards and the mammals that are out there. You’re watching us use this knowledge. You’re seeing us try to make sense of what it is we’re seeing using the knowledge we’re trying to teach you. That’s not what school is like, but it should be,” Draper said. 

Draper (right center) and Fulgham (left center) provide instructions to students in the White Mountains. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Fulgham.

Years later, the class persists under Fulgham’s care and the occasional assistance from Draper. Besides exploring the desert around us day to day, we were also given opportunities to explore past campus. From spelunking in the Coronado Cave, to watching a Sandhill Crane migration at the Gila River, to witnessing what beauty can come out of treating reclaimed water at Sweetwater Wetlands Park. 

Having those two hours in the mountains by myself made me realize a lot of things. For one, there is something healing about being surrounded by the natural elements. And for another, I realized this class and science as a whole goes beyond running tests and writing equations. Because it is the study of the world around us, and the world around us is beautiful. 

We had a ‘fireside chat’ on a rocky mountain side later that night after our solos. I use ‘fireside chat’ loosely because there was no fire. Only our flashlights and the stars above us illuminated us, and one another’s company kept us warm. 

At the ‘fire’ Fulgham and Draper asked my class what we thought of the experience. For a moment there was only silence, but slowly we all grew comfortable sharing our personal escapades alone. 

At coffee recently, Draper brought up a particular response I had from our discussion that night. 

“I remember your reaction to something that night. It was about my solo,” Draper began. “And I said, ‘I heard the wind, I felt the wind, but I couldn’t see the wind.’ And you just went, ‘Woah!’” Draper leaned in his chair and threw back his hands in emphasis. 

“And you just said, ‘I got to think about this.’ And I could just see that you were having a moment there, and it actually gave me goosebumps.” 

In the present the three of us laughed at that, I had totally forgotten that memory up until now. And as funny as it was, it held a lot of meaning to it too. 

“That is what really the heart of what this class is is how profound and something so simple and everyday can be,” Fulgham said. 

And perhaps not all of my classmates and I leapt into the science field after Field Science, but it was moments like these that gave me a newfound appreciation for the subject and the world as a whole. Moments that will stick with me for a lifetime. 

“The natural world is always there for you,” Fulgham said. “It is there, and it doesn’t judge you, and it can help you heal. And you have to be there and have the opportunity to open yourself up to experience that.”

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