Gustafson instills love of science and nature

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By Gina Velasquez

Sarah Gustafson has an interest in nature as it relates to the young people of the community.
She is the coordinator of the Nature Odyssey summer program for children in fourth through sixth grade. It takes place one to two weeks in June. Over the years, it has evolved to combine outdoor adventure with field science, which the kids love.
“We have a lot of kids whose parents work at the lab, so that’s their view of what scientists do,” Gustafson said. “We try to instill the idea that you can do science outside, too. So we bring in geologists, ecologists and other field scientists. Over the last 4-5 years, I’ve been developing the theme of Nature Detectives to tie the activities together.”
Gustafson also coordinates the Living Earth Adventure Program program for middle schoolers, that is also a summer program in June. “What (kids) love about it really comes back to the connections they make with nature, with other people, and with themselves. They all talk about making new friends and discovering interesting things,” she said.
Gustafson served as the Pajarito Environmental Education Center’s first vice president and was very involved in early Earth Day celebrations. During PEEC’s infancy, she focused on forging connections with Bandelier and other local organizations.
“I felt PEEC would become inherently stronger through these partnerships. In the early years, I was also helping with the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) recreation program. The perks included getting to know some of the scientific staff and having opportunities to explore parts of the preserve that aren’t open to the general public,” Gustafson said, which is why Nature Odyssey is held at Hidden Valley in the Valles Caldera.
Gustafson started out in Los Alamos as a freelance science writer and she became involved with the community as a volunteer. Around 1999, along came the discussion to establish a nature center, which became PEEC. “Even though we didn’t have a facility, we were determined to host our first Earth Day festival in 2000,” Gustafson said.
The Cerro Grande Fire put the plan on hold for a while, but by early 2001, the volunteers began the process of incorporating as a nonprofit.
Fires tend to halt certain programs. The summer programs were greatly affected by the 2011 Las Conchas fire. LEAP had to be cancelled because it was scheduled during the evacuation.
“The Thompson Ridge fire was burning in the Valles Caldera during Nature Odyssey last summer, so the Preserve was closed to all but the fire teams,” Gustafson recalls.
Currently, Gustafson is a yoga teacher and environmental educator. She works and volunteers her time at PEEC. Her and husband John have three adult children, Elena, 25, Nat, 22 and Janali, 19, who she said all love being outside. “I think it’s fair to say that spending time in the natural world is very important to each, but they all do it in their own ways and for their own reasons,” Gustafson said.
John Gustafson is a chief of staff at Los Alamos National Security. In his spare time, he’s an avid rock climber associated with the Los Alamos Mountaineers and is also involved in Los Alamos Little Theater.
Gustafson’s background is in biology and science communications, which she said has really helped her working with the kids. “I approach teaching as a storyteller. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What story do we want the kids to come away with? How do we tell it in a way that will be interactive and compelling?’ If we can provide opportunities that challenge them physically, emotionally and intellectually, we can channel that curious energy. The kids can still get their hands dirty, but in a constructive way!”
A lot of Gustafson’s inspiration and driven comes from her mother, Natali Steinberg, who moved to Los Alamos in 2005 and began volunteering at PEEC soon after. She served on the board for several years and now staffs the center once or twice a week and helps out with Nature Odyssey and LEAP. Gustafson said PEEC has been a multi-generational gathering place for their family. “When I was growing up, she was my main role model for how to engage in one’s community as a volunteer,” she said of her mother.