Delphinus School of Natural History: Guiding Students to Connect with Nature

Imbuing the stars with names and meaning in the form of constellations is an ancient practice that has played a key role in the survival of communities. This form of environmental literacy oriented and illuminated the landscape on which people traveled and was developed through years of empathetic observation and understanding.

Today environmental literacy helps students foster empathy and responsibility with our world and the other life forms with which we share it. Removing barriers to that education is crucial to creating sustainable long-term solutions to the many facets of climate change.

John Sanders is the founder and director of the Delphinus School of Natural History, a regional outdoor science education program in San Luis Obispo for elementary and middle school students. John is a naturalist and an educator who has worked in outdoor science education for the past 18 years. In this interview, John shares what led to his outdoor education work, equity in education, and the future of environmental literacy and education. Much like the constellation it’s named after, Delphinus guides students toward a greater understanding of the world we all navigate.

Could you share how your passion for outdoor education began? 

Growing up in Southern California, I spent most of my time as a child exploring the outdoors. My dad was a deckhand for Santa Monica Seafood Company, so I only lived eight blocks from the coast. There were four and a half miles of coastline and dunes to explore between Venice and El Segundo, plus the Santa Monica mountains. That was back in the day when the only thing you had to worry about was getting home before the streetlights came on.

I had no idea I was going to become a naturalist. I didn’t settle on what I was going to do with my adult life until much later. I went through a series of occupations, and although I was earning a paycheck, I knew deep inside that it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So in my late 30s, I decided to spend two years at a community college before transferring to University of California, Santa Cruz, and getting my degree in biology.

While I was in the graduate program in marine science, I was hired as a consultant by the dean of the Summer Science School to develop a program for the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. In collaboration with the school district, UC Santa Cruz, KTEH, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we initiated a  community engagement  program and managed to get 30 students to come. One day we were out on the Bay and my students and I witnessed 16 Orcas attacking a gray whale and her calf. That event had such a huge impact on the kids, and it completely changed my outlook on education. I knew that I would never be able to teach in the classroom full time because seeing these students engage so deeply with nature was so rewarding.

How did your experiences in outdoor education lead you to found the Delphinus School of Natural History?

When my plan to teach at the community college in San Luis Obispo fell through, I ended up working at a Barnes and Noble Bookstore. It changed my life when a gentleman ended up at my register with a handful of field guides. I asked him what the guides were for, and he explained that he was a supervisor of Camp KEEP (Kern Environmental Education Program), a program that bussed students from Kern County to an outdoor site for five days of overnight outdoor education. When he found out that my research in college was on elephant seals, he thought I would fit well in the program. It worked out, and I spent 17 years there.

While I was working with Camp KEEP, I made the acquaintance of a gentleman named David Wilson who ran an Indigenous culture program called Coyote Road School that was focused on Indigenous technologies like fire making, cordage making, tracking, etc. It was the first time I started getting involved with Indigenous culture and technology, what we know as “The Original Instructions.” I worked with David for three years before he retired and turned the program over to me.

That’s how Delphinus School came into being in the winter of 2011. Despite the pandemic, last year I had 11 straight weeks of sold out camps and already have two sold out for this coming summer. In many ways, the pandemic has increased interest in our school because parents are desperately trying to find ways for students to have safe outdoor experiences and get them away from cellphones and laptops for a while.

I’m also currently working with the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club on their executive committee and California Conservation Committee. And I’m working with a group called Creek Lands Conservation, which has an environmental literacy program that we have been working on with San Luis Obispo Unified School District. My work entails creating lessons that will help teachers in their effort to introduce students to regional environmental education.

Could you share more about the role that Indigenous knowledge plays in shaping students’ experiences at the school?

Indigenous people all over the world had a way of relating to the natural world in which they didn’t see themselves as apart from but a part of. Indigenous peoples’ relationship with land and wildlife honored the life forms they shared the land with.

In sharing the Earth with other life forms, it is important that we honor the lives that are sacrificed to provide for our own. Everything needs to eat and we have to be mindful of where that food comes from. In today’s culture, we are far removed from the sources of our food. We just go to the supermarket and we pick it up in a cellophane-wrapped package and go to the checkout stand. That’s not a way to really understand the relationship or the interconnectedness between what we eat and the lives that were sacrificed to make that possible.

When I’m out with my students, I encourage them to look at the interconnections between animals and plants. These plants provide animals what they need, and those animals in turn do things that other animals need, and the cycle continues. I think it’s important that students understand that there is some order to the way things happen in nature. They see consistency in the way nature works—stability that they can depend on seeing every single time. That sense of stability sticks, and it can help them to process and deal with the chaos going on outside of camp.

Why did this strike you as an effective way to teach students about nature?

I think it can be attributed to what I observe: Watching the skill and intense attention to detail the students were making told me that this was the right way to teach—watching students trying to make a bow drill, collect plants like Yucca and dog-bane for cordage, and making fires, and the elation they express when they succeed. I don’t spend a lot of time lecturing my students. I give them some basic parameters about how we should behave in a particular area, then I cut them loose. We don’t have to say a whole lot until they ask questions–and they always do.

It sticks in a way that regular classroom instruction doesn’t. I get text messages and emails from parents who had students in my camp four, five, six years ago. And they say, “Every time we go out, they hit me with more ‘John facts’.” Last summer, I had parents telling me that my camp improved their kids’ sleep patterns because they were spending less time on their phones and instead reading, doing research and going outside. The take-home message for me is that what they’re doing with me resonates enough to where they want to follow through on their own.

How do the experiences the students have at Delphinus School help lay the groundwork for future environmental justice?

First, it’s important that I am in the position that I am right now, because around 90 to 95 percent of my students are Caucasian. For them to spend time learning from a Black naturalist has a significant impact on how they view other cultures. Parents have told me that I am the first Black person that their children has ever hung out with or even known. In thinking about equity, although some students may be well off financially, they can be culturally deprived because of their lack of relationships with people from other cultural backgrounds.

Second, I make sure that what I’m doing during the summer camp is accessible to all students. There aren’t that many people of color in San Luis Obispo County, only about two percent of the population. I work with students on the spectrum. I do one-on-ones with students who have various learning disabilities. I offer scholarships to people from low-income neighborhoods.

I’ve been working with the Los Angeles-based group LAWYLD for several years. It’s an amazing experience to bring 12 or 13 urban students up from the middle of LA to Morro Bay for a week and have them explore Montaña de Oro and go kayaking. It changes them. Even though I don’t always get a chance to see the results, I hear about the effect it’s had on them.

What has your experience been like being one of few Black outdoor educators in this area?

When I first started Delphinus, I thought about what it was going to mean for people to see an older Black man walking around with eight or nine little white kids. There have been a couple of occasions when that came into question and the police were called, but nothing came of it. One time in Morro Bay, somebody had seen me playing in the Tidelands Park with a group of kids and they called and officers came and I explained to them what was going on. The kids went home and told their parents about it, and one of the parents happened to be the head of the San Luis Obispo County Mental Health Department, and she was livid. She drove 12 miles to the Morro Bay police station and read them the Riot Act because two of her kids were with me when it happened and they were upset. And so she was upset that her kids were upset, and she was also upset about what had happened to me.

I probably am one of two or three African-American naturalists on the Central Coast. Even when I go to larger events there will be maybe half a dozen or so African-Americans out of a group of 1,500 or 1,600 people. When I did a talk for the California Native Plant Society at their annual meeting a couple years ago, I was one of two African-Americans in the whole conference. It was like that when I was in grad school and UC Santa Cruz as well. I was the second or third Black person to ever be enrolled in a graduate program there in biology. It hasn’t felt lonely, but at times I’ve wished that there were more of us.

Do you see this lack of diversity changing? 

If you go to other parts of the country, like down South, there are a lot more professional naturalists who happen to be Black. There are groups, such as Outdoor Afro, with loads of people and they have exciting conferences with like-minded folks interested in nature. I think that in the coming generations, you will see more and more of that happening. Everybody is on the DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] bandwagon right now, and it’s interesting because everybody seems to be using the same language. It’s like there’s a template out there and everybody just plugs their organization into that template.

I’m hoping that organizations like California Native Plant Society and Sierra Club develop methods to truly address the equity and the social justice issues within their own organizations, because if you look at the makeup of most of these organizations from top to bottom, they’re predominantly older white people. I’m pushing them to increase their engagement with various communities around their chapters to try and bring more kinds of people into the fold.

What do you hope to see in the next ten years for environmental literacy and education?

I would like to see outdoor education become mandated, because it’s not in California right now, even with all the great programs such as the STEM programs and BEETLES. That means that in order for students to go to outdoor schools, if they don’t come from wealthy districts, they have to do fundraising, going door to door selling candy to earn money to go to camp. And so there is a huge gap and inequity: Some students get full rides from their school districts, and the others have to go out and sell stuff in order to be able to have the same experience. If there were a method for establishing universal funding for outdoor education, we would make a huge leap in terms of the equity issue. One of the things I hope to see within the next ten years is that funding for outdoor education becomes as important as in-class education.

What sort of impact do you hope students’ experiences with Delphinus will have on them?

I have parents who tell me it’s my fault their students have decided on different majors than they had planned earlier. I have former students come back as interns, so I think several of them are going to end up at least headed in that direction, if not naturalists, somewhere in outdoor education. They paid to come for weeks when they were younger, and now they are in high school and they still want to engage. That is the clearest sign for me that the method I’m using is working: when my students want to come back on their own.