Lori Kiesser works as the Development Director with Inside the Outdoors. Stephanie Smith is the Operations Director.
Tell us about your work.
Smith: Inside the Outdoors is an environmental science program within the Orange County Department of Education. We have been serving students, in a science capacity, since 1974. We offer nature-based field trips at parks in Orange and LA Counties, Traveling Scientist programs – where we take science and live animals into the classroom. We do service-oriented programs for students and teachers who want to take science concepts and apply them to real life experiences; and then we do some community outreach, community interfacing out in the public – here in Orange County, and summer camps.
How does your work make a positive difference to society?
Kiesser: What I think happens a lot is there is environmental education and there is environmental science education; they can be very isolated, and textbook focused. When a student comes to our program, they learn how that textbook process relates to real life. So rather than read about tide pools in a text book, they’re actually seeing a tide pool, and they’re seeing what life is like in a tide pool. They’re at the ocean, they see how the ocean and beach ecosystem works; but they also see their footprint on that ecosystem and they start to understand how they’re connected to the environment, as opposed to when you read about it in a text book. If it’s something that’s really far away and distant, it doesn’t really relate to you.
Why is your work important to you?
Smith: I think that, for a lot of us, when we were kids and went to school, we had more opportunities to get out of the classroom. Now we’re seeing that not all the students have opportunities to leave the school or learn something outside traditional English and math; which a lot of schools focus heavily on. Participating in the Inside the Outdoors program, it’s opening up those students to education and opportunity, experiences they may not be getting at home, or traditionally in the school day. So, it really [strives] to give them the same opportunities we had when we were kids.
How did you get in touch with your passion?
Kiesser : For me, I had a career where I didn’t feel so connected to my work, and I had felt really disconnected from the outdoors. I had just moved to Orange County, and I didn’t really know how to find the outdoor spaces. Once I connected those dots, I started going outdoors more. Then I got connected to Inside the Outdoors and when I saw kids starting to blossom through hands-on environmental education and experiences…For me, it was easy to turn the passion that I had, which was being outdoors, into a job that I could do, and be able to care about kids who don’t get that experience. It’s easy to be passionate about the work.
Smith: If you’ve ever had an experience as a kid where you were outdoors and something exciting happened, then I think making that connection is pretty easy. Especially if you see one of our field trips and see how amazing it is to see how a kid’s mind will open up when they come on a field trip.
What sort of outdoor spaces have you found in Orange County that you typically take kids to?
Smith: We have a long relationship with OC parks and they manage many of the regional parks and open space areas here in Orange County; because of that relationship, they allow us to use the open space and park systems for field trips. A lot of our field trips are on an OC park land, but we’re able to take them beyond the park. We also have good partnerships with nature centers, and outer areas here; such a state parks and private or city-owned, nature areas that we were able to form partnership with.
Kiesser: It’s amazing how many field trips to parks that we have where the kids live really close that they just never knew existed. I think when you think of Southern California, you think of the beach; but with our students, we show them the foothills of the Cleveland National Forest to show them that they live near a national forest.
We have some of the last remaining coastal estuaries. What we work with the kids on is understand that they don’t have to go to the rainforest to visit one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. If you live in Southern California, you’re living in one. We’re lucky enough to take the kids to those different ecosystems.
Was there a time when you felt unfulfilled or disconnected in your work life?
Kiesser: For most of my professional life, I was a paralegal. It was an office job where the work was challenging, but unfulfilling. It didn’t really feel like I was making a difference in the world. It felt like I was important to the people I was working with; and to me, as Stephanie said, I wanted to open up the world for bigger experiences beyond just myself. It wasn’t fulfilling for me to do that particular job, it’s much more fulfilling to do this with kids.
What inspired you to move forward?
Smith: I think I can speak for both Lori and I, and probably everyone working at Inside the Outdoors: It’s the students. We hear every school year that ‘it’s the best day of their life!’ because they came out on a field trip; but we’ll also hear from some students that ask ‘How can I be you when I grow up?’ So, we’re teaching them to be good stewards, but we’re also sparking them to maybe consider a better career choice for the future.
As you became committed to a purposeful career, what were the internal doubts or external obstacles that challenged you?
Kiesser: For us, it’s money. I think funding programs like these are always a struggle and an obstacle to overcome. The more involved you are in within the environmental profession, the more you become aware that keeping the community invested in these programs is important.
It’s an obstacle, but it’s an opportunity as well. It’s an obstacle to find funding for the program, but it’s also an opportunity because California is projected in 2018, to rank the highest amount of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs available to students.
For us, getting the business community invested in our work helps them meet their goals to draw students who are interested in science; and so, you become a partner to the business, as opposed to competing against other organizations for dollars. You overcome those challenges by creating partnerships with like-minded individuals.
According to your mission statement, you want to educate children of California’s state standards and environment; what sort of ideals or concepts specific to California do you hope to teach?
Smith: We have an interesting opportunity because the state of California has different standards that determines the curriculum that we adhere to. We support teachers by assisting them with that curriculum alignment. So, Common Core is a big standard teachers are working through right now, and then there’s Science Standards. We take all that standard-based curriculum and make it ‘per grade level.’ All of our programs are grade-level specific, so we’re supporting teachers and what they’re teaching in the classroom and/or what students are being tested on for science context.
I noticed you are teaching children STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). What sort of careers are you hoping that children attending, or participating in your programs will enter?
Kiesser: The first thing that we want to do, especially with the younger students, is get them to take STEM classes in school. So, when they’re in elementary school, that’s the time that they’re starting to decide: Do I like science? Do I like math?
What we want to do is create that interest. We’re exposing them to all of those classes and hope that they think about engineering as a possible career, that they think about sciences and being a scientist or a teacher, or a mathematician; but more importantly, we want them to think about how to use that in everyday life, and that they understand even if you’re not an engineer, there are jobs and careers where an understanding of engineering is important.
What makes you happy in your work?
Kiesser: The kids.
Smith: The students, for sure. The staff’s pretty cool, too. I think what happens to the students when they suddenly realize that they can change the world, that they can actively change a little part of it.
Kiesser: I think when you see them start to recognize and connect those dots, and feel empowered when they leave the program – whether they’re going to be an environmental advocate, or a teacher when they graduate…when they leave with that feeling – you feel like you’ve done a really important thing for society.
How did you find a balance between financial stability and a career that makes a difference?
Kiesser: For me, the financial stability, making a lot of money, was a lot less important. I had to make sure the work I was doing was super important. I would advise anyone who wanted to get rich to not do this job [laughs.] I think the balance is understanding: How much do I need to make, and how important it is to believe in what you do?
Smith: When I went to college, I always knew this would be my life. I always knew I wasn’t going to make a ton of money. So, it’s about making sacrifices and just figuring it out. Working for Inside the Outdoors, because we are a part of the Orange County Department of Education, we’re really, really lucky to be able to make pretty good living wages here. So, I never forget how lucky I am, that I am able to pay my bills and raise my kids. I always knew this was a career that I would be in. You just try to figure it out.
We have staff members that have been around a long time, staff members who come in and know they’re not making a lot of money, but they don’t want to leave because they firmly believe in what they do. They figure out how to make ends meet.
What advice do you have for those who want a career that benefits the common good?
Kiesser: First, I believe they have to be passionate about whatever cause they dedicate their lives to; because if you’re not happy – if you don’t have that passion – then it just becomes a low-paying job. So having that passion and job satisfaction is key.
You will have to make choices; maybe you can’t do things as extravagantly as you might have had you chosen a different job, but to find that joy from….let’s say you can’t buy a new car every year, but the joy you would have found from buying the new car every year, you actually find from your job, instead. Be passionate about what you choose to pursue. If you’re going to do something that creates change, and then derive your joy from the outcomes of that change.