The Outdoors and STEM: Interview with Ruth Kermish-Allen

Oh, February, you have not been a disappointment. Despite my love for a good whopper of a storm, I can’t deny that we may, in fact, have too much snow. My son, who is only five, has gotten himself stuck in and had to be rescued from a waist-deep drift more than once. Also, it’s too cold. Nobody wants to be outside. At least they don’t want to be outside by themselves and I don’t want to be out there with them. So here we all are, at the eve of February vacation, over it and wishing desperately to think about anything else.

Here’s something else to think about.

Over a decade ago I had the pleasure of becoming coworkers with Ruth Kermish-Allen at the Island Institute in Rockland. Ruth had a strong background in environmental education and it became immediately clear to me and everyone else that she had a gift for taking complex science and technology concepts and making them accessible, interesting, and exciting to kids of all age–usually using the outdoors. Recently Ruth became the Executive Director of the Maine Math and Science Alliance, where she works with a statewide staff of 12 to provide professional development for educators in many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) content areas, build local networks for rural STEM opportunities, and research models for engaging STEM education work in Maine. Ruth is currently working on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to find best practices for designing online learning communities for citizen science that brings together a diverse participants to foster local environmental actions.

Got all that? Basically, she’s really smart about science and the outdoors and putting those two things together to benefit kids and communities. I thought it would be fun to ask Ruth to talk about that and distract us all from the current weather.

I don’t think this picture was taken recently.

Ruth lives in Appleton with her husband David and their two daughters Elana, 8, and Izzy, 5 where she somehow finds the time to tend a magnificent garden.

Tell me about your background and work history.
I have followed a rather non-traditional professional course. I began my career in the “hard” sciences focusing on forest ecology, with a special interest in sustainable forestry research. I loved the outdoor field work but I didn’t take too well to sitting behind a computer for 8 months out of the year doing statistics on the data I gathered throughout the field season. I didn’t want to keep what I was learning about forests and sustainable forestry to myself, I wanted to share that learning and my passion for forests with people, especially those that depended on natural resource economies. So I made a rather sharp professional turn toward community outreach and education. I loved teaching and I soon found I was somewhat decent at it. I dove headfirst into science and environmental education, eventually teaching earth science, marine studies, field ecology, and algebra in Maine high schools for a few years. I loved the energy that high school students had, the way they turned onto topics that excited them, and the fire that started in their eyes when they realized the kind of impacts they could have in their communities. After some very positive and some not-so positive experiences as a high school teacher I was given the opportunity to take another sharp turn into the world of nonprofits. I hoped that by working in a nonprofit I could provide teachers and students with the supports and tools that they needed to teach the way that they wanted to teach and learn in ways that excited and inspired them.

And that is exactly what I worked on during my 10 years as the Education Director of the Island Institute and now in my new role as Executive Director of the Maine Math and Science Alliance. The projects that excite me most are the opportunities to work hand-in-hand with teachers, community members, and kids to leverage the amazing digital tools available to us to answer locally-relevant environmental questions, like understanding the impact of warming and more acidic waters on natural resource based-economies. In my role as executive director I have the amazing opportunity to work with world-class educators and researchers in STEM education.

Why are you passionate about kids being outside?
Great question! There are a lot of reasons, but most of all because being out in the natural world forces or maybe inspires us to wonder…to ask questions…to act like a scientist. I want to do everything I can to foster a sense of wonder in kids, because that desire to want to know more, to want to know why, will serve them in so many different ways as they enter into adulthood. In addition, getting out into the natural world gives kids the chance to take safe risks–and some not so safe risks–but it can be an opportunity for their independence and confidence to grow and test their boundaries. And of course, being outdoors is an opportunity for rejuvenation that I want to share with my children. I hope that as they get older they will always be able to step outside, take a walk no matter where they are and be able to appreciate the natural beauty in this world. When my girls and I are out for a hike in the woods, they are constantly searching for scat, or prints in the mud, or finding amazing mushrooms in places I would have never thought to look. They inspire me to keep that sense of wonder alive.

Your focus is on STEM education. Why are these skills so important and what are some of the ways that being outside can build them?
At the heart of STEM education is that sense of wonder: that drive to create, innovate, and ask really intriguing questions about the world around you. These skills are very important to future employers of our children, but more so they are skills that will enable our kids to become active and engaged citizens as they tackle “wicked” problems they encounter throughout life.

How would you like to see Maine STEM education evolve and how does the outdoors fit into that?
The state of Maine is at a really important juncture in STEM education. We know that we need to provide more opportunities to participate in STEM but we don’t have the same resources that many other states have, like science museums and the like. What we do have is an entrepreneurial spirit, inspiring places, a rich culture and history, and strong community partnerships. I hope to see these strengths leveraged to provide STEM education for our citizens in a way that highlights how STEM is around us everyday…it is not just something that you do in a lab. Lobstermen, mechanics, farmers, boat builders…they are all experts in various STEM areas not just the marine scientists or engineers. I want our state to take pride in the fact we know and do STEM every day and think about how we can use our expertise to envision a future full of new possibilities.

The outdoors provides us with the inspiration and setting to keep that sense of wonder alive and well in all of us.  Go watch the alewives run, think about how to harness the power of the ocean waves or winds blowing across the mountains, grow your own food, and countless other learning opportunities that the outdoors provides for all of us.

What is your favorite thing to do outside with your kids?
It is a toss up between gardening with them and seeing the joy in their eyes after they’ve pulled a massive carrot from the ground and taken a honking bite out of it OR getting really muddy during mud season as we tromp through the forests looking for ephemeral plants. Honestly, anything that gets us outside…together!

Thanks, Ruth! To learn more about the Maine Math and Science Alliance and their incredible work, visit their website:

In case you aren’t sick of being outside, and you aren’t discouraged by the threat of another monumental blizzard, here’s your reminder that this weekend is the Great Maine Outdoor Weekend. There are family-friendly events of all kinds happening across the state, however given the weather I strongly recommend checking in on what events are going forward before you head out the door. More information here

Happy vacation week!

Cherie Galyean

About Cherie Galyean

In a perfect world, Cherie Galyean would spend hours every day chasing her kids up hiking trails, pretending to garden, and baking things. Instead, she works full-time in the non-profit sector and fits those other things in-between loads of laundry in her free time. A Maine native with multiple hometowns, she currently lives on Mount Desert Island with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, five-year-old son, and the best shelter mutt in the world.