An educator, firefighter and avid outdoorsmen, Jordan Duncan constantly looks for ways to connect his different worlds.
“I like to give my administrators headaches,” said Duncan, a third-grade teacher at Orin Smith Elementary. “Keep them up at night like, ‘Oh, what’s he going to think of next?’”
Fire crews at the school. Field trips to nearby forests. Classroom weather stations. Outdoor journaling and reading lessons. And dreams of bringing his students to the beach to study microplastics.
“Jordan has a great passion for the outdoors in his personal life and brings it into the classroom anytime he can,” said Cori Jo Duncan, Jordan’s wife and a fourth-grade teacher at Orin Smith.
A teacher for a decade, Jordan Duncan has spent the last four years at Orin Smith brainstorming ways to bring school to life. The real-world curriculum, he said, increases student engagement while decreasing behavioral issues.
“I appreciate that he’s willing to expand out and bring more people on board because we’re here for kids,” said Principal Rachel Dorsey. “So, how do we give as many kids as possible those relevant experiences that they’re going to talk about for years?”
Next week, Duncan will receive the FieldSTEM Teacher of the Year Award from the Pacific Education Institute (PEI). The statewide organization provides resources to educators to engage in outdoor-based learning in a learning framework called FieldSTEM.
The award recognizes and celebrates a teacher who excels in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
“One of their biggest pushes as an organization is to get kids outside. Jordan used his passion and knowledge about the outdoors and fire science to meld with PEI's fire science unit, and was able to work with (the Department of Natural Resources) to come to the school for an amazing field day experience for all the third graders,” Cori Jo Duncan said.
It’s an award email Duncan initially misread, believing the multiple lines signified a list of teachers who would receive the recognition. It was only later he realized he was the only teacher receiving recognition, with other awards set to recognize the school and district of the year.
Humble about the accomplishment, Duncan credits his fellow teachers.
“There are so many great teachers here, at other schools around the state,” Duncan said. “There are brilliant and phenomenal teachers out there. In this school, I can think of half of the staff I’d put higher than me.”
Jordan credits Cori Jo for her help in the classroom, often acting as a sounding board and resource.
“She’s actually a bigger science buff than I am,” he said. “So all of the ideas and stuff, I ran it by her, and she was the one who was like, ‘yeah, you should do that.’”
Cori Jo says her husband’s passion for his students has long been apparent. In an email, she recalled when the pair met while teaching in a remote school district in Alaska.
“One of his first conversations with our principal was about the school greenhouse and what it would take to get it up and running,” she said.
Jordan’s work to increase educational opportunities
Duncan started doing after-school training last year through PEI to learn ways to incorporate more outdoor education into his classroom.
He’s received an outdoor backpack full of experiment supplies through a donation. A grant gave Duncan the funds to buy LEGO Education BricQ sets.
“I love camping, mountain biking, hiking and snowmobiling. Anything that’s outside, that’s usually when I’m the most happy,” Duncan said. “And I’ve noticed, over the last couple of years, my kids have been really happy when they do stuff outside, too.”
With so many different ideas, Duncan can tell when a lesson clicks.
“Everyone once in a while I’ll be in here and be like ‘light bulb,’” Duncan said, in the voice of the character Gru from the Despicable Me movie. “We also call it a kick ourselves in the pants moment, and they’re like, ‘Ohhhhh, that makes sense.’”
As Dorsey can attest, an idea from Duncan often grows in scale and sprawls into mini-lessons for the students.
“We have such an emphasis on teaching to the edges in relevance,” she said. “And this really allows it to come to life for the kids.”
A visit from DNR
Last school year, Duncan thought of a month-long lesson on the increased number and intensity of wildfires in the state, something particularly relevant for him.
“I work as a wildfire fighter in the summer, so I’m pretty passionate about that,” he said of the role he’s worked in since 2016.
“It is the perfect job for him. He gets to spend time outside and implement the strategy side of his brain as he works out the best way to attack a fire,” Cori Jo said.
A paraeducator at Orin Smith connected Duncan with her husband, a district manager for the DNR, and he pitched the idea of bringing a collection of trucks to the school. DNR agreed instantly.
“I was like, ‘Really?’” Duncan said, recalling the conversation. “He was like, ‘Yeah, you guys want a helicopter?’”
The helicopter was ultimately scuttled when it was needed for a fire, though school staff scouted campus locations where it could have landed.
“That was exciting, too, to have the support from the district, to try and find ways to try and bring everything in,” Dorsey said. “The relevance was off the charts because it wasn’t just a story that they read. They got to experience it in so many ways.”
The DNR brought trucks, gear, firefighters and other resources for the entire school to see during the visit.
“I guarantee you that in five years, I’m going to be like, ‘What do you remember from third grade?’ And they’re going to be like, ‘I remember when I had to put that 60-pound pack on and walk around with it,’” Duncan said. “They only had to walk 20 feet back and forth, and I’m like, ‘yeah, if you want to be a firefighter, you’ve got to do 3 miles in 45 miles, with that same pack on.’”
The visit was initially meant for 60 students at the school but quickly expanded to include the fourth and fifth grades.
“It was a really big deal when the DNR came,” Dorsey said. “They brought their trucks. They had all kinds of equipment that they brought. They talked about their careers, too. So there were so many things that came in with that.”
The lesson had other messages, too.
“(The kids) got to the end and kind of realized ‘Washington is a timber industry, how do we make more money as a state? We grow more timber. Well, how do we grow more timber? We have to plant more trees?’” Duncan said.
The cycle leads to an overly abundant forest and increased wildfire danger.
“We got to study the effects of our trees and our habitat, our climate, and all of that stuff,” he said.
The lesson showed students how the climate in the region has changed over time. Roughly 20,000 years ago, Orin Smith’s campus would have been covered by a mile-high glacier, while 10,000 years ago, the area more resembled regions east of the Cascades.
Duncan brings his experience as a firefighter with DNR in the summer into the classroom, telling firsthand accounts of the increased number of wildfires the country has experienced in recent years.
“It’s fun for them to hear those stories, but then it comes back to, ‘so what happens if this keeps on happening?’” Duncan said. “Some of you are going to great jobs in 10 years, being a firefighter or figuring out, as a scientist, how you’re going to be fixing this problem. But it is a real-life problem.”
Looking toward the future
Duncan’s former students at Orin Smith aren’t yet old enough to join the workforce, but after previously teaching science and math at Chehalis Middle School, he’s met one on the firelines.
“He showed up this year and was like, ‘Wait, Mr. Duncan?” Duncan said. “And I was like ‘woah, woah, woah, woah. That’s my work name. Here, I’m Jordan.”
With no shortage of ideas or funding sources to pay for them, Duncan sees a bright future for outdoor education.
Duncan pointed out that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has committed $3.7 million in funding targeted toward outdoor learning funding. A spokesperson for OSPI said the grant program was established by the Legislature in 2022 and that OSPI will partner with the Washington state Recreation and Conservation Office to distribute the funds in the coming years.
The work and funds, he said, are essential to prepare the next generation.
“Education is always going to have to change, right? And our thinking shouldn’t be that we’re just delivering something that we repeat it, regurgitate it, give it back to them,” Duncan said. “So it has to change.”