ECO Institute 2023: Natural History Fundamentals for Educators


Instructors: Ken Benton & Guests
July 24th - July 28th | $1300
($1750 with 3 graduate credits)
Class Size: 12-20 students
See below for financial support info



he purpose of this course is to deepen our understanding of the natural landscape and learn how to utilize this knowledge to build a partnership with the land that meets the needs of all students.  Participants will develop a foundation of natural history knowledge through immersive study of bird language, tree and plant identification, wild edible safety, geology, and stream ecology.  We will practice techniques for achieving a deeper level of inquiry and observation in nature while learning hands-on methods for embedding this knowledge into outdoor lessons and making classroom connections.  The routines that we build throughout the week are designed to deepen your class’s sense of place within the outdoor learning environment.

During this course, we experience a week-long rhythm of place-based curriculum within which is the daily rhythm of the core routines and deep observation practices. This daily rhythm mirrors the experience of elementary students during a typical day of ECO (Educating Children Outdoors). Participants will close the week envisioning integration of these methods and practices into their student’s experience. All lessons given to participants to use in their own classroom will be aligned to Vermont State Standards, Common Core and NGSS when applicable. Curriculum meets elementary standards-based objectives when lessons and units are practiced outdoors.

Course Goals 

  • Build a framework for viewing the land and its inhabitants that relieves the discomfort of not knowing how to identify everything.
  • Become familiar with common birds and their song, basic tree and plant identification, wild edible safety, local geology, and stream ecology.
  • Practice seasonal lessons and routines that deepen a partnership with the land and align with NGSS and Common Core.
  • Help bridge the gap between learning that takes place outdoors and in the classroom.

Course Objectives

  • Practice observational techniques that utilize multiple senses while examining species of plants and animals
  • Identify avenues for place-based scientific inquiry and Community Science in the classroom
  • Practice designing a style of lesson that places members of the natural community (plants, animals, & minerals) in the role of teaching partner and collaborator
  • Reinforce and build upon the practice of conducting site assessments and following safety protocols
  • Provide time for collaboration among participants in creating a project/program of their own

About the Instructor(s)

Ken Benton is the North Branch Nature Center (NBNC) Director of Education and has been with NBNC for over 10 years. Other members of NBNC’s highly skilled staff will join us throughout the week.

North Branch Nature Center is a nationally recognized leader in nature-based education for children and adults. Our place-based and inquiry-based philosophy recognizes nature as our most dynamic, enriching, rigorous, and inclusive classroom. Healthy, inspired learning and development depends on immersive, curiosity-driven nature exploration, cultivated by expert teaching and mentorship. From our acclaimed Forest Preschool and Educating Children Outdoors (ECO) flagship programs, to our summer camps, community workshops, and professional institutes, NBNC offers a lifetime of learning and growth through deepened connections with the environment.

Recommended Texts

  • Maine Forest Service. Forest Trees of Maine
  • Thompson, Elizabeth H, Sorenson, Eric R, & Zaino, Robert J. Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to Natural Communities of Vermont
  • Thayer, Samuel. The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants
  • Young, Jon. What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac
  • Basso, Keith H. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Lodging & Meals

Meals and beverages will not be provided. We ask that you please bring your own lunch and snacks. There are many hotels and AirBnB options within 20 minutes of North Branch Nature Center. Camping onsite at NBNC is available by permission.


Course runs Monday-Friday from roughly 8 am until 4 pm each day. Exact timing will be communicated as the course approaches. The course will be located at North Branch Nature Center.

Academic Credit / Professional Development Options

This course qualifies for 3 graduate-level education or science credits for an additional $450 course fee. Course is accredited by Castleton University.

For students transferring credit to another institution, it is each student’s responsibility to ensure that their home institution will accept the credit.

Participants pursuing academic credit will be required to complete a final project additional assignment focused on curriculum development. The final day of the course will include time for beginning this project.

All participants qualify for 40 hours of professional development hours and continuing education units. Certificates of completion are provided at the conclusion of the course.

Cancellation Policy

While we realize that unexpected circumstances arise that are out of our control, North Branch Nature Center cannot guarantee refunds for registrations cancelled within 30 days of the course.  If a cancellation occurs within this window, NBNC will, if possible, attempt to fill the space from our wait list and provide a full refund.

School Purchase Orders

It is the participant’s responsibility to submit a purchase order request to their school immediately upon registration, and to provide a purchase order number and invoicing contact information to NBNC in a timely manner. Participants must have either provided NBNC a purchase order number, or made arrangements to do so, within 14 days of registration.

Financial Aid

Vermont residents are encouraged to apply for a VSAC Advancement Grant. Please contact us ([email protected]) to inquire about other financial aid options.

North Branch Nature Center

713 Elm Street
Montpelier, Vermont 05602
(802) 229-6206

Hours: Center Open Monday-Friday 9-4
Trails Open 24/7