New education director embodies exploration

The Discovery Center’s new director of education believes you aren’t exploring unless you get your hands dirty.

Jessica Burke3
Jessica Burke works with a young Discovery Center visitor Wednesday afternoon in Boise. Photo by Andrew Reed / Idaho Education News.

Jessica Burke, who started her new position last week at the Boise hands-on science center, has been attracted to science, outdoors and teaching since she was a girl.

Raised in Michigan, Burke has worked in science and outdoors-related jobs from East to West.

She most recently worked in Richmond, Va., at the nonprofit James River Association, helping create a new environmental learning center on an island. Prior to that, she live in Winnemucca, Nev., and worked at the Nevada Outdoor School offering science instruction and field programming to supplement students’ science experiences in school.

“I grew up (with) most of my summer spent out on the water, outside exploring, digging in the dirt — those types of experiences really shaped me to be who I am and have the passion in what I do, which is in exploration, which is in science and sharing that with others,” Burke said.

Outside of work, expect to find Burke, backpack strapped across her shoulder blades, trekking through the wilderness with friends. This summer, she completed the John Muir Trail after hiking more about 260 miles through the Sierra Nevada mountains with a friend. Burke started the trek in 2011 and broke it into four segments, attacking it in seven- or eight-day stretches until she completed the trail by reaching the summit of Mt. Whitney — the highest point of elevation in the 48 contiguous United States — in July.

Year Four, forrester pass
Jessica Burke, along the final segments of the John Muir Trail. Photo courtesy of Jessica Burke.

“It was such sense of accomplishment to take on a challenge and be able to stick with it and follow it through to the end,” Burke said. “At the end of it the question was ‘What’s next?’ So we’re still trying to decide that, and there may be more adventures to come.”

If Burke gets her wish, that next adventure may take the form of a paddling expedition. In addition to hiking the John Muir Trail this summer, Burke also got married. Her favorite wedding present ended up being a tandem canoe, and she can’t wait to take it out to explore Idaho’s waterways.

As for her day job, Burke is interested in using the center to supplement the science instruction students receive in schools.

“What attracted me to the job at Discovery Center was that it is all about hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “That’s what is most impactful and powerful for kids. There is an opportunity to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and math for students, and you get kids asking why things work the way they do and they inquire about how they can be a part of this field later on in life.”

Friend - Jen Stockton
Jen Stockton, Stockton’s dog, Aspen, and Burke during their second year hiking the John Muir Trail. Photo courtesy of Jessica Burke.

Citing budget concerns and outdated textbooks, Burke believes Discovery Center’s staff and volunteers can find new ways to engage students through field trips and outreach programs, where they bring Discovery Center programs directly to Idaho schools.

“There is a huge need for science, technology, engineering and math in our country and in Idaho as well,” Burke said. “That’s something we are here to address. We can be a resource to teachers and we can be a resource to families to help bridge the gap as far as STEM education in Idaho.”

Fellowships available for public school teachers

The Discovery Center has partnered up with Boise State University and the Boise State Writing Project to offer fellowships to elementary and middle school/ junior high teachers wishing to improve science and literacy instruction. Up to $1,000 per fellowship will be available for stipends, materials budgets, travel and field trip credits.

Teachers interested in applying for the fellowship may email Burke to request an application.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News journalists are employees of Boise State University.