Jeff Norris began to get bombarded with college recruitment materials during his junior year in high school. His longtime interest in zoology moved the Jacksonville, Illinois native close to several liberal arts colleges including Ohio Wesleyan. Then, says Norris, OWU shot to the top of the list. Both of his parents also liked OWU (“an important criterion of my mom’s was that my college of choice be no more than eight driving hours away,” says Norris) and upon dropping their son off on the “big day,” happened to be at a campus gathering, where they met zoology professor/ornithology expert, Jed Burtt. The younger Norris was then invited to attend the zoology department’s weekly 4 p.m. science seminar including other students and professors, and in those few serendipitous moments, Norris knew he was at the right university.
“I was interested in all aspects of zoology, but at that time I was particularly fond of reptiles,” says Norris, admitting to the occasional tropical reptile he kept in his dorm room. Burtt, who remains Norris’s friend and mentor to this day, offered an island biology course including a field trip to the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica—a life-changing learning experience for the future environmentalist/teacher/ornithologist now living in Costa Rica. Combining those interests meant, for Norris, picking up a few education courses in tandem with his zoology classes while in college. After graduating in 1994, he knew he wanted to teach in another country, and began looking for teaching jobs. After sending out a good number of applications, Norris finally heard from a private high school in Costa Rica that offered him a job teaching biology, and by August 1994, Norris was living and working there. His interest in animals and reptiles continued, but realizing there are more species of birds in Costa Rica than anywhere in North America, Norris’s interest in ornithology rapidly increased—so much so, that he eventually earned a Ph.D. in ornithology last year from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. It became clear while doing the necessary field work for his studies, that Norris would have to find a way to fund this research. He used some prior experience he had as a tour guide in Costa Rica combined with his research and love for Costa Rica, to found Natural Solutions, a company dedicated to environmental education and ecotourism. “It was a light-bulb moment,” Norris says. He organizes tours, special events, and other educational opportunities for those who want to learn more about Costa Rica and to “reconnect with nature”. The first group to sign up was, in fact, an alumni group from OWU, in 2008.
A company of one employee, Natural Solutions is a fusion of Norris’s training and expertise as an educator (along the way he picked up a M.Ed. from Framingham State University) with his experiences in tourism and conservation research.
“I was able to do my dissertation field work while showing people coming to us from cities, what is so special about Costa Rica, and why it is so important to maintain personal connections with nature,” says Norris. Though still a teacher, he now works at United World College, teaching biology to students from all over the world. The 169 students come from 68 different countries and speak over 30 languages. The message, however, is the same when Norris talks to his students about conservation.
“We need to save the species on our planet,” he says, pointing out the losses due to urban cover. “It comes down to land-use regulation and where you choose to build. You always want to save the biggest chunks of the natural landscape.” Norris currently is developing guidelines for urban development based on birds and how they are affected by urban development. “That way, I can develop a predictive framework for the Neotropics.” During a recent survey with over 300 fifth and sixth graders, Norris noted that 95 percent knew the national bird. But less than 40 percent could identify the same species from its picture.
“Conservation is as much a problem of education as it is of buying up the land,” says Norris.