The Evergreen State College is known for its unique approach to education. For years, Evergreen has emphasized the importance of fluidity in learning, which is why the school has been hesitant to adopt a more traditional structure. Recently, however, Evergreen has implemented the Paths of Study option to help students reach certain academic and career goals by offering coordinated curriculum each year in particular topic areas. The Environmental Studies path, for example, is built for students looking to break into science industries by taking more structured coursework in topics like biology and chemistry, followed by focused programs like the Fungal Kingdom. The faculty at Evergreen are passionate about offering original programs like this one, even as they move toward a more structured curriculum going forward.

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Student Michael Zirpoli prepares several beds at Evergreen’s Organic Farm for an experiment in morel agriculture. Zirpoli is working with faculty Paul Przybylowicz on the project. Photo courtesy: The Evergreen State College

Larry Geri, dean at Evergreen, says that for many years they have existed in “The era of the no’s” with no majors and no grades. Instead, students could craft their own degree program and were graded through narrative evaluations. This worked for some, but many found it challenging to utilize. “Students had a hard time navigating our curriculum,” Larry says. “They needed clearer indicators to end up with the experience they wanted.” When students shared these concerns, the faculty listened and began looking for ways to bring more guidance to their students.

While a classic university model was too structured for Evergreen, the faculty decided to work together to create their own version of a more traditional degree program. After much collaboration and development, the Paths of Study option was introduced two years ago and has been an excellent way to navigate the curriculum by student interest. Students can now choose from one of 11 different paths to achieve their personal goals. “We offer introductory, intermediate, and advanced programs in each path,” Larry shares. “So, by the time they are a senior they can really do some advanced work in whatever area they are interested in.”  And students still have the option of creating their own degree program through weaving together programs and classes in the college’s eleven Paths and 65 different fields of study.

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Student Karina Prendes used Dyer’s Polypore mushrooms to color these socks for the dye workshop. The scientific name for this mushroom is Phaeolus schweinitzii. Photo credit: Karina Prendes

Seniors and juniors in the Environmental Studies path have the option of taking the Fungal Kingdom program as one of their upper-division courses. The course is made up of 2, 10-week quarters, and involves lab work, field trips, and independent projects. Lalita Calabria and Paul Przybylowicz are the faculty for the program, and they coordinate the entire syllabus and curriculum together. “As faculty, we have the freedom to teach whatever we like,” Paul shares. This gives the two professors an amazing opportunity to introduce ideas and incorporate activities that likely wouldn’t be found at a standard university. In fact, the Fungal Kingdom program is so specialized that people from all over come to Washington just to take it.

Students in the program are exposed to a wide range of concepts and techniques when it comes to the world of fungi. During the program, students get hands-on time in the lab and spend one full quarter working on a collection project to identify different species. Additionally, the entire class goes on two week-long trips to spend time foraging and learning how to identify different mushrooms and lichens. “It is a very intensive exposure to identification,” Lalita says. “Students learn to take proper field notes and learn about the ecology of the forests.” The taxonomy system that the faculty teaches allows students to learn how to identify not just mushrooms but organisms as a whole, which can be applied in a number of scientific fields post-graduation. “Many of our students have gone on to work in government agencies, like the USDA Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Ecology,” Paul says. “Four of our students from the program even started their own surveying company.”

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Lauren Re with the Mycocollective student group examined a tiny red mushroom found during a springtime mushroom hunt in the Evergreen woods. Photo courtesy: The Evergreen State College

The options are endless with a program like Fungal Kingdom, and student Lauren Ré is hoping to see similar success for herself upon completion of her degree.

Lauren moved from New York in 2017 to begin working toward the Fungal Kingdom program. Upon starting at Evergreen, she formed a mycology club with a few other students to keep learning about the field. “We wanted to create a comfortable learning environment where we could utilize the woods on campus and learn together,” Lauren says. The club really took off and brought students at a variety of experience levels together. A few years later, Lauren moved into her senior year and started the Fungal Kingdom program in fall 2020. Although the pandemic has prevented any in-person classes or trips, Lauren has still been able to develop new skills and connections. “I feel like I have my own little community,” Lauren shares. “We have still had lots to dig into and the coursework kept my curiosity going.”

The faculty worked hard to develop weekly field assignments and home projects for the students to get outside in the forests and parks near to them. This included a mushroom growing kit and a dye kit, both of which allowed the students to continue practicing new techniques while safely social distancing. They then reconvened during synchronous Zoom sessions to support their studies, which helped Lauren continue to improve in her identification abilities and lab work. Despite the minimized hands-on training, Lauren has been extremely pleased with the program and is eager to continue her studies virtually next quarter.

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A student in the Evergreen program Fungal Kingdom works with a mushroom for the final exam. Students were asked to identify and classify 40 specimens of mushrooms and lichen for the exam. Photo courtesy: The Evergreen State College

The sense of community, original curriculums, and intimate class size truly make Evergreen’s programs unique. The faculty brings a fresh approach to many interesting topics, like fungi, and they make it a priority to expose students to skills that can be applied anywhere. With committed staff and the newly crafted path options, students can trust that even in challenging times they will always have the support and guidance they need to be successful. To learn more, talk to The Evergreen State College admissions team and see how Evergreen can help you achieve your academic and career goals.

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