Hearing tales of Dan “Dirty D” Pascucci’s educational exploits is like listening to rave reviews of a good movie. The words “brilliant,” “energetic,” “thrilling,” “exciting,” “innovative” and “creative” are on repeat with educators and community members who have seen him in action teaching.
Natasha Ala, the Kenai Watershed Forum board member who masterminded Pascucci’s nomination, remembers the bearded entertainer jumping on one of the picnic tables outside of the Fred Meyer store in Soldotna where the group had an educational display set up.
“He’s got this whole crowd watching while he’s dancing around and playing this handheld piano and then he whips out his sea star costume (an enormous, sparkling purple full body suit) right in front of Fred Meyer,” she said.
Terri Carter, who has hosted Pascucci in her Soldotna Montessori School classes for 15 years, is in awe of his ability to read the mood of a room.
“Lord have mercy, he’s hilarious,” she said. “There’s no resistance and there’s no apathy. Everybody is jumping right in and utterly and completely engaged about hearing what’s next and being part of what’s happening.”
So it came as no surprise to many of them — especially the several who nominated him — when Pascucci was given an Alaska Conservation Foundation award for Excellence in Environmental Education Thursday in Anchorage.
The award, and community effort to nominate him, surprised Pascucci.
“It was definitely a group effort behind my back,” he said with a laugh.
The 34-year-old educational specialist at the Kenai Watershed Forum has built a loyal following of teachers, students and community members during the decade he has been teaching on the Kenai Peninsula, many of whom said he was an asset to outdoor education in the area.
The award is named for Seward resident Jerry S. Dixon, who career as a smokejumper, ecologist and conservationist left a lasting impression on the Kenai Peninsula, came as a surprise to Pascucci.
“He was a teacher in Seward and was just like a magical, amazing guy who got his kids connected to their environment,” he said of Dixon. “The spirit of the award is one I’m definitely happy to be related with.”
Pascucci has many monikers, “Dirty D,” “Dirty Dan,” “Mr. Dan” or “Dan the watershed man” but most of his students recognize him by the ever-present fluorescent orange Carhartt hat he wears during his travels from classroom to classroom educating students about healthy watersheds.
One of his primary programs, “Adopt-A-Stream” is a yearlong connection with students in schools all over the peninsula.
Pascucci sees each class once a month —totalling more than 7,000 school contacts last year, he said — and teaches a lesson about water quality, stream ecosystems, salmon or insects. Then the group heads down to their adopted stream where Pascucci teaches them about water quality monitoring.
“It gives the kids, not only what it takes to have healthy streams and healthy salmon populations, but it also gives them ownership in the process,” Pascucci said.
Outside of the classroom, the educator can be found performing many of the same music he weaves into his lessons with students.
“He has every kid within earshot absolutely hanging on his every word,” Carter said. “He does and says things that are humorous and over their heads so the adults in the room are busting up because he is hilarious.”
For community members who have not seen Pascucci perform at festivals, graduations, or open mics, many also know him from his local public radio show “Musicology” or when he volunteers with local theater.
“When a kid sees you building sets for the local theater and sees you supporting art, that can also be a lesson on the importance of citizenship and participation,” Pascucci said. “They see that (I’m) not just a guy who spends all of (my) time worrying about healthy fish (I’m) also actively participating in the community which is a wonderful community and I love seeing it celebrated.”
For Carter, whose classrooms have greatly benefited from Pascucci’s talent at entertaining with information she said, Pascucci is irreplaceable.
“We would be hard-pressed to find someone with his ability,” she said. “I know that there’s not some kind of “The Voice” or “America’s Got Talent” for environmental educators, but if there was he would win. We could search the world over and never find someone of equal caliber and ability.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org