TOPOnexus: Bringing Back Wonder and Whoa!


By Molly Ames Baker

As we come together for Earth Day 2021 and rally around this year’s theme, Restore Our Earth™, we see big work ahead of us. Global restoration requires rolling up our sleeves. We need to dial down our innovative thinking, strategize across systems, and collaborate more creatively than ever before. We need to create collective impact, everywhere, and without becoming exhausted from our efforts.

So, as we rise to Restore Our Earth™, let us consider a parallel need – Restore Ourselves.

Self-restoration can take many forms but reconnecting with what is right outside our door is perhaps most relevant. Slowing down to re-see the everyday landscapes in our every day lives may be the most restorative thing we can do right now.

Let’s re-open ourselves to wonder.

What is TOPOnexus?

In Harbor Springs, Michigan a small group of educators is doing something differently. This group is called TOPOnexus, and the name directly translates to the mission – connecting people to place.

Last May TOPOnexus got a classroom – aka Basecamp – so they are better able to design and deliver their brand of place-based education with learners of all ages from PreK to seniors. Although Basecamp itself is small, its reach is wide-ranging from public school students nearby to educators statewide to National Park Service preservationists across the country. TOPOnexus is a think-and-do tank with a clear direction and is in the process of getting nonprofit status.

The TOPOnexus way of learning is based on adventuring but not with a capital “A”. Instead of going afar, the focus is on the local, wherever you are. The founder, Molly Ames Baker, formerly ran the outdoor education program at Colgate University. This co-curricular training for student leaders was based primarily in technical skills, but Baker redesigned its focus to center on developing a sense of place. This heartset is also at the core of TOPOnexus.

Backyard Adventures (BYA) is the core programming of TOPOnexus that connects people to place. The premise of BYA is simple – get people out the door to explore. BYAs are all about building local literacy. Learners go questing with a field guide and map, and the community becomes their classroom – from an acorn by an oak tree to an empty parking lot to city hall. The content crosses all community sectors including history, environment, economy, government, arts and more. A specific route may be followed but never a scripted outcome. The act of discovering is left to the learners.

TOPOnexus is committed to bringing back wonder and whoa.

Just a stone’s throw from Basecamp is Lake Michigan, so learners doing “All Around Town” navigate themselves to the shoreline. Just standing there leads to some big wonderings about “the big lake” – How deep is the bay? Who were the first people to travel these waters? Where are the fish? What’s that green stuff? And why is erosion happening right here?

Team TOPO has found that simply giving learners permission to slow down and soak up their place can be transformative. Something as simple as “60 seconds of silence” or a “spinerette” to take in one’s surroundings is often enough to elicit wonder. Even better is a “take 5” before rushing off or finding a “sit spot” for a solo.

To clarify, wonder is used in direct reference to the concept presented by Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder. Carson, a prominent scientist and founder of the environmental movement, also advocated simple acts of discovery and tapping our inborn sense of wonder.

For most learners, with wonder comes whoa! – something especially striking that makes one stop and take pause. When consistent opportunities are provided for this combo of wonder and whoa, learners start making discoveries on their own, and more importantly, asking their own questions. TOPOnexus coins this shift in learning as “getting on the arc”.  And “on the arc” is where learning gets better.

That first step – engaged awareness – is critical to create a springboard for deeper learning. Last summer families with three generations were making discoveries together about places they had seen hundreds of times before. Learners began looking at their community with new eyes and seeing things from a new perspective. Since summer Backyard Adventures has iterated into multiple formats including a TOPOmapping curriculum that sends high school students using GIS software into their neighborhoods to do paper mapping and a partnership with the public library to extend story hour with a Story Adventure.

Team TOPO is redefining what learning looks like with the TOPO Arc of Action, a simple but profound visual that illustrates the learner’s journey from awareness to action. Backyard Adventures allow learners to gain awareness and activate their wonder. From there, learners identify their Aha – what strikes them most. This act of ownership creates agency, an essential precursor to action.

The Arc is a mindshift from linear approaches because it is dynamic, emergent and allows for learners to map their own path.

Have you ever seen someone skipping stones across water? Then you know physics are at play with the arm throw, angle, gravity and lift force. But there is something beyond physics going on when a stone becomes self-skipping – synergy. What happens when learners are on the arc? Keep that arcing trajectory front of mind!

This blog is part one of a three-part series. In the next blog we will explore more deeply how the TOPO Arc of Action supports learners to become catalysts in their own communities.

For more, see:

Molly Ames Baker is Founder and Director of Learning at TOPOnexus. Connect with her via email: [email protected].  To discover more about the TOPO way of learning, explore at

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