Harlan was born and raised near Fishtrap Creek in Lynden, Washington. Following his high school graduation, he attended Calvin College, a liberal arts college located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he graduated in 1961. Later, Harlan earned his master’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Harlan taught science in Hudsonville, Michigan from 1962 to 1972. In 1973, he returned to Whatcom County in Washington and accepted a position as a biology teacher at Lynden Christian High School in Bellingham. In the classroom, Harlan fosters an investigative approach to curriculum, and emphasizes leadership and fish and wildlife conservation. “My goal each year is to challenge every class with a special project, which, due to their effort, becomes something they own—that is the ‘hook’ I use to engage them. It also becomes a means of giving something back to the community, both now and in the future,” Harlan once expounded. “Using the outdoors as a major part of my teaching focus blends with the interests of the students, is real science, and the excitement of the students has validated that approach.” Harlan has organized his students in a salmon restoration project, a tree planting project, and a litter disposal campaign in his home town.
In addition to teaching, Harlan spends his summers as a ranger naturalist and wildfire fighter at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and he has also served the National Park Service as a photographer. Furthermore, Harlan educates fellow teachers at the American Wilderness Leadership School in Jackson, Wyoming.
Harlan has been recognized with over twenty-five awards and honors for his work as an educator and as a in conservation ecologist, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and the National Conservation Teacher of the Year in 2004. In 2005, he received a Walt Disney Company Teacher Award. Additionally, Harlan has been inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame.