Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Courtney Long

Courtney Long has completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. Courtney most recently served as the Interpretation and Education Manager for the Cradle of Forestry in America Heritage Site. 

Long led field trips, planned activities for special event days and provided day to day support of the site. When working at the Cradle of Forestry, she started The Science Camel, a citizen science consulting and program planning initiative. 

Long says the community partnership project was her favorite part of earning the certification. Her project was a Pink Beds BioBlitz in Pisgah National Forest. The event brings naturalists, forest scientists and other community members together to begin cataloging the biodiversity of the Pink Beds Valley. 

“Although a BioBlitz is a great way to capture a species count, my goal was to encourage participants to take a closer look at the forest and germinate that seed for respect and passion for the outdoors. It opened my eyes to the world of citizen science as a tool to connecting people with natural environments,” says Long. 

The 36-hour event began with fourth-grade students from a nearby charter school. She says the fourth-grade focus was an effort to support the "Every Kid in a Park" initiative of the United States Forest Service (USFS) which encourages fourth graders to visit federal lands and waters. Students and chaperones participated in activities that emphasized NC’s standard course of study as well as a one-hour BioBlitz guided by environmental educators and volunteers. 

For the remainder of the event, approximately 50 volunteers and USFS employees led group walks of various topics, welcomed visitors and manned identification booths. The event provided an opportunity for Forest Service employees and the community to connect and for participants to learn and observe the methods forest scientists use to collect species data. 

Does Long think that participating in the certification program led to changes in her approach to teaching? Long says, “At one point, somebody emphasized that each of us are inputting EE values into a stream. That we cannot each fully impact a student or person but collectively we can. This offered a sense of community and altered my approach to teaching others in focusing on the small steps to acquiring environmental literacy, rather than rushing to the big picture.”

For more information about the Cradle of Forestry, visit their website. Visit the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs' website to learn more about the NC Environmental Education Certification. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Secretary Regan Recognizes Educator for Work Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health

Secretary Michael Regan joined a group of educators last week to award Jenna Hartley her N.C. Environmental Education Certificate. Hartley was at the Department of Environmental Quality’s Green Square Building to facilitate an EPA EnviroAtlas workshop for 25 educators from across the state.

Hartley--an ASPPH (Association of Schools and Programs for Public Health) Environmental Health Fellow hosted by the U.S. Protection Agency Office of Research and Development--was at Green Square facilitating a day-long EnviroAtlas educator workshop in partnership with DEQ’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs.

The recognition by Regan during the training was especially fitting as Hartley developed the EnviroAtlas workshop as part of earning her DEQ Environmental Education Certification.

For her fellowship at EPA, Hartley translated high-level EPA science into fun, easy-to-use K-12 educational resources, lesson plans and materials. Her N.C. Environmental Education Certification project was to design, orchestrate, and then run an educators' workshop based on the EnviroAtlas educational materials that she developed.

“The workshop is six hours long and teachers leave the workshop with access to hands-on activities that all involve a portion using technology and a portion outside in nature,” says Hartley. The workshop was also held earlier in the month at the EPA campus at Research Triangle Park, and will serve as a model for future workshops.

“We appreciate Jenna for her work taking EPA science and creating K-12 educational resources that help teachers make critical connections for their students between ecosystems and health,” said Regan.

Hartley says participating in the certification program changed her approach to teaching others.

“At every workshop that I attended, I took notes on what I considered to be ‘Best Practices.’ I then used those best practices to build my own workshop, so the programs for the certification directly fed into my teaching and my work.”

Hartley’s ASPPH fellowship at EPA concludes in August. From there, she will begin a PhD program in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University, working specifically on environmental education research. She credits the DEQ Environmental Education Certification Program with changing her career path. “This program has obviously made me a better teacher, but it has also empowered me to feel like I can make other teachers more confident about using the freely-available, high-tech EPA tools in their classroom. That has been indescribably rewarding.”

Hartley was pursuing Spanish and soccer in college when a chance trip to help a roommate sample invasive species along the banks of the Colorado River resulted in her changing her major to geology and later getting a Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering.

She credits that one outdoor experience with changing her life. Now in her role as an environmental educator, she encourages other educators to provide those pivotal hands-on environmental experiences for their students.

“Keep creating tangible, awe-inspiring moments of environmental education that might change the lives of kids that look back fondly fifteen-plus years later and can remember the exact environmental education moment that changed the entire course of their lives.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Educator Spotlight: April Boggs

April Boggs, a graduate research assistant at North Carolina State University, recently completed her N.C. Environmental Education Certification. She is currently working on her master’s degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. Her hobbies include reading, hunting, kayaking, fishing and hiking. Participating in this program has helped her as a research assistant and in her everyday life.

 “Through the environmental education certification program, I learned that I need to be more conscious of how I teach others,” said Boggs. The program opened her eyes to see that there was more to learn about environmental education.

Boggs mentioned that as a biology research assistant, she tended to only focus on the facts. Being in the Environmental Education Certificate program made her realize that you shouldn’t solely focus on facts that are already known, but you should also have an open mind by promoting ideas and exploring.

“The certification experience that stood out for me was the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education workshop, as it brought up points about environmental education that I hadn't really considered.” The program is full of workshops and projects designed to increase environmental literacy as well as provide practice in environmental education teaching methods to all educators. Boggs also noted that receiving her certificate helped her to change her perspective on environmental education and showed we need to promote more critical thinking to solve issues.

“My community partnership project was to set up bird houses at the elementary school I attended as a child. As part of the project I also taught a lesson about birds, helped the students build pine cone bird feeders and provided bird watching and lesson supplies to third grade teachers for their classroom,” said Boggs. “My hope is that it helped instill curiosity about the birds and environment in the third graders I worked with and provided a resource for future classes.”

Bogg's experience shows that the program encourages a fun learning environment for both the educators receiving the certificate and the students who participate. “My favorite part of earning my certification was working with the students during my community project. It was great building the pine cone bird feeders with them and seeing how interested they were in birds.”

The environmental education certification program enhances the ability of all educators and organizations to provide beneficial programs and resources, helping local communities while educating students about their environment. Educating North Carolinians on how to preserve our resources is an important step to investing in the future of North Carolina’s environment.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Renee Pagoota-Wight

Renee Pagoota-Wight, a kindergarten teacher at Sherrills Ford Elementary in Catawba County recently completed the Department of Environmental Quality’s N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program. Renee has worked in education for 23 years and has a passion for marine life, specifically coral reefs.

Renee holds a Master’s degree in Classroom and Clinical Reading for K-12 and her teaching style focuses on education through experience. “My favorite part of teaching is instilling a love of learning to read and learning through play.” When she is not teaching, Renee enjoys photography and traveling.

Renee says her most memorable experience of the program was visiting Yellowstone National Park as part of a N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences Educators of Excellence Institute. She also says that attending a workshop in Wilmington was a notable part of the certification process.  “I thoroughly enjoyed the Methods of Environmental Education which I participated in at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington. It was a real eye opener as to the number of non-formal educators that seek Environmental education certification alongside formal educators. It was a fun class!”

In addition to gaining hands-on experience in nature and making new connections with formal and non-formal environmental educators, Renee utilized the certification program to construct an outdoor classroom at Sherrills Ford Elementary. As her community partnership project she led a community group to design and build a short trail and an outdoor classroom called the “Nature Nook.” The outdoor classroom was recently featured in a story by the Hickory Record. 

 Renee also credits the program with enhancing her ability to teach students about natural science and helping her narrow down her post-retirement career. “I feel confident in taking groups outside and starting with a simple concept like using our senses to discover. We Skyped a scientist this year and he explained that observation is one of the most basic, yet important skills in scientific discovery. I feel that in the future when I retire as a formal North Carolina educator I will seek opportunities to teach outdoors or in natural spaces.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Educator Spotlight: John Caveny

John Caveny recently completed the N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program. John works as the Natural Resource Management Specialist for Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation in Linville, NC.

His major job duties as the Natural Resource Management Specialist consist of managing and overseeing the natural resources through the park, patrolling and maintaining the trail system and providing environmental education and interpretive programs to guests of the park. When John is not working the park, he enjoys fly fishing, hiking, and experiencing nature with his two small children.
John says his favorite part of receiving his certification was “traveling all across the State of NC [to] explore different parks and connect with environmental educators from all backgrounds.”

An experience that stands out to John was attending Project Aquatic WILD at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education. There he went electroshocking in the Davidson River and pulled out a lamprey.

John’s community partnership project was developing a new interpretive sign display along the Woods Walk Trail on Grandfather Mountain. He partnered with the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and Appalachian State University Trail Crew. The project “will provide the visitors to the park a chance to explore nature in the park that was previously unavailable to them,” says John.

Due to the certification, John has gained a large range of knowledge and materials to help visitors connect to nature in a deeper way. He has also been able to meet an extensive community of partners to provide him assistance. Before the program, John was a little hesitant with how people would receive information about environmental issues. He says, “Many people have vastly different views on the issues at hand. I learned that you just need to provide them with the facts and scientific data to back up the facts, while presenting it in a way that can be applied to their daily lives.”

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Amy Long

Amy Long, an instructor at University of North Carolina at Wilmington, recently received her certificate for completing the N.C. Environmental Education Program. Because of this program, Amy says she was able to attend many workshops, environmental education centers, and learn more about North Carolina. Her teaching style has also expanded, allowing her to create new lesson plans.

“I have taken so many of the environmental education curriculum lessons into my own college teaching! And many of my colleagues have now as well. The certification process and curricula have reinforced that science is fun because it is hands-on,” said Long.

Long is a full-time lecturer and teaches environmental education and interpretation in UNCW’s Master of Science program. She also teaches undergrad courses ranging from introductory non-major courses to senior capstone research courses, specializing in restoration ecology as well as science communication and education.

“Even though my title is lecturer, I do anything but lecture! I have learned that you can take lessons like ‘Just Passing Through,’ ‘A Drop in the Bucket,’ ‘The Incredible Journey’ and ‘Pass the Jug and connect to young adults in a formal classroom. What is designed for younger learners is still fun and engaging to older learners,” Long says.

Long also coordinates the environmental workshop series and introductory lab courses at UNCW. Outside of the classroom, she is involved in public outreach. She is the coordinator for TreeFest, an annual Christmas tree event held in Bloomsburg, P.A., and is on the Wilmington Earth Day committee.  

The Leopold Education Program workshop and facilitator workshop within the program both stood out to her. She also recalls a nighttime hike she used for outdoor instructional credit. During this activity, the participants were blindfolded and linked closely together while walking the trail. The purpose was to observe nature around you by silently listening to the nighttime creatures. 

“I am afraid of the dark! So this left a huge impression on me. I was terrified, but simultaneously loved the experience. I will never forget how intensely I could smell the trees around me and hear the wind rustle the leaves.” According to Long, this made a huge impression and is one that she continues to do this type of activity with campers at Blowing Rock Conference Center.

Completing the program has improved her thought process as an instructor and outreach participant by making her more aware of how she presents information. The EE certification also gave her the courage to use a different approach in her university setting.

“I am more keenly aware of presenting fact without advocacy. I am very aware of how I present information and allow the learner to do with it what they wish. Participating in the program didn’t change how I feel about any particular issue, but it impacted my teaching and I learned/honed more from the certification process.”

Thursday, May 31, 2018

DEQ Secretary Regan Recognizes Park Ranger Jacob Fields

DEQ Secretary Michael Regan was in Cumberland County last week and visited Carvers Creek State Park to recognize Jacob Fields for completing the department’s Environmental Education Certification Program. Fields took Regan on a tour of the park’s longleaf pine habitat and the historic Rockefeller house. Like most park rangers, Fields wears many hats. In addition to leading educational programs for school groups and the public, he is also responsible for trail maintenance, law enforcement, prescribed burns, search and rescue and other duties.  

When asked about the program experiences that stood out for him, Fields cites the Basic Interpretive Training provided by N.C. State Parks at Singletary Lake and a herpetology training offered through the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Fields says the certification exposed him to a lot of different programs offered by a variety of instructors. “The diversity helped strengthen my knowledge about conservation and why programs such as these are vital to our future,” said Fields.

In addition to recreation and conservation, Carvers Creek State Park has a mission to educate the community and visitors about the importance of the longleaf pine ecosystem that once was prevalent in the sandhills region. Fields incorporated this educational focus into his community partnership project that is required for the certification program.

For his project, Fields led a wiregrass conservation effort which involved transplanting native wiregrass on a park road that was scheduled to be widened. He worked with Boy Scouts, volunteers and staff to restore the wiregrass in an area visible to the public near the park office. 

“Educators like Jacob are essential for preserving our rich ecological heritage and for educating the public about the significance of our state’s unique ecology such as our longleaf pine ecosystem,” said Secretary Regan. “Our state park rangers manage these important lands while providing important educational opportunities for students and the public.”

By providing a readily accessible area that contains wiregrass and other native plants, it provided Fields the opportunity to teach and lead programs for the public and school groups on the longleaf pine and wiregrass ecosystem. This area is burned on a one to two-year rotation providing a unique opportunity for park staff to educate the public about the importance of prescribed fire and how restoration through fire is possible. 

“Many visitors were unaware of this unique habitat that is slowly diminishing in size due to human development and fire suppression,” said Fields “Featuring this restored plot of land allows visitors to better understand the importance of wiregrass and prescribed fire to the longleaf pine ecosystem.”  

Fields says the program changed his approach to teaching. “My approach to teaching others has incorporated more of an outline and list of objectives, which is much more organized than the programs that I taught before. At the end of my programs I have begun tying everything to the bigger picture of why we teach. If Mr. Rockefeller had let his land become developed instead of the state park that it is today, then we could not have been able to have this unique experience.”

Monday, May 14, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Janet Harrison

Janet with Sam Trogdon, Director of Bond Park, Andrew Marsden, Boat House Manager at Bond Park and John Donachie who works at Boat House with a Dogwood Tree and sign in front
Janet Harrison recently completed the N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program. Janet works part time at Walnut Creek Wetland Park developing and leading nature programs for all ages. Janet credits the certification program with allowing her to change careers.

When Janet isn’t teaching or preparing lessons, she interacts with park visitors, helps maintain the park's nature center, its trails and bird feeders. She also cares for the wide array of animals at the center including a corn snake, king snake, box turtle, blind frog and Madagascar roaches.

Janet’s favorite part of earning her certification was going to the classes, networking with other educators and experiencing different teaching methods. Janet said everyone worked together to enhance the experience of each participant. 

Working on a tree identification project at Bond Park in Cary for her community partnership project was the experience in the program that stood out for Janet. “Each person I talked with asked different questions and expressed both interest and excitement for the project. As I took pictures and analyzed them, I loved the challenge of playing with sunlight at different times of day to gain the best effect.” 

For her tree trail project, Janet used a section of trail at Bond Park that has a good sampling of the native trees in the area. She identified the trees and developed a brochure that provides key facts about the trees, their roles and benefits. Each tree was identified with a sign giving the common name of that tree. The Tree ID Trail will be centrally located along an existing trail that is close to parking, the boathouse, a picnic area and one of the existing shelters making it convenient for both organized programs and self-guided observation.  

“Many visitors come to Bond Park to enjoy walking, running and biking the trails through the trees.  With a Tree ID Trail at the center of their paths we can open a door to enhance visitors’ awareness, knowledge and understanding of trees, the role they play and where and how they are best planted to thrive.”

Janet says participating in the certification program changed her approach to teaching others. “Experiential education has always been one of my favorite ways to teach and the process of participating in the environmental education classes taught me a multitude of new techniques to add to my portfolio.  I am relishing the opportunity to apply these techniques as I develop new classes in my new role.”
Find out more about Fred G. Bond Metro Park in Cary. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Corinne Rizzo

Corinne Rizzo recently completed the Department of Environmental Quality’s N.C. Environmental Education Certification Program. Corinne is a Certified Interpretive Guide through the National Association of Interpreters and works as an environmental educator with a focus on homeschool audiences.

Corinne says the favorite part of earning her certification was getting to see all the different host sites for our classes and meeting people from all over the state who are working toward the same goal. She does note an experience in the program that really stood out. “The experience that stands out for me is the opportunity to work closely with Tanya Poole, Emily Walker and Michelle Pearce at the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education in Chimney Rock. Being able to learn from them and then immediately turn around and receive feedback on facilitating the MOTEE workshop was very fulfilling. We are even working together again in May to co-facilitate the MOTEE program for the Central Carolina Master Naturalist Program.”

For her community partnership project, Corrinne created NatureCache, a geocaching program that focuses on nature at a local nature preserve. “The preserve was lacking a program where technology is incorporated into an experiential learning environment. The center now has a geocache rich trail, under one mile, where participants can use earth science related clues in conjunction with GPS devices to find caches and cache cards.” In addition to activities for the public, the program has modifications for school groups which includes connections to North Carolina’s curriculum standards and activities for field trips,” says Corinne.

Corrinne says the certification changed the way she thinks about environmental issues. “I think the thing that resonates with me more than anything about the program is the idea of not taking the role of advocate, but instead as the informer. Taking this role encourages conversation. Understanding that by presenting information and facilitating an outdoor experience goes beyond advocacy and is more impactful than any other approach to understanding/resolving environmental issues.”

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Mapping Tech Tools: NC River Basins

What comes to mind when you hear the word “map”? 

You might picture a globe or a paper road map. Maybe you think of GPS on your phone. But, do you ever hear "map" and think GIS?

GIS, or Geographic Information Systems, let us see, ask about, examine, and understand data - especially relationships and patterns in the data. (Learn more about GIS here). GIS can be utilized by educators to teach and learn. They are interactive, informational, and can be accessed virtually anywhere.

The North Carolina Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs is putting GIS to good use. In this GIS blog series, we are going to teach you to use our GIS features, to discover benefits for GIS both in the formal classroom and informal settings, and to explore the topics that our GIS maps and apps cover: river basins, environmental education resources, and your ecological address.
In the first part of our GIS series, we will focus on river basins.

So, what is a river basin?

A river basin is the land that water flows across or under on its way to a river. Just as a bathtub catches all the water that falls within its sides, a river basin sends all the water falling on the surrounding land into a central river. From there, it goes out to the sea.


Everyone lives in a river basin, even if you don't live near the water. The land that we live on eventually drains to a river or estuary or lake, and our actions on that land affect water quality and quantity far downstream. The topography of each basin determines where it drains to. For North Carolina, the water flows into either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. 

To help you explore your river basin and all the river basins in N.C., we created nineteen (!) GIS features:

1. One App (aka – an interactive map)
2. Eighteen Story Maps (aka – an interactive text)

Let’s start with the app: North Carolina River Basins. I recommend clicking the link or photo below to follow along in our GIS app. You can also access this on our website by going to Resources > River Basin Program > River Basin App.

When you open the app, you are greeted by a welcome screen with some background info, a disclaimer, and information about how to use the app.

Zooming in, we see there are three icons in the upper left blue bar: About, Legend, and Layers.

About is pretty self-explanatory: learn more here. 

You probably remember that a legend on a map is where all the information about represented features are compiled (rivers are blue lines, etc). So, for our river basin app, we see all of the river basins are color-coded to match with their location on the map. 

Layers might be new to you. Layers allow you to choose what you see on the map (and what shows up in the legend). In our layers, some are unchecked – so these are not currently in the map view or on our legend. But, if you check the box for public schools…

…then that layer appears on the map. Easy enough.

But - what do these icons on the map mean?

It’s well and good you can see these things on the map, but part of what makes an app great is that it is interactive. The legend tells us that the black and white icons are public schools – but what else can we learn? There are a couple ways to find out more:

1.) Click on the map feature you want to know more about

This pops up a box that gives you tons of info as well as links to other material. For our public schools, we learn its name, address, total number of students and teachers, type of school, and highest grade level.

But, what if you meant to select the river basin layer– not the public school? 

Just hit the arrow on the right of the top bar (outlined in red) to view the other features you selected. The numbers in parentheses in the upper-left of the box will let you know how many pages you selected (ex., 1 of 3). 

2.) Search in the search bar

This one is easier. Type in what you want to find in the search bar in the upper right of the screen and a box pops up for that feature. 

You may be thinking: But… this is a river basin app. Where is the river basin-specific information?

Use the skills we just went over - select what you wish to know more about! Want to learn about the river basin for Raleigh? Just click it. 

Within the box, you can select the photo to access our river basin brochures that have a ton of info about each basin’s history, ecology, recreation activities, and more!

What about those Story Maps?

Still want to learn more about river basins? Check out our Discover North Carolina's River Basins story map. This interactive-text will give you a good overview of basin basics. All you need to do is click through!

We also have seventeen other Story Maps that talk about each N.C. river basin in-depth. Find them all - from Broad to Yadkin-PeeDee - here!

Remember, when it doubt - click it out. The best way to get familiar with a GIS feature is to use it! So, make some time to learn about the GIS app and discover how you can utilize it to learn and teach about N.C. river basins.
To learn more about our GIS resources, contact the Office or visit our GIS page. To find out about other things the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs does, check out our website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

NAAEE Launches New Environmental Education Research Library

The environmental education field does amazing work: connecting people to nature, supporting community development, increasing student outcomes, and much more. But, most of us know an initiative or program that needs funding, support, or new tactics.

Research can help you access that.

Research gives you examples of best practices, inspires new curriculum and initiatives, and helps you get funding. Best of all, it can give you the proof you need so that you can do what you are passionate about: whether that be launching a new program for seniors or getting your students outside during the school day.

Unfortunately, finding, accessing, and understanding research can be hard. It takes time, expertise, and - many times - money to get at the research articles.

We are happy to say - there is a new way to get environmental education research!

The North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) has created a research library to help you get access the abundance of environmental education research. In collaboration with the Children & Nature Network and with support from the Pisces Foundation and Duke University, NAAEE has gathered over 1,200 research articles and crafted research summaries and syntheses on almost all of these. The summaries break down the technical articles and highlight key findings and results.

NAAEE has created a tutorial video to help you best utilize the tool.

The tutorial video walks you through how to use the research library. It shows the unique tools to search for and find data that you need – whether that’s by the age of learner it pertains to (from infancy to senior) or the year it was published.

The research tool is set up to align with the key words funders look for. Each article is assigned to one of five broad categories: education, conservation, health, social justice, human development.

The NAAEE research tool can also highlight some of the environmental education research being done in North Carolina! Our search of "North Carolina” gave us 11 results, covering topics like outdoor preschools and environmental literacy.

Have an idea on how to make this library better? Click here to share with NAAEE.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Women’s History Month: Perspectives of Women in STEM

In recognition of Women’s History Month, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences will host a panel discussion with four inspiring North Carolina women working in STEM.

Although women make up half the U.S. college-educated workforce, they only comprise 29% of the science and engineering fields. This Monday, Mary Schweitzer, Gwen Belk, Caitlin Burke and Elizabeth Snider will discuss their diverse careers in STEM and share their perspectives and experiences. 

Our Panelists: 

Dr. Mary Schweitzer is a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University with a joint appointment at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as a research curator in paleontology. Dr. Schweitzer is well known for her groundbreaking work in paleontology. Bio

Gwen Belk, a chemist, worked at Research Triangle Park for 10 years, and then continued her career at the Department of Environmental Quality (formerly the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources) until retiring after 21 years of service. Bio

Caitlin Burke is the associate director for Conservation Trust for North Carolina. Caitlin has a BS in Wildlife Science from Virginia Tech, and a Ph.D. in Forestry and Environmental Resources from North Carolina State University Bio

Elizabeth Snider, forest manager for the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University has a Masters in Forestry. Bio

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Educator Spotlight: Alayna Schmidt

Alayna Schmidt, a non-formal educator at Mountain Trail Outdoor School, just completed the North Carolina Environmental Education program. Alayna credits the program with helping her get a job where she not only teaches programs to students visiting the Mountain Trail Outdoor School but also cares for animals in the nature center, improves lessons, and maintain grounds and facilities. When she is not being a jack-of-all trades at work, Alayna enjoys nature photography, hiking, and knitting in her spare time.

Alayna’s favorite part of earning her certification was going to the various workshops. She not only learned a lot but also actively engaged with the environmental education network at these workshops. “I met some inspiring individuals in our community of educators,” Alayna notes. In particular, Alayna says that one workshop stood out to her as an important part of her certification experience, “The experience that stands out most to me was when I went to the Methods of Environmental Education workshop and had the opportunity to network with someone who would later offer me a work-study position.

In addition to using the program to make new connections and locate job opportunities, Alayna also designed and constructed an exhibit at the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education for her community partnership project. Alayna made an animal track display in their exhibit hall. “Visitors from all over come to the center to find out more about the local wildlife, and my exhibit allows visitors to interact with what animal tracks in a local stream bank might look like.

Participating in the certification program strengthened Alayna’s self-confidence and changed her approach to teaching others: “Through this program, I have gained confidence in my ability to teach EE effectively. I am now aware of the incredible resources available to me, not just information and curricula, but also the community of passionate environmental educators I can reach out to in our state.” This community of educators was a key part of this program for Alayna. She recommended growing this support for future educators. “By having certified environmental educators in leadership or supervising roles volunteer to be mentors for people pursuing the certification, it could help individuals who are not currently working as an educator achieve their teaching hours, present an opportunity to gain valuable experience and networking, and strengthen our community of educators.

The program also altered the way Alayna thinks about environmental issues. She gained awareness of the complexities involved in solving environmental problems. However, Alayna also realized the important role environmental literacy plays in handling these complex problems. “I work to increase environmental literacy in our current and future decision-makers so that there will be an ever-increasing number of people with the knowledge and resources to make well-informed decisions regarding the environment.

To find out more about Mountain Trail Outdoor School, head to their website: To find out more about Pisgah Center for Wildlife, check out their website at To learn more about the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs and our certification program, visit us at

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Can Time in Nature Inspire Young Innovators?

Can Time in Nature Inspire Young Innovators?
By Marilyn P. Arnone


Fifty children who were recognized inventors were interviewed for The Young Innovators Project ( funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. These youngsters have developed innovations in areas that include health care, safety, and household improvements; most have been technological in nature. This is not surprising as these children were born digital and they are more comfortable with technology than their grandparents and even some of their parents, although it is often at the expense of spending more time with electronic devices and less time in nature.  Innovation spaces, STEM programs, and invention conventions across the country provide guidance and support for children to innovate. Yet, this author wonders if part of children’s preparation to innovate should also include both free and guided nature exploration and play. Can time spent in nature actually increase creativity and problem-solving so critical to innovation? The research suggests that this may actually be the case.

What the Research Says

Exposure to nature is important to creativity, problem-solving, and even intellectual development. In his acclaimed book “The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” author Richard Louv discusses how creative people are often “drawn to the outdoors for refreshment and ideas” (2012, p. 35). There is a growing body of research that also suggests that being outdoors may be conducive to getting our creative juices flowing.

 A study by Atchley, Strayer and Atchley (2012) found that a team of young adult backpackers scored higher in a test of creativity after spending four days on a trail hike as compared to a control group. Proximity to nature was also found to increase cognitive abilities, specifically a child’s ability to focus (Wells, 2000).  This enhanced “focus” was also found in another study of outdoor play and learning (Nedovic & Morrissey, 2013). Even simply exposing high school students to nature imagery can enhance creative performance according to a study by van Rompay (2016). With several conditions that varied the unpredictability and spaciousness of the imagery, high school students who were exposed to imagery with the highest degree of unpredictability and spaciousness scored the highest on a measure of creative thinking.

Nature-based risky play is play in which children experience some degree of uncertainty or challenge and is positively associated with exploration and an understanding of the world. In one recent study, researchers examined the effects of an intervention to increase nature-based risky play; the intervention involved the redesign of an outdoor playspace to maximize natural materials and opportunities for exploration. The early childhood educators who participated in the study reported improvements in both problem-solving and creativity among other results such as a decrease in boredom and stress after the intervention (Brussoni, Ishikawa, Brunelle & Herrinton, 2017). Wells and Evans (2003) also found that life stress was lower in children with exposure to nearby nature. Kiewra & Veselack (2016) found that pre-school children’s creativity in terms of problem-solving and ingenuity were increased when outdoor classrooms included predictable spaces, ample and consistent time, open-ended materials, and caring and observant adults who support creative play and learning.

With the above studies in mind, it hardly seems like an intuitive leap that adding an element of nature to children’s innovative thinking activities might contribute to increases in their innovative thinking.

Getting Started: Promote Inventive Thinking in School and Public Libraries Through Connections with Nature

You can certainly start small by bringing what nature you can into your library. From a “nature loose parts” station (natural outdoor materials like stones, twigs, pinecones, shells, and more for children to combine, take apart, or design with) to providing visual stimulation influenced by nature throughout the library. Bring children outside to explore in nearby nature, take a nature walk, observe natural patterns and color, practice “reading” the clouds, collect natural artifacts, create a journal, draw what is seen. These and other simple outdoor activities will help open creative pathways in the brain and set the tone for more inventive thinking exercises.

There is another benefit to exposure to nature as part of an inventive thinking curriculum; it may trigger creative ideas in students for solving environmental problems in their own communities. Additionally, it has often been stated that children need to develop an appreciation for nature before we can expect them to become its future stewards. In fact, some research has shown that positive direct experience in the outdoors guided by a trusted adult is an important factor in later involvement in protecting one’s environment (Chawla, 2007). It stands to reason that this very connection to nature may inspire future young innovators to create the inventions that will protect and sustain our precious planet.


The benefits of spending time exploring in the natural environment have been shown to have dramatic benefits to both children’s and adults’ health and well-being. There is now ample empirical support for the potential to increase students’ creative performance by spending time in nature. Additionally, spending time exploring the outdoors also helps to develop an appreciation of nature in our children such that they are motivated to invent solutions to some of our planet’s most pressing environmental problems, locally and globally. All this is worth educators’ consideration as they develop innovation spaces and programs that inspire creativity and inventive thinking.  Consider making just a few small changes to get started and if you see results, do some creative thinking yourself to see how you can expand your efforts to connect children to nature and, in so doing, unlock their creativity.

Dr. Marilyn Arnone is co- director of the Young Innovators Project, a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s iSchool, and a certified environmental educator in the state of NC. This blog post is the basis of a book chapter that the author is currently preparing.


Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12), 1-5.

Brussoni, M., Ishikawa, T., Brunelle, S., Herrington, S. (2017). Landscapes for play: Effects of an intervention to promote nature-based risky play in early childhood centres. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 54, 139-1550.

Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world: A theoretical framework for empirical results. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.

Cszikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.

Kiewra, C., Veselack, E. (2016). Playing with nature: Supporting preschoolers' creativity in natural outdoor classrooms. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1).

Louv, R. (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with life in a virtual age. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Nedovic, S., Morrissey, A. (2013). Calm, active and focused: Children’s responses to an organic outdoor learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 16(2), 281-295.

van Rompay, T.J.L., Jol, T. (2016). Wild and free: Unpredictability and spaciousness as predictors of creative performance. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 48, 140-148.

Wells, N. M., Evans, G. W. (2003). Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330.

Wells, N. M. (2000). At home with nature: Effects of 'greenness' on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795.