Monday, January 3, 2022

Educator Spotlight: Rachel Smith

Rachel Smith, an educator at McDowell Nature Center with Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. 

Rachel is an environmental educator and outdoor travel enthusiast. “I love sharing and teaching what I know about the natural world in North Carolina as a native of the state. I enjoy traveling and visiting nature preserves and parks to discover new species of wildflowers, butterflies, and birds that I can check off my life-lists. When traveling I love exploring new ecosystems for their weather, climate and topography and finding dark sky locations to bring my telescope to working on my new hobby of astrophotography.”

Rachel says her favorite part of the program was being able to complete some of the requirements that were more challenging for her such as the documentation for the teaching and partnership project. “My father passed unexpectedly this fall and it really changed my perspective on some life goals, and I wish he was able to see me complete my certification.”

When asked what experience stood out for her, Rachel says it was the outdoor instructor-led experiences. “I learn the best by hands-on, active learning where I can reinforce the knowledge almost immediately. These learning opportunities gave me a chance to expand my own knowledge by allowing me to find and work on my 'weaker' subjects. The outdoor experiences and along with the other workshops led me to meet some incredible environmental educators across the state and a network for resources and new programming ideas.”

For her community partnership project, Rachel worked with the Carolina Butterfly Society to develop and lead butterfly programs at the preserve. She provided butterfly hikes on the weekends and a summer camp 'fieldtrip' to the piedmont prairie for a butterfly hunt. She also created a custom butterfly field guide for the society’s annual trip to the National Butterfly Center in Texas. “My project engaged the members of my community because it brought to the forefront the importance of butterflies, not only locally, but nationally and globally.  While leading hikes and butterfly specific programming allows the community the opportunity to discover local species and delve into what makes butterflies an important pollinator.  Also, it can lead into other opportunities for programming and community development like planting pollinator gardens in backyards and public areas in neighborhoods.”  

Rachel says the program has changed the way she approaches teaching. “I feel that I am doing more inquiry-based, hands-on programming versus more lecture-based programs that encourages participants to be actively engaged in problem solving and critical thinking.”

Educator Spotlight: Meredith Owens


Meredith Owens, a nature programmer at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary and at White Deer Park in Garner, recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. In her role, Meredith plans and delivers programs and attends to the facilities on site. In her personal time, she likes to knit and read.  

When asked about her favorite part of earning her certification, Meredith says it was meeting other people in the field that shared the same interests and traveling to other sites. “I loved going to different parks and seeing different parts of the state that I may not have visited if it weren’t for the classes offered at those parks.”

Meredith says one class really stood out for her while getting her certification. “I love animals, so when I went to a class about reptiles and amphibians where live animals were present, that was a highlight for me. And it was such a nice experience, everyone else in the class was just as excited as I was to meet the animals.”

For her community partnership project, Meredith prepared a large area at White Deer Park for a future town sensory garden. This involved working with the town of Garner and with a service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, from North Carolina State University to remove overgrown shrubs and grasses and invasive plants around the nature center. Meredith says the sensory garden will benefit anyone in the community who goes to White Deer Park. This includes people who may have a disability, use a mobility aid, or have a visual impairment, because the sensory garden will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Meredith says the certification program gave her the tools that she needed to teach kids about the environment in different ways and strengthened her view on volunteerism. “I have a new appreciation for community projects and volunteer projects, in general. Using the power of the people is such a unique and instrumental tool that I feel like we need to take advantage of more often. People in the community like to help take care of the parks and forests that they live near.”

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Educator Spotlight: Dr. Joel McCormick


Dr. Joel McCormick, Associate Professor of Recreation at Chowan University in Murfreesboro recently completed his NC Environmental Education Certification. When Dr. McCormick isn’t teaching, he and his family enjoy being in nature. “We enjoy visiting National Parks, State Parks, and other natural areas to camp, explore, and spend time on the water boating, fishing and snorkeling.”

When asked about his favorite part of the certification experience, Dr. McCormick says he enjoyed many of the experiences, especially the ones that got him out in nature. “I enjoyed visiting the different regions of the state and taking in the diversity of North Carolina's natural areas. My son went with me to the training at Grandfather Mountain three years ago and he is still talking about the great time he had there. We also camped out at The Great Smoky Mountains National Park while attending the NC Division of Air Quality's Ground Level Ozone workshop. This training was great! I took my family with me, and the wildlife was amazing - especially the elk who visited our camp site.”

For his community partnership project, he worked with the planners of the Bertie County Government on their “Tall Glass of Water” (TGOW) Project. “I was able to help with the planning of future recreational and environmental educational programming with a 147-acre site at the mouth of the Chowan River. The TGOW Project will promote sustainable ecotourism, outdoor recreation, and environmental education for many in Eastern North Carolina.”

Dr. McCormick says the program changed his approach to teaching. “The Environmental Education Certification program has expanded my network of natural resource professionals and professional organizations. I have been able to use some of the programming I learned in my classes, and I have been able to have some of my new contacts conduct educational programs at Chowan University. It has been a great benefit for myself, my students, and my community.”

The Year in Review: NCDEQ's Division of Water Resources: Water Education in 2021


Author: Lauren Daniel, Water Education Coordinator, NC Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Water Resources 

Water Education found a new stride in 2021 as it adapted programs and partnerships to reach communities throughout North Carolina.  We are celebrating all the great achievements from the year as we plan for bigger and better water education opportunities in 2022.  

Full newsletter article can be found here.

Project WET: 

In 2021, about 110 educators completed Project WET workshops offered throughout the year.  We even trained 8 new facilitators to offer the trainings in their host institutions.  The highlight of the year was bringing Rebecca Coppa (NC DEMLR) on board as a co-coordinator for PWET.  With Rebecca's help, we can expand this program to offer more resources and support. To learn more about Project WET North Carolina, visit our website.

NC Stream Watch:

NC Stream Watch has seen more activity this year than ever before.  Community members are able to use this tool to go out and explore the quality and health of their stream by following a simple survey that walks through the stream monitoring process.  Strictly for educational purposes, NC Stream Watch offers teachers and students a tool to learn as well as share their observations.  If you have a chance to explore the statewide NC Stream Watch Map, be sure to check out the areas near you as well as far away. Remember, you can view the latest dashboard and observation surveys by visiting the NC Stream Watch website.

It's Our Water:

It's Our Water continues to be offered as a 10 hour Criteria I EE Credit course for educators throughout North Carolina.  If you're interested in participating in this online, self-guided module please email to gain log in credentials.  This online module is ideal for 8th grade science teachers as well as anyone interested in learning North Carolina specific water resource management issues and teaching students about these topics.

NC Climate Education Network:

Through virtual "Open Houses", the NC Climate Education Network provided participants a chance to connect with climate experts right here in our state.  Each live virtual event had anywhere from 25-60 participants, and the recordings were watched over 100 times. The Open House format offered an informal space for teachers and other educational leaders to learn more about various topics, ask questions, and connect with additional resources to support student learning.  You can learn more about this network on our NCCEN website. The four open house topics in 2021 included:

NC Climate Education Data Art Contest:

I believe one of the best ways to engage students in science education is through creative expression, art, and design. The NC Climate Education Network has given me the opportunity to do just that through our 2021 Climate Data Art Contest.  We had so many amazing entries from students from elementary through high school!  Take a moment to look through our map to explore the various designs, drawings, and even paintings.  Many thanks to the students and educators who took time to create submissions. There was so much interest in this contest that we decided to let this map and submission form stay open throughout 2022. While you can't enter the contest after December 17, 2021, you can still upload your art to be viewed by the public.  

Link to the Online Map of Climate Data Art

Link to the Online Submission Form

Water Education Coffee Talks:

One of my favorite projects that came out of this year were the Water Education Coffee Talks.  These virtual Teams meetings were offered every other Thursday at 9:00 a.m.  The objective of these Coffee Talks were to connect water educators with personalized support and customized resources.  These Coffee Talks did not feature presentations or guest speakers- just real people connecting with others and sharing ideas to inspire lessons and projects. Want to get updates for an upcoming Coffee Talk? Sign up here. 

Watershed Wisdom: 

Another great partnership resulted in national recognition this year. Working with NC Sea Grant and PBS-NC, we were awarded an Apex Award for Publication Excellence in the area of "Campaigns, Programs and Plans". The Watershed Wisdom Lesson Plan Unit is as much fun to teach as it was to create!  To view the award-winning unit, click here.

A look ahead in 2022:

Water Education Pen Pals: Offering a pen pal program to connect students with their peers in other watersheds and maybe even other portions of the country. What better way to learn about the value of your own watershed by comparing and contrasting observations with someone in a different corner of the Earth? 

NC Stream Watch Leadership Program: We will be inviting water educators from throughout North Carolina to take a leadership role in training and engaging with their local water resources through visual observations and stream side litter pick-ups.  

Interested? If you want to learn more about these programs or ask questions, don't hesitate to reach out:

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

11th Annual Meeting Brings Formal and Informal Educators Together

The NC Department of Environmental Quality and the NC Department of Public Instruction’s Science Section will co-host the 11th Annual Nonformal Educators’ Meeting on December 9. Last year, the virtual meeting attracted more than 140 educators in all regions of the state and this year’s meeting promises to reach even more educators.

Each year in December, the two departments bring the nonformal education community together to talk about ways they can partner with classroom teachers in North Carolina. This unique collaboration supports nonformal educators who provide environmental science to school-age children and encourages collaboration between schools, school districts, NCDPI, and the nonformal education community to support science learning and environmental literacy.

The meeting also provides an opportunity for educators to get updates on curriculum standards from NCDPI and resources to help align their educational programs and field trips with the state’s essential standards for science. 

Most of this year’s discussion will focus on how nonformal educators can partner with schools to create outdoor classrooms and other learning spaces on schoolgrounds. Several teachers will highlight ways they have partnered with nonformal educators and organizations to develop creative outdoor learning opportunities for their students. In addition to these models, there will be a session featuring programs that come to the school to help develop wildlife habitats, encourage students to participate in citizen science, and provide resources on how to use the outdoors to teach the required standards in not only science but across disciplines. 

The meeting will feature a panel discussion with teachers and a principal to learn on how nonformal programs can best meet the current needs of classroom teachers while increasing environmental literacy and knowledge of North Carolina’s diverse ecology and natural resources. 

This partnership between the state’s education agency and the state’s environmental agency is unique to North Carolina. It was highlighted in the National Science Teachers Association’s online journal, Connected Science Learning in the May-July 2017 edition (Volume 1, Issue 3). You can read the article entitled Collaboration + Good Coffee = Connected Science Learning Success: State Agencies Partner to Unite Formal and Informal Educators in North Carolina online at this link

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Educator Spotlight: Yanina Salerno

Yanina Salerno, a nonformal educator from Buncombe County recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. 

Yanina is a forest guide and offers nature walks that give participants an opportunity to learn about their natural environment and how to be in relationship with Mother Earth according to indigenous teachings and knowledge.

When asked about her favorite part of the program, Yanina said it was the plethora of information, resources, and teachings she received from so many amazing and passionate teachers through the years. She says her trip to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont for a long weekend to participate in their Naturalist program was a unique experience and one that really stood out for her. "Living, learning and sharing meals alongside so many other nature-loving students of all ages was an experience I will cherish forever."

For her community partnership project Yanina created a trans-cultural medicine wheel Bee City USA certified pollinator garden on a local greenway. “The project brought community members and local organizations together during workdays and it will be a continued source of environmental and cultural education for the community as well as a continued benefit to the ecosystem.”

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching or her views of environmental issues, Yanina said the certification helped her look at her own program from more than one perspective and that helped her to further enrich the program. “Now I look at things like learning styles, curriculum, evaluation, qualitative and quantitative data and how I can use these tools to enrich my program. The certification program has developed and deepened my understanding of environmental issues and has also given me resources to be a better steward of our natural environment.”

Monday, December 6, 2021

Educator Spotlight: Katherine Baxter

Katherine Baxter, a horticulturist at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Gaston County recently earned her NC Environmental Education Certification. Before joining the botanical garden, Katherine worked as an environmental educator at Haw River State Park for five years. As an environmental educator, Katherine is enthusiastic about cultivating an appreciation for nature in every audience. In her personal time, Katherine enjoys spending time growing vegetables and flowers in her garden, walking in the woods, and watching wildlife.

Katherine says her favorite part of the certification program was the opportunity to constantly learn, grow, and improve. “Whether I was in a creek identifying aquatic organisms during a workshop or attending a virtual lecture on environmental justice, I was always learning and growing as an educator during this program. Of course, I also enjoyed meeting teachers, homeschoolers, and non-formal educators from all over North Carolina who are also passionate about the environment and education.”

When asked what part of the program stood out to Katherine, she said it was the “Playing Out” or Playful Pedagogy workshop series by Linda Kinney at the NC Zoo. “I found those workshops unique, fascinating, and engaging. This workshop series is enthralling to me because I am interested in the relationship between childhood play outdoors and developing a connection with nature. Through this experience, I gained an appreciation for freely chosen play and I learned practices to support my student’s play.”

For her community partnership project, Katherine identified a need for an educational garden in her community and established a pollinator garden that provides park guests of all ages the opportunity to appreciate and learn about the importance of pollinators and native plant species. “The pollinator garden is a beautiful, interactive space to increase environmental awareness for the community while providing essential food sources and habitat for pollinator populations!”

Katherine says the certification program changed her approach to teaching. “The program has equipped me with a beneficial set of teaching strategies. I've learned about inquiry-based approaches and have increased the quality of my programs by applying the 5E Teaching Model. I've learned classroom management methods, tips for motivating learning, and the value of embracing teachable moments.”

Katherine said the certification program changed the way she views environmental issues. “While I studied Environmental and Sustainability Studies in college, every day I was learning about environmental destruction caused by human activity. Consistently learning about devastating environmental issues was overwhelming, so when I began the EE Certification Program it was refreshing to change my focus to something constructive: facilitating positive outdoor experiences and promoting environmental literacy. Instead of focusing on environmental degradation, I find it more helpful to emphasis the beauty and wonder of the natural world and feasible solutions to protect the environment. As an environmental educator I can make a positive difference in my community by supporting student's questions, investigations, understanding, knowledge, skills, and decisions.”

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

NCSTA Awards Ceremony Features Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Recognizes Teachers and Nonformal Environmental Educators

Join the North Carolina Science Teachers Association for a very special awards ceremony Thursday, November 4, 2021 at 4:00 pm Eastern. The virtual event is free and open to the public but registration is required (

This year's event will feature guest speaker Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, COVID-19 researcher and lead developer of the Moderna Vaccine. Born in North Carolina and a graduate of Orange High School in Hillsborough, Dr. Corbett received her PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While in high school, Dr. Corbett participated in the North Carolina section of the Project SEED (Summer Experiences for the Economically Disadvantaged) program for students, and credits it for sparking her interest in a STEM career. She recently joined Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as an assistant professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases.

NCSTA will be presenting awards to teachers, administrators, nonformal educators and other individuals who exhibit leadership in science education and contribute to improvements in the field.

The North Carolina Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs congratulates all the NCSTA winners, but would like to recognize these four educators dedicated to environmental education:

Annette Steele and Renee Pagoota-Wight
Annette Steele and Renee Pagoota-Wight

Annette Steele
, Lincoln Heights Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary (Wake County), will be presented with the 2021 NCSTA District 3 Outstanding Elementary School Science Teacher Award and Renee Pagoota-Wight, Sherrills Ford Elementary School (Catawba County), will be presented the NCSTA District 7 Outstanding Elementary School Science Teacher Award. This award is given to a person exhibiting leadership in science education; contributing to improvements in science education; and excelling in the aspects of science education.

Steele and Pagoota-Wight are also North Carolina Certified Environmental Educators through the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs administered program.

Matthew Poston

Matthew Poston of Walkertown Middle School (Forsyth County) will be presented the NCSTA District 5 Outstanding Middle School Science Teacher. Poston enrolled in 2021 and is actively pursuing his North Carolina Environmental Educator Certification.

Tanya Poole, Regional Education Specialist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and a state Project WILD coordinator, will receive the NCSTA Distinguished Service in Science Education in a Non-school Setting for her work as a non-formal educator providing professional development and support to classroom teachers. Poole is a North Carolina Certified Environmental Educator and serves on the NC Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs Environmental Education Certification Committee. Tanya her NCWRC educator colleagues are essential partners in the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification Program. 

Tanya in field with dogs, Tanya in stream study
Tanya Poole 

Please register for the event and join us in congratulating these and all the award winners!

Friday, October 1, 2021

Virtually meet role models with disabilities at the STEAM Showcase Oct. 19

STEAM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities

The great jobs of today and tomorrow are in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM). Yet people with disabilities remain underrepresented in these fields. To help turn that tide, the 9th annual STEAM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities will be held virtually Tuesday, October 19 from 1 to 3:30 p.m., hosted by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. This free event, developed in partnership with SAS, is designed for students with disabilities in grades 6-12, and gives attendees a chance to meet and be inspired by role models with disabilities who have thriving careers in STEAM fields.

Event collaborator Ed Summers is a visually impaired software developer and Director of Accessibility at SAS. “I’m living proof that a disability can be an asset rather than a liability,” he says. “People with disabilities must be creative and adaptable. Those qualities are exactly what employers need in today’s ever-changing business environment.”


The STEAM Showcase will include a Keynote Speaker, Panel Discussion and Breakout Sessions, where participants will have an opportunity to directly engage with the speakers and will gain practical knowledge that they can apply to their interests and future career paths. For more information or to register visit (registration is free but required). For additional questions, contact Coordinator of Accessibility and Inclusion Jessie Rassau ( / 919-707-9976).


Keynote Speaker Brandon Winfield grew up playing sports until he found his first true love of motocross, when he traveled the country racing dirt bikes. In 2008, Brandon was injured in a motocross accident that left him with a thoracic spinal cord injury (paralyzed from the chest down). Now he is the founder of iAccess Life, a mobile app that allows people with disabilities to rate, review and research accessible venues, such as restaurants, retail shops, grocery stores and more. Through his start-up, Brandon aims to empower users to “know before they go” and to feel confident making plans with their friends, colleagues and loved ones.



  • Myles de Bastion is an artistic director, musician and creative altruist who develops technology and art installations that enable sound to be experienced as light and vibration. His search for ways to bridge his passion for music with his Deaf identity led him to found CymaSpace, a non-profit that facilitates arts and cultural events that are inclusive of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing. His work has appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! Show and he has built large-scale installations for musical festivals and Grammy-award winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding.
  • Kiara Gomez is a PhD Candidate in the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also a first-generation college student with Colombian roots, and a person who stutters. Kiara’s path as a geoscientist has been multidisciplinary and her love for geology and organic geochemistry has grown from her exposure to its diverse applications across different disciplines. She is passionate about increasing diversity in STEM fields through mentoring and community outreach.
  • Bob Moran is a Content Developer for the Global Partner and Technical Enablement team at Red Hat. He has been with the team for eight and a half years working on video editing, image animation and SCORM packaging. Bob is very interested in working with students with disabilities. He shows them that like himself (Bob is visually impaired), with the correct training and use of assisted technology, they will be able to find work in technology or the arts unhindered by their disabilities.
  • Laura Feldberg is a technical writer working at SAS. She is passionate about communicating content in a way that is equitable so that everyone has access to the same information. She has a lifetime’s experience in managing anxiety and depression before they manage her (usually). She wears hearing aids (when she wants to hear you). She lives with a few chronic illnesses, her family, and some very demanding pets.


Please note: ASL interpretation and live captions will be provided for the entire program and for each breakout room. This year’s STEAM Showcase is sponsored by SAS Institute, Inc.; Red Hat; Labcorp; SAAVAS Learning Company; and the Vaught Family.



NC Museum of Natural Sciences Press Release



Jonathan Pishney | Head of Communications

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences 
11 West Jones Street | Raleigh, NC 27601 
T 919.707.8083 C 919.244.7913 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Environmental Educators of North Carolina Celebrates 2021 Award Winners in Environmental Education

Each year the Environmental Educators of North Carolina (EENC) recognizes environmental educators, EENC members, organizations, and partners for their valuable contributions to EENC, the North Carolina community, and to the field of environmental education.

Join us in congratulating the amazing environmental educators and programs who are this year's EENC award winners!  

You can read more about the following award winners on EENC's website.

Environmental Educator of the Year: Nicolette Cagle

Exceptional Environmental Education Program: Highlands Biological Station
        STEM Outreach Program

Outstanding Partner: Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance

Outstanding Newcomer: Brian Wuertz 

Outstanding Practitioner: Marissa Blackburn

Outstanding Service: Shannon Culpepper

Melva Fager Okun Life Achievement: Terri Kirby Hathaway

Friday, September 10, 2021

Tori Strunk, an educator at the Eastway Regional Recreation Center in Mecklenburg County, has completed her NC Environmental Education Certification

Tori Strunk recently earned her NC Environmental Education Certification. As an environmental educator at the Eastway Regional Recreation Center in Mecklenburg County, Tori teaches community members about the natural environment, what's in it and why it is important. She enjoys educating others about plants the most and says she will talk about plants to anyone who will listen.

Tori says her favorite part about earning her certification was going out of her comfort zone and meeting new people. She enjoyed learning about all of the resources available to educators from different state agencies like the NC Department of Air Quality.”  


When asked which experience during the program stood out for her, Tori says it was taking the Leopold Education Project Workshop. “The workshop was held at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve and there were at least 20 of my peers who attended. Not only was I taught how to interpret scientific information differently, I was also able to network with people in our field from all over North Carolina.”

For her community partnership project, Tori coordinated and wrote a program on invasive plant species at Latta Nature Preserve. “I specifically focused on Autumn Olive because it is one of the most abundant invasive plant species on the preserve. There is a new nature center on the preserve called Quest and the Autumn Olive was very dense around the building. I was able to bring the Carolina Raptor Center volunteers to participate in my program and in an invasive plant removal. Hopefully, my program brought awareness to the negative impacts of invasive plant species.”

When asked if participating in the program changed her approach to teaching, Tori says she learned different methods of teaching. “I was able to take many courses on subjects I didn't know and that broaden my environmental education knowledge. I was also able to learn how to teach to specific age groups like elementary children.”

Tori says the program changed the way she viewed environmental issues. “Now I think that all environmental issues can be fixed, it just takes a community to fix it.”

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Rebekah Wofford, Educator at Blue Jay County Park in Raleigh Completes Her NC Environmental Education Certification

Rebekah Wofford, in the woods wearing a dark green shirt, holding a turtle that will have data collected for the Box Turtle Connection project.

Rebekah Wofford, an educator at Blue Jay Point County Park in Raleigh has completed the NC Environmental Education Certification Program. Rebekah began working as an educator at Blue Jay Point County Park in 2021 and says she discovered her love of environmental education in the outdoors through her former positions at Durant and Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserves. She is a self-confessed huge herp and bird nerd and on her days off, you can often find her birding alone or with friends. She enjoys engaging with people of all ages to answer their questions and grow their interest in the natural world.

Rebekah says her favorite part of the program was meeting other environmental educators and learning from them. “I met many of my current and former coworkers and made many friends at educator workshops. I was also lucky enough to use some of the classes as excuses to travel across the state! Attending a frog call class in Wilmington and a feral hog class at Great Smoky Mountains were great ways to learn about species in other parts of the state.”

When asked what experience stands out for her, Rebekah says there are several. “The Certified Interpretive Guide course, which I took at the Schiele Museum in Gastonia, was a great experience because it was a longer class with the same people. Over the four-day course, I was able to form relationships with some of the participants, who I still keep up with two years later! Also, a beginner birding course I took occurred around the same time I became seriously interested and excited about birding, one of my biggest hobbies now!”

For her community partnership project, Rebekah built an outdoor box turtle enclosure at Durant Nature Preserve. “It is built along the accessible trail outside the future office, so it is a location that many patrons will visit. The community will have an opportunity to see the rescued box turtle outdoors and to learn more about box turtles in general.” Her project also supports the efforts of staff at Durant Nature Preserve to contribute to the Box Turtle Connection, a state-level initiative of the Box Turtle Collaborative, which aims to improve public understanding of and collect scientific data on populations of Eastern box turtles found in North Carolina.

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching, Rebekah says it opened her eyes to many new ways to teach. “I became more comfortable with silliness in teaching materials to younger kids. I was also able to diversify ways to get material across and keep participants engaged especially during the pandemic. Some methods that I learned in the 2020 EENC (Environmental Educators of North Carolina) conference really helped my virtual programming skills.”

Friday, August 20, 2021

Melissa Kennedy, Land and Water Access Specialist at the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Completes NC Environmental Education Certification

Melissa assists with coordinating the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) land acquisition process by working with WRC field staff, external partners, and the State Property Office. She also helps write and manage land acquisition grants. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring trails and waterways across the state.

When asked about her favorite part of the certification program, Melissa says it was developing new personal and professional relationships. “I met so many people who are passionate about conservation and environmental education through this program. I particularly enjoyed seeing the same people at different workshops; it created a sense of community and camaraderie. It also exposed me to resources I didn't know about and provided professional contacts for future collaborations.”

Melissa says there were many experiences that she wouldn’t have had without the certification program, but one that stands out: the two-day NC Aquatic Data Hub stream monitoring workshop. “I learned so much about aquatic invertebrates and water quality which helped me understand our waterways better while giving me more context to teach water quality programs. One of my favorite programs to teach was a stream studies program because many kids would start out not wanting to get wet or they would be intimidated by looking for invertebrates, but by the end they wouldn't want to leave the stream. I felt that program was a great intro into bigger picture ideas, was engaging, and was highly educational. The NC Aquatic Data Hub workshop provided me with personal knowledge that helped me teach stream studies better.”

For her community partnership project, Melissa partnered with Duke Gardens and worked with Kavanah Anderson and Kati Henderson to create a virtual "bingo sheet" of activities that could be done outside anywhere and encourages all ages to participate. “The goal was to have accessible self-guided activities to engage a variety of audiences. We launched the activity in conjunction with the Triangle Learning Days festival. The activities are now available on Duke garden's website for anyone and can be used on- site to explore the garden. Our hope is that the community in Durham/the Triangle area would feel empowered to explore the nature right outside their homes and would in turn feel more connected to it and seek to make changes to protect it.”

Melissa says the certification program changed her approach to teaching in many ways. “I was an inexperienced educator when I began the program. Taking the workshops, especially any of the WRC’s Advanced Wild workshops, increased my knowledge of North Carolina ecology which made me more confident in my ability to convey that information accurately. The certification gave me many fun activity ideas which I implemented across all age groups. Working with others and hearing their perspectives and advice provided me with new tools for handling groups and challenging situations. I am now a much more confident and effective educator because of the certification program!”

Melissa says the program changed the way she viewed environmental issues. “Prior to the certification I knew that I cared about environmental issues and that education was an effective tool for teaching others to care, but I didn't see how connected those issues were to so many facets of everyday life. I also didn't understand as much about environmental justice and the implications of environmental issues for people of color. The classes, activities, and especially talking with other educators showed me just how far-reaching environmental issues can be.”

Monday, August 16, 2021

Denise Renfro, a High School Teacher in Fayetteville NC Wins Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Education

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced its 2021 President’s Student and Teacher Environmental Awards winners. Among the winners was Denise Renfro, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher and director of the Academy of Green Technology at Douglas Byrd High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Denise was one of two teachers awarded the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) for Region 4, which includes North Carolina. 

The Academy of Green Technology (AoGT) prepares high school students to have the technical and collaborative skills needed to lead the emerging green and global economy through interdisciplinary learning experiences in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and there is no doubt that Renfro has contributed to the success of this program and of her students 

Renfro is a CTE teacher who is successfully using energy and the environment as a unifying theme to engage and ultimately prepare her students for careers as STEM professionals to tackle challenges such as climate change and the transition to a low carbon energy system. Renfro believes in teaching through authentic investigations using technologies that her students not only learn about in the classroom but apply in real life. This experiential and place-based approach is not only effective at promoting student learning but fun for students. Whether her students are launching seeds on a weather balloon into the stratosphere, flying drones to assess vegetation, or teaching younger students about solar energy and conservation using an off-grid solar trailer, they are engaged and having fun.

“I have spent my entire career as an educator engaging students either outdoors or in a lab physically doing things, and if this unique mixture of educational pursuits has taught me anything, it is that students learn best and enjoy learning most by actually doing things, and preferably doing them outdoors. They learn even more by applying what they learn in new and unique environments, and those benefits seem to multiply exponentially when their applications are in service to others. They gain much-needed leadership and confidence, and they make connections to others in the wider community,” says Renfro.

The school is in an underserved, minority community that struggles with academic progress, poor graduation rates, food insecurity, and other challenges. With many students lacking extracurricular STEM opportunities, confidence with technology, and/or leadership opportunities, her approach to engaging students is likely contributing to AoGT’s success, with a graduation rate of 100% through the 2019/2020 academic year and student college enrollment at 70%.

Renfro has applied for more than $400,000 in grants during her career, almost all related to energy and environmental studies to get supplies into the hands of her students and to support her own professional development which brings more authentic learning opportunities into the classroom. In 2020, she received a Fund for Teachers Fellowship grant and will be going to Canada and Iceland to study energy generation and electric grid resiliency in the summer of 2022. She is a proud NC Energy Literacy Fellow, a teacher professional development program based out of UNC’s Institute for the Environment that provides a comprehensive approach to teaching energy-related content in the classroom modeled around experiential, place-based, and project-based classroom strategies. Renfro has emerged as a teacher leader in the NC Energy Literacy Fellows community and, most recently has been part of a teacher-led working group to develop a lesson on energy justice that she will deliver to students this fall.

“Denise is a highly motivated CTE teacher who uses STEM to engage her students in learning about current energy and environmental issues using technologies to monitor and solve relevant problems. I think her marrying of CTE content with environmental education made her a unique applicant for this award and I am thrilled to see her recognized by the environmental education community,” says Dana Haine, Director of the NC Energy Literacy Fellows Program, who has known Renfro for more than a decade. “It is exciting to have an NC Energy Literacy Fellow recognized for her work to engage diverse youth in learning about today’s environmental challenges.”

In a virtual ceremony, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory recognized the awardees. “This past school year has been one of the most challenging for our nation, yet students and teachers across the country remained dedicated to tackling the most pressing environmental challenges we face – from climate change to environmental justice,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “I’m so proud of the remarkable youth and educators we’re honoring today, and their work to make a difference in their communities. By working hand in hand, we can create a more sustainable, more equitable world.”

Read the full EPA News Release
Read more about Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) 2021 Winners

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Jason Vanzant, Carteret County Teacher and NC Certified Environmental Educator Wins Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators


The US Environmental Protection Agency has announced its 2021 President’s Student and Teacher Environmental Awards winners. Jason Vanzant, a teacher at Bogue Sound Elementary School in Newport, was one of two North Carolina teachers awarded the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) for Region 4. 

In a virtual ceremony, EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory recognized the awardees. “This past school year has been one of the most challenging for our nation, yet students and teachers across the country remained dedicated to tackling the most pressing environmental challenges we face – from climate change to environmental justice,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan. “I’m so proud of the remarkable youth and educators we’re honoring today, and their work to make a difference in their communities. By working hand in hand, we can create a more sustainable, more equitable world.”

Jason Vanzant, also known by his students as “Mr. Vantaztic” is an elementary STEM teacher and Instructional Technology Facilitator at Bogue Sound Elementary in Carteret County. "Through his passion for the environment, Mr. Vanzant sparks student wonder, learning, and achievement! As a result of his interdisciplinary, hands-on, research- and place-based approaches to environmental education, the school district has seen dramatic shifts in academic achievement and interest in STEM classes and activities."

Vanzant is a Certified North Carolina Environmental Educator through the state program administered by the NC Department of Environmental Quality's Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs and has been widely recognized for his efforts to create a STEM lab at his school. 

He has also developed strong partnerships in the community to support STEM learning at Bogue Sound Elementary. The EPA News Release notes that Vanzant's "efforts have helped Bogue Sounds Elementary School be designated as a NOAA Ocean Guardian School, the only school in its county designated as such. With NOAA approval and funding, Mr. Vanzant led his students to composting and debris collection projects at the school. His students presented their findings and ways to improve future efforts to the Board of Education. Mr. Vanzant regularly invites scientific professionals to share their research and passion with his students, piquing the students’ interest to consider for their own careers in the future. Mr. Vanzant has developed close ties with local environmental organizations that have afforded the students amazing opportunities at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, the Cape Lookout National Seashore Park, NOAA, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the Pine Knolls Shore Aquarium, and the North Carolina Coastal Reserve. He has also fostered a partnership with the Aquaculture Department at the Carteret Community College."

Read the full EPA News Release
Read more about Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) 2021 Winners

Friday, July 16, 2021

NC Middle School Sibling Duo Start Grassroots Effort to Clean Up the State

What kind of activities did you participate in in Middle School? Sports, video games, skateboarding, dance, martial arts, etc.? Well, the sister and brother duo Audrey & Gregory Scanlon are "The Clean Up Kids" and are doing their part to inspire others across North Carolina to reduce waste and clean up our lands and waters. They have already adopted a stretch of highway and are partnering with NC DOT and other agencies and organizations to expand their efforts, which include a contest for people and groups who participate in clean ups (see the link below for details). 

Their long term goal is to work with companies, elected officials, and community members to stop littering at the source by reducing the use of disposable items. However, their initial focus is on energizing citizens to grab a bag and start cleaning up the mountains of litter already damaging our environment. They hope to spread their mission, believing that people who pick up litter are far less likely to be litter bugs, and are counting on this to help generate a lasting impact.

Learn more about their efforts and how you can take part at

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Julie Neumark, A recent graduate of UNC Asheville Completed Her NC Environmental Education Certification

Julie Neumark will be extra prepared as she begins work as a non-formal educator at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee, Vermont this fall. Julie recently received a BS in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Environmental Education from UNC Asheville and completed her North Carolina Environmental Educator Certification, which she credits as helping her find her new job. In her new role, she will be leading team building activities, high and low-ropes course activities, outdoor sports, arts, crafts, drama, and environmental education lessons to groups of various sizes, ages, and backgrounds at the center.

When asked about her favorite part of earning her certification, Julie says it was the workshops. “The workshops were all absolutely awesome and so informative! I especially liked the in-person workshops.” Julie says some of her favorites include Project WILD and Growing Up Wild, which are programs of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission; Project Learning Tree, coordinated by NC State University – Extension Forestry and the NC Forest Service; Project OWL, a program of The North Carolina Arboretuml; and the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education course which is offered by a variety of organizations in NC. “I have a huge box of accumulated books and tools now from this certification, that I will bring with me everywhere and use in all my jobs!”

In addition to the workshops, Julie says the community partnership project was an experience that stood out for her. For her project, Julie partnered with Emma Childs, the sustainability director at Christmount Fellowship in Black Mountain. “Together we created an educational booklet about how to be more environmentally sustainable in your everyday life. I painted illustrations and Emma added simple text to each one. The booklet will be placed in each room at Christmount, to help provide an engaging, fun, easily comprehensible resource for residents and visitors. Emma wanted community members to understand the interconnectedness of people and the environment, and helping to provide the WHY of why we should be good environmental stewards and care about how our actions affect the planet.”

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching, Julie said it taught her to be a better environmental educator and how to communicate environmental issues to others. “I have learned so much about how to be the best environmental educator I can be! From using the 5E's curriculum model, to awareness of diversity and inclusion, to asking open-ended questions, to leading with humility, kindness, compassion, humor, flexibility, open-mindedness, creativity, and curiosity.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Educator Spotlight: Annette Steele


Annette at Grandfather Mountain

Annette Steele is a teacher at Lincoln Heights Environmental Connections Magnet Elementary School in Wake County. Lincoln Heights has received numerous distinctions including Wake County Watershed Stewardship School, NC Green School of Excellence and is a 2020 US Department of Education Green Ribbon School. Annette says the Environmental Education Certification has helped her develop lessons and prepared her to move into a coaching role within the school helping teachers develop environmental education lessons and activities.

In her current role as an elementary educator, Annette works with students in grades Kindergarten through fifth grade. “I spend my weekdays helping students to learn how to love the outdoors and nature and the weekends camping in nature. I am passionate about the environment and enjoy traveling. State Parks are my favorite place to visit.”

Annette says her favorite part of earning her certification was participating in a wide variety of workshops and working with so many new people. “Each different class offered another viewpoint and learning experience. There are so many talented people who work in the State who are willing to share their knowledge and help me become a better educator.”

When asked what experience stood out for her during the certification process, Annette says it was the access to a diversity of topics and educators. “I started working on my EE certification during the COVID lockdown and luckily for me, many of the classes were offered virtually. I remember one day when I went to a whaling class led by an instructor in the Outer Banks, and that same evening I participated in a class about bats led by an instructor in Asheville. These virtual classes opened my access to so many different experiences and classes that I might not have even participated in if it were not for the pandemic. My hat goes off to the instructors who adapted and pivoted to make these experiences possible.”

For her community partnership project, Annette created a nature trail, called Discovery Woods, right in the middle of the Moccasin Branch Campground at Raven Rock State Park. Discovery Woods is located within the wooded area at the center of the Campground which is primarily used by curious campers, and children exploring the woods. “Discovery Woods has fifteen interpretive signs starting at the high traffic bathhouse that invite people to learn more about the park's history, ecosystems and the flora and fauna found within Raven Rock State Park. Each sign has questions which give the visitors clues to information on the next sign and most of the signs contain QR codes and websites that link to additional information to further engage their explorations.”

Annette says the program changed her approach to teaching. “I try as hard as possible to make activities hands-on and outside. Exploring in nature and being able to physically create a nature journal, observe a butterfly, or help with citizen science projects are so rewarding for all learners. I know this has been a virtual year, but some of the best instructors managed to incorporate outside experiences into their virtual classes. If they can do that, so can I.”

She says the program changed her attitude towards environmental issues and how we teach the issues to young children. “As an elementary educator, I learned that creating a love of nature through hands-on outdoors activities is crucial to help students learn to love and appreciate the world they live in. I am now very cautious about creating environmental ecophobia in our young learners. I want them to love the natural world rather than fear it.”