Monday, November 20, 2023

DEQ Secretary Elizabeth Biser Awards Environmental Stewardship Initiative Program Manager Yolanda Gibson with Environmental Education Certificate

Secretary Biser awarded Yolanda Gibson with her NC Environmental Education Certificate today. Yolanda started working on her certification while teaching environmental science and biology at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury. She recently took a position as a program manager with the Environmental Stewardship Initiative (ESI) in DEQ’s Division of Environmental Assistance and Customer Service. As one of the program managers, she supports members of the ESI Program with sustainability initiatives.

Yolana enjoys hiking, exploring nature, baking, and challenging herself to find new ways to engage audiences through experiential learning and hands-on experiences. “I love revamping recipes for my daughter that has severe food allergies and spending time working at a local food pantry.”

Yolanda says her favorite part of earning her environmental education certification was attending workshops and meeting people with similar interests. “There were so many wonderful experiences, but attending the Swans, Bears and Wolves Workshop probably stood out the most. Opportunities to go out in the field and participate in hands-on experiences are rare; so, having access to this workshop was extremely beneficial. Although I have completed my certification, I am scheduled to attend the Coastal Conservation Workshop this August and cannot wait to go!”

“It is an honor to award Yolanda with her Environmental Education Certification,” said Secretary Biser. “Completing the program is a wonderful achievement and the added bonus is that she has joined the DEQ staff and brings her commitment to environmental education to her work with the Environmental Stewardship Initiative.”

For her community partnership project, Yolanda installed a native pollinator garden and small wildlife viewing station at Kensington Elementary School in Union County. She wanted to create an outdoor space for environmental education. “My vision was to create a green space within the school setting providing students with an area for learning, reflecting, and journaling. This project allows for engagement between important members of our community, our teachers, and students. The garden is a beacon for connectivity, becoming more environmentally conscious, and inspiration in expanding environmental awareness throughout the community. The garden provides a space where participants can glean ways to garden sustainably, providing immeasurable benefits to countless organisms and the environment. The school community members will benefit from a space that fosters inclusivity, decreases stress, and increased socialization opportunities.”

Yolanda says that the certification program changed the way she taught. “Having access to tools, resources, and opportunities to participate in hands-on learning has been instrumental in changing my approach to teaching. These educational aids allow for experiential learning events. I feel more comfortable with not ‘having all the answers,’ but still being able to facilitate programming that promotes inquiry-based learning.”

She also says the program changed the way she views environmental issues. “Discussing environmental topics can be depressing and sometimes it seems individual efforts are insignificant. Furthermore, there are no easy solutions to these daunting issues. Through my experiences with this program, I have witnessed how the smallest efforts are significant. Planting the pollinator garden took weeks to finish, but over that short period of time I could see so many benefits from one garden, one effort, one act.”

Yolanda says that her Environmental Education Certification will help her in her new position as she prepares for a lead trainer role to help companies increase their environmental stewardship efforts through the ESI Program.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Educator Spotlight: E.J. Dwigans

E.J. Dwigans, an Educational Ranger with the NC Forest Service at Holmes Educational State Forest in Hendersonville recently completed the NC Environmental Education Certification.

E.J. helps manage the 235-acre property that includes educational exhibits as well as picnic and camping facilities in addition to providing public and school programming. “We educate students of all grade levels as well as the general public about a variety of nature related subjects including forest management, fire ecology, water quality, wildlife, and the history of our site going back to the 1930's.”

E.J. says his favorite part of the program was meeting other nonformal educators from across the state and learning from their experiences. “Listening to some of the limitations and challenges others face at their site has helped put some of the things I consider problems here at Holmes ESF into perspective.” He particularly enjoyed the overnight workshops such as the Investigating Your Environment and Project Learning Tree facilitator trainings. “I've made some great friends in the EE community by talking around a campfire after hours.”

For his community partnership project, E.J. rejuvenated an old nature trail at Atkinson Elementary School in Hendersonville to turn it into a tree identification trail. This was a large project that involved collaborating with the school to remove dead trees, removing invasive species, clearing the trail of overgrown vegetation, and laying gravel on the trail. E.J. says his main priority was to provide a tree ID guide along the trail focusing on ten species of trees. “I made ten wooden tree ID signs with numbers corresponding to the information on the trail guide. The signs include the common and scientific name of the species. From the trail, only the number is visible, and you flip the sign to see the name of the tree. The tree ID guide I provided to school staff includes information for identifying the ten trees on the trail.”

E.J. said the project was a continuation of an already great partnership between Atkinson Elementary School and Holmes Educational State Forest. “Although the school is close, field trips are not always an easy thing to initiate. With the newly restored Tree ID trail, school staff can expose students to environmental education within a brief period and without having to arrange buses for a trip off site. The project also turned out to be beneficial to the non-profit group Muddy Sneakers. After talking with their educators, they will now be using the trail and creek when they visit Atkinson for fifth grade education.”

E.J. said that no one at the school could tell him the name of the creek that flowed through the property and that the trail crossed over so he handmade a "Perry Creek" sign for the bridge crossing the creek and provided educational resources to school staff to help them teach students about their local watershed.

When asked if the program led to any changes in his approach to teaching, E.J. said, “Throughout the certification process I have continually added things to my skill set allowing me to reach my target audience more effectively. The leaders of every workshop I attended were great and it seemed like I would always pick up a new teaching method from one of the instructors that I had not thought of before.”

E.J. says the program also changed the way he views environmental issues. “I've advocated for environmental issues since I was a kid. If anything, this program has expanded my understanding of complex environmental issues and helped me think more realistically when it comes to solutions as opposed to reading about an issue and its suggested solutions without knowing anyone that is affected by the issue.”

Monday, September 11, 2023

Wake Teacher Earns NC Environmental Education Certification and Receives NCWF Environmental Educator of the Year Award

September is a big month for fifth grade teacher Terri McLeod. After several years at Kingwood Montessori STEM Magnet School, she's starting the new school year at Green Hope Elementary and can add the title North Carolina Certified Environmental Educator to her many educational accomplishments and adventures!

Terri also received another big honor this month--she was presented with the Environmental Educator of the Year award at the 59th Annual North Carolina Wildlife Federation Governor's Conservation Achievement Awards Banquet on September 9th.

As Terri's award nomination says, her "love for nature and sustainability, along with her incorporation of environmental education into the curriculum, has sparked a transformative and lasting impact, fostering a deep appreciation for science and the natural world among students from diverse backgrounds. Terri’s infectious enthusiasm and mantra of 'Science is everywhere' resonate throughout the school, igniting a love for learning and the environment."

That same "infectious enthusiasm" moved Terri to enroll in and complete the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification Program, a program administered by the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs. Lisa Tolley, program manager for the office  recognizes Terri’s dedication to providing hands-on, outdoor learning experiences for her students. “Terri’s enthusiasm for the environment and science and her love of learning is evident in her teaching and her many accomplishments. From working with the Museum of Natural Sciences to create natural habitat and outdoor learning spaces at her school to providing resources and professional development to other teachers, Terri exemplifies what it means to be an environmental educator.

Terri says the Spring in the Mountains Educator Trek to Purchase Knob with educators from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences was an incredible experience for her. So, it was fitting that her last workshop for her certification was a Ground Level Ozone training at Purchase Knob on her birthday.

Terri notes that her favorite part of the process was the people. " I loved meeting others who are passionate about the environment and with sharing this knowledge with others. I loved seeing all the different aspects of EE that others participated, like: municipal programs, informal educators, non-profits, government agency, parks, museums, camps, outreach programs and so much more. This wide variety was eye opening and exciting."

Terri notes that the program broadened her mind and breath of understanding of the different aspects of environmental science and environmental education. "Participating the the EE Certification Program helped me in so many ways, but most importantly it helped me take my approach from advocacy to education....I always knew this in theory but needed the help to bring it into practice."

One of Terri's favorite workshop experiences

Megan Davis from the NC Museum of Natural Sciences with Terri and students during construction of the schools UTOTES habitat, which served as Terri's project. 

Monday, August 28, 2023

Jennie Emmons, a high school teacher from Durham County recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification.

Jennie has been a teacher for 12 years and next month she will be taking a position as an environmental specialist with the NC Department of Environmental Quality. “I love to learn, and I am always trying to learn something new. I am passionate about natural history, and I love to hike and identify every plant along the way. I also love to travel, I have lived in Puerto Rico and recently  traveled to Canada, Belize and Rome, Italy.”

Jennie says her favorite part of earning her certification is attending the Environmental Educators of North Carolina’s conference. When asked what certification experience stood out for her, she says it was a trip with her students. “Taking my students on hiking trips to the Eno River and having them dip net in our retention pond at the school for macroinvertebrates. I loved seeing them experience those things for the first time.”

For her community partnership project, Jennie worked with 5th grade students at Excelsior Classical Academy to write a Keep NC Beautiful Window of Opportunity Grant for a pollinator garden. The students were involved with all aspects of the project. “This project helped 5th graders learn more about pollinators and their needs and it also got them out of their comfort zone. They did research, planned engaging lessons, and presented those lessons to students of varying ages. Not only did students share this commitment and passion among their peers, but they also shared it with other grade levels and other adults. It carries on even today as I chat with them in the hallways about the work we did for this grant and how we can do other things to inspire our school community to value and care for our environment.” Jennie says the lesson about pollinators reached around 400 students from ages five to 10 years old. 

Jennie says the program changed her approach to teaching. “Students gain more by getting their hands on what they are learning, and it helps them build better connections to what they are studying. I also learned that it is ok to just let kids sit still in nature. Even high schoolers.”

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Chelsie Bobbitt

Chelsie Bobbitt recently completed her North Carolina Environmental Education Certification. Chelsie is the administrator and education coordinator for Alleghany Soil and Water Conservation District. She has an associate degree in animal science and is currently a senior at NC A&T Greensboro working on her bachelor’s degree in agriculture professional services. Chelsie grew up on a beef cattle farm in the mountains of North Carolina and she shows beef cattle at the local and state level. In her personal time, she loves being outside on the farm and playing with her sweet puppy Benji.

Chelsie says her favorite part of earning her certification was exploring new places in North Carolina. “I enjoyed meeting new people that have the same goals as I do and making new friends that I can call and ask for advice.”

For her community partnership project, Chelsie created a community garden with grant support from AppHealthCare. While teaching at local schools, Chelsie realized that many of the students did not know where their food comes from. “This really opened my eyes because I live in a small farming town and I grew up on a cattle farm, so it is natural for me to know where food comes from, but many students had no idea. I came back to my office and did some digging on this problem and realized it was a bigger issue than I thought. I did some research to figure out what I could do to fix this issue, and this is how I came up with the community garden.”

Chelsie started her project by teaching students at three elementary schools about the life cycle of plants, what plants need to survive and how to grow food. She says when the community heard about the project, people started donating supplies. “I had several classes with 4-H kids in the garden and families would stop by and pick veggies, and whatever was left over, I would take it to the local food closet. I chose to put the garden in the middle of town next to the park because the park is a very popular place during the summer and if families are at the park, they can just walk right over to the garden without having to drive.”

In terms of her approach to teaching, Chelsie says the program helped her realize how important hands-on lessons can be when teaching. She says the program also changed the way she thinks about environmental issues. “I never studied environmental issues before this program and now I think about them all the time. I look for ways I can help the environment by teaching others about local environmental issues.”  

Monday, August 7, 2023

DEQ Secretary Recognizes Liani Yirka, Education Program Coordinator at Sarah P. Duke Gardens

NC Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser visited Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham to award Liani Yirka with her North Carolina Environmental Education Certificate. 

Yirka is the education program coordinator for the gardens and in that role, she coordinates and provides outdoor nonformal environmental education programs and engagement opportunities for learners of all ages and abilities.  

Yirka is passionate about educational opportunities that are inclusive, comfortable, and welcoming to all abilities, languages, socio-economic status, and identities. She creates educational programs using universal design principles with this goal in mind. 

Secretary Biser and staff from the DEQ Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs enjoyed a tour of the native plant garden that overlooks a piedmont prairie habitat, a space that Liani often uses for teaching programs. They were also joined by Liani’s supervisor Kavanah Anderson, director of learning at the gardens.

Liani notes that at first, many visitors do not realize the significance of the biodiversity found in the native plant garden and prairie habitat because it doesn’t look like a traditional landscaped garden. For that reason, the space provides an opportunity to educate both children and adults about native plant populations and the indigenous people who care for them. 

Liani said that her favorite part of earning her certification was learning from, and with, other educators. “I deeply respect and admire others who have dedicated their career to advancing this field and to supporting both learners and other educators as they learn about the natural world. It has also been a real treat to visit environmental education centers across the state,” she says. She also notes how much she enjoyed learning from the playful pedagogy workshops offered through the NC Zoo. “Linda Kinney is a treasure to the NC Environmental Education community, and I have enjoyed embracing the child in me and learning with this perspective,” says Yirka.

Liani says the program changed her approach to teaching. “I now have the skills and joys of creating programs that are student-led, observation based, where I do not need to know all the facts because we can explore "what does it remind you of," and "what do you notice?" as a way of reaching and learning together. I have gained these skills and techniques through my participation in the environmental education certification program,” she says. 

In addition to many hours of professional development, the certification program requires a community partnership project. For her project, Liani collaborated with the Durham School of the Arts to provide monthly art-and-science connection programs for Occupational Course of Study students with Autism. “Each month students would connect to the natural world they encounter during other visits to Duke Gardens through an art project that increases their fine motor skills, listening and comprehension skills, ability to follow precise direction, and create artwork that they can showcase both at Duke Gardens during a public festival, and at school. The capstone of this 5-month project was a short video/photo montage shared with the Durham School of the Arts community that showcases the students’ projects at Duke Gardens, including a culminating mural that will be displayed in the Duke Gardens classroom for years to come,” says Yirka. 

“Liani is an example of the type of outstanding educator that we are fortunate to have in North Carolina. I’m honored to recognize her work in the field to make environmental education more inclusive for all North Carolinians,” says Secretary Biser.” 

Yirka plans to continue to advocate and work towards an environmental education community of practice that embraces intersectional identities and supports marginalized communities. I want environmental education to be inclusive to BIPOC communities, embrace environmental justice issues, and teach and learn with identities that are not the dominant narrative. I see so much progress on this front in our field and will continue to incorporate this into my own practice.”

Educator Spotlight - Chelsea (Cea) Flowers

Chelsea (Cea) Flowers recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. For the last four years, Cea has worked as a core field instructor/naturalist for Muddy Sneakers, a non-profit organization that partners with public schools to deliver high quality, hands-on outdoor science lessons that correspond to state standards. “It was an amazing experience to see students light up as they explored outdoors all while making connections to what they were learning in the classroom.”

In the summers, during the off-season, Cea wears a variety of hats. She taught an undergraduate class in public history, designed, and led a summer camp for a local non-profit community farm and worked on her own flora and fauna inspired pottery. She is currently seeking a new environmental education position, particularly in programming and advocacy.

When asked about her favorite part of earning her certification, Cea says she can’t pick just one, but the Project Learning Tree Southern Forest and Climate Change workshop facilitated by Renee Strnad, with NCSU Extension Forestry is at the top of her list. “It had been a while since I'd done a carbon sequestration exercise! That was a big favorite since it's just this immensely important geological action that I think every single person should have the opportunity to learn more about! It's kind of a big deal and fascinating.”

Cea says she enjoyed every one of the hands-on workshops she attended. “I really appreciated the ones that explored the intersections of class, race, and gender within our environmental history so, for example, the Equity and the Environment workshop stood out. I also really loved workshops that focused on pedagogy and methodology like Methods of Teaching Environmental Education. The organization I was working with had a very diverse group of students, with varying levels of comfort in the outdoors, so that workshop was very useful. One thing that held true from every single workshop, whether it was Aquatic Wild, bat monitoring, or a methodologies class was how much community connection can be built. You’re meeting so many people with all these different backgrounds and dreams. You’re learning from other attendees about what’s happening across the state-programs, resources, educational centers, and projects. By engaging with this community, I’ve gathered a lot of inspiration and made some wonderful personal and professional relationships. Also, being following by an elk at dusk while attending the Advanced Air Quality – Ground Level Ozone workshop in the mountains was a highlight!”

For her community partnership project, Cea installed two pollinator gardens in the coastal plains, one on the grounds of the Robeson County Public Library in Lumberton where she is originally from, to encourage more interaction with the outdoors, and the other at a rural elementary school in Chadbourn where the staff is enthusiastic about connecting students to nature. I chose to do my project in this area because while beautiful and marked by unique topography and its rich diversity of plants, many of the communities here do not have access to resources available to other areas like the Triangle. I wanted to give these spaces the attention they deserve.”

Cea says the program helped her to gain confidence in her knowledge of natural resources and ecological systems. “My degrees were in humanities, with an MA in public history. And although I supplemented that with some elective college classes in environmental history and science, and then sought a variety of workshops and internships relating to ecology and ethnobotany, I don’t have a hard science degree…yet! But joining the certificate program kept me immersed and committed to continuing that education and gave me a lot more confidence passing on knowledge and curiosity to others. But as importantly, it gave me teaching strategies so that I could adapt my approaches to different learning styles and interests within the unique challenges that can come from outdoor education. I’ve also learned so many effective and fun activities that can be used spontaneously on a walk or over several days. I use quite a few with my friends and their kids and one day for my own.” 

Cea says the program also changed the way she looks at environmental issues. “I believe some of the workshops I took reaffirmed the importance of recognizing how systemic issues affect individual capacity for environmental interaction” so she tries to encourage the students she works with to be stewards of the environment.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Lily Knepp

Lily Knepp, a park technician at Pilot Mountain State Park, recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. As part of her daily work, Lily provides educational programs and manages the natural resources at the park which includes invasive plant removal. She also occasionally conducts surveys of wildlife such as birds and butterflies. In her personal time, Lily enjoys birding and hiking.

Lily says her favorite part of earning her certification was learning how to teach people of all ages and skills. “Starting the certification while I was still in college, I didn’t have much experience teaching. Seeing how far I have come since the beginning, and how I now incorporate hands on activities and self-discovery to engage students, really gives testimony to how important it is to participate in a program like the environmental education certification.” She says the program helped her become more qualified for a permanent position with state parks.

When asked about a certification experience that stood out for her, Lily says it was the series of workshops offered by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission that includes workshops such as Flying WILD, Aquatic WILD, and Growing up WILD. “All of these workshops provided me with great activities that work well in a park setting.”

For her community partnership project, Lily made and installed bluebird houses at Pilot Mountain State Park. “I coordinated with a local 4-H club to help me paint the birdhouses, and park interns to help me build and install the birdhouses around the park. Pilot Mountain has a lot of suitable bluebird habitats, but not many bluebird houses. With a limited number of natural cavities for nesting, these birdhouses should boost the populations of bluebirds around the park. Just three weeks after installing the birdhouses, one already had a pair of bluebirds nesting in it!”

Lily says the program changed her approach to teaching. “I use a lot more hands-on activities to reinforce ideas, and I also incorporate self-discovery time into most of my programming.” She says the program also emphasized for her the connection between education and change. “Educating people about environmental problems is the foundation of them going forward and doing something about the problem. As an educator, I am simply laying a cornerstone, and hopefully some people will continue to build on that.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Anna Edwards

Anna Edwards, education coordinator for the Iredell Soil and Water Conservation District recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. 

In her role as education coordinator, Anna educates her community on the importance of conserving natural resources. She hopes her efforts to educate others enables them to share their knowledge with others. 

Anna says her favorite part of earning her certification was improving her confidence in teaching. “I've noticed the more confidence I gain in teaching environmental education, the more passionate I become about environmental education.”

When asked what experience stood out for her, Anna says it was the Advanced Air Quality: Ground Level Ozone workshop she took. “I’ve always been intimidated on the topic of air quality, but this workshop gave me the resources to confidently educate others on this topic in multiple interactive, hands-on ways.”

For her community partnership project, Anna installed bird houses at The Boys and Girls Club of the Piedmont in Statesville and created a Blue Bird Club with members from the Boys and Girls Club. “Throughout the summer and the schoolyear, the Blue Bird Club will take part in and lead various lessons and activities that focus on our natural world and the conservation of our natural resources.”

Anna says the certification program changed her approach to teaching. “Participating in the certification program has given me the resources, materials, and personal toolkit to go out and positively make an impact with all ages regarding the conservation and efficient use of our natural resources.”

When asked if the program changed the way she thinks about environmental issues, Anna said, “I don't feel that there have been any changes in the way that I think about environmental issues, but I do feel that I know more about environmental issues and have the resources and materials to continue expanding my knowledge and awareness of environmental issues.” 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Rosemary Kinch

Rosemary Kinch far right

Rosemary Kinch recently received a Gaston County Environmental Education Fellowship and completed her NC Environmental Education Certification.

In her new role, Rosemary will be guiding and engaging Gaston County students in natural science programs to increase their academic achievement and fulfill K-12 Standard Course of Study requirements. She says that it’s the joy of exploration and discovery in teaching about the environment that inspires her to provide these opportunities for communities. “I foster experiences for students of all ages and abilities and develop authentic connections with the local environment through my work with nature-based schools, outdoor summer camps, and therapeutic environmental education places and gardens.”

Rosemary says her favorite part of the certification program was learning from the environmental education facilitators that provided instructional workshops such as the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education Workshop. “Participating in the instructional workshops, such as Project Learning Tree, Food Land and People, Project WET, and Project WILD expanded my understanding and provided me with great tools to stimulate my student to pursue their own environmental connections, values, and actions.”

Rosemary says that one of the certification experiences that really stands out for her was a Project WILD instructional workshop taught by CC King with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “C.C. assigned us in various roles to play "Wild" games; each game provided us with analogies of real interactions with the environment, certain aspects of biotic and abiotic elements on local nature, why those occur, and the detrimental outcomes. We all suggested mitigations and possible solutions.”

For her community partnership project, Rosemary determined a need for an environmental education garden that was universal, therapeutic, and inclusive for exceptional populations in the Charlotte area. She partnered with UMAR, a nonprofit in Charlotte that promotes community inclusion, independence and growth for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through cultural enrichment opportunities. Working with UMAR, Rosemary designed and installed a therapeutic/environmental education garden on a donated area of a public garden in Charlotte. “I partnered with a core group of exceptional adults to choose, plant, and maintain native plants.” She taught the participants about the roles and benefits of those native plants and created garden projects to support this new native habitat. This garden now provides a dedicated outdoor environment that supports ongoing learning, while simultaneously providing visitors with opportunities to engage in nature.

Watch this short video of Rosemary's project. This is a gorgeous day at the garden with participants workin gin the therapeutic garden donated by McGill Rose Garden in uptown Charlotte. Participants spent time sorting bulbs and mixing cement to make mosaics.

Rosemary says the certification program changed the way she approaches teaching others. “I am convinced that audience sensitivity, being attuned to the interests, needs, and abilities of participants enables an instructor to construct an optimum learning experience for participants. The certification program stressed how vital it is to not advocate my own or another person’s particular argument or justification of any environmental issue. Instead, communicating and connecting participants through interactions with the environment and supporting those explorations with student-based inquiry and factual knowledge, fosters the development of values and relationships that encourage responsible actions toward the environment.”

The certification program changed the way Rosemary thinks about environmental issues. “As I progressed through the program, especially during the pandemic crisis shutting down in-person attendance, the importance of our relationship to our local environmental communities increased. While it is an amazing privilege to experience outdoor environments vastly different from our own local floral and fauna, our closest connections are with the nature we live with day by day. There is a saying ‘do not despise small beginnings.’ The program augmented my own determination to support students in their developing passions for environmental issues affecting their local communities, because they are most intimately tied and affected by those issues.” 

Friday, June 9, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Carol Hambridge

Carol Hambridge, an Environmental Engineer with a passion for educating others about environmental protection through science and art, recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. 

Carol volunteers for Habitat and Wildlife Keepers (HAWK), which is the Matthews Chapter of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. She maintains a neighborhood fairy garden and “Little Owl’s Lending Library” with books about nature and stewardship. She also has a cutting garden where she grows flowers to give away through her non-profit, “Fill Up My Vase.” The garden is also used as a teaching garden. She enjoys camping, hiking, painting, photography, sewing and making digital murals.

Carol looks forward to sharing her knowledge through teaching the many stellar instructional programs. Her favorite part of the program was learning about the mobile phone apps iNaturalist and Merlin. “These everyday tools are easily available to everyone, and I am constantly showing others how these tools work to identify plants, insects and birds. The Merlin Bird ID App is an especially simple and powerful tool.  By recording bird sounds, anyone can discover what bird is calling, without even seeing it. By forming frequent, immediate and intimate connections to nature, further wonder and learning are ignited.

When asked about what experience stood out to her from the program, Carol mentions several adventures. “I loved learning about the stars on a cold January night through an outdoor Zoom call with a professor of astronomy, learning about all the different frog calls in NC, and going on a mushroom hike with a mycologist. “My most memorable experience, however, was finding the spotted salamander egg masses in a vernal pool at Reedy Creek Nature Park.”

For her community partnership project, Carol worked with HAWK to design a new educational sign at Squirrel Lake Park near the pollinator garden and bee hotel. The new sign will allow people using the park to learn about solitary bees and inspire them to help bees by creating backyard habitats, reducing pesticide use, and planting native flowers. She also created a display with posters, sample bee houses, nesting materials, an informational handout, and fifty take-home solitary bee house kits with instructions for the Matthews Kids in Nature - Earth Day Festival. The handout includes ways to improve backyards to create native bee habitat. Her project also included modifying the existing bee hotel at Squirrel Lake Park by replacing some of the drilled logs with updated nesting tube structures that can be replaced for cleaning.

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching, Carol says, “my previous approach was more focused on the environmental issues and what we should be doing to mitigate the problems. The certification program has inspired me to focus on the wonder of nature instead of the problems. Concurrently, there is a significant need for all ages of our population to nurture our well-being through closeness to nature. By cultivating this essential human nature connection, we promote the desire to learn more, cultivate a deeper appreciation, and a desire to protect.”

Monday, May 22, 2023

DEQ Office of Environmental Education and NC PLT Recognize work of Stanly County Certified Environmental Educator

Stanly County Schools Approves New Outdoor STEM Elective 
Developed by Science and Social Studies Teacher Owens-White

The Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) North Carolina Office of Environmental Education recently visited South Stanly Middle School to present science and social studies teacher Kristin Owens-White with her North Carolina Environmental Educator Certification. DEQ’s Environmental Education Program Manager Lisa Tolley was joined by Renee Strnad with North Carolina State University Forestry Extension who serves as the state coordinator for the North Carolina Project Learning Tree program.

Kristin’s work on the certification program inspired her to develop a new elective for the middle school that will teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics through outdoor activities and nature exploration, including weather observations and daily weather reports. The course was recently approved by the Stanly County School Board and the first group of students will begin in August. Owens-White notes that the goal of the new class “is to get kids disconnected from devices and connected to the world around them.”

“It is wonderful to see the direct results of the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification program in supporting teachers like Kristin who are using their local environment and schoolgrounds to engage students in STEM while increasing environmental literacy,” observes Tolley. “We enjoyed touring the school grounds with the students and seeing their excitement as they told us about the birds and plants and why they enjoy their classes with Ms. Owens-White.”

The course will incorporate material from various environmental education programs Owens-White experienced during her certification process, especially NC Project Learning Tree. “Witnessing how Kristin used PLT and the other experiences she had during the EE Certification program to create this new course for her students is so inspiring,” notes Strnad. “I can’t wait to see where it leads.” In addition to Project Learning Tree and other activities, another one of Owens-White’s goals is to have a team from South Stanly Middle School participate in the North Carolina Envirothon, a state-wide natural resource competition for high school and middle school teams that is also part of the international Envirothon competition.

The school hopes the course will benefit students in STEM and other subject areas and expand learning opportunities for students who excel at active and hands-on learning.

The North Carolina Environmental Education Certification Program requires 200 hours of workshops, field studies, teaching experiences and a community project. It serves both formal educators in the classroom and “informal” educators, which include educators at parks, forests, gardens, museums, zoos, aquariums, arboretums and other public educational venues. The program builds capacity for education in the state by incorporating existing environmental education programs as essential partners, including NC Project Learning Tree and others. It also facilitates partnerships between formal and informal educators.

The North Carolina Environmental Education Certification Program is administered by the DEQ Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs. It encourages professional development and establishes standards in environmental education while acknowledging educators committed to environmental stewardship.

Project Learning Tree ® (PLT) is an award winning, multi-disciplinary environmental education program for educators and students in PreK-grade 12. Nationally, PLT is a program of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. In North Carolina, it is coordinated by North Carolina State University Forestry Extension in collaboration with the North Carolina Forestry Association and the North Carolina Forest Service.

The North Carolina Envirothon program is a competitive event for high school and middle school teams to compete in a natural resources knowledge and ecology field day against other teams. It stimulates, reinforces and enhances students’ interest in the environment and our state’s natural resources. It is sponsored by the NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts with help in organization and implementation from the NC Division of Soil and Water Conservation.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Polk Central Elementary School and Community Celebrate Opening of Nature Trail and Recognize NC Certified Environmental Educator, Nikki Jones


Nikki Jones, the Western North Carolina Region Director for Muddy Sneakers, was recognized today for completing her NC Environmental Education Certification. The presentation was part of a full morning of events at Polk Central Elementary, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a restored school nature trail and a special recognition for the school.

Muddy Sneakers is a non-profit organization that provides outdoor science education programs to fifth-grade public school students across the state. The NC Environmental Education Certification program is administered by the NC Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs. The nature trail project and new educational programs at the school were part of Jones’s required 200 hours of workshops, field studies, teaching and community project that are required for the program.

Jones’s certificate was presented by Lisa Tolley, the program manager for the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs. Polk Central principal Dr. Kim McMinn attended to congratulate Jones, as well as representatives from project partners which included Conserving Carolina, Polk County Parks and Recreation and RootEd/Constructive Learning Design. The trail project is one of three Polk Central initiatives with RootED, a nonprofit program that helps educators design and deliver project-based and experiential learning. The Polk Central fifth-grade students and several parents, faculty and community members were also on hand for the event.

Nikki Jones and Lisa Tolley

In addition to the honor for Jones and the trail project, the Great Trails State Coalition presented Polk Central with a certificate designating it a “North Carolina Great Trails School” for their efforts in restoring the nature trail. The school trail will now become part of the county’s public trail network.

Andrea Walter and Principal, Dr. Kim McMinn

"I am very proud of our Polk Central Elementary students for taking on this challenge, and for doing an incredible job with the trail,” notes Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Green. “Real world learning opportunities make a huge impact on young people, and we are thankful for our community partners and donors who help make these experiences possible. I commend our educators for their emphasis on environmental education, and for helping our students understand that working together to appreciate and preserve our natural resources benefits us all. Thank you, Polk Central students, teachers, and community!"

Jones’s project originated from the longtime educational partnership between Muddy Sneakers and the school’s 5th grade. When she heard that Polk Central’s fifth grade teacher Andrea Walter was looking for help to replace the old tree identification signs on the school’s nature trail, she suggested they collaborate on a bigger project with the fifth-grade students. The Polk Central nature trail had become overgrown and underused, with its old interpretive signs lost, damaged or hidden in new forest growth. Walter wanted to restore the trail for both school and public use, as the immediate area has limited public nature access.

Students, families and community members worked together to rebuild the trail, remove several species of invasive plants and improve the trail’s surface for rainwater runoff. Jones worked with teachers to lead lessons and activities based on the trail and project, design tree identification signs and guide development of student-created virtual signs for the trail that are accessible through Google Maps. “This feature allows the interpretive information on the trail to grow and change over time. Trail users can access the interactive trail map on any device and customize their trail experience by selecting which themes to explore.” The trail is also interdisciplinary. Rebekah Morse, an English Language Arts and social studies teacher, worked with students to conduct community interviews on the history of Polk County which provides an additional layer for the virtual signage.

Jones emphasizes the active role of students on the project. “We worked with students to walk the trail, identify areas that needed repair, plan locations and content for physical and digital trail signs and develop the technology-enhanced trail experiences. Every step of the process was student-centered and aligned with 5th grade standards and project-based learning goals.”

To enhance the community aspect and ensure the success of the project, Jones and Walter connected the teachers and students with supporting organizations and agencies for help, including Conserving Carolina AmeriCorps members, the Kudzu Warriors and the Polk County Parks and Recreation to learn about and remove invasive plants. Students also worked with Ms. Kelly Gay of the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District to learn about how to address erosion on the trail.

Jones notes that the NC Environmental Education Certification Program not only led her to her project with Polk Central, but also enhanced her career. “It was helpful to reconnect with formal learning in the classroom environment and to build year-long relationships with students. It’s important for non-formal education partners to understand the work our fellow educators are doing in schools so that we continue to be strong, supportive partners in all our collaborations.”

Funders for this project included private donors and the Kiwanis Club of Tryon. Jones and the school also credit Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene and Ronette Dill, Grants & Community Partnerships Coordinator, for their support.

The NC Environmental Education Certification is offered through the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs to encourage professional development in environmental education and acknowledge educators committed to environmental stewardship. For more information, visit

Governor Roy Cooper has designated 2023 as the Year of the Trail in North Carolina. Learn more about this effort and the Great Trails State Coalition at

Monday, May 8, 2023

Educator Spotlight: Miranda Elkins

Miranda Elkins left with partners for her three-acre pollinator garden

Miranda Elkins, the Lincoln County Assistant Ranger with the NC Forest Service recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. Miranda works with private landowners to help manage their forests, and she visits schools for special events, supports fire prevention programs and wildfire response in the county and across the state. 

Miranda says her favorite part of earning her certification was the hands-on workshops because participants were able to take parr in the activities to make sure they would translate to the setting she would be working in. 

For her community partnership project, Miranda worked with a Beekeepers Association to establish a three-acre pollinator garden to help educate the public about the importance of our pollinators and why it is it is helpful to provide needed habitat for local pollinators. 

Miranda says the program helped change her approach to teaching. “I learned how to let my audience lead the program and adapt it to their needs. I also learned new ways to get the audience more involved in the learning process and let them build their own conclusions and decisions.”

She also says the program changed the way she thinks about environmental issues. “I now realize that a singular issue can be viewed or interpreted so differently by different groups of people based on where they are from, their own personal experiences and feelings.”