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.”

Educator Spotlight: Audrey Dunn

Audrey Dunn, Outreach and Programs Officer at Cape Fear River Watch recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. Audrey manages Cape Fear River Watch’s citizen science water quality monitoring program, CreekWatchers and their Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement program in partnership with the New Hanover County chapter of the NAACP. She coordinates monthly watershed cleanups, teaches about stormwater runoff and pollution to middle schoolers, trains interns on field and lab work to monitor water quality, and gives outreach presentations to community groups. In her personal time, Audrey serves on the board of Keep New Hanover Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, and enjoys hiking, camping, paddling, reading, and practicing yoga.

Audrey says her favorite part about certification was meeting other educators. “I mostly just enjoyed meeting other environmental educators and learning about what sort of work they do and gaining inspiration from them. I also particularly immensely enjoyed reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv which spurred me on to finish my certification and to be the best environmental educator possible.”

When asked about an experience that stood out for her, Audrey says it was the two-day Methods of Teaching Environmental Education Workshop that she took. “I attended with quite a few of my Americorps cohort educators, and it was just really great to be surrounded by like-minded people, learn more about my friends, and spend time at Haw River State Park.”

For her community partnership project, Audrey developed the Environmental Justice and Civic Engagement program at Cape Fear River Watch. “I think the project has been helpful in amplifying the voices of people of color in front of our predominantly white membership-base, and in creating space for knowledge sharing and discussion about issues not typically acknowledged or realized by many older, environmentalists in our town. We hosted a seminar, film screening and panel discussion about environmental justice, I wrote an article for a local publication about EJ issues in our town, and we held a couple of events at a local park to facilitate discussions about environmental injustices experienced by community members here in Wilmington. I'm not sure how it's affected our community so far, and the project is still ongoing, but I hope it opened some people's eyes to the deeply entrenched connection between environmental issues and social justice issues.”

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching, Audrey says it changed her entire approach. “I never taught environmental education prior to participating in this certification program, so my entire approach to it was really guided by the workshops I took and the educators I met while getting my certification. It definitely affected how I posed questions, how I structured activities, and it increased my own enjoyment of seeing kids playing out in nature.”

Audrey says it also changed the way she viewed environmental issues. “I definitely think about all of these issues as less so about 'environmentalism' and more so as about providing skills, knowledge, and tools to the people around me so that they can make informed decisions about how they are going to live their lives.”

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Kayla Phillips with the Town of Aberdeen Completes Her NC Environmental Education Certification

Kayla Phillips, Program and Special Events Coordinator for the Town of Aberdeen completed her NC Environmental Education Certification just in time for Earth Day, April 22, 2021!

Kayla coordinates summer camps, festivals, senior citizens classes and other exciting outreach events for the town. She is now working to incorporate environmental education programming into the town’s offerings. 

When asked about her favorite part of the certification program, Kayla said it was all of the amazing places she was able to visit including a weekend at the Bald Head Island Conservancy that really stood out for her. 

For her community partnership project, Kayla created a Story Map for Harris Lake County Park. “The Story Map will allow the community to learn about the park's garden, native plants, pollinators, and some history of the park from either their home or as a guide on their phone while visiting the park.” She also coordinated a garden clean-up day to remove unwanted plants from the garden and planted some native shrubs, including Buttonbush and Beautyberry that provide and important food source for birds.

Kayla says the certification program gave her the teaching skills she needed. When asked if the program changed the way she viewed environmental issues, Kayla said it increased her awareness and knowledge. “I have such a better understanding of the environment and things I can do to protect it.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Jason Meador, Fisheries Biologist with Mainspring Conservation Trust, Completes His NC Environmental Education Certification


Jason Meador is a fisheries/mussel biologist with Mainspring Conservation Trust whose service area covers approximately 1.8 million acres in the Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Basins and is located within the six most-western counties in North Carolina: Cherokee, Clay, Swain, Macon, Jackson and Graham Counties and also Rabun County, Georgia. Jason conducts stream biomonitoring, stream restoration and provides environmental education for schools and summer camps in their six counties. When he is not working, Jason enjoys fishing, kayaking, hunting, foraging for mushrooms and snorkeling.

When asked about his favorite part of the certification program, Jason said networking with other educators. “My role as a non-formal educator came out of necessity since biomonitoring and restoration are seasonal events. In 2012, I needed to find a niche and source of funds to continue to stay full-time. The education piece has become the most popular program and the certification process has allowed me to revise and improve what we can offer.”

Jason says the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education (MOTEE) training offered by the NC Arboretum for the first time as a virtual workshop stood out to him. “Nearly half of my hours were earned in 2020 during COVID. Virtual classes have their pros and cons. However, the virtual MOTEE course with an hour and a half class for five days and homework was a great way to absorb the information.” He also notes the Growing Up WILD and CATCH workshops offered by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as being hands-on and a lot of fun. He is already thinking of workshops for his continuing education credits, “I'll be taking Project WILD and Project WET (Water Education for Teachers) for continuing education.”

For his community partnership project, Jason examined the impacts of hunting and fishing from an ecological and trophic level viewpoint. “Partnering with NC Wildlife Resources Commission and NC Wildlife Federation we created curriculum appropriate in a classroom setting for students to analyze wildlife populations with and without humans managing certain species.”

When asked if the certification changed his approach to teaching, Jason says it encouraged the use of critical thinking and age-appropriate teaching. “We still have the same core programs, but I have revised everything, so the students are using critical thinking skills rather than listening to a presentation. In addition, I can offer more programs to a wide variety of ages. I was teaching 8-12th grade, now I teach PreK-12th grades.”

Jason says having a strong science background, the certification did not change the way he thinks about environmental issues, but it did influence his approach. “I am slow to jump to conclusions and I try to gather as much information to help make decisions. I am thankful that this course emphasizes a non-advocacy approach to teaching. We are not pushing an agenda, simply teaching students how to find information and make their own decisions.”

Jason Vanzant, Carteret County Teacher, Completes NC Environmental Education Certification

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.  He develops engineering and agriculture activities and curriculum centered on the North Carolina Standard Course of Study Standards and Next Generation for K-5 in mathematics, science, and social studies. He also teaches technology lessons that relate to safety, troubleshooting, creation and collaboration.

Jason says as someone who enjoys the outdoors, he enjoyed gaining resources he could share with his students and helping them develop an appreciation of nature and an understanding of how we benefit and learn from the environment.  “My favorite portion of the process was the doing; the hands-on activities and taking those ideas back to the students.”

When asked what stands out most about the program, Jason says, “Meeting others from across the state, sharing ideas and passions about why we were all choosing to become environmental educators stands out the most. Being able to develop relationships based on a common love have carried over into networking experiences and friendships.”

For his community partnership project, Jason focused on limiting the amount of debris on his school’s campus and preventing it from entering their waterways.  He partnered with NOAA's Ocean Guardian School Program, which provides opportunities for kids to get out in their environment to do hands-on, stewardship-based projects and Turtle Trash Collectors, a UNCW MarineQuest outreach program that educates youth about the impacts of marine debris and how to reduce marine debris to collect data on the amount of debris collected on campus. As part of this effort, he created a composting area for scraps from breakfast, lunch, and snack and placed a water refilling station on the playground to promote the use of reusable bottles.  “With Duke University Marine Lab and Cape Lookout National Seashore we conducted beach sweeps.  We teamed with NC Coastal Federation to learn about stormwater run-off effects and developed a rain garden to filter pollutants and catch physical debris.  The overall project encouraged students to continue debris sweeps within their neighborhoods and promoted responsibility as more students now pick up litter without being asked to do so.”

Jason says he decided to pursue his Environmental Education Certification to find more resources like Project WET, a national program administered by NCDEQ’s Division of Water Resources and Project WILD, a program of the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “Since beginning as a teacher, I've always included Project WET and Project Wild lessons because they have a lot of movement activities which is needed for elementary students. I chose the EE certification process because I was looking for more resources like this and other ways I could get students outdoors and connect it to the curriculum they are required to learn.”

Jason says the certification did change his approach to teaching. “The big take away from the certification would be in how to phrase subject matter that is and is not developmentally appropriate based on age. Students should be aware of the natural surroundings and have opportunities to explore in the outdoor world.”

Thursday, March 11, 2021

NCDEQ Hosts Career Panel for Wake County Middle School Students for 11th Annual Statewide Students@Work℠ Program.

On March 9th, the Department of Environmental Quality's Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs held a virtual career panel for more than 30 students from Moore Square Magnet Middle School for Students@Work℠ Month. Students@Work℠ serves a critical role in our state's work-based learning efforts by helping local students become aware of potential careers and the necessary skillsets for those careers.

The 2021 Students@Work initiative includes approximately 200 employers and 18,000 students statewide. Throughout the month of March, students will engage in virtual programs where they learn firsthand about the careers available in their communities.

During the NCDEQ career panel, students had the opportunity to talk with four professionals from different divisions in NCDEQ including Billy Meyer, an environmental scientist with waste management, Linwood Peele, an environmental engineer with water resources, Ami Staples, a marine biologist with marine fisheries and Heather Wylie, a meteorologist with air quality. 

Heather Wylie, Meteorologist, Division of Air Quality

Panel members shared how they became interested in their career, their career path and some of the challenges while pursuing their degrees in college. They gave helpful advice for how to students can begin connecting their passions and interests with potential careers and how students can begin to develop the qualifications necessary for working in STEM fields through internships, job shadowing and other opportunities.

Linwood Peele, Water Supply Planning Branch, Supervisor, Division of Water Resources

Ami Staples, Statistician, Coastal Angling Program, Division of Marine Fisheries

The Students@Work℠ program is a joint initiative between the North Carolina Business Committee for Education (NCBCE) and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

For more information about the Department's participation in Students@Work℠ Month, contact the Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs at 919-707-8125. For more information about NCBCE, visit

Monday, March 1, 2021

Lianna Koberoski, A Nonformal Educator in Haywood County Completes Her Environmental Education Certification


Lianna Koberoski, a nonformal educators in Haywood County completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. Lianna has been teaching youth informally for the last few years and recently transitioned to a landscaping and garden maintenance position where she says the plant identification skills she learned in the certification program have become extremely helpful.

Lianna says her favorite part of the certification program was taking classes about North Carolina's native plants and wildlife. She says the experience that stood out for her was the “Investigating Your Environment” workshop which is a program of the NC Forest Service. “It was so much fun, we learned methods and activities to teach certain topics, visited beautiful areas, and got to be at "camp" for a week.”

For her community partnership project, Lianna partnered with Root Cause Farm, Asheville Greenworks and Royce’s Tree Service to install a living fence of fruiting and flowering trees at a community garden in Fairview North Carolina. “The community garden, Root Cause Farm, is in the heart of Fairview and addresses the issue of food insecurity in the community and surrounding area. Root Cause Farm is a unique kind of community garden - it is a giving garden. This means that all the food grown at this garden is given away, for free, to community members in need. The garden accomplishes this by donating produce to the local food pantry, hosting “share markets,” and donating food to another organization, Bounty and Soul which distributes food to the community of Black Mountain.” 

To provide additional resources about this project, Lianna created a section to be added to the self-guided pamphlet with educational information about the trees and their intended uses. These trees will become part of a sanctuary space that community members can visit and connect with, as well as provide fruit to be given away.

Lianna says the program enhanced her knowledge and gave her different methods of asking questions to students. “I am more aware of the social issues surrounding the environment, access to nature as well as education.”

Jean Pelezo, A Teacher in Cumberland County, Completes Her Environmental Education Certification

Jean Pelezo, a 5th-grade science and social studies teacher in Cumberland County recently completed her Environmental Education Certification. 

Jean has been an educator for 32 years teaching 2nd through 6th grades. She has established and taught K-5 science labs in Texas and North Carolina and has provided professional development at the school and district level, as well as at state and national conferences. Her passions include anything related to science and the outdoors, as well as science and art integration.

Jean says her favorite part of the certification program was learning in the field with professionals. “I moved to NC 13 years ago, so this program was a great way to learn and experience North Carolina in-depth and find its many "hidden" treasures. I also enjoyed meeting people and educators with the same passion for outdoor learning!”

When asked which experience stood out for her, Jean says all the experiences were awesome but the one that stands out for her was Explore NC offered by UNC Institute for the Environment. “Explore NC took me to various locations around the state and helped me to experience the bigger picture of how North Carolina's ecosystems work separately but together. The "being there" experience was a huge component of understanding these environments, and that is what I desire to pass on to my students!”

For her community partnership project, Jean created a pollination garden on the school grounds which has a "model" garden for families and the community. Jean’s project also included a pollination party, a family night event, that invited families to come and participate in a variety of hands-on activities related to pollinators and their importance for the environment.

Jeans says the certification helped her teaching career in two ways. “First, it helped me provide richer and deeper environmental education and life science content to my students. I can apply "real-world, local" examples and experiences to my students. The second teaching aspect is that I can share these resources and experiences with my colleagues. If I can teach and share with them these resources, they, in turn, can reach those students that I wouldn't have reached otherwise.”

When asked if the program changed her views of environmental issues, Jean says, “I was born and raised in the desert southwest. It was not until I moved to NC and participated in this program that I grasped the "infinite" vastness of all the land water systems and how they directly impact our ocean. I am more cognizant and aware of the importance of recycling, especially plastics, as well as the need to keep pollutants and pollution out of our streets and waterways.”

Monday, February 8, 2021

Sayrd Price, A Teacher at Stokes Early College High School talks With DEQ Secretary Michael Regan about the NC Environmental Education Certification Program

Sayrd Price, a teacher at Stokes Early College High School completed the NC Environmental Education Certification Program. Michael Regan, Secretary with the NC Department of Environmental Quality spoke with Sayrd about his experience in the program and his work in Stokes County. 

Watch the Interview with Secretary Regan: 

Sayrd teaches honors biology and earth/environmental science at Stokes Early College High. When he is not in the classroom, Sayrd is usually on campus monitoring bluebird boxes, working in the school’s garden, or obtaining resources for their next interactive lesson. “Outside of work I enjoy updating our Little Free Library, tending to the community garden, mountain biking, or spending time with my lovely wife and two wonderful dogs.”

When asked about a program experience that stood out to him Sayrd says it was a toss-up between watching the migratory snow geese and tundra swan with Melissa Dowland during the NC Museum of Natural Sciences Teacher Institute at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and electrofishing a local stream in Valle Crucis with Kevin Hining from the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. “Both experiences brought on emotions of wonder and curiosity. These feelings are exactly what I strive for in the students that experience nature in and out of the classroom.”

For his community-based partnership project, Sayrd and his students reached out to the local community center and formed a partnership to create gardening experiences with disabled adults and the school's garden club. The edible items grown in the garden are then harvested to our local food bank. Sayrd says the school’s garden club project continues to be a success and offers fruits and vegetables to local food banks and they continue to use the garden as an outdoor classroom and as a study area for NC Envirothon, an annual science competition for teams of middle and high school students sponsored by the NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the NC Division of Soil and Water Conservation.  

Sayrd says the program changed the way he approached teaching. “I have modified the teaching methods and strategies to facilitate learning in and out of the classroom. “I have gained a better understanding of student backgrounds, expectations, and best learning methods which has created more caring and passionate learning environment.” When asked if the program affected the way he viewed environmental issues, Sayrd said, “I have a greater sense of urgency and an increased passion for helping our environment while educating others the importance of being proactive.”

Friday, January 22, 2021

Cynthia Ramsay, Field Instructor with Muddy Sneakers in Guilford County, Completes Her NC Environmental Education Certification

Cynthia Ramsay, a field instructor with Muddy Sneakers in Guilford County, recently completed her Environmental Education Certification. 

As a field instructor with Muddy Sneakers, Ramsay takes 5th-grade students into public lands to teach the science curriculum using hands-on experiments and activities. In her personal time, she enjoys gardening, mushroom identification, piano, hiking, traveling and cooking.

Cynthia says that one of the things she enjoyed about the program was meeting other passionate educators like herself. She says the Methods of Teaching Environmental Education workshop stood out for her. “It was a valuable class. I did a small presentation at my work on what I learned about the 5E lesson plan. As a former classroom teacher, I had used that lesson plan before, but I had never applied it to my current work.”

For her community partnership project, Cynthia built a mud kitchen for a local preschool that has been working towards a focus on outdoor education. “I received pictures when school began of the children, who were ages three to four, using the space for imaginary play with natural loose parts. These children were just becoming comfortable in the outdoors and this provided a hands-on way for them to connect with the natural world.”

 When asked if the program changed the way she approached teaching, Cynthia says every experience provided her with tools she could incorporate in her work with children. “Some of the courses taught me more content while others taught me pedagogy and teaching culture. Many courses taught a bit of both. My goal is to allow the content I teach to be accessible to all students and have it presented in the most comfortable way for the participants.”

Cynthia says the program further emphasized her understanding of the difference between environmental education and environmental advocacy. “I understood the difference before, but now I know how to apply them both in the appropriate scenarios. Advocacy has its place, but my work is focused on environmental education. I wish I had known this when I was a classroom teacher years ago.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Amy Bradshaw, Environmental Educator at Haw River State Park Completes NC Environmental Education Certification

Amy Bradshaw, an environmental education instructor at Haw River State Park recently completed the NC Environmental Education Certification. Amy provides programs for students and facilitates team-building activities for students and adults. “I teach students about the environment through hands-on outdoor activities that align with the North Carolina K-12 Standard Course of Study. The wetlands are one of my favorite parts of the park to show students because of its beauty and biodiversity. I also enjoy the wetlands as a birdwatching spot.”

Amy says one of her favorite things about the program were the instructional workshops and the opportunity to meet other environmental educators and to collaborate with them during the workshops. “I really enjoyed the instructional workshops. Environmental educators know how to make training and professional development fun.” 

The community partnership project was the part of the certification experience that stood out for Amy.  “It enabled me to take the lead on a topic that I am passionate about and create engaging curriculum that will help people connect with nature.”

For her project, Amy developed a bird curriculum that will be used in future programming at Haw River State Park with visiting school groups. “Haw River State Park is a great birding spot, so I wanted to add programming specifically focusing on birds to increase visitor knowledge about birds and to inspire visitors to develop an appreciation for the diversity of birds in our area. One part of the curriculum I created was a bird hike around the park. Due to COVID-19, I had to make adjustments but I was able to provide a self-guided bird hike for visitors at the park during August. Visitors enjoyed spending time outdoors looking and listening for birds along the trails. Because this year has been so different with how environmental education programs are able to serve audiences, I also included digital components in the curriculum which include a virtual bird hike video that can be shared with school groups so they can still enjoy having a park experience even if they are unable to physically visit Haw River State Park.”

Amy said the certification program helped her find a balance in her approach to teaching. “Participating in this program helped me to find a balance between content and fun when teaching others. Content should be engaging! When learning, people – especially kids – should have opportunities to explore, make discoveries, and have meaningful experiences.” She also said the program changed the way she views environmental issues. “Instead of stressing about environmental issues, I now look at them as learning and teaching opportunities. Working with community members and other environmental educators, we can make small changes that are impactful. Also, if you want people to care for the environment and help solve environmental problems, you first have to give them opportunities to connect with the environment and learn about it.”

Monday, December 14, 2020

Frances Bozak, Park Ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park Completes NC Environmental Education Certification

Frances Bozak, a park ranger at Hammocks Beach State Park recently completed her Environmental Education Certification. As a non-formal educator with North Carolina State Parks, Frances provides programs for families and school groups.

Frances says her favorite part of the program was traveling around the state and the outdoor, instructor-led professional development. 

For her community partnership project, Frances worked with Coastal Carolina University and Carolina Kids Fish, a non-profit organization to create opportunities for kids and adults in the local community to get outside and fish for free. “It can be expensive to go fishing after you buy all the bait and tackle and some parents do not know where they can go to take their kids to fish. We also saw a lack of children getting out in the community to play. We provided a location, bait, and tackle for community members to use. This gave kids a chance to get outdoors and learn about their local environment.” Frances says because the program was free and advertised on Facebook and to local schools, it gave everyone regardless of their background an opportunity to participate. “It’s a great way for kids to learn about their local environment. By teaching them about the local ecosystem and how they can enjoy it, we give children and parents a connection with the world around them. We provide an opportunity for children to be outdoors and experience nature through all their senses in a safe environment.”

Frances says that participating in the online air quality workshop offered by the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality, helped her understand how much air pollution has affected our state. When asked if the program had changed the way she approached teaching she said, gave her different strategies for adapting programs for different groups. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Jamie Justice, Education Coordinator for the Museum of Coastal Carolina Completes her NC Environmental Education Certification

Jamie Justice, education coordinator for the Museum of Coastal Carolina recently completed her NC Environmental Education Certification. Jamie is responsible for planning education programming at the museum that focuses on coastal environments. She teaches school groups about coastal habitats and species through interpretive nature walks along the beach and the marsh and by guiding students through the museum’s exhibits. 

Jamie enjoyed going to workshops and networking with other educators to share ideas and learning from other environmental education centers. “I enjoyed going to all of the instructional workshops and getting to participate from the point of view of the student while also learning tips for teaching the curriculum.”

For her community partnership project, Jamie worked with Brunswick Town Fort Anderson to design new trail signs and brochures about the different habitats that are at the site. “I developed a curriculum focused on water quality and macroinvertebrates for fourth and eighth graders that visit the site each year. This project helped the students gain a better understanding of the habitats and species at Brunswick Town in a fun, engaging way and also provided visitors with up to date information about the things they would see as they hiked through the site, while also informing them of some species to look out for that bite or sting.”

Jamie says the program changed the way she thinks about environmental issues. “I’ve changed my focus from the impact humans have on the environment to what we can do to protect the environment and to address the effects we have caused.”

She feels the certification program is well-rounded and covers all areas of environmental education instruction. “It helps keep educators up to date on current issues and provides methods and practice in instructing a diverse audience.”