Monday, May 20, 2024

Educator Spotlight: Brittany Watkins

Brittany Watkins with the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina recently completed her Environmental Education Certification.

Brittany is the community engagement manager for the Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina, a non-profit land trust that serves eight counties in Western North Carolina. Part of the conservancy’s mission is to "cultivate communities that value conservation" which Brittany says is at the core of everything she does. “My main responsibilities are to manage our volunteer and education programs which both aim to engage learners of all ages in land conservation through guided outings and stewardship workdays. I feel extremely lucky that I get to invite people into the woods with me to learn how to ID plants or maintain trails and call it "work." Somehow, I turned my favorite hobbies into a career, and I hope to inspire others to do the same!”

Brittany says her favorite part of the certification process was connecting with other environmental education program providers. “Sharing stories with fellow educators about programs that worked as well as ones that didn't, helped validate my experiences and fed me the encouragement I needed to keep going!”

When asked what experience stood out for her, Brittany said it was attending the Environmental Educators of North Carolina’s annual conference. “I was blown away by how many people were there and how diverse their backgrounds and goals were. There were university professors, community group leaders, K-12 teachers, and nonformal educators, like me, from all over the state. I just remember leaving with a feeling of hope and inspiration that so many people are passionate about expanding environmental literacy and helping others to get curious about our environment!”

For her community partnership project, Brittany developed and hosted a summer camp program for 6–12-year-olds called, “Our Big Backyard” that encourages exploration of the natural world through a week of outdoor adventures and nature-based crafts. “The goal of the camp was to connect underserved kids with local greenspaces like South Mountain State Park and Lake James and to introduce them to conservation partners like the NC Wildlife Resources Commission and the NC Extension Center. Since 2021, “Our Big Backyard” has expanded to a year-round program that offers field trip and in-classroom activities, as well as public environmental education workshops to learners of all ages within FCNC's service area.”

When asked if the program changed her approach to teaching, Brittany said that she learned that teaching is not preaching. “This is one of my biggest takeaways from the certification program. If we want to feed people's natural curiosity, we have to provide enough guidance to spark their interest without suffocating them in facts. Learning should be fun and explorative, not rigid. I try to weave in time for questions and lots of hands-on activities into every educational event I host now.”

Brittany says the certification program also changed the way she views environmental issues. “The EE program taught me that we can't scare people into caring about environmental issues. Instead of focusing on everything people do to hurt the environment, I now try to focus on what actions people can take to help. Actions big and small - from learning to compost, to writing an elected official about the need for more restrictions on riparian buffers, all count towards a better future for us all. But, most importantly people have to be inspired to take any action at all. And I think that is the goal of environmental educators, to share our passion for the outdoors and hope to ignite that fire in others.”

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