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Environmental educators look to build resources, increase knowledge in the field and the classroom

By Sarah Benal

Building lessons around localized phenomena and designing from the ground up could help bring a variety of teachers together and give students more opportunity. Photo by Sarah Benal.

On Saturday, November 12 Heartland Conservation Alliance’s Education & Outreach Work Group hosted the Environmental Educator Discussion at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center. The Discussion focused on building professional communities with classroom teachers looking to increase engagement practices for their students. Attendees discussed ways to connect classroom educators and in-the-field educators and bring hands-on lessons to students, as well as ways to increase diversity in environmental education. The Work Group began planning the Discussion at the beginning of 2022 when in-the-field educators and Work Group members highlighted their struggles with accessing Kansas City schools and bringing their lessons to students.

“There are two issues: making classroom teachers aware of what [in-the-field] groups have to offer and making that connection with them, and then making sure that in-the-field educators bring something that can meet district standards,” said Matt Riggs, Environmental Outreach Coordinator at the Mid-America Regional Council.

Larry O’Donnell, the President of the Little Blue River Watershed Association, has worked with teachers for years. And explained that he has plenty of educational opportunities, but questions how to reach teachers on a larger scale. Incorporating in-the-field lessons and localized phenomena, a strategy of place-based learning where students apply science and engineering to their daily lives in local contexts of home and community, has been a struggle for educators across the metro. School standards can vary across districts, and substitute teacher shortages mean classroom teachers have less time than ever to work with curriculum developers and in-the-field educators to make sure lessons are able to meet their needs.

Nova Clarke, the Visitor Services Manager for the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge, has a depth of experience working with a variety of age groups and engaging students and environmental groups in hands-on lessons. But challenges arise when she tries to incorporate these lessons into the classroom. “The content is the easy part, but we also need students looking at patterns, systems and systems models, etc. and that’s a lot harder to do and write,” said Spencer Martin, the Lead Science Curriculum and Instruction Specialist for Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. “But that’s where we can have some collaboration.”

Following the Environmental Educator Discussion, the Work Group is working to connect nonprofits and curriculum developers to help adjust lessons to make them fit district standards. Clarke is also interested in implementing health-focused topics to create more three-dimensional lesson plans. The Work Group hopes to be able to provide opportunities for teachers as soon as January 2023. HCA plans to continue connecting classroom teachers with nonprofits and in-the-field educators through the Green Guard Stewardship Training Program. The next series of workshops is funded by KC Water and begins in March 2023. The workshop topics will come from the ideas and needs brought by the teachers who attended the Environmental Educator Discussions. In order to meet HCA’s goal of restoring and protecting The Blue River, the workshops will have a water quality focus while connecting educators with others working across the Blue River Watershed and increase stewardship in the classroom. The workshops are free and every attendee will receive a stipend at the end of the series. Details are still being finalized, but anyone interested in attending the workshops can visit HCA’s website and sign up to receive updates.

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