Not Just For Crazy Tree-huggers

At Almost 25, Environmental Group Has A New Home, Plenty Of Growth

November 01, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,

She sees herself as lucky to be part of a seminal moment in her field's history. But environmental educator Bronwyn Mitchell helped make that moment happen.

Nine months ago, when she became executive director of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, Mitchell knew the influential nonprofit organization would be celebrating 25 years of existence in 2010. She also knew Americans have generally come around to realizing that a passion for the environment need not be the sole preserve of a few neo-hippie types.

"Just a few years ago, we saw a cultural shift, a point where the message started to come from the mainstream," says Mitchell, a New Orleans native and former Peace Corps volunteer who lives in Baltimore. "After all these years of screaming into the wilderness, [environmental educators] were so gratified to see that."

And MAEOE (pronounced "mayo") has undergone a shift of its own. An educational organization that promotes awareness of the environment by working with teachers, nature center staffers, grantors and business people, it had always been a guerrilla-style enterprise, creating such initiatives as the Maryland Green Schools Program without even having an office to call its own.

When the board asked Mitchell - who worked on wetlands issues in Botswana and American Samoa as well as on Maryland's Eastern Shore - to become MAEOE's fourth boss, she accepted on one condition: They find a permanent home, one that would reflect the organization's mission and growth. Last month, she presided over a move into the EnviroCenter, a fully green office building in Jessup near the Howard-Anne Arundel line.

With its photovoltaic solar panels, radiant ground heat, recycled building materials and open floor plan that encourages creative visits among tenants, the complex, she says, embodies and promotes the green message.

With MAEOE's silver anniversary fast approaching, Mitchell sat in a room illuminated by natural-light tubes and spoke about the symbolism of the move and environmental education in Maryland.

Question: : In a nutshell, what is MAEOE?

Answer: : We're the state affiliate of the North American Association for Environmental Education, which promotes and supports education about the environment. ...

Our affiliate started in 1985, as an outgrowth of Maryland's outdoor schools program. Many of our counties have outdoor education schools, like Arlington Echo in Anne Arundel. The material taught there is integrated into the wider curriculum. For a long time, MAEOE was the annual conference that got those educators together.

Today, we're a permanent umbrella organization that fosters environmental education around Maryland. One thing we do is connect people to the state's many resources. Just the other day, a school called and said, "We need somebody to teach us about outdoor survival skills." I used our network to develop a list and provided it.

Q: : Is an "environmental educator" always a schoolteacher?

A: : No, and Maryland has a crazy wealth of environmental education providers. We have the local, state and federal governments; each has outreach components [on environmental matters]. You have nature centers, including aquariums and zoos. Businesses are adding outreach components, especially if they're green-based. They come to us and ask, "How do we talk to the public about what we're doing? How do we reach out to schools?"

Q: : Is environmental education especially important for kids?

A: : Well, the average child [in the U.S.] can identify a thousand corporate logos - and fewer than 10 trees. As a culture, we're almost completely disconnected from nature. And it's unhealthy. Tons of studies have linked this "plugged-in" generation - where everything children do is structured and 90 percent of it is indoors - with physical problems, including obesity and emotional problems. A study out of the University of Illinois-Urbana showed that when kids play in natural areas, there's a lower incidence of ADD. If kids aren't outside much, they suffer more allergies. Their bodies don't develop normal immunities.

It's important to end what we're calling this "nature deficit disorder."

Q: : One of MAEOE's creations is the Maryland Green Schools Program. Could you talk about it?

A: : MAEOE started discussing changing the culture of schools in 1999 - [that is,] making sure the environment is taught across the curriculum and from kindergarten through grade 12. So the program was born.

In curriculum terms, it was a matter of taking what was being taught and working the subject matter in. Are you teaching [geographical] area? You could do it by using a ruler at [the student's] desk, or you can go outside and figure the area of the school that's covered by concrete and link that to storm-water runoff. In English class, you can have students read something about the environment or pull it from what they're already reading.

Environmental education is about making connections.

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