Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) Winners
Read the press release about this year's PIAEE winners.
EPA Region 1
Portsmouth Middle School
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
At Portsmouth Middle School in Rhode Island, Mrs. Brennan who is the Science Coach for K-8, has integrated the environment and outdoor learning into the school's community. Her proudest accomplishment is the creation of a student-led farm called Portsmouth AgInnovation.
In 2020 Mrs. Brennan met with Sara Churgin, the Eastern RI Conservation District Manager, to improve her students’ education through outdoor learning. A farmer down the road gifted 6 acres of land to be used for educational purposes. At that time, it was an empty plot of land next to a pond. She introduced it as project-based learning and showed the kids the blank area and asked what they wanted to do. Then Covid happened and shut down the schools. Mrs. Brennan decided to run a virtual after-school program and 25 students signed up. Over 8 weeks, the kids brainstormed, researched, and created a vision based on five areas of interest: a garden area, a high tunnel, a solar energy area, an irrigation area, and a chicken area.
Mrs. Brennan and her partner wrote multiple grants and by June 2022, the students' vision was built and completed. AgInnovation Farm engages with 75 students each year at the middle and now High school and is preparing to offer educational field trips to students hoping to work on the farm for hands-on learning.
Mrs. Brennan established an amazing outdoor educational facility that is student-based and hands-on. Critical thinking and problem-solving are necessary and students are taught to analyze the problem and find a solution. If it does not work, they learn the engineering design process which is to then rethink and reimagine until it's the way they want it.
Mrs. Brennan has been sure to balance learning with fun at the Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm. She balanced daily chores, for example, with fun activities. Students learned how to fish in the nearby reservoir, drive a tractor, build irrigation systems, and pollinate certain vegetables. Mrs. Brennan also taught students about soil health, covering everything from photosynthesis to composting to carbon sequestering. Furthermore, as part of her vision to merge sustainability with community, students donate the produce to two of the local food pantries and shelters.
In addition to sounding the alarm about environmental concerns, Mrs. Brennan’s farm has united the community by integrating students with various socioeconomic backgrounds and learning styles. For students with social struggles, the farm has been an opportunity to find their sense of belonging, and many have gained a newfound confidence that will aid them beyond the farm’s borders. In addition, parents are encouraged to participate with their children through their own sustainability plots, and students at Thompson Middle School—an inner-city school with many free and reduced-lunch students—visit during the summer to learn how to plant and grow their own vegetables.
Mrs. Brennan believes that outdoor learning is the best way to engage her students, and the results at the Portsmouth AgInnovation Farm can support that belief. Through her work, students are not only learning how to help the environment but also interacting with other students and their communities through unprecedented, hands-on collaboration.
This spring, she and her partners plan to get the farm fully operational. Students will help build a pollinator garden pathway, plant fruit trees, and work with the high school in creating a unique no-till method of farming. They will also continue to work with a team from the PHS Career and Technical Education pathway of Engineering to design and build a solar-powered rain catchment system for irrigation in the High tunnel. The SmART kids created beautiful new birdhouses around the property.
In the high tunnel production students will learn about different methods of food production from raised beds, vertical beds, and hydroponic systems. Students added an additional chicken coop for new baby chicks (grade 8 hatched 10) and built a new bunny hutch for a potential 4-H collaboration.
Building this farm with her students, Mrs. Brennan has seen an increased sense of excitement from the students to learn and more collaboration with local non-profits to build on environmental collaboration. She has worked with 10 of these agencies to connect to one grade level from K-8. Together with a lead teacher, they have embedded the local environmental interests with their science curriculum. Students are then engaged in a field trip to that place or in-class education. An example of this is grade 2 where students learned about the diversity of life in different habitats. They will then go to the Audobon Society Learning Center in the spring to hike and learn firsthand. Last, Mrs. Brennan introduced Green Engineering and the process and resources needed to make something in several grades. She used the Museum of Science units which incorporated reading, writing, and engineering.
Exeter West Greenwich High School
West Greenwich, Rhode Island
Ms. Millar, a biology and environmental sustainability teacher at Exeter West Greenwich High School in Rhode Island, sees herself as more than someone who imparts knowledge onto the next generation—instead, she is a facilitator of learning who encourages students to think for themselves, take risks, and understand that true learning is more than memorization. With more than 30 years of experience under her belt, Ms. Millar knows that a true teacher encourages students to face the risk of failure. In fact, science as whole, she affirms, is a series of failures that have pushed humanity forward. This belief is reflected in her teaching style, which is characterized by experimentation and choice boards, and she allows students to choose the problems they hope to solve, all the while supporting their decisions and designs.
Recently, Ms. Millar’s class investigated matter cycling—specifically, composting—which is particularly relevant to the problem of excessive food waste accumulating in the state’s only landfill. Considering that Rhode Island’s dump is projected to reach capacity by 2035, and with Rhode Island schools generating 5 million pounds of food waste each year, she and her class investigated different composting methods to develop an effective program for the school.
Additionally, Ms. Millar leads an annual research trip to the Cape Eleuthera Institute in the Bahamas to study green sea turtles. She encourages students to experience the life of field scientists as they capture, tag, and collect data on these sea turtles for a national database. Following their experience on this trip, many students decide to pursue environmental science in their college careers.
Ultimately, science is useless without real-world application, so Ms. Millar is also cognizant of the need to encourage her students to serve communities and vulnerable populations. She does this, for example, through local beach cleanup events and water sampling. She also sponsors kayak trips for families who wish to explore local waterways and essential wildlife. Even during the holiday season, she is hard at work, as she has collected Christmas trees to support trout habitats and combat river erosion. Currently, Ms. Millar is seeking grant funds for community programs for the eradication of invasive species.
Overall, Ms. Millar’s immersive lesson plans encourages students not only to understand the environmental present, but also empower them to create solutions for its future. Her programs are combinations of education and experience, both of which are supplemented by her inspirational approaches to taking risks, involving local communities, and problem-solving with passion.
EPA Region 3
Easton High School
Mrs. Rose teaches environmental and aquatic science at Easton High School in Maryland. Aiming higher than the curriculum requires, she instills a love of nature in her classes, especially one that considers and acknowledges society’s impact on the environment with a resolution to accept responsibility for it. She does this by going beyond simple lectures, instead encouraging an engagement with science through a practical lens, focusing on environmental issues within the students’ local community. For example, Easton High School has its own stream on campus, and Mrs. Rose routinely takes her students outside the classroom to get their hands dirty and collect their own data from the stream. She pairs this methodology with a mentor system, connecting students with local scientists for joint work on conservation efforts and environmental threats in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Thanks to her efforts, students have shadowed scientists from Baltimore’s National Aquarium, researchers at the University of Maryland, and local river keepers. These hands-on experiences cumulate throughout the year, as Mrs. Rose’s students work on a year-long research project on an environmental issue of their choosing. They then present their research at the Advanced Science Symposium to demonstrate the benefits of her teachings.
Additionally, unafraid to progress with the modern age, Mrs. Rose adopts online resources to keep her students focused and inspired. Her YouTube channel includes educational music videos, for example, and she uses the Flip platform so her students can share their own video projects in a combination of education and creative expression. Her multifaceted approach has been pivotal not only for teaching in a COVID-19 world, but also for helping promote students with atypical learning styles. Furthermore, not only have students benefited from her teachings, but the Easton community at-large has benefited as well, specifically from the action projects that sprouted from her classes. Thanks to student efforts, the high school alone has gained a water-bottle fountain, a compost bin, a rain garden, and a recycling bin. Local farmers have also benefitted from student action, including the planting of hundreds of trees along the streambanks of their fields.
Overall, Mrs. Rose’s real-life approach to environmental and aquatic science has resulted in higher student engagement, a more sustainable Easton community, and more scholarships that support her students’ future. She teaches far more than basic scientific facts—she inspires students to feel the passion and purpose behind those facts, and she fosters their own creative approaches to science so that, as they continue their education, they will continue to contribute to the scientific community for meaningful environmental change.
EPA Region 4
Onslow County Schools
Jacksonville, North Carolina
As the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) coach for the Onslow County Schools in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Mrs. Dillman plans and leads the laboratories in every middle school in the system. She understands her responsibility to inspire the next generation of STEM researchers, so she crafts her projects with creative engagement while discussing relevant, real-world environmental problems. In one such project, “Sustainable Superheroes,” she encourages students to create their own superhero that solves an environmental problem they had researched at some point in the school year. Not only does this relate to a generation raised by Marvel and DC movies, but it also channels that excitement into sustainable solutions, one that motivates students and shows them that—through their ingenuity—they have the power themselves to become real-life environmental heroes, an attitude that Mrs. Dillman channels through community outreach programs. These programs range from scientific—such as local water quality analyses—to charitable, such as Christmas present deliveries.
Mrs. Dillman’s interactive projects have spanned ocean floor mapping, soil quality analysis, solar energy efficiency, and acid precipitation. Her investigative style uses open-ended questions—which encourage discussion and critical thinking—and experimental simulations that mimic scientific activity in the field. These projects give students a sense of ownership over their ideas and accomplishments, spurring them further to carve their own corner in the scientific world.
In addition to her STEM lessons, Mrs. Dillman goes above and beyond by bringing science outside the classroom. She has, for example, helped organize and execute district-wide science competitions and fairs. Most recently, she has supported the North Carolina STEM Research Academy—a program dedicated to students hoping to expand their scientific journey—and the Robotics Expo for students hoping to display their latest robotic creations.
Despite the challenges of maintaining programs for multiple schools, Mrs. Dillman has the skills and passion to establish relationships with students and teachers at all of them. She understands that this is critical because not only does a familiar relationship improve student performance, but it also makes students and teachers feel comfortable enough to give honest feedback. As a result of her relationship building, her students have confidence, take risks, and cannot wait for their next project. After teaching for over a decade, Mrs. Dillman has become a leading figure and role model for the Onslow community. She has served on the Rural Teacher Leadership Council, received the Teacher of the Year award in 2022, and has maintained relationships with former students, even serving as a mentor for one who followed in her footsteps and chose a career in teaching. The impact of her work goes beyond the classroom and individual students—she has inspired a community to find the fun in science and use that enthusiasm to create meaningful change.
EPA Region 5
Northside College Preparatory High School
Ms. Qazi-Lampert teaches more than AP Environmental Science at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago, Illinois—she teaches the importance of applying science to environmental justice (EJ). As part of the third largest school district in the nation—with Black and brown children composing 80 percent of the student body—she intentionally overhauled her curriculum to incorporate biodiversity data with justice-orientated action to exemplify collaborative, community-based solutions to today’s sustainability and equity challenges. Every year, the first unit of her lesson plan discusses definitions of EJ, famous EJ leaders, and EJ literary works so that, by the time students are introduced to the science, they already know how to use it. She then combines these lessons with her “Making Space” program, where students from the 77 Chicago neighborhoods share current environmental news, explore different methods of addressing the climate crisis, and bring attention to local issues. Through this program, Ms. Qazi-Lampert teaches her students about relevant solutions to urban planning, resource availability, green spaces, and public transportation.
To further enhance the student experience, Ms. Qazi-Lampert also invites environmental leaders to share their journey with her classes. Through guest lectures, students learn about the latest publications, tools, and technologies in environmental science as it stands today. Ms. Qazi-Lampert couples these lectures—whose speakers have included community engagement directors and an EPA environmental justice coordinator—with a relevant, local news piece so her students can compare academic publications with presentations before a general audience. She understands that science, no matter how advanced, needs to be communicated to the public in a way that inspires change, and she passes that understanding to her students through her lesson plans.
Because of Ms. Qazi-Lampert, students have been inspired to engage their communities in the name of EJ, whether through digital artwork or student-led conferences that host workshops with diverse community leaders. To further fuel her students’ passion, Ms. Qazi-Lampert invites guest speakers of all ethnic and racial backgrounds who share lessons on using technology and science to connect with communities and protect their local environments. She also sponsors Green Team, a student-led action group that engages in routine school litter pickups and finds solutions for the schools recycling and resource needs. Additionally, she recently supported two students in their interest to engage in a public demonstration to teach teachers how to test for lead paint in their buildings. Her work gives students both the knowledge they need to address environmental crises and the ability to apply that knowledge to solutions for their community.
Hilliard Innovative Learning Hub
Mrs. Schaeffer teaches environmental art at the Hilliard Innovative Learning Hub in Ohio. She personally developed her course, “Art and Ecology,” to create advocacy opportunities while empowering students as agents of change in their own communities. With 15 years of teaching experience, Mrs. Schaeffer sees how art is a living voice for change, and her lessons instill that vision into her students while equipping them with the tools to contribute to that change.
One of Mrs. Schaeffer’s quintessential projects was the Rain Barrel Project. In collaboration with the City of Hilliard, the Coca Cola Bottling Company, and other organizations, her class converted 15 trash barrels into rain barrels as part of a water conservation effort. After researching rainwater runoff, students designed, then decorated, these barrels while raising funds through sponsorship for an additional 50 barrels. Not only was this intellectually and artistically stimulating for students, but the work behind the barrels also taught them about sustainable business models. It resembled another one of Mrs. Schaeffer’s class projects: the creation of a raised garden bed in the school’s courtyard. Thanks to her teachings, students specified the ideal location, set timelines and budgets, and created their own designs and measurements for the garden. Following student presentations on the best approaches, Mrs. Schaeffer guided the class toward a consensus. Together, they finalized the garden, and Mrs. Schaeffer uses it to this day to teach her students about nutrition, food insecurity, and water conservation.
Practicality is a core component of Mrs. Schaeffer’s curriculum, which is why she encourages community involvement in her projects. Produce from the student garden, for example, is donated to the Hilliard Food pantry, and her class coordinated with a local sheep and alpaca fiber supplier to create a felted vertical planter for the Highland Youth Garden. This philosophy drives her “Seeds of Change” project, where students create community connections across neighborhoods so that the lessons and benefits of urban farming and sustainable art are accessible to everyone. In fact, Mrs. Schaeffer’s “Seeds of Change” has been so influential that it even caught the attention of filmmaker Thomas Sawyer, who showcased it across the nation at film festivals and art centers.
Mrs. Schaeffer’s work has contributed to student success stories and a more sustainable Ohio. Many students have continued to work independently on projects that were inspired by her teachings, and community hubs like the Highland Youth Garden remain grateful for the benefits they have received from her class projects. To this day, Mrs. Schaeffer remains an adamant supporter of climate justice, and she inspires her students and her school to make sustainability a reality through conversation and collective action.
EPA Region 6
Horace Mann Arts and Science Middle School
Little Rock, Arkansas
During the pandemic in 2020, students at Horace Mann Arts and Science Middle School in Little Rock, Arkansas, were disappointed when the school science fair was cancelled. Luckily, Mrs. Scott came to the rescue. After helping students conduct their own research, she helped them come together to create the school’s native plant garden as a substitute activity. With all the experimentation and real-life application of the traditional science fair, Mrs. Scott’s garden project used a special notebook—one she created herself—to guide students as they researched plant species, ideal placement, soil quantities, and more. It had the additional benefit of teaching students about the importance of teamwork, whether that be coordinating with the engineering class to manufacture the garden beds or collaborating with the art class for beautiful art pieces about the native plants.
At her middle school, Mrs. Scott is grateful for the opportunity to teach students through experience. With today’s limited outdoor, hands-on student experiences, her lessons are increasingly vital. With respect to the native plant garden, students could make their research come to life as they read about the plants and insects that they personally selected and handled. Additionally, Mrs. Scott’s teachings are a crossover of science, math, and art, proving that practical knowledge is never confined to a single field. Above all, Mrs. Scott emphasizes the importance of using science wisely and sustainably—students created their garden after thorough research on sustainable mulch, the importance of planting native species, and environmentally friendly agricultural practices.
Mrs. Scott’s work has benefited both individual students and the community at large. For example, a few of her students have historically struggled with reading and communication; by giving them personal projects, such as the construction of a recycling bin, Mrs. Scott gives them a sense of pride in their responsibilities, a pride that motivates them to read manuals and communicate project needs with their partners. Behaviorally, these students have matured as well, and the outside world—considered by some to be dangerous and fearful—entices them with new adventures and places to explore, and even the shiest of students have begun approaching Mrs. Scott with curious questions.
Mrs. Scott’s approach to learning is essential for environmental justice, as the enthusiasm and skills she instills in her students are the building blocks of future scientists and advocates. In addition to her personal participation in conferences, such as those held by the Arkansas Environmental Education Association, her activism shows itself in her students’ own initiatives to continue researching the environmental topics of her class, discussing those topics with their community, and using their research to bring about meaningful change, both in the world and within themselves.
EPA Region 9
Sergio de Alba
R. M. Miano Elementary
Los Banos, California
At Miano Elementary School in Los Banos, California, Mr. de Alba combined his passions for teaching and sustainability for a remarkable outcome. Specifically, he combined his concern over California’s water crisis with the hope to transform student learning from rote-based lessons into courses that lead with experience. Guided by the agricultural roots of his town, Mr. de Alba created an education program centered on community values, and his centerpiece was the creation of his school’s new ecosystem-themed gardens. Mr. de Alba had his students design 16 gardens to represent different ecosystems and the local agricultural presence of the school’s community. For the past 22 years, he has maintained these gardens for ongoing class lessons. Not only do these gardens beautify the campus, but they also serve as the building blocks for students inspired to contribute to a sustainable future. Mr. de Alba himself is proof of this methodology—the fundamental knowledge he imparts to his students through these garden programs has also been fundamental in his own pursuits, and now one of his lessons on the California drought will be available online from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Additionally, Mr. de Alba incorporates his love for travel with environmental education. He travels across the nation and brings back with lessons on sustainability topics beyond the borders of Los Banos, California. After traveling to 35 states and collaborating with dedicated USGS scientists, Mr. de Alba has a repertoire of interviews, lessons learned, and photographs of the natural world in all its glory—he uses these materials to highlight nature’s benefits and vulnerabilities, encouraging students to visit and protect the living world around them.
Much of Mr. de Alba’s work has had the added benefit of bringing the Los Banos community together. His organic garden program has gotten the attention of parents and community members, who attend maintenance sessions in the gardens, and he has since created the Sunrise Nursery, a business component of his gardening that has allowed him to raise money while promoting drought-tolerant plants. Students participate by making advertisements, recording video commercials, and developing budgets and prices for the nursery’s products. Sunrise Nursery not only inspires the next generation of environmental stewards, but also gives them the practical tools they need to bring meaningful change.
Mr. de Alba’s approach to environmentalism—one that incorporates experience and community—has allowed students to realize that their decisions make a difference in this world and that they have more influence than they realize. His sense of empowerment, fueled by his own research, travels, and curriculum, is contributing to a healthier, more motivated Miano Elementary School.
EPA Region 10
Mrs. Smith teaches sixth grade at Hawthorne Elementary School, a Title I school in Boise, Idaho. Many of her students have limited experiences with the world outside their local neighborhood, but Mrs. Smith knows that a local neighborhood can have its own world of experience. Her inquiry-based programs give students the opportunity for real-world experience and meaningful change regardless of their ability to travel. Mrs. Smith’s Geo-Inquiry project, for example, encourages students to investigate a local environmental issue of their choice. The program is an intersection of science, art, and activism, where students can write to their local legislators, collect their own data, and discover solutions to today’s sustainability challenges. The fruit of their labor can be seen in the halls of Hawthorne Elementary, which now has motion sensor faucets and a recycling plan in place thanks to her students’ projects.
Mrs. Smith’s work has resulted in an academic boost for her students—many of whom have developed advanced reading skills as part of their Geo-Inquiry research—and she has also given them a newfound sense of confidence and pride in their achievements. Her teaching philosophy is that a curious mindset, the right tools, and self-confidence must work together to empower students with the ability and drive to make a positive impact on the world. Thanks to her approach, Mrs. Smith’s sixth graders have interviewed community members, presented at summits, and collaborated with local businesses—activities that have boosted self-esteem and brought many shy students out of their shells.
According to Mrs. Smith, the Walk for Water fundraiser is by far the most impactful way her class learned and engaged the community through a sustainable lens. After researching water conservation, students partnered with Vivid Roots, a local non-profit organization, to raise money for those without access to clean drinking water. Over the past three years alone, Walk for Water has raised $16,000 and brought clean water to more than 1,500 people. Her class has been so successful that Vivid Roots now routinely includes collaborative events with schools and youth organizations around the state. Walk for Water is now a tradition at Hawthorne Elementary, and its lessons in environmental justice, the power of activism, and community involvement will teach students for years to come.
Mrs. Smith is an exemplary environmental educator. She understands that meaningful change comes from an education that is not built in isolation. Whether it be sharing skills with other teachers, coordinating field trips with district leaders, or encouraging students to forge their own connections, she successfully integrates a team spirit into her science-based lessons. Thanks to Mrs. Smith, students feel welcomed, empowered, and motivated to address the collective challenge of today’s environmental threats.
2023 PIAEE Honorable Mentions
EPA Region 1:
Boston Green Academy
In Brighton, Massachusetts, the Boston Green Academy is the only school in the Boston Public Schools District with a green mission. It is no wonder, then, that the school was grateful for Mr. Donnelly’s contribution in founding the Environmental Science Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Specifically, Mr. Donnelly makes environmental justice the cornerstone of his part of the program, giving students the context necessary to understand how environmental issues disproportionally affect minorities, both in the City of Boston and around the world.
Mr. Donnelly has made experiential learning a central focus of his teaching approach, using the City of Boston, rather than the school, as his classroom. He often takes his students to local environmental hot spots—from the Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Old State House—for hands-on projects that include energy audits and electric vehicles (EVs). He partnered with startups at Greentown Labs, for example, to have students talk with EV innovators about the challenges and benefits of the industry. The students then used this information to present to a skeptical audience and help them overcome their hesitations about purchasing EVs.
Always practical, Mr. Donnelly also makes a point to emphasize that environmental justice and economics are not mutually exclusive; this is perhaps best exemplified in his “Social Entrepreneurship” class, where sophomores created a business plan that evolved into a full-fledged, student-run business, “Gladiator Greens.” Here, students seed, transplant, harvest, and market produce. Not only do the students provide free produce for families in need, but they also employ a sustainable business model through revenue from farmer’s markets and a partnership with a local juice company. So far, Gladiator Greens have donated over 350 pounds of produce to food pantries.
Additionally, Mr. Donnelly is not complacent with ending his lessons upon graduation, which is why he helps seniors—especially those interested in environmental justice—establish a post-secondary plan. He has honest, meaningful discussions with his students about their future careers. To supplement this work in helping them forge a future for themselves, he gives them the educational tools they need to meet the challenges of the future. It is not a surprise that, thanks to Mr. Donnelly and his colleagues, students that have participated in all four years of the CTE program have a 100 percent graduation rate.
Overall, Mr. Donnelly’s engaging, immersive teaching approach continues to benefit the Boston Green Academy and its mission. As he says, “You can’t care about the Earth if you feel apart from nature. You have to realize that you are a part of nature.” This no doubt rings true in his work. From his Outdoor Club to his field trips, Mr. Donnelly makes environmental justice a tangible topic, and as students graduate in the spirit of his teachings, his impact on Boston, and the world at large, is only beginning.
South Burlington High School
South Burlington, Vermont
When Mr. Dransfield walks down the halls of South Burlington High School in Vermont, he sees himself not only as a teacher, but also as a trusted mentor. Confidently, he knows that students learn best when they have a fun, engaging relationship with their teacher, and he has put in the work to be an effective leader and role model. Having a rapport with students has allowed him to encourage them to experiment without a fear of failure, and his optimism replaces their “I can’t” with “try this.” This approach has allowed students to explore the topics that interest them and find out for themselves what they are truly capable of achieving. Mr. Dransfield also understands that not all students process information the same way, and his relationship with them allows him to personalize his teachings to suit their needs.
Of all his teaching approaches, Mr. Dransfield finds the best results from field-based learning, such as local expeditions. His trips to a dairy farm, composting and recycling facility, and local museum, for example, are each tied to a specific unit in his courses, and this makes environmental lessons real and meaningful. These trips also show firsthand how, through science in action, society can address today’s toughest sustainability challenges.
To further empower students and give them a sense of community, Mr. Dransfield also incorporates service projects into his programs. Not only does it provide real-time, tangible benefits for the greater Burlington area, but it also instills students with a sense of accomplishment. In some cases, this applies within the school itself, as Mr. Dransfield’s “pairing project” allows students to mentor each other. In the process, the mentors learn how to organize their ideas and present them in a way that brings meaningful change, and mentees get a fresh perspective on a lesson from someone who relates to them on a generational level. In fact, his students become so successful in imparting their knowledge that they even teach entire lessons on environmental topics—such as water use and conservation—to local elementary school classes.
Ultimately, relationships guide Mr. Dransfield’s teaching philosophy, and for good reason—the feedback on his work has resulted in the growth of environmental science at the school from two to five class sections. Understanding the individuality of each student helps him teach in a way that is relatable, accessible, and meaningful. He often stresses that—like the biodiversity of the world’s ecosystems—there is diversity in the classroom. When embraced, this only makes a school stronger.
EPA Region 3:
Boone Career and Technical Center
Foster, West Virginia
At the Boone Career and Technical Center in Foster, West Virginia, Mr. Miller teaches experience-based courses such as “Outdoor Education,” “Adventure Tourism,” and “Travel West Virginia.” Considering his impact on students and the Foster community—and with recognition as Environmental Teacher of the Year in 2021—he has proven, after 25 years of teaching, to be one of the most effective conservation instructors in the country. The key to his success lies in his simulated workplace model, where each of his students holds a position with unique responsibilities. Here, students gain a practical perspective on the balance between industry and conservation. They are often interns, for example, at environmental organizations such as the Forks of Coal Educational Center and Natural Area—not only do these students put in the work to make a lasting difference on West Virginia wildlife, but they also learn the ability to pass on their knowledge, as Mr. Miller has these students teach younger students about what they learned. The result: before they even graduate, students are activists with developed workplace skills capable of leading the next generation.
Mr. Miller has a particular passion for water conservation. He leads his classes in projects to protect the local creek from school runoff, for example, and students have planted over 75 trees to protect and support stream health in their watershed. Additionally, Mr. Miller is behind community volunteer cleanup efforts, where his protégés spearhead the removal of debris and heavy objects from riverbanks. This “Celebration of the River” has even received grants for its work, and in partnership with local governments and businesses, students have removed over a thousand tires from the local streams and landscape. Even here, Mr. Miller is not one to waste an opportunity for education, and he uses these activities to instruct students on various ways to determine stream health, such as by the detection of benthic macroinvertebrates.
Ultimately, Mr. Miller’s teachings dive headfirst into action and achievement. Under his guidance, students learn about conservation through work with local organizations, and they retain this information in the best way possible: by becoming teachers themselves. Many admit that his programs boosted their communication skills, self-esteem, and range of talents. In fact, because of their time with Mr. Miller, many have proudly gone to face their fears, from rock climbing to public speaking. Much like the trees they plant along the stream, students are immediately given a purpose, spurred into growth, and leave an impact for generations to come.
EPA Region 5:
Kokomo High School
Mr. Lorenz—an environmental teacher at Kokomo High School in Indiana—understands the “activity” behind “activism,” as would anyone who sits in on his classes. Environmental problems require creative solutions, which is why his lessons are constantly bursting with new ideas and projects. One of his programs—Trash Talkin’—is a perfect example. For a week, students carry around a trash bag from class to class as part of an initiative to reduce the school’s waste through an analysis of what is reusable or recyclable in everyday trash.
Mr. Lorenz uses a “flipped classroom” approach where students are expected to read and study outside the classroom. The time they spend at their desks is devoted to questions, and Mr. Lorenz emphasizes the importance of why this environmental science is essential to their livelihood. He also takes the extra time to bond with his students and help them build a relationship with nature, a relationship that then fuels their passion to protect it. This has the added benefit of showing Mr. Lorenz how his students think, and he uses that information to handcraft his lessons to suit their learning styles. While everyone fights to protect the same environment, that does not mean that everyone fights for it in the same way. In Mr. Lorenz’s classes, anyone can find their calling in the realm of environmental justice.
Always above and beyond, Mr. Lorenz also supports his students after class. He leads the Kokomo High School Environmental Club, where students are collecting plastic bottle cap lids to not only reduce waste but also to raise funds for new school benches, an outdoor lab, and new playground equipment for nearby elementary schools. As part of their volunteer work, students learn about the sorting process through researching a facility in Evansville, Indiana. The effort has been ongoing for several years, with many graduates returning to see the results of the work they started.
Students who have had the privilege of learning with Mr. Lorenz report a better attitude toward their other classes, home life, jobs, and sports activities. Indeed, they have learned more than mere environmental science; they have learned a way of life, one that incorporates their own view of the world with a purpose, a sense of belonging, and an appreciation of the natural world. Some have even told Mr. Lorenz that he may have just saved their lives. In the halls, Mr. Lorenz is nicknamed “Mr. Lorax,” but he is so much more—he is a true hero that finds magnificence in nature, in science, and in students, and he brings them together for a better Kokomo community.