Environmental Protection

Hundreds of Environmental Educators ‘Energized’ by National Conference in Lexington

by Roberta Burnes

A panel of “EE 30 Under 30” award recipients participate in a panel discussion at the North American Association for Environmental Education’s annual conference.

More than 1,250 environmental education professionals gathered in Lexington from Oct. 16 – 19 for the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) annual conference. Participants traveled from 30 countries and all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. One hundred and forty one Kentuckians attended the conference.

Attendees said that the conference offered unparalleled opportunities for professional development and networking with environmental educators from all around the world.

Session topics included air quality education with low-cost sensors, science communication, program evaluation and data visualization.  Equity and inclusion were themes that ran throughout the conference, with many sessions offering strategies to engage diverse audiences, build cultural competence and increase collaboration.

Roberta Burnes, center, stands with Mio Chee (left) and her son Dyson Chee (right). Dyson Chee received one of the NAAEE’s 30 Under 30 awards. Burnes served as their official conference buddy during the week.

“The NAAEE conference provides a time and place to gather with colleagues and explore the leading edges of the field, to learn new ways of thinking and doing, to be inspired by what others have achieved, and to share our own achievements,” NAAEE Conference Director Lori Mann said. “This was my 39th NAAEE conference, and even after all this time, I came away, as I do every year, energized, motivated and buoyed by the optimism and drive found at the heart of virtually every environmental educator.”

Kentucky is viewed as a national leader when it comes to environmental education. The Kentucky Association for Environmental Education (KAEE) is one of the oldest and largest professional environmental education organizations in the country. Kentucky is also home to a rigorous, nationally-accredited Environmental Education Certification program, offered by the Kentucky Environmental Education Council. More than 230 people have graduated from the annual course since it began in 2004.

For all of these reasons and more, NAAEE chose to bring its national conference to the Bluegrass state this year. Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton also declared the week of Oct. 14 – 19, 2019 as Environmental Education Week in the city.

Many state agencies, including the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, utilize environmental education as an essential tool for building informed, engaged citizens.

Burnes looks at a poster during one of the NAAEE conference sessions.

Environmental educators often describe their work as teaching how — not what — to think about environmental challenges and solutions. An environmental educator’s job is not to advocate for any one approach or solution, but instead to provide resources that empower students to make their own informed decisions.

This writer co-presented a session with University of Kentucky writing professor Lauren Cagle about a 2-year collaboration working with her students to produce educational materials for the Division for Air Quality. Throughout the collaboration, Cagle’s students gained real-world experience creating videos, displays and more for our agency.

For nearly five decades, NAAEE has worked to strengthen and expand the field of environmental education. NAAEE works with educators, policy makers and partners throughout the world to advance environmental literacy and civic engagement for a more equitable and sustainable future.

Roberta Burnes is an environmental education specialist with the Kentucky Division for Air Quality. She has a passion for environmental education and frequently leads air quality programming in K-12 schools across the Commonwealth.

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