An Inside View: Environmental Education

Internships in environmental education are fairly easy to find, but can these positions lead to more than a summer job?

Informal educators interact with audiences in a variety of institutions or organizations such as national parks, museums, recycling facilities, aquariums, and even the Department of Environmental Quality. These outreach professionals are the face of their employers providing dialogue with visitors, students, and interested parties. These jobs used to be primarily summer jobs for undergraduates, but professional educators are sensing a shift in the field. Positions are becoming increasingly competitive within the Triangle area and North Carolina as a whole. These jobs are also becoming more professional requiring certifications, networking, and experience.

In order to become an Informal Environmental Educator in the state of North Carolina, the recommended procedure is to acquire the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification. According to the NC Environmental Educator’s website, to attain this certification, applicants must learn the basics of Environmental Education, attend a series of educational workshops across the state, and initiate a community partnership project. This sounds like a tall order, but applicants have four years to complete the requirements. Thankfully, North Carolina State University has something to speed the process along, an Environmental Education minor. The Environmental Education minor is a brand-new minor, officially launching this semester. According to Dr. Kathryn Stevenson, the advisor, this minor is great for anyone looking to educate the public or communicate science to adult or K-12 audiences. Additionally, the minor is a great option for anyone not specifically interested in education. According to Dr. Stevenson, “Most biology projects end up becoming community engagements. Having a biologist that can talk to someone is helpful.”

We spoke with two environmental educators to learn more about their positions and experiences:

Erin Apple

First is Erin Apple, an NC State alum and current Program Coordinator at the NC Museum of Natural Science. As a Program Coordinator, Erin creates and implements educational programs for middle and high school students at the museum including the Girls in Science program while helping to manage the museum’s junior volunteer programs. Erin entered the field as a Seasonal Assistant Park Ranger at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and quickly discovered a love for educating visitors about the park’s features and inhabitants. Following the position at Jockey’s Ridge, Erin gained more experience in the field, attained her Environmental Education Certification, and was able to obtain her current position. When asked about her favorite part of the job, Erin replied “My favorite part of my job is engaging with students and getting to feel like I’m truly making a difference in their lives,” by introducing students to science careers and allowing them to delve into their passions.

The Museum of Natural Sciences has plenty of ways to involve students. Here are some potential opportunities:

Internships: https://naturalsciences.org/support/internships

Volunteering: https://naturalsciences.org/volunteer

Programs and events: https://naturalsciences.org/index

Lauren Daniel and Jasmine Gregory

Secondly is Lauren Daniel, an Environmental Specialist for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources. Initially, Lauren was a classroom teacher for 9 years before becoming an informal educator. As a teacher, she struggled incorporating outdoor learning into elementary instruction, but after participating in a trip to Belize funded by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, she explored ecosystems for 9 days and soon discovered how easy it was to interlock teaching standards with the outdoors. “That trip changed my perspective on teaching, and I haven’t looked back. Now, when I visit classrooms, I insist on taking the students outside to have discussions, to make observations, get hands-on, and to recognize human impact on the environment on their own campus.” Like many other Informal Educators, Lauren leads and works with a variety of different programs. As an Environmental Specialist, Lauren’s key responsibilities are to “…run NC Stream Watch (a program that allows anyone to observe stream health by looking at various features around the stream), Project WET (a program designed to provide teachers with activities and curriculum to incorporate water literacy into their classroom lessons), and It’s Our Water (another program for teachers to learn about NC’s water resources and how to teach about the variety of water resources in our state).” Lauren’s position requires a fair amount of communication, which is a great fit for her extroverted personality. In fact, one aspect of the job Lauren enjoys is collaborating with other educators and interdisciplinary parties and learning about new perspectives.

For more information about Lauren’s programs:

https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/water-resources/water-resources-training/public-involvement/project-wet

A few words of advice from our experts:

  • Take the minor: The minor is a fantastic path to becoming an Environmental Educator that will give students hands-on experience in the field while making significant progress on the Environmental Education certification.
  • Be experienced: Sign up to volunteer or take on an internship to gain as much experience as possible. The Office of Environmental Education has a frequently updated job board (http://web.eenorthcarolina.org/core/item/topic.aspx?tid=80300), which is a great resource for students looking to become involved.
  • Get certified: The Environmental Education Certification is a great way to stand out from other applicants.
  • Show flexibility: When volunteering or during an internship, show a hardworking attitude by proving no job is insignificant. Also, let passion lead you to pursuing an interesting opportunity. Many educators are working on a multitude of projects, flexibility is important when working in the informal education field.
  • Find a mentor

When looking at the big picture…

Informal education is a fun, challenging profession allowing for diverse experiences in the workplace. This is a profession searching for passionate, creative individuals willing to develop and implement exciting programs for audiences. These flexible educators consistently communicate with audiences of all kinds while also collaborating with interdisciplinary parties to create programming. Educators often find themselves working alongside scientists, municipality professionals, government agencies, and other fellow educators from different organizations and institutions. While these positions are thrilling, students interested in environmental education must understand the challenges associated with this career path. Informal educators often experience lack of funding and less than stellar pay, which requires grant awards to keep employees paid and projects running. This can also mean in order to gain enough experience to obtain a full-time, permanent position, new educators will endure years of temporary or seasonal jobs. While informal education has drawbacks, Erin Apple believes, “…if you are motivated purely by the desire to educate and spread science literacy in a world that is becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, you will find that a career in environmental education will fill your cup in many ways that other jobs can’t.” Erin’s personal testimony shows how truly rewarding a career in environmental education can be, regardless of the associated frustrations.