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.
To be named a "Green School," a school has to institute a framework [that MAEOE provides]. Within that framework, there's a lot of flexibility. But there has to be professional development for teachers. Then the teachers integrate what they've learned into their existing curriculum. Students then do projects that incorporate what they've learned, whether it has to do with energy, habitat, solid waste or other [subjects]. Then they take their lessons into the wider community.
Today, there are 266 Green Schools in Maryland. That's about 10 percent of Maryland's schools. If every school that applied in 2009 is accepted, the figure would jump to 17 percent. We're aiming for 100 percent.
Q: : That suggests a lot of growth.
A: : There has been a big cultural shift. For a long time, there was this idea that [environmental educators] were just crazy tree-huggers who didn't smell particularly good, that kind of stereotype. But people have begun to see that the environment is important, and the message is coming from the mainstream now. The whole profession has taken on a new profile.
And MAEOE is going through a hyper-growth stage. In 2008, 38 schools applied to the [Green Schools] program. That was about average. This year, it was 73, by far the biggest one-year jump we've had. That made us say, "Whoa." Also, it used to be that 50 to 60 percent of schools that applied to be recertified, got recertified. This year it was 90 percent. ... The changes are lasting.
Q: : How has MAEOE adjusted?
A: : We're trying to manage our growth and success. For years, MAEOE had a half-time director and a volunteer board; we worked out of [free] cubicles at the Department of Natural Resources [and] other places. Now, our programs have gotten so large that our traditional ways of doing things weren't working anymore.
We have a full-time director and Green Schools [director], we still have a working volunteer board, and I'm thrilled to say we've moved into this wonderful space.
Q: : Why was a move so crucial?
A: : For one thing, it got things out of my house. We even had a planning meeting on the roof of my [condo] building! It was crazy.
We also needed a physical space of our own so that we would no longer be this ethereal presence. But we couldn't move just anywhere. It had to be a space that reflects what we're about, that complements our mission. I looked at a lot of green office buildings and saw some phenomenal places. But for the most part, the cost came as a bit of a shock. The EnviroCenter was willing to work with us on that.
Q: : Why the EnviroCenter?
A: : In this field, there can be a lot of politics, back-stabbing and, of course, keen competition for very limited funds. The second we walked in here and started talking [with owners and other tenants, including the Green Building Institute and Chesapeake Solar, a renewable energy services company], it was if we were all brainstorming about how to work together rather than just talking the specifics of leasing office space.
It almost seemed fated to happen: All these great organizations were here that we were already partnering with on projects and grants. The collection of tenants here ... don't see [each other] as competition; they understand the power of partnerships.
And schools are already interested in bringing their classes here. The tenants won't mind 30 kids coming through for a tour. The building itself is a teaching tool.
Q: : Any favorite physical features?
A: : Well, look at that light [above you]. It's a light tube that connects to the [roof]. It takes the sunlight, even on a cloudy day, and brings it in here. It uses no energy. That's one of the reasons the building uses about one-third of the energy another comparably sized building would use.
Q: : Can students adopt the green techniques they see here?
A: : Some things are hard to translate exactly into schools because they've already been built, but - look at this carpet. It's made from recycled materials. Students could go to the library, look up the manufacturer and see what's in it as a research project, then use persuasive writing to make recommendations to the school.
But they're coming up with their own ideas. At one high school, the students calculated how much gasoline the district could save if the buses didn't idle [while waiting to pick kids up]. In addition to the health benefits of eliminating the fumes, they found it would save ... $50,000 per year. They wrote it up in a report and submitted it to the school district, and they now have a "no-idle" zone.
Q: : Has MAEOE grown financially in keeping with these cultural shifts?
A: : Unfortunately, interest and demand for our programs have increased while funding sources and levels have decreased. Those have shrunk with the economy. Many places where we've received funding in the past have said this year, "We can't do it." So we're looking for new sources of funding and support.
We feel the move is so important. The building is not just a building. We feel it will translate into visibility, into moving forward with the partnerships we've been building. We're rolling the dice, but we like the odds.