Erin Sliney is not an idler. At just 30, she is well on her way to becoming an environmental education (EE) champion, not only in her home state of Kentucky but beyond. And she’s forging a path that may well be the key to broadening the reach of environmental education in Kentucky (and beyond)—developing regional networks to bolster collective impact throughout the state.
As a member of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council (KEEC)’s Environmental Education Leadership Corps, Sliney has spent the past year at The Greater Clark Foundation, creating programs for Clark County’s Legacy Grove park. At the same time, she participated in KEEC’s Professional Environmental Educator Certification (PEEC) course—one of only three in the country that is nationally-accredited—and has become a certified environmental educator “enlightened to a world of dedicated environmental educators and EE organizations across the state,” she says.
Inspired to apply to the EELCorps after spending time as a backcountry chainsaw crew member in Utah; hiking guide in Guatemala and Alaska; and Lead Naturalist and Outdoor Specialist at California’s Whiskeytown Environmental School (told you she’s not an idler), Sliney says the EELCorps experience, which she wrapped up today, has been more valuable than she had ever imagined.
“My experience in EE at the Whiskeytown Environmental School was primarily teaching students about the plants and animals, but I now recognize that environmental education is a broad field that is integral to fostering resilient and sustainable communities,” she says. “The opportunity to share my passion and experience to help fulfill the significant need for EE in my beloved home state of Kentucky drew me to the EELCorps.”
The Legacy Grove position was particularly appealing to Sliney, she says, because “the opportunity to create an EE program from scratch would allow me to develop new skills, be creative, have significant local impact, and integrate lessons learned from my graduate studies in Resilient and Sustainable Communities. I also loved that community participatory processes informed the development of both the Park and the play area.”
Working at The Greater Clark Foundation office exposed Sliney to the world of high-functioning nonprofits, she says, and introduced her to key local partners, officials, community groups, and passionate residents. But she believes that perhaps the most valuable aspects of the program are the new connections she has made that led to the development of a network of environmental educators in Clark County.
This new EE network became one of Sliney’s key focuses in Clark County, where she spearheaded not only program development for Legacy Grove but also coalition building and group facilitation that will leave a lasting impact in the county. After months of thorough preparation, research, and report creation, she recently led the first two meetings designed to bring together EE enthusiasts and professionals in her region.
“As one EE network participant put it,” Sliney says of this kind of teamwork, “‘We are stronger together!’ We need combined and intentional efforts to provide residents with a comprehensive understanding of natural and human systems, giving them the tools and knowledge to address environmental problems, and fosters respect for the natural world.”
To do this, she says, “requires more than just litter programs. This takes the coordinated work of different agencies with various resources and areas of expertise. A county-wide network can allow environmental educators to share successes and failures, combine resources, respond to the unique needs and interests of the community, and ensure that all residents have opportunities to participate in EE programs.”
Having met twice as the new Clark County EE network, the group will hold several more meetings to articulate goals, action plans, group structure, and more. And they very well may serve as a prime example for other counties as they, too, bring together environmental educators—formal and nonformal, from all walks of life—to build that collective impact.
EELCorps is an AmeriCorps program run by the Kentucky Environmental Education Council that seeks to increase environmental literacy throughout the state. Learn more here!
Years ago, a Girl Scouts troop comprised of nine- and ten-year-olds toured Frankfort’s Josephine Sculpture Park (JSP) with JSP founder and director Melanie VanHouten. Upon arriving at Aaron Dysart’s decaying sculpture, “Relic,” one of the troop members stuck her head into the large hollowed-out log and immediately called for her friends to join her in studying the dangling chrysalis she found inside. Seizing the opportunity as an educational moment, VanHouten gave the group an impromptu lesson about metamorphosis and habitat. And that impromptu lesson led to the ringleader’s epiphany: “Who knew you could learn about science at the sculpture park!?”
In that moment, she says, Melanie knew the park was serving exactly the purpose she had hoped it would: using art as a means of connecting children and families to the environment.
Kentucky’s only sculpture park, JSP opened to the public in 2009 on the land once owned by VanHouten’s grandparents and where she spent much of her childhood. That land, and all that “land” entails, are integral to the park.
“We are a place for outdoor exploration, free play, a picnic, and inspiration,” says JSP program coordinator Jeri Howell. “The art is here and can be integrated in various ways, but so can all of the natural elements you can find in a park dedicated to conserving Kentucky’s native, rural landscape.”
Just like environmental education, Howell says, arts education is cross-curricular, and with this in mind, JSP strives not only to increase children’s access to arts, culture, and outdoor experiences but also to teach those children—and their families, teachers, and broader communities—how art and nature are intertwined.
“We connect, or sometimes reconnect, people with themselves, each other, and nature through art, environmental programming, and creative community experiences,” Howell says. “It motivates and inspires us every day to see this in action at Josephine Sculpture Park.”
And they do, in fact, see it in action every day. One way is through the guided field trips the park leads for public and private school classes and student camps.
“This summer, the Shelby County Migrant Education Summer Program (grades K-12) visited JSP for an all-day arts and environmental education workshop that also incorporated math and reading and writing,” Howell says. “Students rotated in groups by grade level between three main activities: introduction to tree identification and nature journaling; sculpture making with woven natural materials lead by JSP Summer Artist in Residence, Justin Roberts; and a sculpture scavenger hunt that allowed students to explore the park’s 30 acres of native meadow, young forest, and more than 70 interactive public art installations.”
This type of hands-on, interdisciplinary field trip is offered year-round at JSP, and their environmental educational programs like that arranged for the Shelby County Migrant Education Summer Program align with Kentucky Academic Standards in science and arts; they often integrate state reading and writing and math standards, as well.
“School visits to JSP are incredibly flexible to each school’s needs and resources,” Howell says. “You can visit for free any day of the year from dawn to dusk to explore the sculptures, do a self-guided tour or sculpture scavenger hunt, or have a picnic. Or you can engage with our experienced staff of professional artists and an environmental educator to develop a paid program that is right for you, your students, and your budget.”
The team at JSP not only strives to expose visitors to the interplay between art and environment but also to ensure that everyone has access to this kind of visit and learning experience. As they prepare to celebrate the park’s tenth anniversary this September, they are encouraged by the visible enthusiasm shown by students participating in field trips at the park and also by the ways in which they are making their space accessible to everyone.
“JSP is proud to have been committed to celebrating diversity and social justice from the beginning,” Howell says. “JSP’s residency program hosts artists from Kentucky and around the world, many of whom are women and artists of color. Over the past ten years, JSP has been recognized for our commitment to diversity with financial support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the National Endowment for the Arts. We received the Community Service award from the Franklin County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And this year, JSP was accepted into Welcoming America’s ‘Welcoming Network,’ an international network of governments and organizations committed to creating inclusive communities where everyone—including immigrants and refugees—can thrive.”
At their September 8 Fall Arts Festival, this emphasis on diversity and inclusion will take center stage.
“The festival is always an exciting time for people of all ages and abilities to engage with art in a very hands-on, exploratory way,” VanHouten says. “This year, we are particularly looking forward to our emphasis on diversity and inclusion with our featured guest artists, Heather Hart and Sherwin Rio, and our music stage, which features artists from a variety of genres and cultures.”
The festival includes more than 20 free hands-on art workshops; advanced paid art workshops like glassblowing and blacksmithing; live music; hot air balloon rides; face painting; food and drink; and much more.
At the festival, Hart will facilitate an interactive community art project that will inform her upcoming “Porch Project” installation at JSP, designed to engage community conversations around race and gender. Participants at Rio’s workshop will share stories from their respective cultures, and then create a miniature clay monument reflective of their story. This activity is inspired by his sculpture at JSP, which Rio shares “asks viewers to imagine a more inclusive, dignified, and reciprocative future achieved through the acknowledgement of and respect for immigrants, refugees, Indigenous, and people of color in a dominantly white historical narrative.” Rio’s workshop is part of JSP’s participation in Welcoming Week, described on the Welcoming Network’s website as “a movement among communities across the globe to bring together immigrants and those born within their countries in a spirit of unity to build strong connections and affirm that being a welcoming community for all makes us stronger economically, socially, and culturally.”
For the 10th Fall Arts Festival, the park is also expanding its environmental partnerships, hosting ten Kentucky environmental organizations, each with an arts and/or environmental activity, to inform festival goers of regional ecology and civic engagement opportunities. Additionally, JSP is partnering with Franklin County Solid Waste Management to make the festival a zero-waste event, which means all waste generated from this festival will go to its proper waste stream: reuse, recycle, compost, or landfill.
With ten years behind them, the JSP team has grand plans for the next ten years at the park.
“In the past year, we purchased an additional ten acres adjacent to the park that would have otherwise been developed,” VanHouten says. “On that ten acres, we are in the process of installing a native meadow and rehabilitating a tobacco barn to create more classroom, exhibit, and event space. This new expansion is another big way we can engage more people in our mission.”
In addition, they plan to expand their educational programming to include more summer and school break camps and develop financial partners in hopes of being able to offer school field trip stipends and program and camp scholarships for individuals.
“Knowing this is a place for the community to be exposed to new ways of making art and connecting with nature, as well as meeting people engaged in creative professions they never knew existed” inspires the team, Howell says. “Small surprising moments of collective joy and beauty in nature can remind us how similar we all are, despite our differences.”
Josephine Sculpture Park, an organizational member of the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education, is located in Frankfort, Kentucky. To learn more about the park and the upcoming Fall Arts Festival, check out their website here!
Drink a Porter, Pay It Forward!
The Kentucky Association for Environmental Education has been named one of West Sixth Brewing’s newest Pay It Forward recipients. As a recipient, KAEE will be receiving at least 50 cents of every Cocoa Porter six-pack sold in our assigned region from July through December 2019.
"From the beginning, we at West Sixth have been focused not just on brewing great beer, but also giving back to the communities we are a part of," the popular Lexington brewery says.
In addition to donating 50 cents per Cocoa Porter six-pack, West Sixth asks its distributors (Clark Distributing, River City Distributing, Stagnaro Distributing) to match that donation. "For us," they say, "it's just a small way we can give back."
Donations like this allow us to train educators, bolster community engagement, build collective impact, and continue our efforts in ensuring that environmental education is incorporated into Kentucky's classrooms.
Learn more about the program here. A huge thanks to West Sixth for this extraordinary honor!
Knowing that no one is ever too young to begin their journey in environmental education (EE), in 2013 the North American Association for Environmental Education initiated the Natural Start Alliance, a network of organizations, educators, and parents committed to connecting young children to nature and the environment through education.
Since its creation, the initiative focuses on the goal of helping “ensure that environmental education begins with our very youngest learners: infants, toddlers, and preschoolers,” the NAAEE explains. “In these early years, environmental education is rooted in play and inquiry and is focused on introducing children to nature and the environment in ways that are connected to the places where they live and foster positive feelings about the natural world. The Natural Start Alliance brings the field together to work toward the shared goal of ensuring that all children receive the benefits of nature-based education in early childhood.”
As the NAAEE’s backbone organization focusing and amplifying the collective impact of the people and organizations that share this common vision, the Alliance works to
Work for a school or organization that’s interested in joining Natural Start? Membership is free, and the benefits are numerous! Learn more about the initiative and the ways you can get involved here.
Co-hosted by the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education, this year’s North American Association for Environmental Education Conference and Research Symposium will be a week filled not only with sessions about all aspects of environmental education (EE) but also with one-of-a-kind outdoor adventures and field trips; engaging networking events; and, of course, ample opportunities for us to show our out-of-state attendees how Kentucky celebrates both horses and bourbon.
The conference and research symposium, held in Lexington from October 15-19, will center around the idea of “education for a just and sustainable future,” with key themes that include “building leadership for environmental literacy,” “connecting with nature,” “conservation and environmental education,” “educating for sustainable communities,” “Green Schools and preparing for 21st Century careers,” and “linking research and practice to increase impact.”
And because there may be no better month than October to show off Kentucky’s beauty, optional outdoor field trips will be offered at sites all around the state, incorporating EE and Kentucky highlights into the week. During a visit to Berea College, attendees can hike, learn about horse logging, tour the college’s farm and Ecovillage, and watch local artisans at work. On the Kentucky River Palisades, visitors can join the Lexington Parks and Recreation Natural Areas staff for a canoeing outing and guided tour through the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. And at the Arboretum, a 100-acre green space on the University of Kentucky campus, participants can visit the Children’s Garden and Home Demonstration Garden and then FoodChain, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable food systems. There, the group will tour the commercial-scale indoor aquaponics farm (which grows tilapia and greens) and the Teaching and Processing Kitchen, which provides cooking classes for youth and families.
As earlier stated, no conference in Kentucky would be complete without the addition of horses and bourbon. On Friday evening, October 18, attendees (and guests who would like to join!) are invited to the “Kentucky Bourbon & Blues Celebration and Live Auction,” an evening of Kentucky-influenced hors d’oeuvres and bourbon, a create-your-own-derby-hat station, and live music from a local band. Attendees are also invited to take part in the annual William B. Stapp Commemorative Auction, which helps raise funds for NAAEE scholarships and professional learning opportunities.
The conference’s keynote addresses will be presented by John Flicker and Mona Chalabi. Dr. Flicker, President of Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, was president of the National Audubon Society in New York City for 15 years. During his tenure at Audubon, he was best known for creating a network of more than 40 Audubon Nature Centers in communities across the country, many located in low-income urban areas. Dr. Flicker also led Audubon’s efforts to protect critical habitat from the Everglades to the Arctic National Refuge. Ms. Chalabi is the Data Editor of The Guardian, where she writes articles, produces documentaries, and illustrates (as well as animates) data. She is also a data journalist for NPR.
Everyone is invited to join us at the conference, where we will discuss the many ways education is helping to create a more just and sustainable future for all. Throughout the week, sessions will focus on the three interwoven pillars of sustainability—social equity, shared prosperity, and environmental integrity— as well as how education can build hope, motivate action, and help achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals championed by the United Nations and leaders in more than 170 countries. In addition, the conference will highlight efforts to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to nature and high quality environmental education. Come share ideas and explore ways to create a more sustainable future through the great power of environmental education.
There’s still time to receive the early bird rate—the deadline for early bird registration is August 23. To learn more and register to attend, visit the NAAEE conference webpage.
KAEE is one of the country’s oldest associations supporting environmental education. We are people from all walks of life, coming together to support EE.