Kentucky State University’s Environmental Education and Research Center (EERC) is a little-known gem that was founded in 2007 to protect and enhance KSU’s 308 acres of restored forest habitat and to educate and inspire both students and the public. It aims to build strong community interest in the study of state natural lands and hosts a variety of citizen science projects, guided hikes, and many other programs for learners of all ages. EERC facilities include an accessible pavilion with picnic tables, an outdoor classroom, a 1.6-acre pond, Six Mile Creek access, and Kentucky’s only Braille Trail.
We recently caught up with two of the EERC staff environmental educators, Kaitlynn Gootee and Ian Reis, to learn a bit more about their programs and passions.
KAEE: What is your current role at the EERC (and/or other EE roles you have)?
Kaitlynn: I am an environmental education assistant for the EERC. While I create many of the programs that are hosted at our center, I also lead guided hikes and field trips for our visitors, monitor wildlife at the center, and assist with grounds keeping. I also function as a representative of the EERC when assisting with Kentucky State University’s 4-H program and the Summer Apprenticeship Program.
Ian: I am currently an environmental education assistant. I plan and assist in all environmental education activities on and off campus, as well as maintain the center.I also seek out and implement new programs, tools, and technology we can use to further our impact.
KAEE: What projects or programs are you working on that particularly inspire you?
Kaitlynn: I currently have two favorite programs: the Wildflower Walk series and our Earth Week Program. Our Wildflower Walk series raises awareness about the diversity of wildflowers in our forests and how native pollinators like bees, ants, and butterflies use them. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for members of the community to come out and practice plant identification. The Earth Week program is only held once a year (during the week of Earth Day) and is easily one of our most ambitious projects of the year. Earth Week showcases many different aspects of environmental science, with guest speakers from organizations across Kentucky who speak on subjects like water quality, invasive species, and even backyard conversation in urban areas. It’s always exciting to see everyone come together during Earth Week!
Ian: I’m particularly inspired by our recently completed Braille Trail. I love finding ways to increase the accessibility of outdoor spaces and to reach everyone we possibly can. I’m also excited to be working on a mobile augmented reality sandbox, which will be another tool and exciting piece of technology that we can take out into the community when they are unable to come to us.
KAEE: What goals do you have for your organization or programs within the EE field?
Kaitlynn: One of my goals for the EERC is to continue our involvement in the community and in schools. Many of our young student visitors mention they have never been on a hike before, and by the end of their visit they are adamant that they want to be biologists! Creating and expanding a safe, immersive learning space like the EERC is something always at the forefront of our minds, allowing members of the community to see our natural lands in ways they may not have before.
Ian: I hope to continue increasing the programs that we offer. Over the past year we have added at least one or two recurring programs each month to our offerings (with more planned for this year), in addition to our regular tours and classroom visits. Increasing community engagement is always a priority. I would also like to continue improvements to our space, such as the in-development self-guided audio tour to draw more visitors and enhance their experience.
KAEE: What is an area you feel you could use support in from this network of fellow educators?
Kaitlynn: The EERC needs help spreading the word about our center! We are always looking for opportunities to help out with community projects, school involvement, or even short visits from those who simply want to get out into the woods. Our center is also always open to collaborating with others on EE projects, and more than willing to act as a space to host field trips!
Ian: I want to stay up to date with what everyone is doing so we can share ideas and events, and hopefully collaborate on some projects.
KAEE: What is something you feel could be beneficial to share with this network?
Kaitlynn: While the EERC is always open to host visitors, we understand that weather, funding, and COVID-19 can make it difficult to come out and see us. The staff here at the EERC are available to travel to schools to deliver EE activities, and we also have a collection of virtual EE material that is available to educators.
Ian: We are always (COVID permitting) ready to host you and/or your group! We’d love to invite you to the EERC and get to know you better. We are also happy to support others as well, so just let us know what you need. We will come to you!
KAEE: If you would, share a fun fact or random tidbit about yourself with the group.
Kaitlynn: A fun fact about me: I like to write fantasy fiction in my free time!
Ian: My love for travelling, live music, and theater has taken me to 31 states and three countries so far.