Rachel Patton has been named Kentucky’s M.K. Dickerson Outstanding Educator for Excellence in Environmental Education. The award, given by the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education, recognizes individuals, schools, and businesses that exemplify dedication, commitment, and influence in the field of environmental education.
Since 2018, Rachel has been an environmental educator for Bluegrass Greensource with a focus on preschool education, visiting schools and classes throughout the organization’s 20-county service region. “I have the opportunity to visit thousands of students each year, primarily in preschool and elementary school,” Rachel says, “and it’s so exciting to watch them form connections and make discoveries about the world around them, hear their questions and stories, and help facilitate their investigations. Although I visit each class with a plan, the students' questions and ideas shape our experiences, which keeps things exciting!
Rachel has been part of the EE community since 2014, when she went through a training in Project Learning Tree. During her years as a student teacher, a public school employee, and through her work at an early care and education center, she incorporated EE activities as often as she could.
Since joining BGGS, Rachel has developed a robust preschool education program, first through the development of the Junior Nature Program and then with the development of the Junior Energy Program. The Junior Nature Explorers program teaches preschool students about the importance of shortleaf pine/oak savanna and riparian forests, as well as the umbrella species (bobwhite quail, prairie warbler, hellbenders, and native Kentucky mussels). By reaching PreK students during the earliest stages of learning and encouraging the integration of the natural world surrounding them, the program provides a solid foundation on which future learning and appreciation of these ecosystems and species are built. (One of the highlights of the program is the incubation of Bob White Quail in preschool classrooms!)
The Junior Energy Explorers (JEE) curriculum provides preschool teachers with accessible, experiential activities to introduce basic concepts of energy to young children. A review of the literature confirms this is a novelty: existing energy studies with children primarily focus on conservation. JEE, on the other hand, provides opportunities to experiment with water, wind, and solar energies through cross-curricular activities.
“Bluegrass Greensource has had a robust energy program for intermediate, middle, and high school students,” Rachel says. “Upon seeing the success of that program and our preschool nature-focused program, the folks at Kentucky’s Office of Energy Policy approached us about building a preschool energy curriculum. Our team rose to the challenge and has developed a one-of-a-kind program that engages preschoolers and their teachers and families.”
Under Rachel’s guidance, Bluegrass Greensource staff trained early childhood educators on the curriculum and provided trainees with the curriculum guide and materials to facilitate lessons. In the past year alone, Rachel worked with 27 preschool classrooms and led six energy labs for caregivers and preschool students across central Kentucky.
“It’s so exciting to facilitate the Junior Energy Explorers classroom visits, teacher curriculum trainings, and family engagement events!” she says. “One of my favorite preschool lessons, focused on wind energy, invites students to problem solve (by moving a feather without touching it), read a story about the wind, then make and test predictions about the distance a cotton ball can travel in the wind from a handheld fan. While focused on a basic everyday phenomenon, students are thinking scientifically, developing language and listening skills, taking turns, following multi-step directions, measuring and counting, manipulating a tool (the fan), using evidence to make a claim that the wind is blowing (or not), and more!
Rachel firmly believes that early childhood is an ideal time to focus on EE in and out of the classroom. “Young children are so incredibly curious and eager to learn about their world,” she says. “They’re making important discoveries and gains each day. Early childhood education and environmental education go hand-in-hand; both naturally integrate multiple developmental domains, such as science, literacy, math, and even social-emotional learning. It’s important for students to apply skills in each of these domains–and more–to real contexts. Building young students' comfort with and awareness of the natural world at an early age is an important step towards an informed and environmentally literate society. ”