Environmental Educators: Why They Do What They Do!

In 1977, representatives from countries all over the world convened in Tblisi, Georgia (USSR) for the world’s first intergovernmental conference on environmental education. Nearly 400 delegates, representatives, and observers from all over the world took this opportunity to define the ‘roles, objectives, and characteristics of environmental education’ in what is now known as the Tblisi Declaration. In the years since, environmental education, or EE as those in the field like to call it, has played a critical role in STEM curriculum development in formal school settings as well as in other, informal educational settings.

Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve (WPNR) at Saint Vincent College opened its doors to the public in 2007, created in the memory of Mrs. Winnie Palmer and her wishes to preserve the ecological foundations of the area and the integrity of Saint Vincent College by keeping the area intact and free of commercial development. In keeping with the wishes and memory of Mrs. Palmer, WPNR has evolved and blossomed into a local cornerstone of environmental education. Through the vision and leadership of WPNR director Angela Belli along with staff, work studies, interns, and volunteers, WPNR has connected countless children of all ages (‘pre-k to gray’) to nature through hands on, experiential nature exploration.

Many professionals in the natural sciences field will say that they got their start in the EE field through volunteering, summer jobs, internships, and more. Formal natural sciences educators (i.e. natural sciences educators who work in school settings) often get their start in this field as well. There are a few, however, who, after being introduced to the field of EE, established careers in it. The staff at WPNR are sometimes asked why they do what they do, and the answers are varied.


Director Angela Belli teaches nature themed yoga poses to WPNR visitors

Angela Belli: Director

Angela’s childhood was spent growing up along the Allegheny River; fishing, boating, hiking, and more! Being constantly immersed in nature, her passion for the outdoors started at a young age. Despite that love of nature, however, she entered the EE field purely by accident. When she started at Saint Vincent College in 1999, her position largely consisted of watershed restoration and community outreach. When she was given the opportunity to lead and grow a 50 acre nature reserve, it gave her the opportunity to combine her passions for service, conservation, and education. She does what she does because she loves to see the influence that nature provides in the emotional health and well-being of community members of Latrobe and surrounding areas. Her favorite part of her job is seeing that influence not only in young children but also in college students, parents, and more as they grow academically and socially through programming at WPNR.


Allison Petris, Environmental Coordinator, helps visitors discover the microhabitats that develop in a fallen log
Allison Petris, Environmental Coordinator, helps visitors discover the microhabitats that develop in a fallen log



Allison Petris: Environmental Education Coordinator

Allie went to school for Elementary Education but quickly realized that she was not at all comfortable with being cooped up in a classroom all day. She began at WPNR as a work study in her sophomore year and immediately fell in love with the location as well as with the field of EE. She recognized right away that her talents as an educator as well as her indomitable outdoors spirit ideally suited her for the field. She does what she does because she believes that there is always something new to learn in nature and she loves to learn alongside the students that she is teaching.





Jean Keene, Environmental Education Program Assistant, allows visitors to meet Croaky the Bullfrog
Jean Keene, Environmental Education Program Assistant, allows visitors to meet Croaky the Bullfrog

Jean H. Keene: Environmental Education Program Assistant

Jean’s passion and empathy for animals of all kinds initially led her to pursue career paths in zoological fields. This pursuit led her to a position at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo in the outreach and shows department. It was in presenting live animals to the community through those outreach programs and shows that introduced her to the joys of the EE field. Despite the instant love for the EE, however, she continued to pursue careers with animals including positions with the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition and the Gulf Coast Exotic Bird Sanctuary. When she moved to Pennsylvania in 2009, however, she found herself more drawn to outdoor environmental education instead, preferring to view animals in their wild habitat rather than working with them in captivity. Her favorite part of her job is seeing a love of nature and the environment in the people that she teaches blossoming into appreciation and advocacy for environmental conservation. She does what she does because she firmly believes that the roots of environmental conservation lie in developing an appreciation for nature through education.





Although the reasons for continuing in the EE field are varied, the underlying reason is the same: passion. Whether its passion for education, nature, or conservation, environmental educators do what they do because they want to pass that passion on to future generations. Since the Tblisi Declaration has brought environmental education to the forefront of environmental advocacy, it is now considered by many organizations and agencies, including the United States EPA, to be a critical part of addressing environmental concerns. As we enter an age where our children are spending more and more time indoors and out of nature, countless organizations are constantly creating programs designed to get children of all ages back into the outdoors. As the Tblisi Declaration enters its 40th year, and WPNR enters its 10th, both have brought the EE field to the forefront, encouraging community members, whether global or in Latrobe, to get out and explore nature for health, well-being, and the future of environmental conservation.