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Life as an Environmental Educator

By Erin Parker

“What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen out here?” It’s a question I get frequently, usually delivered from a height of less than about four feet after one of my students spends a couple of hours waist deep in the bay water looking for marine organisms. My answer is typically something charismatic – sharks feeding just offshore, a 10-inch long mantis shrimp, a pod of dolphins with their babies, a dark ocean full of the blue-green bioluminescent flashes of comb jellies. I feel incredibly lucky to get to spend so many hours in the field and see the lives of so many unique marine animals and to have the opportunity to teach kids about just how cool these creatures are.

I’m currently working as an environmental educator at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station (CBFS) on the eastern shore of Virginia (yes, Virginia has an eastern shore, no, this little spit of land does not belong to Maryland). CBFS is a non-profit organization working to provide a “hands on, feet wet” educational experience to learners from 5 to 85 through school programs, summer camps, Road Scholar continued learning, and intergenerational programs. I work with our younger programs, and over the last six months I have taught classes for kids ranging in age from kindergarten through high school. Every age group has its own unique joys and challenges and learning how best to adapt my curriculum and teaching style to each has been a never-ending learning process.

Our workdays start early here, usually between 7 and 7:30 a.m., so we can check that our vehicles are ready for the day and gather all of the equipment needed to head into the field later in the day. After having breakfast with our participants, it’s time for classes to start. We teach classes on a wide variety of topics relating to the local ecology, including dunes, intertidal, maritime forest, marsh, and water quality, as well as more biological classes like shark dissections, fish biology, herpetology, nocturnal adaptations, and organism identification and taxonomy. Additionally, during summer camp we take campers crabbing, kayaking, and make crafts with them. We all teach 2-3 classes per day, so along with all the setup and cleanup behind the scenes, our days are very full. It’s not uncommon to work 12-14 hour days.

During a given week each educator could be teaching any combination of the classes we offer. If that sounds a bit overwhelming…well, sometimes it is! When I first started here, it was a big learning curve to absorb and memorize everything I needed to know, and I’m still learning new things about the local flora and fauna all the time. I have a degree in marine biology but moving from the West Coast where I had obtained that degree to the East Coast meant learning a whole new ecology and a suite of unfamiliar organisms. I had a joke with my boss at the beginning that I didn’t even know what a plant is over here, everything is so different! Although I felt overwhelmed with information at times, getting to learn about so many species that are new to me has been one of my favorite things about living and working here.

I also had the opportunity to create my own class for summer camp. It was a chance to lean into something I’m really passionate about; marine plastic pollution. I focused my class on ways that the campers could reduce their own plastic use and consumption and gave them some tools to do so by showing them how to make Beeswrap and reusable shopping bags.

I really wanted to instill the idea that everyone can do something to help.

Whenever we’re not teaching, there’s a lot of work that educators do behind the scenes. Having a small staff means that we if there is a job that needs doing, it’s in our job description. There’s always cleaning to do, equipment to be repaired, recycling to be taken out, organisms to be returned to the field, tanks to be cleaned.

Most days I come home hot, exhausted, drenched in sweat, and covered in sand and mud. There are always ten thousand tiny details to remember, a continuous mental checklist that I’m constantly adding to (sometimes in the wee hours of the morning). Despite this, I absolutely love what I do. I love spending all day every day outside. I love learning more about the environment here. I love the hard work and long days and feeling like I’ve accomplished something at the end. But the very best things are when I get to witness young kids become enthralled by the natural world; when they shout in excitement over a plankton sample, or face their fears of getting dirty and leap into the marsh; when they look me in the eyes and tell me they want to be a marine biologist and I see reflected in them the same love and passion for the ocean and its creatures that I feel. I never tell them so, but that’s easily the coolest thing I’ve seen out here. And working as an environmental educator means this has become a frequent sighting.

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