The Maine Environmental Education Association honors O'Connell’s enduring contributions to environmental education
Monday, April 22, 2013
The award, bestowed by the Maine Environmental Education Association, recognizes her distinguished work and enduring contributions to the environmental education field, and lauds her creative and innovative approaches to environmental education programming.
“Anytime you’re recognized by your peers, it’s a wonderful thing,” said O’Connell, whose career in environmental education and ecology studies spans 30 years. “In a sense, this award really recognizes that commitment and that passion of the last 30 years of my life.”
The Eberhard Thiele Award honors O’Connell’s work with educators to embed ecological literacy across disciplines and to train teachers to make research-based, informed decisions about environmental issues. As longtime director of Lesley’s pioneering Ecological Teaching and Learning Program, O’Connell has molded generations of ecological educators, developed methods and pedagogies to embed ecology across the disciplines, and worked to push the edge of environmental education.
“When we created the master’s program, I wanted to evolve past traditional environmental education, which has been marginalized as an add-on in most schools. I believe that taking children outdoors for a week or a day isn’t enough,” O’Connell reflects. “What I’ve worked hard to do is deepen the ecological literacy of educators so they can bring systems thinking and interdependence of our biotic community into everyday life and into the curriculum across the disciplines. I wanted to begin a program that really taught teachers not to see environmental education as an add-on, but as a core piece of the curriculum. It is really a unique program in our country.”
That has been a tenet of the Lesley master’s program, which was established 15 years ago and boasts 200 alumni who work across the country in K-12 public schools, private schools, museums, National Parks, wildlife sanctuaries, universities and other institutions and non-profit organizations.
“When the students graduate from the program, I consider them colleagues in the field doing the work we’re passionate about,” said O’Connell. “I stay very closely in touch with the alumni of the program. I feel like part of the work we’re all doing in the world is to bring the human species back into balance with the biotic community that supports all life.”
O’Connell is well known in the New England environmental education community and beyond. She speaks widely and has served on the boards of the New England Environmental Education Alliance and the Maine Environmental Education Association.
She has spoken at the North American Association for Environmental Education conference, was keynote speaker at last year’s New England conference, and delivered the annual keynote address to The Emerald Necklace Conservancy last November. She was the keynote speaker at the environmental education conference in Utah last year, and this spring, she’ll present both at the environmental education conference in Colorado and the Massachusetts Audubon Staff Development conference.
“Forty years after the birth of the environmental education field, we are still considered on the margins,” O’Connell lamented. “I’m really working with all my talks and keynotes about how we embed ecological literacy into the core of what we’re teaching children.”
When she accepted the Eberhard Thiele Environmental Educator award, during her speech, she dedicated it to the children of the future.
“Environmental education is really about the children, who deserve a planet with clean water and clean air that allows a good life. How can we ignore the science and make coffin-nail decisions for the future?” she posed.
O’Connell originally worked with the Audubon Expedition Institute, a nonprofit education organization that partnered with Lesley before it merged with the university in 2003. O’Connell started teaching classes at Lesley in 1987, and was education director of the Institute starting in 1990.
The Ecological Teaching and Learning Program is an accelerated, five-semester cohort program that entails two summers of field study, three weeks each, and it enrolls students from all disciplines, she said.
“Ecology is not owned by science – it’s a very trans-disciplinary topic,” said O’Connell. “I say to students, ‘There is no recipe for how to teach from an ecological perspective.’ But with passion, innovation and a good understanding of different methods and pedagogies and ways to work across the disciplines, there’s a way to bring this understanding and this language of systems thinking to our children.”
O’Connell, who lives in Maine, holds her M.S. from Lesley University, and has a B.S. from South Dakota State University.
“It really is an exciting time to work in this field as our biggest challenge is climate change and it’s implications for the future. Focusing on climate science fits so nicely with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching,” said O’Connell. “We have the challenge of the planet in our hands, so we’re going to need innovative children, who need to have innovative teachers. It’ both an exciting time and a despairing time, but I encourage my students to really work with this stuff and get excited about the options and the solutions. I feel privileged to work with a self-selected high caliber of educators who care deeply about the state of our world and the future for our children. I have the best job in the world.”
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