Preparing Students for the Future Through Environmental Education

One of the best parts of my job here in the Office of Environmental Education is meeting creative, committed environmental educators- and getting to recognize them for their work. Until March 13, we’re accepting applications for the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators(PIAEE). We recently reached out to Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches about sustainable energy at the Bronx Design & Construction Academy in the South Bronx. He shared his passion for environmental education and how the award is impacting his work and school.

Why did you become interested in environmental education (EE)? My early exposure to environmental sustainability evolved into to my interest in EE. I grew up on an island where residents use renewable energy to meet their electricity needs. After college, while in the United States Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic, I worked on sustainable community development, focusing on agriculture and identifying solutions to soil erosion. Finally, I ended up in NYC; I’ve now been teaching in the same high school for over 10 years. Over this time, I’ve developed a passion for bringing environmental and energy literacy into urban education. I’m deeply interested in teaching our students about the interaction between energy and our urban environment, how to identify environmental problems, and most importantly, how to solve these problems in a sustainable way.

What role does EE play at your school? I work in a Career & Technical Education school, the Bronx Design & Construction Academy and have always been motivated to teach our youth about sustainable technologies through the lens of EE. My students are learning about economics and the environment, and how this relates to the building trades (electrical, plumbing, carpentry, heating, ventilating, and air conditioning and pre-engineering). Focusing our vision around environmental issues, such as climate change, reflects our school’s mission to provide 21st century Career & Technical Education.

How has winning the PIAEE award impacted your work and your school? The PIAEE Award – the result of my last 10 years of environmental work in the South Bronx – has really allowed me to strengthen and solidify the environmental projects I’ve always been working on at my school.

The award helped highlight and recognize our next big project: building the Energy-Environment Research Center. This center will:

  • Provide a model educational center where both students and community members can study renewable energy systems
  • Showcase cutting-edge renewable energy systems at street level for students, professionals, academics, engineers, and visitors to learn from
  • Provide an off-grid emergency power facility that can be used by the community during power outages and times of need
  • Power an off-grid greenhouse to grow organic produce for sale to the community

This award also allowed me to meet a group of incredible teachers working tirelessly in the field of EE. It’s very powerful to share our experiences; we definitely learned a lot from each other.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about teaching EE or any helpful advice you can offer to your fellow environmental educators?

EE helps our students make connections between human health and the earth’s health, identify anthropogenic factors that affect the earth’s ecosystems, and recognize symbiotic relationships that connect us with other organisms on our planet. Understanding these connections motivates them to action. To everyone teaching environmental education – keep up the great, vitally important work!

If you’re a K-12 teacher combining enthusiasm for environmental protection with a passion for teaching, consider applying for the PIAEE. Applications are due March 13, 2015. Thanks to Nathaniel and all our previous winners for their dedication. Keep up the good work!

About the author: Nathaniel Thayer Wight grew up on the San Juan Islands, located in the northwestern corner of Washington State’s Puget Sound. After completing college and a 2-year Peace Corps service, Nathaniel moved to NYC and completed an M.S. degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Nathaniel has worked in the same high school building in the South Bronx, NYC for the last 10 years. A passionate environmental, energy and sustainability educator, Nathaniel enjoys helping students make connections between environmental problems and sustainable technologies. When Nathaniel isn’t teaching about sustainable energy, he can be found traveling with his family, playing guitar, working in his urban garden, and spending as much time as he can with his wife and baby daughter Sol.

Emily Selia works on communications and outreach for the Office of Environmental Education at EPA. In her free time, she’s doing her best to get outdoors as a volunteer naturalist, engaging children in learning about their local ecosystems.

Nathaniels installs a green roof with students on a Saturday morning

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