Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators (PIAEE) Winners
Read the press release about this year's winners. Congratulations!
EPA Region 1
Melanie Cutler, Andover High School
Ms. Cutler is a global environmental thinker who acts on a local level. As the chair of Andover's Green Advisory Board, she is always seeking to provide opportunities for her students to practice civic engagement to protect the environment.
As a teacher with 22 years of experience in environmental education program development, Ms. Cutler uses a unique curriculum to empower her students to protect the environment and tackle sustainability challenges. Students in Ms. Cutler’s classes participate in hands-on learning projects such as sustainable gardening where they grow produce for their school cafeteria and local food pantries.
Ms. Cutler works with local mentors to provide her students’ opportunities to improve recycling and compost efforts at nine (9) schools, and to support the banning of plastic bags and Styrofoam within their community. Her students even help to encourage the purchase of renewable energy for schools, including their own Andover High School.
Students seeking a transformative leadership experience can take Ms. Cutler’s Environmental Sustainability Internship course. This course provides students with the opportunity to discover a local challenge and then work with local officials, community members, and outside organizations to propose and create a solution. In Ms. Cutler’s Environmental Sustainability Internship course, students can conserve land, protect biodiversity, build trails, reduce water pollution, reduce waste, and reduce their town's reliance on fossil fuels.
EPA Region 2
Veronica Morabito-Weeks, Bretton Woods Elementary School
Hauppauge, New York
Ms. Morabito-Weeks, a fifth (5th) grade teacher in Hauppauge, NY, integrates environmental concepts into other classroom subjects including: English, language arts, social studies, and math to ensure all her students experience nature firsthand. Veronica Morabito-Weeks utilizes her 26 years of teaching experience to create inclusive, rich experiences that meet the diverse needs of her students. Her students gain firsthand experience interacting with nature by studying and caring for animals including axolotls, chinchillas, trout, Bobwhite quails, and horseshoe crabs.
She offers students the opportunity to work with environmental professionals, hoping it may spark student interest in stewardship projects. Building on the classroom experience, students can work with staff from Cornell University to release the trout they’ve raised and study invasive fish species through river sampling after school. Further, in collaboration with Caleb Smith State Park, the students hatch and raise quails to support a tick reduction program in the park.
The entire school community benefits from her environmental leadership. Students benefit from Ms. Morabito-Weeks’ initiative in creating a butterfly garden, a native plant garden, and the Environmental Science Club. Every year Ms. Morabito-Weeks organizes multiple environmental education field trips for the entire fifth grade. As a New York State Master Teacher and a Lead Teacher for her Teacher’s College Language Arts Program, she provides professional development for other educators and takes part in continued citizen science opportunities to bring new projects back to her school.
EPA Region 3
Ann Strozyk, Howard County Public Schools (HCPSS)
Howard County, Maryland
Ms. Strozyk works with over eight thousand students annually in her role as an HCPSS Environmental Educator. Her goal with all educational experiences is to make them interactive and meaningful. This love of science and her students is what inspired Ms. Strozyk to create the Watershed Report Card (WRC) program. For each ninth (9th) grade earth science and biology class within her county, she was able to organize field experiences where students visiting their closest stream could collect watershed health data. With the assistance of watershed volunteers, students collected data on chemicals, such as dissolved oxygen, pH, nitrate, and phosphate.
Ms. Strozyk created the Watershed Report Card program five (5) years ago, during a time where only a handful of high schools participated. The Watershed program provides students with unique field experiences and has now grown to include every Howard County High School. Ms. Strozyk also provides teachers with detailed lesson plans and professional development. In addition to the field experience monitoring water quality and collecting data on macroinvertebrates, Ms. Strozyk has included an advocacy component to the lessons. She teaches students how to advocate for change and provides them with an opportunity to present findings and suggestions to elected officials at the Howard County Watershed Summit.
Ms. Strozyk continues to ensure that the Watershed Report Card program meets the requirements of the Maryland State Environmental Literacy standards. She also helps each school implement an action project that focuses on protecting the Chesapeake Bay watershed. She knows that teachers’ time and resources are stretched thin, so she works hard to help teachers and students carry out their action projects.
Examples of her assistance includes:
- Facilitating meetings and professional development sessions for teachers
- Coming into the classrooms to assist teacher and work directly with students
- Working with government officials to obtain materials, such as stencils, so that students can stencil storm drains on their school campus, as well as provide gloves for a school yard cleanup
- Finding grant money for schools to obtain funding for action project materials such as planting native plant gardens
EPA Region 4
No 2020 winners.
EPA Region 5
David Murduck, Champion Middle School
Mr. Murduck is a fifth (5th) grade science teacher at Champion Middle School in Warren, Ohio, where he strives to instill a passion for environmental stewardship with students and teachers, as well as the wider school district and local community. By incorporating place-based learning strategies that expose students to experiential learning opportunities, his students practice math and other subjects while developing a deep understanding of the importance of stewardship and the environment. In 2019, Mr. Murduck was recognized as both the Ohio Formal Environmental Educator of the Year and the North American Association of Environmental Education Teacher of the Year.
In David Murduck's fifth (5th) grade classroom, he provides active learning opportunities for his students. These opportunities establish an engaging atmosphere where unique, fun, and exciting connections pair with lesson content and life outside classroom walls. Nearly every day, his students are exposed to real-world scenarios which involve observation, hands-on collection of data, and synthesis of information. These opportunities provide real-life, problem-based learning for his students; to develop leadership and reasoning skills; and encourage confidence in Mr. Murduck’s young students.
His initiatives expose students, members of their families, and the local community to real-world experiences that help break down barriers and generate curiosity about the surrounding environment. The success of the after-school programs he coordinates and advises have led to a school and community with greater awareness of environmental stewardship and instilled pride in the students. Mr. Murduck’s attention to active learning opportunities enables his students to make connections and exchange ideas as they collaborate with peers and develop valuable team building and communication skills.
His accomplishments include initiating recycling programs within the school, fostering exciting “Green Weeks” school activities, taking students on sustainability trips around the country, starting a beekeeping club that serves the entire county, and designing wetlands projects to restore flora and fauna after construction projects. In his spare time, David volunteers with the Friends of Trumball County Metroparks, serves as an advisor to Hiram College for students pursuing science teaching careers, and is a mentor teacher for the Inland Seas Education Association.
EPA Region 6
No 2020 winners.
EPA Region 7
Rachael Arens, Omaha Northwest High Magnet School
As a science teacher with more than six (6) years of experience, Ms. Arens creatively uses the context of environmental education to embolden and empower all of her students. She values hands-on and place-based learning in a way that, much like the butterflies in her garden, Ms. Arens’ students transform during the year. Through a curriculum that engages students in youth participatory action research and service-learning trips abroad, Rachael Arens’ students transform from passively absorbing knowledge to becoming active global citizens. Her approach often results in students engaging in leadership roles advocating for the environment.
Her cross-functional instruction goes far beyond the typical environmental science curriculum, frequently incorporating other subjects. This year, her students are engaging in the civic process by reaching out to their state senator to co-write a “plastic fee” legislative bill for the state of Nebraska. In past years, Ms. Arens and her students built aquaponics systems to learn about sustainable urban agriculture, built Native American and community gardens to address the lack of fresh produce in Northern Omaha, and made Omaha Northwest High Magnet School the first high school in the Omaha-Metro area to implement a school-wide composting program.
Through her efforts, Ms. Arens’ students and Omaha Northwest High Magnet School have received several prominent recognitions including the Green Ribbon School Award, the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow award, and National Geographic’s Next Generation Environmental Leaders designation. Between these awards and her innate ability to skillfully encourage her students’ ideas to germinate and grow, Ms. Arens is successfully cultivating the next generation of environmental changemakers.
EPA Region 8
Spencer Cody, Edmunds Central School District
Roscoe, South Dakota
For the last 14 years, Mr. Cody has brought innovative teaching approaches to environmental education for students in seventh (7th) to twelfth (12th) grade. As a result of his hand-on, research-based, place-based approach to environmental education, the school district has seen dramatic shifts in academic achievement and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. In 2019, Mr. Cody was named a Sanford Teacher Awardee for demonstrating high levels of inspirational teaching practices which engage students and build student confidence.
Mr. Cody’s place-based approach to education for environmental science is a key aspect of his teaching style. This is especially impactful since most of his students do not have access to experiences beyond what is locally available. For example, he took a group of science students to a NOAA lab in Pascagoula, Mississippi, to work with scientists collecting data on marine life in the Pascagoula Bay. Another group of science students went on a field trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to work with intertidal and kelp forest specialists. These students also spent a day in the Salinas Valley to see and understand the environmental challenges that farmers face, including using innovative organic farming practices to decrease the dependence on chemical applications. These experiences allowed the students to see scientists at work and encouraged those students to consider careers in STEM subjects.
EPA Region 9
Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka, Samonana High School
Pago Pago, American Samoa
Samonana High School teacher Ms. Suluai-Mahuka has expanded the scope of environmental education for her students from classroom learning to real-world environmental stewardship projects in American Samoa. “As Pacific Islanders,” Ms. Suluai-Mahuka says, “our people’s living stems from the ocean and the land. We are extremely vulnerable to pollution and climate change. These issues directly affect the students’ future.”
Ms. Suluai-Mahuka brings in representatives from environmental agencies to talk to students about professional application of environmental issues such as environmental missions and day-to-day work of environmental professionals. Further, she assists her students in planning projects and taking actions to address environmental challenges both as individuals and as a class. For example, Ms. Suluai-Mahuka had her students collaborate to produce short videos, radio ads and informercials on issues like plastic pollution, air pollution, soil erosion and coral bleaching. The students produced scripts and created videos, which were submitted to the American Samoa Environmental Protection Agency (ASEPA) for use as media clips in outreach to schools.
Sabrina Suluai-Mahuka is committed to exposing students to activities beyond classroom, taking her classes to scholarship presentations, marine wildlife summits, and career fairs. Student-planned field trips have included coast and watershed cleanups in which students pick up thousands of pieces of litter and use an ASEPA protocol to quantify it. A tree-planting field trip involved planting trees on a long stretch of treeless beach.
“These lessons and outdoor activities,” Ms. Suluai-Mahuka says, “give the students a firsthand account of the effects pollution has on our land and ocean, empowering them with the knowledge that it is our job to make a change by being the change.”
Ms. Suluai-Mahuka’s students have started to see the merit of green living choices, like using reusable items instead of single-use plastics. She facilitates opportunities for her students to educate middle school classes about these issues. Building on this, she founded a youth community service program, Finafinau (Samoan for “resilience and steadfastness”), to promote awareness of the importance of ocean health and encourage island communities to reduce waste and litter. By sharing her work at teachers’ conferences, Ms. Suluai-Mahuka hopes to provide the spark to make this happen across the Pacific.
EPA Region 10
No 2020 winners.
2020 PIAEE Honorable Mentions
Carly Imhoff, Ashford School
Ms. Imhoff delivers highly engaging instruction to her students. In her classroom, students learn environmental education and engineering practices in a manner that connects her lessons to global challenges. Many of her students have never been to a city or travelled far from their area; therefore, she strives to provide environmental education opportunities for her students to collaborate with students of other cultures.
Carly Imhoff collaborates with the Parent Teacher Organization to arrange monthly assemblies focusing on different cultures, which have increased student interest in global awareness. Working with a colleague, she initiated a Model United Nations club. Recently, Ms. Imhoff’s school was one of ten (10) in the country to be an Empathy Project Certified School that will participate in virtual exchanges with partner schools around the world.
Ms. Imhoff led the Ashford School science teachers in acquiring a grant to build a greenhouse and creating a hands-on learning experience for the students in the greenhouse, through a curriculum that aligns with Next Generation Science Standards.
She has even found ways to engage her students with research happening in space. For example, Ms. Imhoff and a colleague guide the technology and science departments to achieve incredible feats like communicating live with an astronaut on the International Space Station. In a separate but related endeavor, Ms. Imhoff and her colleague also fostered the opportunity for a student-designed experiment to travel on the International Space Station. Their winning investigation, Beet Seed Germination in Zero Gravity, was sent up to space!
Melissa Tracy, Odyssey Charter School
Ms. Tracy teaches all grade levels at Odyssey Charter School and draws upon her years of teaching experience to implement a unique hands-on approach to using the school garden as a learning tool for her students.
Through the school garden, she shares her passion for environmental education by using food to help students explore sustainability challenges. Throughout a school year, she utilizes the garden to educate nearly 2,000 students from kindergarten to the twelfth grade.
Melissa Tracy engages students in hands-on gardening activities through the Healthy Kids for Healthy Foods program, Education Cultivation. She teaches a unique, innovative interdisciplinary Food Studies course to her high school students, which examines why food matters and how we can act to support a healthier food system. In only a few years, with Ms. Tracy’s leadership, the Odyssey Charter School garden is on track to become one of the most extensive school gardens in Delaware. Ms. Tracy’s approach to gardening has helped students study different types of gardening including vertical, aeroponic, hydroponic, aquaponic, and raised beds.
Her school garden donates crops to the Salvation Army, the Brandywine Food Closet, and St. Michael’s in the City of Wilmington, totaling over 1,000 pounds of donations. This project demonstrates to students how they can make a positive social impact in their communities.
Ms. Tracy is constantly seeking opportunities to instill in her students a sense of ownership in protecting the planet. In addition to tending to the school’s garden, her students learn about the detrimental effects of plastics on sea animals. The plastic bag collection campaign she began at her school led to the collection of over 450 pounds of plastic bags.
Shelly Sparrow, Twin Branch Elementary School
Ms. Sparrow’s number one tool in the classroom is excitement. She uses her student's natural curiosity about the planet to teach outdoor environmental education lessons. Her students explore the ecosystem and observe the life cycles of chickens and butterflies to stimulate their sense of discovery. Ms. Sparrow’s students grow butterfly gardens to provide a habitat for the monarch butterfly. They also learn about how extreme weather can destroy the monarch butterflies' habitat.
Shelly Sparrow captures her student's attention by encouraging them to use a scientist notebook to record their observations from outdoor explorations. The scientist notebook also serves at the starting point for her student’s literacy lessons in a fun way. Her students are happy to learn that the scientist notebook replaces the traditional textbook in Shelly's class. Ms. Sparrow focuses her attention to her students’ hands-on learning experience and not on a textbook, which helps her students to develop a love for learning. Her inquiry-based lessons promote literacy, by sparking her students’ interest in reading books, to gain a greater understanding of their hands-on lessons and experiences.
As a result, her students build confidence in their abilities to go beyond the classroom lesson to learn and explore books on their own. Her students gain a real passion for reading because of her teaching style, which translates to better test scores and grades. Shelly is also a champion for Science Technology Math and Engineering (STEM). She provides professional development for teachers on "STEM Saturdays" and writes grants to receive funding to support STEM curriculum and equitable STEM resources for students at her school. Her team is using the $150,000.00 of grant funding they won to support STEM education and to deliver lessons through a mobile STEM lab.