Beth Nicholls-Taking on Environmental Awareness in New York One Student at a Time

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As you can imagine, New York is a big, booming city that is always full of action and important people. But while we might think of The Big Apple as a place for politics, business, and the arts, a small green revolution is taking place just off the coast of Staten Island! Meet Beth Nicholls- a local educator in the biological sciences working on introducing  inner city students to the wonders of the natural world. Can one incredible teacher and her amazing team take on the pollution and smog of New York City? If you answered no to that question, you certainly don’t know Beth! Read on to hear her story:

“I work as an educator in the environmental education department of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The Greenbelt is one of many New York City parks under the purview NYC Parks and one of its largest. The Greenbelt is made up of 2,800 acres of parkland (nearly 10 percent of the city’s overall parkland), and as such, it’s easy to forget that you are in a big city while hiking on any of the 35 miles of its trails.

It’s an exciting job and every day is a little different.  I teach children from local schools about forests, wildlife, plants, Native Americans, or sustainability.  We explore the trails, use nets to investigate pond life, search the forest floor for insects, or practice the rules of recycling. For many children from Brooklyn or Manhattan, it is their first ever experience in a forest.  The Greenbelt environmental department also offers many weekend programs, guided hikes, and workshops on a variety of topics for anyone and everyone from pre-school students to senior citizens.

My background includes an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree in environmental science.  I have completed research on local amphibian populations and participated in an ecological assessment of the natural areas of New York City.  Therefore, I see the value of science and encourage citizen science programs as a way to get the public involved.  Citizen science programs are large scale and often long-term studies designed by scientists who employ the help of volunteers for data collection. Watching birds, listening to frogs, measuring wind and rainfall are all examples of data that can be helpful to scientists. By taking an active role, these volunteer citizen scientists often become interested and concerned in their local environment and aware of scientific studies being completed. This is important because interested people will become stewards of their environment and protect it now and in the future.

I love sharing my passion for nature and the environment with others. Being in nature can improve our health and well-being- a contrast to this digital age where people spend their time indoors and are detached from their natural surroundings.  This is compounded by the fact that many schools have limited time and resources available for science. Our lessons in the Greenbelt can fill this need and help students become more environmentally literate and aware. I hope that the positive experiences in my classes can “plant seeds” in the minds of students that will stay with them as they continue to learn about their local community and their responsibility as global citizens.

One of the biggest obstacles I face is battling the misconceptions surrounding nature.  Many people have unfounded and exaggerated fears of snakes, spiders, bats, insects and more from movies or other works of fiction and it’s my job to shed some positive light on these topics. I find that calmly holding an insect or one of the captive-bred snakes in our classroom can dispel unwarranted fears. Often times those that come to the Greenbelt with these preconceived notions leave with a new attitude after a pleasant experience.

In terms of advice, go Outside. I would say to anyone that wants to work as an environmental educator to spend as much time outdoors as possible. It’s amazing how much you begin to notice and retain when you spend time outside observing nature. You’ll start to notice how plants grow and when they flower, which birds migrate, and slightest change of the seasons. These patterns start to become a sort of intuition. With the help of field guides (accessible at book stores, libraries, and even as smartphones apps), you can begin to identify plants and animals by sight, and in some cases sound. Like learning a foreign language, an understanding of nature is best achieved when immersed in it.

Study hard. Biology, ecology, and environmental studies are all appropriate courses of study in college for future environmental educators. Some universities have very specific offerings like botany (plants), entomology (insects) or ornithology (birds) classes.  While science courses are important, environmental science is an interdisciplinary field and some people will also include classes in English, history, art and communications into their repertoire.  Certain colleges offer degrees or certificates in environmental interpretation as well. With some research, you can find a program that suits your interests.

Stay informed. Environmental educators are lifelong learners who attend lectures, go to conferences, watch nature documentaries, and follow the media to keep up to date with the latest environmental news.  A knowledgeable and well-rounded environmental educator can effectively inform others and inspire them to take stewardship of their environment.”

As you can see, Beth is not only a dedicated scientist. Her passion in teaching helps to ensure that future generations understand the value of the world around us, and our role in protecting it. Her love for teaching can not only inspire us to pass down the knowledge we have accumulated over years of study, but also help us realize our true potential to save the world’s environment. A true New-Age Girl, Beth is not afraid to take on the problems of the real world head on! Keep up the great work Beth!

You can follow The Collins-Miller Project online to stay updated about Beth Nicholl’s groundbreaking work in ecology!

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