Q&A: Empowering Students to Drive Sustainability District-Wide

An Interview with Outdoor Learning Specialist Anne Muller

In this Q&A, you’ll hear a unique and insightful perspective on sustainability and environmental education from Texas educator Anne Muller. Anne was a middle school science teacher in the Austin Independent School District for five years and now is in the district-wide role of Outdoor Learning Specialist.  This position is part of the Science Curriculum Department and has been in place for six years. 

In this role, Anne runs the district’s demonstration habitat garden, which is used for district-wide field trips and teacher trainings.  She helps integrate outdoor connections into the district curriculum and promotes partnerships with community partners to support teachers and schools.  She is passionate about making sustainability a natural part of the education system and the habits that teachers and students develop.  

Read on to learn Anne’s perspective on the most exciting elements of environmental education, hear about some of the most interesting outdoor initiatives her district has undertaken, and to find out what it means to work with a quality strategic partner like EcoRise.

Q: What are the aspects of environmental education that you are personally most passionate about?

A: I am extremely passionate about getting kids outside and connected to nature.  Many of the students in Austin ISD, not unlike many of their peers nationwide, have a disconnect from nature and spend a large amount of their day using technology.  When they get outside for play, their imaginations soar and they can get into deep, meaningful play.  It’s during this time that they build strong relationships with each other and build important skills like confidence, teamwork, creativity, and more.  When kids get outside for learning, the outdoors becomes an extension of the indoor classroom and adds necessary context to bring lessons to life.  Suddenly a lesson on photosynthesis takes on new meaning when you see flowers facing the sun, leaves with green coloring, and can identify the parts of the plant.

Q: When was the first time you felt like your district achieved something really remarkable with sustainability education? Can you tell us about that project?

A: Austin ISD really took a huge leap forward with environmental education when the National Wildlife Federation funded and helped to create the Outdoor Learning Specialist position for the district.  This position is dedicated to promoting and supporting environmental education at the campuses and the district level.  We were then able to create a Sustainability Coordinator position for the district, who works on district-level initiatives, as well as supporting environmental education and student projects.  By having two dedicated positions, we have a spotlight and a constant voice advocating for and supporting environmental education for our students.

Q: When you were first beginning to work with EcoRise in your district, what kind of support did you receive? In your role, working across schools and grade levels, what does the implementation process look like?

A: When I first started in this position, I found out about EcoRise and their enthusiasm to engage with Austin ISD.  I believe they had worked with one high school and were wanting to take on more schools to implement the curriculum and design studio work.  They had an inspiring and compelling story with that campus and had done a gorgeous write-up to use as inspiration for other schools.  

At first, we worked to bring on a few campuses a year, but then the EcoRise capacity really increased.  Their trainings became more robust with in-person and online options, the curriculum expanded to include elementary grades, and all curriculum was put online.  The district then made a commitment to help support campuses in their use of EcoRise curriculum and our CTE and Science departments now pay for campuses to participate in EcoRise depending on what classes the work runs through.  

I helped recruit campuses to work with EcoRise and took on a more active role with supporting relationships between them and campuses.  They are now such a well-oiled machine and we have so many participating campuses that I merely advertise events, connect teachers to them if they need support, and add their trainings into our online registration system so that teachers can get credit for attending. They are now working with 70 campuses in Austin ISD and have earned their reputation for providing great teacher resources and sparking student passions.

Q: What are one or two of the interesting outdoor learning initiatives you’ve recently led in your district?

A: This year we received a grant, called Girls Outside, through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We partnered with the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center on the grant, which was an excellent collaboration because Westcave has an outdoor adventure bus we could use on field trips to connect girls with nature. This grant is connecting 250 girls from 10 different campuses to nature through a series of field trips and service projects.  This has been really exciting because each field trip has girls from an elementary school paired with girls from a secondary school for a mentoring experience.  The grant has been so successful that the teachers are planning their own field trips in addition to those that are written into the grant!

Q: What are some of the ways STEM education is improved when sustainability is a part of the curriculum? How has learning in your district been improved by this integration?

A: I think that STEM education really benefits from a sustainability lens because it gives students something to rally behind and can drive the passion behind their work.  When students are working together to solve sustainability problems on their campuses, they are impacting the health of the campus and connecting the community to their projects as well.  STEM comes alive when you are working to solve real-world problems that impact yourself and your peers.   

Q: If you were talking with a peer in another district who has never worked with EcoRise, what’s the number one thing you’d want them to know?

A: If you’re looking to partner with someone that does everything extremely well from beginning to end with the teachers and students in mind, go with EcoRise.  It’s well worth the money for all of the materials, trainings, and face-to-face support teachers get.  Students are making real differences in their communities, and teachers that work with EcoRise are always happy and thankful for such an amazing resource. EcoRise creates student leaders that advocate for sustainability and plan for solutions to issues on campus and beyond.  The curriculum is student-driven and teachers are so strongly supported that students are creating real energy and water savings on their campuses and impacting systems for future classes! 

From now through the end of 2017, EcoRise is running its Bright Green Giving fundraising campaign to help inspire a new generation of leaders to design a green future for all in 2018. To learn more about this campaign, about EcoRise’s curriculum resources, and how you can support students and teachers, visit https://ecorise.org/brightgreengiving