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Environmental Education

Learners and the Land

Since its inception, Mohonk Preserve’s education programs have offered visitors first-hand experiences in and with nature. In the mid-1960s, classes from Union College and SUNY New Paltz were already using the Preserve for natural science studies, led by Daniel Smiley or Research Associate Carl George. Karl Beard, former Preserve Naturalist, actually went into the schools and met with teachers before leading their class field trips. By the 1970s, high school students from the Poughkeepsie Day School could be seen all year long, conducting nature studies at sites across the Preserve.
In 1978 the Preserve won a precedent-setting legal case which determined that the outdoor classroom was indeed a learning environment, though not built with bricks and mortar. This decision brought about the abundance of programs and centers making New York a leader in environmental education.

A benchmark program for the Preserve, the K-6th grade Field Studies Program, began in 1985 and has become a model for private-public education partnerships. Initiated by Ann van der Meulen, the Preserve’s first education intern, this program with the New Paltz School District began what is our longest continuously running partnership in education. In 2010, the program celebrated its 25th anniversary with “No Child Left Inside Day,” which included the presentation of an award recognizing the New Paltz Schools for their ongoing commitment to environmental education. The popularity of the Field Studies Program and its close ties to state learning standards have enticed another 40 area schools to participate in the program.

In the mid-1970s, public programs began with the first Open House Day where guided walks and talks were led by rangers and naturalists. Ann Guenther joined the Preserve in 1986 to coordinate the vigorous public program schedule, write and edit the newsletter, and of course, teach. The following year, Ilka List joined the education team and created vibrant exhibits and the first butterfly garden at Bonticou Lodge. Ilka taught the Preserve’s graduate course in environmental education through SUNY New Paltz and was appointed Director of Education in 1994.

The first junior naturalist program began in 1989 and laid the groundwork for the Preserve’s highly successful summer camps, operating now for 21 years. Other education ventures joined the steady growth of the 1990s, including the Native American program based at the first longhouse built in 1992, the first Environmental Values Conference in 1994, and the dawn of the Preserve’s accessibility initiative, also in 1994. NatureAccess® began when we learned that students in special education were being held back, literally left behind, in school when their classes visited the Preserve. The move to make our school programs more accessible quickly led to a program of inclusion in all our formal education programs, as well as the offer of consultation to individual visitors. In 2005, the Preserve published Making Outdoor Programs Accessible and now leads accessibility trainings and workshops across the country.

The Preserve’s education programs have won numerous awards including accessibility awards from the Association of Independent Living Centers of New York State in 1996 and the Resource Center for Accessible Living (RCAL) in 1998; and the Conservation Education Program Award from the NYS Conservation Council in 2001. Awards received by Preserve Director of Education Kathy Ambrosini include Outdoor Educator of the Year in 2002, Service Award in 2003, and Leadership Award in 2008 from the New York State Outdoor Education Association; RCAL’s Beyond the Letter of the Law award in 2006; and 2010 Inclusivity Hero from the New York State Inclusive Recreation Resource Center.

Another milestone for our Education team was reached in 2012 with the placement of our first student teacher, Talene Injeian, a senior from Marist College in Poughkeepsie. Training outdoor environmental educators is another great way to multiply the impact of the Preserve’s environmental education expertise and help expand conservation education beyond the ridge to classrooms throughout the nation.

To learn more about the Preserve’s Education program, and how you can help support ongoing environmental education, click here.

Banner photo by Tom Weiner