William & Mary

Talia Schmitt

Founder of ESLI and Sustainabiliy Intern

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Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the environmental work you have done?

My name is Talia Schmitt. I am a junior at the College of William & Mary. I am a self-designed major of environmental community health and I have worked on a couple of things. I cofounded an environmental education organization called Eco Schools Leadership Initiative called ESLI, I am a sustainable dining intern, and I can share some of the jobs I have had over the summer as well.

You mentioned you founded an organization. What is the organization about?

So to start, the program that I co-founded in 2013 is called Eco Schools Leadership Initiative started as sort of a high school endeavor where I went to a local elementary school and taught kids about the environment. When I went to William & Mary, I wanted to continue it, so I started a chapter here

I go over with about a dozen William & Mary students and walk over to Matthew Waley on Tuesdays and teach them about the environment. And I have a great time with that. I love to act as an educator and a mentor to other students. It is  collaborative effort to work in environmental education.

So yes that’s one of my projects.

What is it like being an environmental educator?

I really love the feeling about being able to go to an elementary school and open these kids eyes to an area of the environment that they never previously experienced. At school students don’t have the opportunity to go outside, to play outside, and learn about the environment.

So that’s why we go. We actually go and present to all students from K to sixth grade. Oftentimes we will bring kids outside and play games with them. So I really enjoy the opportunity to be creative. We do lots of upcycling and crafts, like making cereal box folders. Just last week actually be made musical instruments from upcycled materials. We brought cereal boxes and made guitars out of them. We made maracas out of wattle bottles and rice. So being creative has been lots of fun.

In addition it has been nice brining in some of my different passions, like teaching about climate change and teach about food sustainability, so those are some of the things that I do at MW.

You mentioned upcycling. What is upcycling?

It is taking something that would be trash and making it usable again. So for example one of my other favorite activities is taking milk or orange juice cartons and making it into wallets.

What are some of the things you have learned from being an environmental educator?

I have learned a lot about the environment myself. For example when we teach about greenhouse gases, we do it through something called greenhouse gas tag where half of them are energy and half of them are greenhouse gasses. But you really have to understand the science behind that.

In terms of being an educator, I have to work the different characteristics to get kids to be patient and sit down, be patient, and quiet. Those things take practice for sure.

What do you think is the most important quality to have in an environmental educator?

In addition to my experience in ESLI I used to work for an outdoor environmental education center called Nature Bridge in the San Francisco Bay area. They have environmental education centers all over the country. Some of the different activities I have learned from my time there was: first of all you need to be organized, which means having a prepared lesson plan. This is really important because if you don’t have an organized game plan then the students will get really riled up. Then you won’t be able to get them to understand what is the objective and why they are there.

So in Nature Bridge we would make mind maps every morning which are little maps of all the things we were going to do throughout the day and all the places we were going to go. It is kind of like a treasure map. That way we are keeping track of what we are doing throughout day. In my organization ESLI, we keep track of all the lesson plans at eslileader.org from all the past curriculum and you can find all the curriculum we are still making today.

And yeah I guess in terms of other things I have learned: always have different back pocket games you can play with kids to get them in order or calm down. Even to have something to get kids grounded is great.

Do you think there have been any challenges working with SF kids vs. kids here in Williamsburg?

Well here it is a challenge because we are teaching kids from grades K-6 at the same time. In San Francisco we were teaching 4;6 grades for a week or two and then the Kindergarteners. In San Francisco we were outside all the time, going on three day camping trips where we are backpacking through the woods, where we are camping outside by the stars, but it is totally different than we are doing here. The power of outdoor and residency programs, where they can actually sleep there is really important for their growth. Making campfires, bonding, and going on night hikes are something you get from those outdoor programs.

Whereas here you are working with a structure that already exists, a school and an afterschool program. Us students are filling in that gap: kids aren’t learning about the environment, they aren’t going outside. We are using that afterschool program that already exists, that structure, to teach them about the environment.

Do there are a lot of opportunities for students to engage in environmental education programs?              

Absolutely. Actually even for this summer I have been looking at all the different jobs that I could do. The cool thing for environmental education is you can do them anywhere. I have been looking for jobs everywhere from Maine to California. Because once you develop your skills as an environmental educator they can take you literally anywhere, not just our country, but the world. It is a pretty inexpensive way to travel if you are able to stay at different places or camp. One of the things that I love about being an environmental educator is being able to go outside all the time, to hike, and not sitting down at a desk and get exercise as I am teaching.

What do you think is the difference between a science teacher and an environmental educator?

I think being an environmental educator there is much more emphasis on not just the science aspect, but observation skills and figuring things out by themselves. As an outdoor educator, I saw so much team bonding, because they are going on outdoor hikes together and they have to come up team games, ways they are going to support each other, and it is a lot about teamwork. I wish some of those things were more  incorporated into our school system, because I think those lessons about teamwork and building a community are really important.