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Active learning: Professor’s work in environmental education sparks outreach award

Kris Irwin’s philosophy on teaching incorporates project-based classes, STEM education


Standing next to a creek that had cut its way through the hillside, Kris Irwin paused with a question for his students: How could this formation in the earth be used to teach science?

The challenge developed into a list of ideas—lessons in momentum, shapes and geography tumbled into the conversation, one of many as Irwin and his class walked through their site visit that afternoon.

It’s typical for Irwin’s students to spend their class time examining spaces and solving outdoor puzzles. As the associate dean for outreach at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, Irwin also teaches classes that connect the natural world with education and service-learning. For Irwin, this means going outside and being an active participant in the learning process.

This mindset is also why Irwin is one of five winners of this year’s Walter Barnard Hill Award for Distinguished Achievement in Public Service and Outreach, which recognizes outstanding service to the state in 2019 and 2020.

The Hill Award is named for Chancellor Walter Barnard Hill, who led UGA from 1899 to 1905 and helped define the university’s modern public service and outreach mission. Irwin’s work connecting STEM education with service-learning was a major factor in receiving the honor.

“I’ve always felt that if I can provide learning opportunities for students, outreach is a part of it,” says Irwin. “To try and separate those is difficult for me. It’s still about teaching others and sharing and engaging others, and a need—be it the need for education or be it the need for helping a school develop an environmental education program on their campus. So why not achieve both goals at one time?”

Environmental education is the thread that runs through Irwin’s outreach and service-learning work. He is co-founder of the Advanced Training for Environmental Education in Georgia program, the first state environmental education certification program in the country to receive accreditation from the North American Association for Environmental Education. Through this program, he serves as a mentor for teachers across the state and teaches three courses, sharing his knowledge in survey writing and data analysis. He also co-directs the UGA environmental education certificate program for undergraduate students, a popular and growing interdisciplinary program that blends instruction with Nick Furman with the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

Irwin is also a leader in the national STEM education program Project Learning Tree, which produces high-quality instructional materials for K-12 educators. He has developed several sets of materials for the program, including the series, “Pass the Pants, Please!” and has received numerous awards for his involvement in the organization over the past decades.

His leadership in the area of outreach was also recognized last fall, when Warnell’s outreach team received the Comprehensive Family Forest Education Award. The award is given to educational institutions that have delivered the most effective education program to benefit family forest owners over the past five years.

Among his duties at Warnell, Irwin teaches Natural Resource Management for Teachers, which is part of the agriculture education program; and Foundations of environmental Education, a service-learning class. Both courses attract students from a variety of majors—not just from Warnell—and infuse lessons with partnerships from across campus and across the community.

In these classes, students tackle a project that gives them real-world experience. And because of the service-learning component, there’s also often a community partner that sees a benefit from the class as well.

“It gives the students a greater sense of accomplishment than a grade,” says Irwin. “Yes, they get a grade for the class, but the test is the project and getting the experience of engaging with a client.”

Teaching is more engaging, says Irwin, when he can incorporate a project into a class. He’s not one to lecture; instead, he’s constantly asking the students to express their ideas and opinions, creating a safe environment where they can learn and ask questions.

“If you don’t ask questions, I don’t know if you’re learning or not because nothing has been sparked,” he adds. “I do believe in the application of learning the content. That’s the way I learn best, and that’s the way I teach best—to apply the content to the learning and have some practical experience.”

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