As an undergraduate student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, Camille Bennett (BSFR ’19) knew she liked being outdoors, and she liked to help others appreciate it.
She studied parks, recreation and tourism management and connected with professor Kris Irwin, who shares her passion for environmental education. She also found a mentor in Warnell, alumna Jackie Sherry (BSFR ’11, MNR ’14), water conservation program education specialist for Athens-Clarke County. After graduation, she further honed her environmental education chops working with CAC AmeriCorps doing outdoor interpretation at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Then, all those connections she formed as an undergraduate began to shape her path.
“I knew I wanted to do something with people and nature. Then, Jackie reached out and said, ‘You should consider applying,’” says Bennett.
The opportunity that was knocking was a two-year assistantship with Athens-Clarke County’s Water Conservation Office, which is supported by the county and is offered to a student pursuing a master of natural resources degree. Unlike many master’s programs, the MNR degree doesn’t require a thesis. But that also means these types of assistantships aren’t that easy to come by.
If Bennett was interested in paid experience that would complement—and pay for—her graduate degree, it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“Jackie knew I was interested in environmental education—that’s probably how it all started. For me, it was a great opportunity to get some professional work experience while getting my master’s degree,” says Bennett. “It was good timing and a good opportunity for growth … I knew I didn’t want to do a thesis, I didn’t want to take out loans and I knew there were courses at Warnell I still wanted to take. It was the perfect combination of factors.”
But, like most students who launched a college career in the fall of 2020, things were definitely not normal. As familiar as Bennett was with UGA’s campus and living in Athens, attending a master’s program—and working in a city office part time—during a global pandemic was something entirely different.
Along with adjusting to safety protocols, Bennett also had to rethink how to deliver water education to thousands of schoolchildren across Athens-Clarke County. The MNR assistantship, which has been in place since 2008, works to enhance the robust education program conducted by the Water Conservation Office. In typical years, staff host events such as the Athens Water Festival, Green Life Awards and Fix a Leak Week. Bennett and other graduate students before her would lead tours of water treatment facilities, teach about water conservation and implement the “Little Lily’s Pad Hop” program, where a stuffed frog hops to students’ homes to teach about conserving water.
Obviously, things were going to be different. But Bennett, like other water conservation staff, has rolled with it.
“I feel like I’m learning a lot about how people want to be connected, and all the creative ways to do that,” she says. “For example, we turned our water festival into a box, and we mailed it to people—and registration completely booked up. The Athens community is connected to its water in a way that seems rare.”
Similar story with the office’s annual Valentine’s Day romantic tour of the water reclamation facility. This year, the event included a box of goodies mailed to participants, a video tour and a live question-and-answer session with staff.
But not being able to visit classrooms was a hard one to get around. Along with being disappointed at the missed interactions, Bennett had to rethink how she was going to teach kids about water conservation in a virtual-yet-engaging way.
So, she and her colleagues developed a tweak to the Little Lily program, incorporating a virtual story time called Froggie Tales. The program involves Public Utilities employees from various divisions across the department reading books geared toward children in Prekindergarten through second grade. (Watch it online.)
The idea was in the works before Bennett began in her role last fall, but since then she’s been able to run with it.
“The goal is to continue engaging the kids and help them learn about water, even at a distance,” Bennett adds. “The project shows the county’s students the people hard at work behind the scenes who are providing them with their water services. We choose water-themed books and have some fun with it.”
While Bennett hasn’t been able to get into classrooms, the pandemic pivoting has opened doors to learning new skills, such as Adobe design and editing software. Education now includes getting good camera angles and lighting, plus exporting to YouTube.
Warnell’s Irwin, who now serves as Bennett’s graduate advisor, says when the assistantship launched 13 years ago, the idea was to support a student who was gaining practical, on-the-job experience while gaining a master’s degree. Each year a plan of work is created with specific objectives, such as developing water conservation activities in the community and training local educators.
“But she also has classwork to do. And, as an MNR student, since she doesn’t have a research project like a master of science student does, I feel it’s incumbent on the student to be engaged in some kind of professional development, especially since she has an interest in environmental education,” adds Irwin. “Also, they must be part of our Graduate Student Symposium and present at the Georgia Environmental Education Alliance annual conference. This means they must find some kind of project they can accomplish that involves some kind of data collection, analysis and synthesis.”
In other words, even though the students don’t have to complete an official thesis, they still compile information and results through a project that connects their water office work to their studies.
But given the curveballs thrown at Bennett in a year of a global pandemic, what’s one more project, right? “I’ve learned the true value of community and connection, along with technological skills that maybe I wouldn’t have gained yet, such as Adobe and social media,” Bennett adds. “I haven’t gotten to experience the tours and the classroom visits, but I’ve still gotten a lot out of this assistantship.”
She’s also learned something interesting about Athens: People love their water, and they feel extra passionate about conserving it.
Over the past few decades, a small staff, led by former water conservation coordinator Steve Dorsch and current coordinator Laurie Loftin, built the Water Conservation Office into a powerhouse of environmental education. Bennett says she can sense the embrace they now get from the community, even during a pandemic.
“It took those influential people investing into the time and the opportunities to make it what it is,” she says. “Because, yeah, not many people have this much fun with water.”