Education is for a Lifetime

Cindy Fitzwilliams-Heck, Ph.D.
Professor, Ferris State University
Director at Large Muskegon River Watershed Assembly

I have been involved with the MRWA since 2001 when I raised my hand at a big watershed research symposium in Big Rapids to volunteer on the newly formed MRWA Education Committee.  I worked hard (and still do) to help create and present quality programming for the MRWA.  Years later, I became the Vice President of the organization and still serve on the Board as a Director-at-Large.  Needless to say, I love the MRWA and believe in its mission to preserve, protect, restore, and sustain the river system.

What I offer the MRWA is the knowledge I have gained and a sincere desire to share that knowledge.  In other words, my passion is education.  Since 2001, my “day job” is teaching at Ferris State University.  It has become my personal mission to help students learn about the world around them in a welcoming and engaging atmosphere.  I mainly teach nonscience majors about nature in Michigan, in particular within the Muskegon River Watershed.  They learn what is out there, how it is all connected, the importance of human impact, and how they can make a positive social-ecological difference in the local environment.

The use of outdoor, experiential, and place-based philosophies helps build an environmental stewardship framework in the courses I develop and implement.  We have also done many community service projects like trash cleanups, tree plantings, designing and planting a rain garden, and stream monitoring.  The statistics over the years have shown that the students have a greater awareness and appreciation for the environment after taking my class.  Additionally, many students have returned to me years later and shared stories of how they have applied the course material.  This makes me feel very proud, but eventually, I felt the need to do more beyond the watershed and outside the classroom.

Ferris State allows me to reach approximately 250 students per year.  However, within the past few years I have realized the importance of the broader scope of education.  Therefore, I sought out experiences to fulfill my curiosity and educate myself about Michigan environmental education opportunities.  As Aristotle once wrote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”.

In an effort to satisfy my curiosity and expand my knowledge of current events and management techniques in natural resources, I attended the DNR’s Academy of Natural Resources (ANR) in 2012 on Higgins Lake.  It was a week’s worth of resource management, forestry, wildlife fisheries, and law enforcement taught by DNR professionals. When the DNR was looking for a University to partner with, I raised my hand and volunteered Ferris.  Since that time, the ANR recruited me to join their Education Planning Team where I have helped expand the program into the Upper Peninsula and this summer to Isle Royale National Park. Additionally, my curiosity led me to a research project exploring the salient experiences of past ANR participants and how they have used the material years later.

Although ANR is a very rewarding endeavor, I felt the need to further my education in order to provide a more valuable experience for my students.  When I attended my first state environmental education (EE) conference in 2012 at the Kettunen Center, I realized how amazing the state’s EE network really is.  Soon I became involved with the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education (MAEOE), the only professional EE organization in the state.  I raised my hand again and was elected to the Board of Directors the next year.  I became President Elect in 2016, President in 2017, and Past President in 2018.  Reelected to the board this past year for another 3-year term, I hope to complete my mission to create a leading and rigorous (yet attainable) state Environmental Education Certification (EEC).

Currently, I serve as the EEC Coordinator for MAEOE.  I spearheaded this certification program in the state with the help of many contributors.  We launched the program in 2016, trained over 200 people, and have 18 graduates.  A certification program legitimizes the EE profession and builds a uniform foundation in teaching about the environment effectively.  We now have a nationally recognized program and will attain accreditation in the near future.

I have discovered that the more you become networked with great people, the easier it is to…raise your hand. My familiarity with ANR and MAEOE led me to another wonderful connection, the Michigan Science Teachers Association. MSTA is the “go to” organization for Michigan teachers and encourages science-based education in our schools. I present at this conference every year and enthusiastically recruit more members for MAEOE among the thousands of participating teachers.

I am continually searching for other ways to move my personal mission forward – such as serving as an advisor for Ferris State’s Outdoor Club, teaching online, writing a nature study book, attending and presenting at EE conferences, starting a blog, continuing my research in environmental adult education, and bringing my passions and enthusiasm for EE to my family.

In the end, the education of our citizens about our environment is paramount and I strive through all my endeavors to make a difference.  I choose to develop my skills to best communicate to my students, workshop participants, audiences, colleagues, and family the wonders of nature, environmental facts, concerns, and possible solutions. I strengthen these skills by reading, learning, networking, and most of all spending time in nature. In closing I’ll use a favorite quote from Albert Einstein, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”