by Brooke Knapick, Director of Educational Program Development

As The Wetlands Institute prepared to celebrate its 25th Anniversary, Education leadership at the time wrote the following: “What are The Wetlands Institute’s plans for the next twenty-five years? What roles are we planning to play in the field of research, education and conservation? What role are we planning to play right here within our community? Are we prepared to answer these questions and meet the challenges of the future?” As we now look to celebrate The Wetlands Institute’s 50th Anniversary, I find myself reflecting on these very same questions and profoundly humbled by the honor and privilege of directing the Education Department at such a milestone moment in its evolution.

Much has changed within the realm of Education since the first visitors, students and teachers set foot upon the marsh, but by the same token, much remains the same. What remains the same is our desire to teach environmental education for a chance to observe the spark. The spark you see on a person’s face when you know they have made a genuine connection to their environment. What has changed are the educational opportunities we provide as a means to ignite the spark. Today, 17,000 visitors participate in year-round education program offerings and special events, a dramatic increase to the 2,000 annual visitors in the early years.

Now, over 12,000 children and young adults participate in yearly formal education programs including Environmental Education Field Trips, Science Education at Sea (SEAS) Programs, Summer Nature Programs, Traveling Environmental Education Programs and Group Outreach Programs. With these programs, we reach into classrooms in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, share the wonders of marine life with the local community, and enrich science curriculum for both students and teachers by providing wetland and boat-based opportunities for learning. These opportunities are both a nod to our past, while also an expansion in breadth and scope. Each year, we afford nearly 2,000 students from Ocean City Schools, Middle Township Schools and Stone Harbor and Avalon Elementary Schools the opportunity to experience multi-engagement education programs and we continue to offer place-based education for homeschoolers, scouts and local youth organizations through customized environmental education programming and overnight experiences. At the core of Education, both then and now, mentorship thrives through adult and junior volunteer opportunities and undergraduate environmental education internships.

The success the Education Department is experiencing today, is not my success alone, it is the collective success of every education leader and staff member before me who provided their unique vision, thoughtful insight, selfless mentorship, personal sacrifice and passionate dedication for the advancement of environmental education. Lessons from the past shape decisions for the future. As educators, we must learn from the past and journey forward to educate, mentor, and inspire the next generation of scientist, educator, and environmental steward. As we journey together toward another 50 years, we remind ourselves, we teach environmental education for the chance to observe the spark. We know we have done our job when we actually observe the spark. I hope you will join us in celebrating 50 years of educational achievements now, and consider investing in the future of educational achievements yet to come.