Great educators can make a difference in our lives, and environmental educators can inspire a passion for nature and conservation that lasts a lifetime. For five years, Keith Bruno, Audubon Rockies’ Community Naturalist in southwest Colorado, has been inspiring students to foster an interest in birds and their local environment through environmental education and community science. This year, he was selected to receive a 2021 Outstanding Educator Award for Excellence in Environmental Education from the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education (CAEE).
CAEE is a professional organization supporting environmental educators across the state. Their annual award recognizes individuals who have made exceptional contributions to their community through environmental education.
Katie Navin, executive director of CAEE, cites three key factors that make an environmental educator outstanding: innovation, equity, and leadership. “We’re really focused on picking out the people and programs that are opening new doors and looking at new, innovative ways to do environmental education so we can all learn from that and replicate it,” she said.
Innovation was essential for Keith and the rest of Audubon Rockies’ Community Naturalists over the past year, as the pandemic upturned traditional classrooms. “This last year posed some serious challenges not only for formal educators, but for non-formal educators too,” explained Keith. “How do we reinvent the wheel? How do we do these programs differently than we have to make sure that we’re honoring people’s safety and managing it in a responsible way, but also trying to create programming?”
With classrooms largely moving online, video lessons that could be done from home became a necessity. Keith helped fulfill this need for the Pagosa Springs community where he is based by creating various digital programs, including two series on snow science and native bee houses. Along with the other Community Naturalists, he also helped create a virtual summer camp and afterschool programs.
Where he really excelled, though, was in creating a sense of community during a time of isolation. Throughout the pandemic, Keith was able to safely bring people together for fun and informative outdoor activities. With the help of Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero Coordinator Jamie Weiss, Keith worked with partners and volunteers to install a Habitat Hero garden in downtown Pagosa Springs.
He was also able to host family programs at the Hershey Foundation’s Four Mile Ranch, though it was no easy feat. “He really had to rethink that whole program, how it works, how to make it run on its own, and also how to safely bring people there,” said Jacelyn Downey, Audubon Rockies’ education programs manager. “You’re used to doing things one way for several years. Then, like everything else, we had to change everything. He found a new way to make it work. The families and everybody just wanted to get out, but they wanted to get out safely, and he really helped facilitate that.”
For Katie at CAEE, the value of such programs during a trying year was substantial. “There are just so many socio-emotional benefits to being outdoors during a traumatic time. That programming became really, really important,” she said.
Bringing communities together is nothing new for Keith. “To see the relationships that Keith has built in Pagosa Springs has just been really impressive,” said Jacelyn, “He really cares about getting kids out and doing things and he cares about the community. He just seems to really bring everything together in a little hub there and I think that in and of itself is a really great quality and something that should be celebrated.”
Indeed, Keith has been leading programs at Four Mile Ranch with the local schools and Audubon chapter, as well as coordinating volunteer educators and community scientists for years. The result is an entire community of people of all ages who are building lasting connections with nature and engaging in conservation.
And while Keith likes to believe that some of the children he teaches will go on to become biologists or ecologists or conservationists, he recognizes that everyone—not just the professionals—can promote science and preserve nature. “Your observations matter and that’s one way to protect your home environment, by keeping an eye out for it, see what’s going on. Who’s in your neighborhood? Who’s flying through when?” he says. “Everyone’s a community naturalist if they want to be.”