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Educating Young Naturalists: An Interview with Laura Guerard

This week, we interviewed Laura Guerard, the Education Director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and a coordinator of the Young Birders Network. We asked her about her interest in nature and her experiences with environmental education.

How did you get started in birding?

During college, I built an internship with Vermont Audubon into my course of study. I received the Heidi Antram Award for my volunteer work as an intern at the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington, VT. The award came with a scholarship to attend one of Audubon’s residential Ecology Camps. At the time, the camps I had to choose from were in Maine, Connecticut and Colorado; now only the Audubon Camp in Maine remains.

I had been focused on enhancing the bird programs curriculum at the time, so I decided to attend a week long course in Ornithology at the Audubon Camp in Maine on Hog Island.  That week was life-changing on many levels, as the island would come to play a huge role in my career path.  The participants ranged from hardcore birders to nature lovers, and I found the intensity of the life list-keepers captivating.  Many of my life birds were seen on that trip because it was when I officially started keeping a record.

Laura in high school presenting on the Chesapeake Bay

What sparked your decision to study natural resources?

I am originally from Maryland. Growing up, my parents and teachers taught me how important the Chesapeake Bay watershed is. Even at a young age, I was aware that my actions contributed to the health of the bay. We spent a lot of time on the water and just for fun we cleaned up marine debris.

During high school, I was accepted into an ecology program that focused on the Bay and that direct experience solidified it for me. I knew that I wanted a career that focused on making a difference in the health of our environment, and that meant protecting our natural resources.

What made you interested in environmental education?

Fueled by my own life-changing experiences in nature, I wanted to ensure that others had the opportunity to explore and learn through nature study.  I felt that a good role for me would be to facilitate this for others – young and old.  I enjoy all of the unique interactions that I have with groups, as no two are ever the same.  Environmental education also blends in the opportunity to teach others cooperation skills, leadership skills, and how to embrace challenges.

How did your career in environmental education develop?

Laura with campers at Hog Island Audubon Camp in Maine

I was fortunate to have mentors who helped me along a path that seemed to unfold very organically, which told me I was on the right course.  After attending the Ornithology session at the Audubon Camp in Maine, I was invited back to serve as the Bird Life Instructor for the youth and family camp sessions.

I worked seasonally in Maine and Vermont after graduating from The University of Vermont’s School of Natural Resources. During my second summer at family camp, one of the Project Puffin Island Supervisors told me about an internship at Audubon of Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. For several years after that, I spent winters in Florida and summers in Maine and Vermont.  I called myself the youngest “snow bird.”

Maine Audubon made my job at the Audubon Camp in Maine full time. While I served as the Assistant Director, I started the Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens camp, which has now expanded to two sessions that are among the first to fill each summer.  Since then, I have had the good fortune of working for the Cape May Bird Observatory where I had the unique task of creating an interactive website entitled BirdCapeMay.org.

I now work at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory as the Education Director and Statewide Coordinator for the Ohio Young Birders Club. It is so gratifying to be involved with the amazing young birders in this state and to help facilitate scholarship opportunities for summer youth birding camps and workshops because I know my camp scholarship was a catalyst in going from being interested in birds to calling myself a birder and loving it.

Which experiences were most useful and formative to you and your interests?

Experiential learning allowed me to develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences outside of a traditional classroom setting. Accepting seasonal work and internships took me outside of my comfort zone, away from what was familiar and into incredible adventures. I have been lucky enough to have lived in some of the most amazing and unique places. I spent time in the field learning from the landscape and I have met an incredible network of professionals along the way.

What do you think is most important when deciding whether to go into environmental education?

Laura with the first Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teen camp at Hog Island Audubon Camp, Maine

For me it was choosing to go through UVM’s School of Natural Resources, where I played a hands-on role in developing the requirements for my major.  I wanted to integrate core classes that focused on natural resource conservation and management, but also blend in environmental studies that focused on stewardship and building sustainable social communities.

By understanding natural processes through field observation, I better understood the varied approaches to landscape protection, conservation policies and management practices.  Courses in environmental ethics and activism played a significant role in shaping me as an environmentalist and further empowered me to want to be an active part of the solution. I felt that for me personally, I wanted to inspire others, create that spark, and help to nurture their own sense of place so that they would also be positioned to want to protect the environment and adopt sustainable living practices as well.

What sort of advice do you have for young birders interested in environmental education? What advice would you give a young birder considering both research/conservation and education?

Volunteer at a local nature center, spend time with the staff and ask questions. Look for seasonal positions, such as a summer job, to start. Learn through experience and you will gain valuable skills and find out what you enjoy doing most at the same time. These direct experiences can also be included in college applications, so the benefits are numerous. 

Laura with campers at Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens

Research, conservation, and education are very strongly linked and together help environmental organizations carry out their missions to conserve and protect habitats and the species that reside in them. As BSBO’s Education Director, I get to weave research and conservation initiatives into our education programs, and a combination of my educational and field experiences have given me a well-rounded and strong foundation. When I deliver an education program I get an immediate sense of pride in the work that we are doing and feel very fortunate to share what I love most with students and adults alike.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Some of the most incredible naturalists that I have met didn’t set out to be in the field, it sort of found them. I met someone who walked away from a successful law practice to manage a bird banding station and found their true calling. It is important to know that what you envision now may change or morph into something different. This is why I always encourage students to volunteer and become involved at the local level to see where their true passion lies and then just go for it!

Photos courtesy of Laura Guerard

-Sarah Toner