Self-proclaimed “tree hugger” and Broadneck High School teacher Nancy Bourgeois has been recognized as this year’s recipient of the Jan Hollmann Environmental Education Award. The award was established in 1994 to recognize an individual or organization that has been especially effective in achieving environmental education in Anne Arundel County.
Bourgeois has co-led the Eco-Action club at Broadneck High School for more than 10 years, providing students with the opportunity to participate in large- and small-scale cleanup efforts, e-waste collection events, and lobbying for bills such as the Styrofoam ban. She takes her students on camping trips, field experiences and other travels while encouraging students to lead experiments and engage in nature.
Following Bourgeois’ award announcement, the Voice asked her to reflect on her career in education.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to pursue environmental science as a career and educate youth?
A: I have always been passionate about the environment and science, ever since I can remember. In middle school, I started a club called Save Our Environment and we did cleanups around the school. I have kind of always been a tree hugger. But I can't really say I made a conscious decision to pursue environmental science as a career. It kind of found me. I majored in microbiology and minored in chemistry in college because I loved the science, and when I graduated, I landed a laboratory assistant job at SUNY Buffalo doing molecular biology. I discovered that I loved teaching the graduate students that were doing rotations through the lab, so I decided then to get my teaching certificate in secondary science so I could share my passion for the science. I first started to teach biology in western New York. When I moved here and eventually wound up at Broadneck High School, the opportunity to teach AP Environmental Science came up and I jumped at the chance. I had never taught Environmental Science before, but the current AP Environmental Science teacher, Pat Neidhardt, took me under her wing and helped me with that first year. I love the curriculum since it really merged my two passions - science and the environment. Plus, environmental science really encompasses all of the sciences, so I loved that about it, too.
Q: What are some of your favorite camping trips and cleanup efforts you have led with Broadneck?
A: I can't say I have a favorite camping trip because they are all so fun and very different! Some of the more memorable ones include the one where it got below freezing through the night and everyone was huddled around the campfire almost the whole time. Then no one wanted to get out of our sleeping bags to get the morning fire started because we were all freezing. Every trip, we have great hikes and lots of fun playing card games and board games around the camp site. The best part is being able to take kids camping that have never been before. Those kids seem to have an extra good time.
An especially memorable cleanup effort was one of our more recent Environmental Service Days where we collect "hazardous" waste from the BHS community and then take it to the landfill for proper disposal. One of the things we collect is used paint, and that day we must have collected 200-plus cans of used paint. When we got to the landfill in Glen Burnie, we discovered that they had a new rule that said we needed to open and empty all of the paint. We were there prying open cans for what seemed to be hours! The students kept a good attitude, and we did get it done eventually. The only victim was my co-sponsor Matt Bem's coat that got paint on it!
Whether it’s the Bay Ambassadors program or the cleanup efforts, you are actively educating the next generation on the importance of being good environmental stewards. What inspired that passion for mentorship?
As I said in the first question, I have always been a tree hugger. I think that originally came about because I grew up across the street from a woman whose backyard was like an animal sanctuary. I was always over there watching the birds and feeding the critters that came there. It made me understand at an early age that we share the planet with other life and it's up to us to be stewards. It was after I had kids and went back to get my teaching credentials that I saw what an impact teachers could have. It fills a place in my soul when I see a student get excited or connected to an important science topic, and if that topic is an environmental one, it's extra satisfying. Students are not yet cynical about trying to make changes for the better, so they keep me passionate too.
Past Jan Hollman Environmental Education Award winners include an AACPS superintendent, a state senator and several teachers. What does it mean to you to win this award?
It is humbling to be in the company of such great environmental educators and environmentalists. It is an amazing group of people who I respect and admire. I have been fortunate to work with many of them. Just as they all continue to work for change, winning this award makes me want to continue the important work of educating our future to honor the legacy of Jan Hollmann.