NACOGDOCHES, Texas — While working on her doctoral degree in educational leadership at Stephen F. Austin State University, Dr. Paula Griffin knew one of her academic limitations was science education. To address that gap head-on, she prioritized the subject for professional development.
A decade later, thanks to a lot of work and dedicated mentors along the way, Griffin has turned that limitation into an award-winning strength and is helping SFA teacher candidates do the same.
An associate professor in SFA’s Department of Elementary Education, Griffin received the 2019 Leadership in Education Award from Texas Project Learning Tree in October.
Sponsored by Georgia-Pacific, the award honors those who make significant contributions to advance PLT programs and initiatives at the state or regional level. Griffin will represent Texas at the national PLT award level in late 2020.
Since 1976, PLT, the environmental education program of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, has reached 138 million students and trained 765,000 educators to help students learn “how to think, not what to think, about complex environmental issues,” according to the PLT website.
“I wholeheartedly believe in PLT and its structure and background,” Griffin said. “PLT made sense to me because I support and follow the constructivist learning theory.”
At its heart, this theory suggests that humans construct knowledge and meaning through experiences.
“When we’re learning, we create new schema and new ideas, and we fit those in with what we already know,” Griffin said. “As we interact with our environment, in and out of the classroom, we add to our store of understanding and knowledge.”
Griffin is a Triple Jack, meaning she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, master’s degree in early childhood education and doctoral degree in educational leadership all from SFA.
“I completed my bachelor’s in three years because I just loved my elementary education classes,” she said. “I’d take 18 and 21 hours a semester. I couldn’t get enough.”
During these three years, Dr. Janice Pattillo, former chair of the Department of Elementary Education and the namesake of SFA’s Janice A. Pattillo Early Childhood Research Center, was Griffin’s advisor, mentor and teacher for many classes. Griffin was a student assistant at SFA’s Early Childhood Laboratory from 1979 to 1981 before getting her first job there as a toddler teacher.
In 1985, Griffin taught in Garrison before joining the Nacogdoches Independent School District in 1986. She was one of the two teachers who started NISD’s pre-K program. In 2002, she left the public school classroom.
Then Pattillo recruited Griffin to teach at SFA. As an adjunct professor of elementary education in 2006, Griffin took on the role of grant coordinator for the department. In 2009, she accepted a tenure track position, and, from 2014 to 2017, she coordinated the early childhood through sixth grade, or EC-6, online completer program for the Department of Elementary Education.
“They’re called completers because they’ve started coursework at a community college, usually several years ago, took a break and then decided they want to come back,” Griffin said. “They are focused and ready to finish their education.”
Griffin admitted, advised and taught completers every semester. Even before then, as grant coordinator, she worked on partnerships with community colleges to help ensure the completers could seamlessly transition into their coursework at SFA. Today, she continues to champion these students.
In 2010, when she began working on her doctoral degree, Griffin chose the outdoor education activity Bugs, Bees, Butterflies and Blossoms as one of her internships to help reverse her science deficit.
“I had a fantastic colleague and mentor here named Dr. Alan Sowards, and I knew he hosted this huge activity called BBBB every spring for about 3,500 kids during five days,” Griffin said. “When I asked him what exactly he did, he said, ‘Come see.’ I did, and I was hooked.”
Sowards, now a professor emeritus of elementary education at SFA, created and implemented BBBB at SFA in 1998 with the help of Dr. Cheryl Boyette, another Triple Jack and a consultant specializing in developing and improving environmental education programs for organizations such as SFA, Keep America Beautiful and PLT.
At that point, BBBB was funded through local and state grants while Sowards and Cheryl worked to create partnerships with agencies, including Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas A&M Forest Service, Upper Neches River Municipal Water Authority and Keep Nacogdoches Beautiful. Texas PLT, sponsored by the Texas Forestry Association and the Texas A&M Forest Service, entered the picture in 1998 with curriculum to help students make informed decisions on environmental issues.
The annual BBBB event guides K-3 students in exploring forest habitats, plant and animal adaptations and the world of pollinators through learning stations. It also helps SFA teacher candidates learn how to access and integrate community resources for teaching science in a hands-on inquiry-based manner.
Teacher candidates prepare for their BBBB lessons with training from John Boyette, Cheryl’s husband. He’s a former PLT state co-coordinator and an adjunct faculty member in the Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture who recently retired from the Texas A&M Forest Service. From that training, teacher candidates create lesson plans and materials for the event.
BBBB involves representatives from SFA’s Mast Arboretum, Pineywoods Native Plant Center and Department of Elementary Education, as well as the Pineywoods Beekeepers Association to support teacher candidates with community resources and deep knowledge of the local environment.
During her own BBBB preparation, Griffin learned, “Not only am I capable of teaching science, I am capable of learning science, as well. I just need to be taught in the right way,” she said. “This was a phenomenal revelation that I couldn’t wait to see in my own students.”
After finishing her internship, Griffin thought BBBB, a program for traditional, face-to-face teacher candidates, could be modified for her online students. “The completers lived close enough to come back for a couple of days to train for and participate in this PLT event,” she said.
Sowards, who in 2015 was the first Texan named a National PLT Outstanding Educator, agreed. “Paula’s passion helped create an online program that’s unique in the nation,” he said.
The Boyettes also agreed. “Even though there’s not a lot of science in elementary education, Paula continues to give these events legs with online and face-to-face students,” Cheryl said.
Griffin, Sowards and the Boyettes worked together to develop a hybrid PLT training for BBBB that combined online with face-to-face instruction so online completers can get certified in PLT.
Today, online and face-to-face teacher candidates lead hands-on outdoor lessons during Wild About Science for grade four in addition to BBBB for grades K-3. Griffin was personally involved in the development of Wild About Science, which focuses on how to use PLT to meet state mandates in science content and skills.
Through the years, the PLT curriculum has helped Griffin’s online students practice teaching science in an outdoor setting with thousands of elementary students, their teachers and their parents.
“When we’re outside, and the teacher candidates are teaching and seeing the elementary students respond to the PLT curriculum, my teacher candidates are understanding, ‘I can teach outside. I am good at teaching science,’” Griffin said.
The increase in these teacher candidates’ science confidence after these field experiences “has been huge,” she added.
“Over and over, we’ve done research on these online students. We know that they feel their science content knowledge changes after they participate in these activities,” Griffin said. “They know more about what they’ve had to learn to teach, and their thinking processes improve.”
Griffin said these events are voluntary opportunities for online completers to teach on campus for a day or two. “Most of these students are in this online program because they’ve got to work or they have family responsibilities, but they find a way to come back because they see the value in this opportunity,” she said.
For activities like Wild About Science, completers earn field experience to apply to their classes, as well as professional development credit they can list in their portfolios when applying for jobs. They also leave trained on lessons they can immediately put into practice in their hometowns.
“We try hard to make these events worth the trip back and to ensure the curriculum for our online students mirrors that of our face-to-face students as closely as possible,” Griffin said.
When asked if SFA should continue to offer opportunities like this, “the online students always say yes,” Griffin said. In a recent survey, 94% of the students rated the event at a nine or 10 out of 10.
Griffin included these findings in an article marking 20 years of outdoor education at SFA. It was published in the July 2019 issue of the Journal of Forestry, a rare feat for someone with an elementary education background, according to John.
The article was based on a presentation Griffin and John made at the Biennial Conference on University Education in Natural Resources at SFA in March 2018. The article and presentation examined the significant gains in science content knowledge and science teaching efficacy that both online and face-to-face teacher candidates experienced after participating in PLT training and implementing PLT-based lessons on campus.
These positive results have ensured the continuation of PLT-based activities at SFA for years to come, Cheryl said.
“No matter what is going on within SFA and who’s in charge, the university has always supported this program even though it doesn’t fit inside a classroom box,” Cheryl said. “They know how important it is to teacher candidates here and online.”
John added, “We’re starting to see preservice teachers training for PLT who were introduced to these lessons as children in area classrooms.”
In 2014, Griffin began serving as a member of the Texas PLT Steering Committee — the same committee that selects the recipient of the state’s Leadership in Education Award. In 2019, Griffin’s fellow committee members and mentors, Sowards and both Boyettes, managed to keep her nomination a secret.
“It was a complete surprise,” Griffin said. “They covertly nominated me, and I found out in August that they wanted me to represent Texas at the national level.”
John presented Griffin with the award at the Texas Forestry Association’s annual convention in Nacogdoches in October. In his remarks, he said Griffin “is a true visionary with a passion for environmental education. Paula has proven her commitment to PLT through her innovative use of the curriculum to train preservice teachers while simultaneously impacting area children.”
Sowards and the Boyettes hope Griffin follows in Sowards’ footsteps at the national PLT award level just like she has in sustaining the high-quality outdoor science education Sowards and the Boyettes began establishing 20 years ago at SFA.
They know the PLT-based learning activities are in good hands.
“When I see Paula in action, it’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before,” Cheryl said. “She has a passion for all students — not just the students who are going to be teachers but also the students those future teachers will meet in the classroom.”
For more information on PLT-based learning activities, contact Elyce Rodewald, SFA Gardens education coordinator, at (936) 468-1832 or firstname.lastname@example.org.