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Kay Stone

Outreach program administrator for the Environmental Institute
Office of the Vice President of Research

As the outreach program administrator in Auburn University's Environmental Institute, Kay Stone coordinates more than 30 events per year as part of an environmental science and art program for middle school students in many of Alabama's rural counties. She also works on a number of research projects focusing on imperiled species with the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, including the eastern indigo snake reintroduction project in the Conecuh National Forest. The project was recently featured on an episode of Alabama Public Television's Discovering Alabama. Stone grew up in Amherst County, Va., at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where she says she learned to love nature and animals from her grandmother. Her family lovingly referred to her as "Ellie Mae" growing up as she always had "critters" around their house. Now, she shares her office with a small zoo and spends days at a time in the woods teaching middle school students about science and nature.

1. After a career in transportation and land use planning, what led you to accept an outreach position with the Environmental Institute?

My career began with the Virginia Department of Transportation and eventually led me to work in Pensacola, Fla., where I met Tim, a Navy pilot. Fortunately for me, jobs in transportation and land use planning were in demand, and I worked for both private consulting firms and public agencies at all of the places we were stationed after getting married in 1987. When Tim retired from the Navy, we chose to settle in Auburn – Tim is class of '71 – and I accepted a position with the City of Auburn. I love public service and enjoyed almost 10 years of helping the citizens of Auburn.

When Doug Watson retired as city manager, I felt the need to do something different. The position with the Environmental Institute was open, and I saw the opportunity to continue to serve the public, but in a new way. Teaching environmental education to students in Alabama as part of Auburn University's outreach has been immensely rewarding. Tapping into the amazing resources of faculty, staff and students here at Auburn University has allowed me to learn so much as well.

2. What is the role of Auburn's Environmental Institute?

The Environmental Institute promotes, coordinates and implements multidisciplinary programs and activities to meet the environmental needs of the university, state and nation. Serving under the Office of Vice President for Research, the institute provides leadership and coherence in all university areas of environmental instruction, research and extension/outreach. The Alabama Natural Heritage Program was incorporated into the institute in 2007. Their researchers collaborate with faculty and students in Biological Sciences as well as state and federal agencies on studies of imperiled species of plants and animals.

The environmental education program began in 1991 when the need to get students from the rural counties outdoors and learning about the natural world around them was recognized. While the middle school students are surrounded by beautiful and interesting ecosystems, they rarely venture out to explore them. The program was identified as an effective teaching tool for incorporating math, science, reading and art into an outdoor learning experience.

3. What are some of the ways you connect science and art in your educational programs?

Each field day includes three or four modules featuring scientific exploration and art experiences. Students may travel down a nature trail in Bullock County learning to identify tree species and wild flowers while also using digital cameras to record their findings. They also may spend time with engineers from Alabama Power Company learning about the importance of monitoring rainfall in order to determine the company's ability to generate hydroelectric power.

One of the popular art modules is the mosaic arts project. Students create lasting stained glass mosaic art benches and stepping stones that are on display at local nature centers, schools and parks. These community service projects instill in the students a sense of pride and ownership in their schools and neighborhoods. At the same time they are creating art, they learn about the science behind the production of glass and grout. Chemistry, art and physics become ways to learn and create at the same time.

4. Why do you think environmental education is important for middle school students?

The age of middle school students is such a critical time in education, and keeping them interested in staying in school is vital to their eventual success in life. It is also a time where they begin to understand the consequences of their actions as it pertains to the environment. Concepts of how ecosystems function, climate change and the effects of man's actions on the world are being taught in the science curriculum and can be explored in an outdoor hands-on setting through the outreach program. Students are empowered as ambassadors of their communities to teach others to become better stewards of the land.

5. What do you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your work?

It is hard to pick the most rewarding aspect of my work as I enjoy both the outreach education and research support aspects. One of my most rewarding moments is watching as a student who fears walking in the woods becomes thrilled with identifying plants and animals along the trail or can't wait to visit the nature center with his family to show off the mosaic bench by the pond that he helped create. It is during those moments that I can almost feel my late grandmother saying I am doing a good job.

June 24, 2013