Kalamazoo Nature Center adapts to educational barriers in the era of COVID-19

Neighborhood Journalist Julia Buck conducts a Q&A with Hannah Shiner, environmental educator at Kalamazoo Nature Center.

For over 60 years, the Kalamazoo Nature Center has invited the community to engage with, value, and protect the natural resources that make Southwest Michigan unique. In this new era of online classrooms and limited travel, educators like Hannah Shiner must be even more creative to provide high-quality, accessible environmental programming. 


Shiner grew up in Beverly Hills, Michigan, but came to Kalamazoo to pursue a degree at Kalamazoo College. As a student of biology, anthropology and sociology with concentrations in environmental studies and community and global health, she often visited the Kalamazoo Nature Center to conduct environmental field research. Impacted by the people there and the important work they do, she eagerly joined their team of environmental educators after graduation. 


“I've always been really interested in making science more accessible, and communicating it to groups of people. So the educator position at the Nature Center really made sense for me,” said Shiner. 


As an advocate for both natural resources and public engagement, Shiner has a unique perspective about the values of Kalamazoo residents and the complex barriers that make environmental education challenging in a time when many people are doing fewer activities outdoors.



Hannah Shiner

Hannah Shiner, environmental educator at the Kalamazoo Nature Center

Q: What local resources does our community prioritize or show special interest in? 


A: Everybody definitely loves our animals, and everyone loves a really big tree; something they can see and touch. So, Maple Sugar Fest will always be a really big thing, because it's tradition. People come back to celebrate year after year. But every other day of the year, there’s not so much interest in maple trees. 

And I would say the same thing about people coming to visit the animals. If they saw those same animals out in the wild … how would they react? Because it’s different from seeing animals in enclosures or classrooms. So people love to support the big things. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because those big things are what we rely on to get funding for all of the other things we also want to do. That’s really important to help us continue to make improvements. 


Q: What are some of those other things that benefit from the more popular attractions? 


A: We are having a lot of conversations about upgrading our facilities for animal care. And we have birds of prey that are super social, and people love to hang out with them and meet them, and take pictures with them. So you can choose to donate toward a particular bird… but maybe that money goes toward the care of a different animal that isn’t as charismatic, and not as social with visitors.

But we do see the way people connect with the animals, and people care with their dollars, as I always say. So we have these wonderful fundraisers going on, but even though we want to put money into the building, right now we have to make sure we can get food for the animals. And that's how we're going to prioritize it on our end, for the welfare of what we currently have. To conserve, rather than trying to bite off more than we can chew, is a priority. 


Q: What are the biggest barriers to providing environmental education to our community? 


A: We’re in this post-COVID-19 era, where we're having a really hard time getting people to come and hang out with us and do field trips; which is totally valid. 

It's really hard to imagine taking kids out of the classroom. And we have tried to go into schools and hang flyers up, and tell them we'll bring our programming there, but everyone's just trying to figure out how to be, you know, normal in a classroom. So instead, parents will bring their own kids so they don't have to coordinate a bus. 

There’s also a high school program called Heronwood, where students come and take a class during their school day. It's been really nice to have them outside connecting with nature. We're starting to amp back up as the spring comes along but … winter was a really hard time to be an educator. 


Q: Since participation with public school field trips is limited right now, what other options are there for community members to access your programming? 


A: Most of the time, independent groups will reach out to our registrar or community programs director to schedule their own field trips. The programs that attract individual parents are mostly for the preschool through second grade kids. 

We're also starting a program with the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, doing an hour-long activity once a week at their building. We’ll do another program like that in the fall, so there are recurring large chunks of time where we do regular events with organizations in the Kalamazoo area, like the Boys and Girls Club. Before the pandemic, we did that a lot with libraries too. 

But everyone is reluctant to have people come into their schools right now. And I just think that it hasn't been on their radar again until recently. 


Q: It sounds like the majority of programming takes place at the KNC or in other organizations’ venues around the city. Are there any plans to create a KNC space downtown where you could have a constant presence? 


A: We do have the Urban Nature Park downtown, but we just don't have the capacity or the demand to build a hub facility in that space. But it’s a conversation that we are continuing to have. We definitely want to connect more with the downtown area, but it's also a matter of maintaining our current programming. My coworkers and I are all very motivated to help people connect more with nature, even if they don't have a forest in their backyard.


Q: What has been the biggest challenge in supporting that presence downtown? 


A: It's always about funding, and time. Planning is difficult when staff and resources are limited, and it's really hard to think about how to be innovative moving forward. We're working together on how to update what we already do, and still make space for new things. For example, just recently we talked about having days over the summer where we hire people to drive a shuttle service between Bronson Park and the Nature Center. 


Q: What kind of advertising have you used to reach new audiences? 


A: We've taken flyers into school offices and asked to hang them up. We also post on Instagram and Facebook, and we’re trying to make a TikTok for our animal care. We also used to do YouTube videos where we would read with our animals, and that would get people tuned in every week to read another chapter of the book. One challenge is that our marketing department designs the posts, but we are the people who are teaching the classes. So how can we give them the proper tools to market our programming? 


Q: Which form of messaging has been the most effective so far? 


A: Parent groups on Facebook are especially important. If we can get a parent to post about an event in a group, that always gets us a lot of traffic. It's definitely been our little discovery. It's like … we've cracked the code! 

We have a Preschool Explorers program every Tuesday morning, and just recently someone posted about it and we've had a lot of back-to-back weeks of people coming. There's also a tool that came out of the pandemic era called Peach Jar. It's an email that goes out every week to parents in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, and it’s full of a bunch of flyers for events happening around the community that week. 


Q: Is there anything else about the Nature Center or environmental education that you want to share? 


A: I just really love the Nature Center. I work with a lot of people that genuinely care about the Kalamazoo community and growing it for the better, and making people engaged in the environment in positive ways, and making it accessible. So I'm really proud of the goals we have set for the future, and the progress we've made in working toward making Kalamazoo Nature Center a better, bigger, more accessible place for everybody, even though it's, you know, 15 minutes down the street by car. And I hope we keep having innovative conversations. Because the more you have them, I think one time it will really actually happen.