After he was nominated for Master Conservationist by the Missouri Conservation Commission, Mike Szydlowski said he was in awe after he saw the past winners of the award, some of whom he looks up to. The list of winners dates back to 1942.
Szydlowski is the K-12 science coordinator for Columbia Public Schools. He has held the position for 11 years. Szydlowski collaborates with science teachers at every level in the district to create engaging science curricula, assessments, professional development and opportunities for students.
The Missouri Department of Conservation honors employees of conservation-related agencies and universities. The Master Conservationist Award honors people who have made substantial and lasting contributions to the fisheries, forestry, wildlife resources and more.
Growing up, Szydlowski loved exploring the woods and camping.
“I just really loved how being out there is peaceful and it takes the stress and anxiety away,” Szydlowski said.
He has carried his passion for science and conservation into his work, striving to connect the community with the environment.
In his role at CPS, Szydlowski is involved in a camping program, which introduces many students to camping for the first time. The district also takes about 400 students a year to Smoky Mountain National Park and 700 students to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Students also partake in an initiative to remove invasive honeysuckles from parks and forests to protect them.
“We’re still teaching the same standards that we should be, but we’re trying to do them with a nod towards what’s called place-based education,” Szydlowski said.
Instead of learning about a far-away ecosystem from a textbook, the students learn about an array of ecosystems from here in Columbia, Szydlowski said. Later, students branch out to learn about the broader world of the environment.
“The simplest definition of place-based (education) is you’re learning all your standards from an environmental or community perspective,” Szydlowski said.
By getting kids out into nature at a younger age, Szydlowski and the school district are able to show students how much there is to enjoy, with the hope that they’ll take care of it in the future.
“There’s research out there that shows that if kids don’t experience nature, they don’t end up loving it,” Szydlowski said. “If they don’t love it, they don’t end up caring for it.”
The Columbia Public School district has partnered with the Missouri Department of Conservation in the past, and Szydlowski said the district could not be luckier to have this partnership.
Szydlowski said he is the most passionate about preserving places that can be enjoyed. He hopes to pass on that love and care for nature to his students.
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