An Interview with Monica Nissen

2015 Environmental Educator of the Year

monicanissenThe Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication (EECOM) has named Monica Nissen as the ‘Outstanding Environmental Education Non-profit Individual’ for 2015. In addition, the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) has given her the 2015 Environmental Education Award of Excellence. Congratulations, Monica!

A passion for the wilderness and a gift for teaching drew Monica Nissen into the field of environmental education where she has worked both inside and outside the classroom for the past 20 years. From guiding mountaineering trips to designing workshops on sustainability leadership, to describing the life cycle of the spawning salmon, Monica has spent the last two decades developing and delivering educational programs that inspire a love for nature and a stewardship ethic. In the early 90’s, Monica spent several years working as a park interpreter researching, developing, and conducting education programs for visitors to provincial, and municipal parks and conservation areas.

Since earning her teaching from UBC’s West Kootenay Teacher Education Program in 2000, Monica has taken her commitment to environmental education region-wide, supporting classroom teachers throughout the Canadian Columbia Basin with place-based education opportunities for their students..

Initially hired as an Environmental Educator by Wildsight— an organization that advocates for the protection of biodiversity and healthy human communities in Canada’s Columbia and Rocky Mountains ecoregion— Monica now assumes the role of Program Manager, running field trip and classroom -based programs including ‘Winter Wonder’, ‘Classroom with Outdoors’, ‘Beyond Recycling’, and ‘Know Your Watershed’. Monica is also a committed volunteer for the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network, in which she is a Wild Voices for Kids Community Educator and continues to host CBEEN’s Voices for Sustainability Symposium – an annual gathering for environmental educators that she founded nearly a decade ago. She is also a tireless classroom teacher, WildBC facilitator, Know Your Watershed Educator, Kootenay Community Bat Project Educator, Stream of Dreams Educator, Adventure, Tourism, Leadership and Safety Program Leader, and a UBC-West Kootenay Teacher Education Program Instructor, among countless other roles.

Monica has also been an instrumental member on the WildBC team that responded to the Ministry of Education draft curriculum and subsequent request for their recommendations on 21st century learning competencies, science rationale and content that includes ecological literacy, systems thinking, and place-based learning concepts for K-9 Science. —from CBEEN website


MonicaCLEARING: Congratulations on being named EECOM’s Non-formal Environmental Educator of the Year. What led you to become an environmental educator in the first place?

Monica Nissen:
I remember one of my early jobs as a camp counselor at Camp Chief Hector in Alberta was very inspiring-  it was an amazing camp with great out-trip programs; hiking, canoeing, and horse tripping.  We also ran school programs, the classic Steve Van Matre ones like ‘Sunship Earth.’  I loved that way of teaching! I also worked at Sea to Sky Outdoor School for Sustainability Education on the Sunshine Coast.  What an incredible bunch of educators. That place has always stood out for me as being on the leading edge, and for inspiring me to try and do similar things in my own area, here in the Kootenays.

CLEARING: Did you have a specific experience as a child that connected you to the natural world?

MN: I grew up near Montreal, on the north shore of the Mile-Iles River.  There was a forest right out the back door.  I had a tree fort and a rope swing, and we could go cross-country skiing from our house. I remember a favourite book for awhile was ‘Mudpies and Other Recipes’My family used to go camping every summer, places like Algonquin Park and La Mauricie.  One summer, we were camping in Vermont, and I remember meeting my first Park Naturalist.  I remember learning about turtles and ferns…I was about 10 years old. I couldn’t believe it could be somebody’s job to be outside, learn about nature, and teach it to others. I decided then that that was what I wanted to do!

CLEARING: Do you have a favorite moment in your experience teaching environmental education?

MN: Oh, not easy to pick just one!  I remember a number of years back, I was out with a class on a ‘Classroom with Outdoors’ field trip. The students were invited to do a short ‘solo’ or ‘sit spot’. Such a simple activity, to sit in the forest and just ‘be’.  Silent, still, and observing.  One girl came back and said that that was the most peaceful she had ever been in her life!  What a gift.  I think that statement really exemplified all the stuff Richard Louv was talking about, with nature-deficit disorder and over-scheduled lives that kids lead.   I felt that if I could just offer the invitation to get outside a little more, and for kids to take time being mindful and peaceful in nature…then I’d be doing something worthwhile.

I have been fortunate, through the years, to see a lot of ‘ah-ha moments’ from students, and some powerful anecdotal feedback that has made me feel that I am part of something very important. It’s really as simple as (re)connecting kids to nature.

CLEARING: Have you found a favorite resource to use for teaching about the environment?

MN: Wow- there are so many!! Green Teacher magazine, online resources that are hosted by the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network ( a network I am very excited about!!), and I’m so pleased to discover Clearing!  Some of my favourite books include classics such as Sharing Nature With Children, by Joseph Cornell, and Rediscovery, by Thom Henley. I have taken a couple of workshops and hope to make my way to the Wilderness Awareness School for some immersion in Coyote Mentorship, and appreciate very much the book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature (by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown).I love Ecological Literacy- Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World (edited byt Michael K Stone and Zenia Barlow, and am so inspired by the ideas and inspiration coming out of the Center for Ecological Literacy.

I think the best ‘resource’ is place– our backyards, parks, protected areas, forests, lakes, streams, gardens, communities- the real world!!

CLEARING: So you had never heard of CLEARING Magazine before this, right?

MN: No I hadn’t, but I am so glad I have now!! It looks amazing- and like such a great way for us in our bioregion to connect!!

CLEARING: Yeah, that’s what I’ve always believed. There needs to be a strong communications tool that connects educators in this bioregion.

MN: Well, I hope this can be a great start- we have an incredible regional EE network in CBEEN, and we are really well-organized and excited to build the network

CLEARING: I’ve had some contact with CBEEN, which I agree is a one of the most energetic and well organized EE groups in the region. So how can we improve networking and communication for EE within the bioregion?


Monica Nissen in her element.

MN: I think particularly in the Columbia Basin bioregion, I would really hope that as we get closer to renewing the Columbia River Treaty, we might look at some funding for trans-boundary educational initiatives- or maybe it’s about looking at initiatives that are currently being funded and seeing if there are gaps when it comes to school and community-based education.

Political boundaries aside, there has to be a way for us to work together more. One of the program I love is the Know Your Watershed program, which is all about connecting students in our watershed. We have a great floor map that we use to show the entire Basin, and we discuss impacts and effects of water and land use on downstream users. The American part of the Basin is downstream and of course absolutely connected as well! I feel like there will be more opportunities with the renewal of the Columbia River Treaty!

I do feel very fortunate in that the programs Wildsight runs are funded in great part by the Columbia Basin Trust (, and that we also get support from local utilities, such as FortisBc and BC Hydro. This kind of support for education programs run by non-profit organizations is so important.

CLEARING: Many funding sources still want to focus on specific issues, saying that broad-based environmental education is too long-term for their purposes. They are looking for more immediate results. What do you think about that?

MN: I really appreciate funders who ‘get it’- that long-term investment in programs that connect students to nature and build ecological literacy, even if they don’t show immediate “results”, are worthwhile. I think it’s all about shifting a worldview. That takes time.

CLEARING: Are you aware of any curriculum materials that look at the entire Columbia River basin/watershed as the context for environmental literacy?

MN: Well, the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) website has an incredible array of resources. Great historical, cultural, ecological information. As far as a whole curriculum, the closest thing to what you are asking about that I know of is Know Your Watershed. Hmm…sounds like a trans-boundary conference on EE and specifically watershed literacy needs to happen in the Columbia basin…maybe not this year though.

CLEARING: Yeah, I’ve also been talking with David Zandvliet at Simon Fraser University. He’s coordinating a World Congress of Environmental Education in 2017. That could be a great opportunity for environmental education to make some significant gains.

MN: Oh great! He’s another mover and shaker!I know here in BC we have been going through a curriculum transformation, and the EE community has really been part of the shift, and been able to be present at the table—I think it will lead to some very exciting possibilities. As our colleagues in Alberta (Alberta Council for Environmental Education) say, “Pushing the environment from the sidelines into the mainstream.”

CLEARING: I thought I was going to ask you to be on the Clearing regional advisory board, but then I noticed the extensive list of commitments you already have in your life.

MN: Well, as I said before, I need to work on saying ‘no’ sometimes! It’s so difficult when all this amazing stuff comes up that i absolutely believe in and want to support!!

CLEARING: How do you find the time to do all that you do?

MN: Ha!  Good question!  Sometimes I just don’t limit myself to an 8-hour work day! This past fall I worked a lot of week-ends… seriously though, I feel that it’s important to have a good work/life balance.  To walk the talk.  I live where I do because of all the fantastic opportunities to explore and enjoy being outside and in the wild…

I am so pleased to be able to be mentoring and enabling educators new to the field.  It is so good to know that there are many people committed to this work- maybe that makes it easier to let go and not feel like I have to do ‘it all’… 

CLEARING: Is there any particular individual who has inspired you?

MN: Oh, there are so many. I have a lot of heroes, from David Suzuki, for carrying the torch for so many years despite his message falling on deaf ears, to Lee-Anne walker, a mentor of mine who began the Wildsight Education programs fifteen years ago.  My parents, for getting me outside and for sharing their love for the natural world. Nancie Dohan and Daphne van Alstine, for hiring me for my first park naturalist job.

There are so many stories of inspiration and so many people working in their own ways to support a changing world view and a reconnection for kids, with the natural world…

CLEARING: What book(s) are you currently reading that relate to your work?

MN: I picked up a book by Laurie Rubin, called ‘To Look Closely- Science and Literacy in the Natural World’. It’s a really great case study of a teacher doing such a wonderful job of making the local wild places- just adjacent to the schoolyard, a focal point for a whole year of inquiry learning. I am looking forward to building my library to include some of the books she refers to and incorporates.  Personally, it’s getting into ski season, so I’m reading Deep Powder –40 Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches and Earth Wisdom, by Dolores Lachapelle.

CLEARING: What does the future hold for you? What are your goals and where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10 years?

MN: Hmm…I want to keep at it, as I think there will continue to be the need, and the desire on my part to support kids in connecting to, and loving nature! I kind of dream of a future where this is all part of what is supported by and embedded in the education system, and when I don’t need to fundraise in order to make the programs happen! I am feeling relatively optimistic that this could be the case.  The new curriculum in BC has a lot of exciting possibilities- if we are to teach in a way that is rooted in place-based curriculum, if we are to encourage student inquiry that is authentic and connected to the real world, then surely the kind of programs that support just that will become increasingly valued…and funded!

Award-of-Excellence_EECOM1-300x255CLEARING: How do you feel about the election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian PM? Any hopes that this will lead to some change in education?

MN: Oh wow- well, the change in government is really welcome- it’s like the whole country is breathing a sigh of relief. There is such a feeling of hope- we are hoping for change in so many areas.

I hope we’ll see some change in the education system as well. of course, this is more the jurisdiction of the provinces. We have been in the process of a curriculum transformation here in BC. There are some very positive things about it…

CLEARING: Already the Canadian representative at the climate change conference in Paris has said Canada is pledging to support stronger carbon standards.

MN: I know- like I said, there is so much hope. I guess if we change our whole worldview to more of a systems approach, then environment/economy/education are all part of a system, and EE isn’t a separate idea or topic but is integrated and part of all that we do…

CLEARING: One final question: What does the future of environmental education look like to you?

MN: EE is integrated in the curriculum, in a holistic way- not a separate ‘subject’ but part of all that we do with students…I think we’re getting  there.

CLEARING: Well, this has been great. Thanks so much for your time.

MN: Thanks so much for your interest …I hope this has been useful. Mostly it seems like a great opportunity to look at some collaborating and increasing awareness of each other and our organizations and initiatives.