Building Community Through Collaboration | PLT-WET-WILD Annual Conference Recap

May 29, 2024

Coming together for the first time in over 25 years, Project Learning Tree, Project WET, and Project WILD hosted an annual conference that was one for the record books! Over 250 people came to San Antonio, Texas over 4 days of connecting, sharing best practices, and learning from one another. We wanted to share a little recap of some of the highlights from this year’s conference.


Pre-Conference PLT/WET/WILD Educator Workshop

Typically, this conference is limited to PLT/WET/WILD State Coordinators and Facilitators, but this year we offered a pre-conference educator workshop that was free to local Texas educators thanks to a generous sponsorship from Manulife. Over 60 formal and nonformal educators received training and certification to bring environmental education experiences all three Projects into their work with Texas youth.

From learning about the parts of the tree (and literally becoming a human tree through song and movement in the Tree Factory activity from Explore Your Environment: K-8 Activity Guide) to understanding how land-use decisions are made, educators got a taste of how to incorporate hands-on activities from all three Projects into their programs.

Whether you need a one-time lesson or want to take a theme-based approach, there are so many options to choose from that make learning fun and accessible.

So, if you’ve ever wondered whether you should sign up for a PLT educator professional development event, the answer is YES!

97% of attendees agreed that after this workshop, they felt prepared to use PLT/WET/WILD with their students and 100% of attendees plan to use PLT/WET/WILD with their students within the next six months.

Find a local professional development event near you!


Keynote speaker, Minna Paul, inspired everyone, encouraging us to dream big.

Imagining a Brighter Future

To kick-off the main conference, keynote speaker Minna Paul, the Education and Engagement Officer with the San Antonio River Authority, shared her powerful story of dreaming big and making those dreams a reality.

Minna’s passion for nature and conservation began at an early age, growing up watching her father who was a senior officer with the forest service in India. Since moving to the U.S. 23 years ago, Minna has been laser-focused on achieving her dreams of making a positive impact on the environment.

She is a firm believer in harnessing the power of the collective and engaging communities to get involved. When people come together, they can do great things. Through many of the volunteer-led programs that Minna and her team organize, they are keeping waterways clean, removing invasive species, educating people of all ages, and making a BIG difference.

When you focus on what you want, instead of what you don’t want, you’ll see change happen. But most importantly, when you find where your passion and your work align, you’ve hit the jackpot. As Minna reminded us all, keep dreaming big.


Engaging ALL Communities

(L to R): Tuesday’s General Session – Panelists: Susana Cruz, David Buggs, Dr. Rickey Frierson, and KK Langley. Facilitators: Jerri Taylor and Kate Nagle

Tuesday’s general session brought together an incredible panel of leaders with a long-standing history of leading community work in the conservation and forest sector, facilitated by SFI & PLT’s Director of Education and PLT Network, Kate Nagle and Senior Director of Diversity and Career Pathways, Jerri Taylor. This engaging group discussed best practices for successfully developing collaborative relationships to advance environmental education.

Not every child has access to nature, to environmental education, to green career opportunities which is why all three organizations felt it was critical to have this open and honest conversation about doing the work to ensure access for all communities.

When it comes to fostering relationships, you must embrace being open, authentic, and intentional. The conversations you have may make you feel uncomfortable. But, Dr. Rickey Frierson, Interim VP of Student Success and Community and Engagement at Colorado State University said, “That’s ok. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Give grace and mercy for yourself and others.” You may say something you wish you hadn’t. You may make missteps. But you’ll learn. You’ll grow. You’ll connect.

Outreach vs. Engagement

What many organizations don’t understand is the difference between community outreach and community engagement.

Community outreach is one-sided. You’re sharing information and resources that you think are important to a particular community.

But the reality is that they may not be.

As panelist KK Langley, Tribal Relations Program Specialist for the US Forest Service Southern Region, shared, “There is a lot of hurt in so many communities. Don’t think you know everything when you walk into a room.”

Jerri Taylor said, “Community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter.”

If you truly want to engage and work with all communities to improve environmental education, it’s got to be a bilateral exchange. Relationships shouldn’t be one-sided. Jerri shared, “By taking an assets-based approach to community engagement, it builds on the assets already found in a community and mobilizes individuals, associations, and institutions to come together to build on their assets. Active participation and empowerment—and the prevention of disempowerment—are the basis of this practice.”

You need to understand the strengths and needs of a community and ask for the privilege to come to the table. Don’t come to the table with solutions. Come to the table with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart, and the solutions will come from the community and conversation.

But most importantly, as Susana Cruz, founder of Chicana in Nature, shared, “You have to show up…more than once.” Relationships and trust take time to build, so you must make the effort to show up, continually. 

Moving from Listening to Planning and Doing

Panelist David Buggs, Director of Community Engagement for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,  shared the importance of not just having a strategy when it comes to community engagement. “Make sure you’re doing the work. What are you going to do?” 

Looking around the room, you could see people nodding their heads. So many organizations get stuck in planning, strategizing, and analyzing mode that change doesn’t actually happen. 

After the general session, everyone was invited to attend breakout sessions focused on engaging with  specific communities. Attendees had the opportunity to have open and honest conversations, ask questions, listen, and reflect.

Everyone left with concrete first steps for starting a conversation with a community-led organization in their own state – for doing the work together to make environmental education accessible to all.


Mexico PLT Coordinator, Cecilia Ochoa, showing students how to do a bark rubbing in their tree journals.

Teaching Little Learners at the Will Smith Zoo School

Imagine this.

Children running, exploring, digging, and creating…outdoors for 70% of their day. All while enjoying hands-on learning about nature, their ABCs, colors, shapes, and more.

Like so many nature-based and outdoor schools around the U.S., the Will Smith Zoo School is fostering sense of self, encouraging age-appropriate risky play, and giving us all hope for the next generation of environmental stewards.

As part of the conference, PLT State Coordinators and Education Operating Committees members had a special opportunity to visit the Will Smith Zoo School. We toured the preschool’s campus, the first daycare in the U.S. to be awarded LEED Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

After the tour, we broke out into smaller groups with each of the classes and led activities from Trees & Me: Activities for Exploring Nature with Young Children – making “Our Favorite Trees” scrapbooks from My Tree & Me, singing and dancing to “Yippee, Hooray!” from Parts to Play, and creating sun prints from The Shape of Things.

I had the pleasure of being with a class of 4- and 5-year-olds with special needs. We began by asking one question, “Who loves nature?”

Every single hand flew up in the air.

And when I asked, “How much?”, 14 pairs of little arms stretched out wide beside them.

We absolutely loved seeing how excited the kids were doing each activity. Their smiles, laughter, and most of all, love of nature made our hearts swell. Watching kids learn about and explore nature is incredibly fulfilling, and it’s exactly why we love what we do!


(L to R): Cynthia Chavez, California PLT State Coordinator, Jennifer Ortega, Leadership in Education Awardee, Dennis Mitchell, PLT Facilitator, and Rocco Saracina, SFI/PLT Director, Partnerships & Development
(L to R): Jennifer Rude, Leadership in Education Awardee, Michelle Youngquist, Idaho PLT State Coordinator, and Rocco Saracina, SFI/PLT Director, Partnerships & Development

Celebrating Environmental Education Rockstars

The heart of PLT is our network – a collective of passionate, dedicated, creative, and amazing individuals who are boots-on-the-ground, leading PLT professional development in communities across the U.S. and even internationally in Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, and Japan. At this year’s conference, we honored several individuals who have gone above and beyond when it comes to delivering environmental education through PLT.

Leadership in Education Awards

Two incredible educators and PLT facilitators, Jennifer Rude (Idaho) and Jennifer Ortega (California), were honored with this year’s Leadership in Education Awards. We had the chance to celebrate them during our joint awards luncheon at the conference, along with Project WET and Project WILD’s Coordinator and Facilitator of the Year Awardees. Learn more about Jennifer Rude and Jennifer Ortega’s contributions to PLT.

Gold Star Awards

Every year, PLT selects two outstanding individuals, typically PLT State Coordinators, to honor with our Gold Star Award. This year we strayed ever so slightly from the norm—honoring one State Coordinator and one former PLT staff member who now serves as our curriculum advisor.

Wyoming PLT State Coordinator, Hazel Scharosch, recipient of the 2024 Gold Star Award

Hazel Scharosch, Wyoming PLT State Coordinator

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Hazel Scharosch, our Wyoming PLT State Coordinator, consider yourself blessed. Her warmth and kindness radiate, and she welcomes everyone with a big hug. In her former life, Hazel taught in a one-room schoolhouse with kids from K-6 grades where she discovered PLT.

“I love PLT because it is absolutely essential to get people – especially young people like students – in touch with the outdoors. Folks tend to take care of things they enjoy and know something about. Basic info about our environment is crucial in the task of preserving it. In addition, PLT helped save my entire teaching career. For 30 years, I juggled all elementary grades, K-6, in the same classroom. I had to find ways to present content in many grade levels and subjects, using fewer activities, and PLT does exactly that. It is highly adaptable, very engaging, and allows flexibility over a wide range of age levels. I know for sure that every student learns outside: conducting educator workshops allows me to exponentially reach many more students than I could all by my lonesome self!” 

Hazel went from being a dedicated teacher using PLT with her students to becoming a facilitator who was recognized as an outstanding Educator of the Year in 2007, and then finally serving as the State Coordinator for Wyoming for the past several years. Hazel is incredibly deserving of this award!

Jaclyn Stallard, Independent Curriculum Advisor for PLT at conference
Jaclyn Stallard, Independent Curriculum Advisor for PLT, recipient of the 2024 Gold Star Award

Jaclyn Stallard, PLT Curriculum Advisor

You may have never met her, but you’ve likely seen her name in the acknowledgment pages of PLT curriculum resources.

Behind the scenes, Jaclyn Stallard has been working with PLT for nearly 20 years, serving as PLT’s Director of Curriculum and now as our independent Curriculum Advisor, helping to lead the development of so many of PLT’s incredible learning materials. Jaclyn’s love of nature, environmental education, and all things PLT shines brightly, as evidenced by the fact that when asking PLT State Coordinators if Jaclyn should be honored as a Gold Star Awardee, the answer was a resounding yes!

Jaclyn exudes positivity, empathy, creativity, and spirit. She approaches life with intentionality, and you’ll find that incorporated in every piece of curriculum she touches. We are so lucky to have Jaclyn on our team!

Congratulations to Hazel and Jaclyn for being this year’s recipients of the 2024 Gold Star Awards!

Megan Annis

Megan Annis

Megan is Project Learning Tree (PLT) and PLT Canada's Director of Sales and Marketing. She believes working with youth is the key to building a sustainable future and is passionate about helping bring environmental education, forest literacy, and career pathways products to market.