Celebrating Leaders in Education

April 10, 2023

PLT 2023 Conference Attendees
PLT Coordinators, Facilitators & Partners at 2023 Annual Conference in Stevenson, WA

At the end of March 2023, over 100 Project Learning Tree (PLT) coordinators, facilitators, and partners came together to learn from one another and share best practices at our PLT Annual Conference. These individuals work tirelessly to help spread the word about PLT and educate teachers, natural resources professionals, and others about how to incorporate PLT activities with their learners. It’s our collective goal and commitment to inspire children (and adults) to get outside and learn in (and from) nature.

Every year we honor a few individuals who embody PLT’s mission of advancing environmental education, forest literacy, and career pathways by using trees and forests as windows on the world. This year, PLT recognized four outstanding individuals who have made significant contributions over the years.

Gold Star Awards

The Gold Star Award is given to National PLT partners and outstanding PLT Coordinators that are advancing PLT and acting as ambassadors for the program.

Robert Raze – PLT EOC Member & PLT Facilitator, Florida

Robert Raze, PLT Gold Star Awardee
Robert Raze, PLT Gold Star Awardee, and Jess Kaknevicius, SFI, VP Education

Robert Raze has served as an environmental educator for over 40 years, inspiring the next generation to consider a career in forestry. As a member of the PLT Education Operating Committee (EOC) as well as a PLT Facilitator in Florida, Robert is always willing to contribute. Whether providing insights into how we can reach more educators and pre-service teachers to contributing to discussions around reaching underserved communities, he is a shining leader and member of the PLT community.

Robert’s support for PLT includes growing partnerships with college and university preservice programs across Florida with an emphasis on working with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He most recently served as part of the SFI-MANRRS Advisory Committee and shared his own story in the PLT Black Faces in Green Spaces: The Journeys of Black Professionals in Green Careers guide.

In 2004 when Robert began teacher as a faculty member in the College of Education, St. Petersburg College, he introduced the concept of professional development for preservice teachers through PLT workshops. Robert Raze shares his passion for EE with his preservice students. As one student commented, “Dr. Raze made me realize the importance of including environmental education in my practicum experience.” Another student wrote, “Dr. Raze’s teaching style is one that I want to emulate because I know my students will learn as much as I have if I teach like Dr. Raze teaches.”

“Dr. Raze is extremely committed to environmental education and his expertise is recognized by his students who always give him the highest marks on their evaluations of his teaching.” – Kimberly J. Hartman, Dean, College of Education, St. Petersburg College


Denise Buck, PLT Gold Star Awardee
Denise Buck, PLT Gold Star Awardee and Kate Nagle, Director, Education & Project Learning Tree Network

Denise Buck  – PLT Co-Coordinator, Washington

Denise Buck has served as the Washington PLT Coordinator since 2017 but has been engaging educators and students in environmental education for the past 34 years. During that time, she has served as a facilitator for PLT, Project WET, and Project WILD, training countless educators in all three programs.

Denise has lent her experience and passion to numerous working groups and committees for PLT, including service on PLT’s Education Operating Committee (EOC). This strategic advisory group provides insight and leadership over national programs. Her role on the EOC was the Coordinator Representative, where she gathered insights from the full PLT state network and served as their voice at the highest level. Denise has also been a leader in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts through her work to partner with tribes across Washington in the delivery of environmental education.

She even postponed her retirement to host the PLT Annual Conference in her home state when COVID shut down initial plans that began back in 2019! She has been a tireless advocate for PLT and a constant source of positivity for those she’s touched over the years.

Her colleagues describe her as a charismatic, warm, and enthusiastic leader creating a culture of care, inclusion and belonging. As Denise begins her next chapter retiring from her role as Washington PLT Co-Coordinator and Program Director for the Pacific Education Institute, her passion will be greatly missed, but the mark she has made will be forever imprinted on the PLT community.

“Denise is pretty fantastic – she has been sparking joy with PLT for many years. Her empathy and enthusiasm for our work and personal lives help connect and bond us as a community of friends.” –LeeAnn Mikkelson, PLT EOC Member

Leadership in Education Awards

Chanda Cooper 

Chanda Cooper with PLT Team
(L to R): Matt Schnabel, South Carolina PLT Co-Coordinator; Beth Foley, South Carolina PLT Co-Coordinator; Rocco Saracina, PLT Sr. Manager Partnerships & Development; Chanda Cooper, PLT Leadership in Education Awardee

Chanda Cooper, an educator with the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District, was recognized for her more than a decade of leadership in championing PLT.

“Chanda rises to any challenge put before her. She works across the county, reaching more than 50,000 students at more than 100 schools in three school districts with her tireless message that learning about forest and conservation science isn’t just important—it can be a lot of fun too,” said Matt Schnabel, Environmental Education Coordinator with the South Carolina Forestry Commission and the South Carolina PLT State Coordinator, “Chanda acts as an ambassador for PLT in South Carolina.”

Cooper co-designed and co-facilitated South Carolina PLT’s strategic planning process in 2019. In 2020, Cooper led the South Carolina PLT Marketing Subcommittee through the development of a state marketing plan. She also co‑authored the final PLT 2020-2024 strategic plan and ushered it through full PLT Steering Committee approval. As a part of this process, she assisted with the reorganization of the South Carolina PLT Steering Committee’s subcommittees.

As the current chair of the South Carolina PLT’s Marketing Subcommittee, Cooper has been instrumental in the development of several new PLT outreach materials over the past year. She facilitated subcommittee work sessions to recommend and review new designs for PLT’s informational brochure and four pop-up banners. In 2022, Cooper scripted, filmed, and edited a series of six video testimonials featuring PLT Steering Committee members, then posted the videos on the South Carolina PLT Facebook page.

Cooper was recognized as a National PLT Outstanding Educator Honoree in 2018 and 2017, and as the South Carolina Jerry L. Shrum Project Learning Tree Outstanding Educator of the Year in 2016. She was also named South Carolina’s Environmental Educator of the Year by the Environmental Education Association of South Carolina in 2022.

Dennis Mitchell 

Dennis Mitchell with PLT Team
(L to R): Cyndi Chavez, California PLT Co-Coordinator; Jonelle Mason, California PLT Co-Coordinator; Dennis Mitchell, PLT Leadership in Education Awardee; Rocco Saracina, PLT Sr. Manager Partnerships & Development

Dennis Mitchell, a retired teacher from Evergreen Elementary in Cottonwood, California, was recognized for his tireless work over a quarter century delivering PLT education programs to a diverse range of students.

“It is hard to overstate Dennis’s rich experience in developing and delivering education curriculum programs as a middle school educator. He has proven his dedication by contributing to multiple rewrites of PLT’s Explore Your Environment: K-8 Activity Guide, delivering consistent workshops, training new coordinators, and being a monumental resource as California PLT has grown,” said Jonelle Mason, the Northern California PLT State Coordinator at the University of California. “Dennis spreads his deep love for our natural world with ease. He is a role model for all education professionals.”

Mitchell provides PLT trainees throughout California with a critical understanding of both natural resources and education techniques. He plays an important role as the Sierra Education Director for the Forestry Institute for Teachers programs, where he certifies PLT participants annually. This week-long camp involves vigorous planning and coordination to align PLT education curriculum with natural resources concepts. He works closely with natural resources partners, local foresters, school districts, and Sierra Pacific Industries.

Through the Forestry Institute, Mitchell brings his decades-long experience applying PLT in the classroom to elevate the role of forests and the people who work in and care for them. He has a close relationship with many local foresters and natural resource professionals, bringing them in as guest speakers during workshops. These enthusiastic professionals’ specialties include wildfire, law, wildlife, and forestry. By bringing in outside sources, Mitchell gives PLT educators the opportunity to speak to working professionals and then bring that knowledge back to youth learners.


Congratulations to all this year’s award recipients and nominees!

Check out more photos from this year’s PLT conference on our Facebook page!


Bring PLT Into Your School or Community

If you are interested in connecting with PLT in your state, whether you’re looking for online or in-person professional development workshops to learn how to incorporate PLT resources with your learners or you want to become a PLT workshop facilitator, visit: plt.org/your-state-project-learning-tree-program


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.