CU professor named outstanding educator

Kurtis Koll has a talent for teaching people about the importance of protecting the environment — and now he is being recognized for that ability on a national level.

Koll, a physical sciences professor at Cameron University, was named as one of only five 2010 National Outstanding Educators by Project Learning Tree.

One of the five honorees will be chosen as the top outstanding educator at PLT’s International Coordinator’s Conference held May 17-20 in Lake Tahoe, Nev.

He was nominated for the award by Christina Stallings Roberson, Oklahoma’s PLT coordinator.

Koll is a facilitator for PLT, a program administered by the American Forest Foundation, to teach children in kindergarten through the eighth grade about environmental science, with an emphasis on plant life.

While Koll does participate in bringing the project’s nature education activities to youth groups across the state, he mainly works with several colleagues in Southwest Oklahoma to train adults to be facilitators — including school teachers who will work directly with students in classroom settings.

One of the most fascinating things about PLT’s approach, Koll said, is that it seeks to teach people “how to think about the environment, not what to think about the environment.”

PLT’s curriculum is designed to be science-based and mostly apolitical, according to Koll.

Teaches PLT workshops

Koll has been teaching at PLT training workshops since 1995. He usually works with three other local people: Katherine Hunt, Donna Phillips and Jeffery Dorrell, all of whom are also PLT facilitators.

Koll said he feels the award is really a reflection of the work of not only himself, but Hunt, Phillips and Dorrell as well.

When he helps teach people to become PLT facilitators, the process involves a lot more than just class time. Koll believes the workshop participants should be immersed in nature, so he takes them on field trips to places like the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.

You have to get outdoors

“To understand the outdoors, you have to get out there. To understand a tree, you have to climb a tree,” Koll said. While not every participant may want to actually climb a tree, he does make sure they all take part in activities that go beyond surface observations.

Most of the time, he has students spend some time alone, listening, looking, smelling. He wants them to experience more of nature than they have before.

“What are you looking at? Well, I’m looking at that tree,” Koll said. “Okay, what are you seeing? Are you seeing the 100 years of existence for this tree? Are you seeing what it has gone through? Do you see photosynthesis?”

Many of the workshop participants have told him the experience changed their views of nature and of themselves.

Koll also stresses practical environmental conservation in classroom lessons and emphasizes the ecosystems of Oklahoma.

He said PLT’s curriculum is simple, easy to implement and requires few materials.

“For us to get that out into the hands of teachers and let them experience as many activities as possible, that’s kind of our goal,” he said.

JEFF DIXON/STAFF Cameron University physical sciences professor Kurtis Koll demonstrates the Floc Illuminator, a piece of lab equipment. Koll has been named one of five 2010 National Outstanding Educators by the American Forest Foundation’s Project Learning Tree, a program designed to teach children about environmental science. One of the five honorees will be named the top Outstanding Educator at a conference in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in May.