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Find Your Passion in EE: Helen Alexander

Helen Alexander, Professor at KU in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Recipient of the 2020 KACEE Educator Award


This narrative is part of a collection from professionals in the field of environmental education (EE). The collection seeks to highlight some of the ways in which Kansans have grown their love for nature into environmental literacy - leading them to the knowledge, understanding, and skills to become responsible, informed, and passionate environmental stewards. They share their stories hoping to inspire more Kansans to find their passion working in or supporting EE.


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My story begins in Madison, Wisconsin, where I grew up in a family that enjoyed weekend walks and picnics in nearby parks.


One childhood hike in particular stands out in my memory—I got to swing on grape vines and walk on logs across a creek—these were big adventures! In high school I had a fantastic biology teacher. He took students on spring break field trips to Arizona and was the sponsor for a very active biology club. As I look back, that club was amazing – we did service projects (pulling invasive honeysuckle out of woods, cleaning prairie seed for restoration), taught biology modules to elementary students, and took lots of field trips. Through these many experiences, I became “hooked” on nature.




In college, I was a botany major, and also enjoyed zoology and history courses. I had great summer experiences—including being a research assistant for ecologists in Arizona and working for the Forest Service in Colorado. I was unsure what I wanted to do with my interests; graduate school seemed like a logical next step, but I recall great angst writing “why I want to go to graduate school” essays—I was not at all sure I wanted to go! Ultimately I did decide to go, earning a PhD in botany. I learned a lot about biology and research and enjoyed being surrounded by people with similar interests. I met my husband Dave in grad school and we and our friends went on many wonderful weekend camping trips.


Seeing the world through children’s eyes was special—I have fond memories of them looking closely at cicadas and lightning bugs, the excitement of a bat in the backyard, finding fossil shark teeth in western Kansas, and much more.

After graduate school, my husband and I lived in a few places before joining the faculty at the University of Kansas in 1987. Our daughter Diane arrived a year before we moved and a few years later we had our son Kevin. These were fun and busy times and included many weekend trips and hikes (our children called the latter “forced marches”). Seeing the world through children’s eyes was special—I have fond memories of them looking closely at cicadas and lightning bugs, the excitement of a bat in the backyard, finding fossil shark teeth in western Kansas, and much more.



As an ecology professor, I do botanical research—in prairies, fields, and forests. Most of my work has been in collaboration with an impressive group of graduate and undergraduate students. I’ve also taught diverse classes from introductory biology to graduate seminars. In 2011, I began teaching “Kansas Plants and Landscapes”, which is one of my favorite courses because I help students learn about their local environment—lots of ecology but also touching on geology, human history, and agriculture. Most of the class periods are spent outside, and I help students identify several of the common plants of the area. I expect that much of what I teach in “Kansas Plants and Landscapes” would have been common knowledge to farm kids in the early 1900s. But most people today (like myself) were raised in suburbs and cities and had little exposure to these topics. Students often share that my class opened their eyes to a world they had walked or driven by all their lives, but never really thought about.


I expect that much of what I teach in “Kansas Plants and Landscapes” would have been common knowledge to farm kids in the early 1900s. But most people today (like myself) were raised in suburbs and cities and had little exposure to these topics. Students often share that my class opened their eyes to a world they had walked or driven by all their lives, but never really thought about.

About a decade ago, I started co-teaching “Research Methods", a course where future high school math and science teachers learn about research by doing their own projects. Through this course, I met many people involved in K-12 education and co-led a few environmental workshops. I reconnected with a former KU student of mine, Julie Schwarting, who is now a high school teacher at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas. Julie wanted more natural areas on the high school campus and in 2013 asked my advice. It is a long story, but with help from many people, we converted an old football practice field into a prairie restoration. We are amazed by the diversity of people—K-12 students, university scientists, community members—who have used the site for nature walks, classes, research, and community outreach (https://freestateprairie.wixsite.com/mysite).



Environmental education has been part of my life, in one way or the other, for a long time. Why do I love this discipline?

  • For me, spending time outside with others means that we all are constantly learning. There is a real joy in helping people make discoveries, whether it is learning to identify prairie wildflowers or gaining an understanding on how ancient glaciers shaped the northeast Kansas landscape.

  • Environmental education is a positive and hopeful discipline. The world is facing serious environmental challenges and it is depressing to think about them. But few problems are solved by haranguing people with difficult facts—surely it is more effective to open their eyes to the natural world and inspire them to make a difference with their lives.

  • Being outside helps me, and many other people, on an emotional level. Lots of research shows that the natural world helps people deal with depression, social issues, and much more. It is hard to be in a “bad place” when you’re outside.

  • There is so much “community” in environmental education – I enjoy learning from people I have met through the university, through collaborations, and in various environmental organizations.

The world is facing serious environmental challenges and it is depressing to think about them. But few problems are solved by haranguing people with difficult facts—surely it is more effective to open their eyes to the natural world and inspire them to make a difference with their lives.


Although I’m an educator, I’m still very much a student. I love to visit parks and museums, read books, learn from friends, and yes, I’m addicted to the SEEK app on my phone. I enjoy traveling around the country and have been fortunate to visit other countries, but there is something special about spending time outside close to where you live—being able to visit the same place in different seasons and years. Each time I notice something a little different and learn a bit more about the world around me.


...there is something special about spending time outside close to where you live—being able to visit the same place in different seasons and years. Each time I notice something a little different and learn a bit more about the world around me.

Helen Alexander


Botanist, Educator, Student




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