Environmental Advocate, Scholar Receives Educator of the Year Award

Dr. Tara Jo Holmberg, an environmental advocate and scholar, was named the 2018 New England Formal Educator of the Year by the New England Environmental Education Association (NEEA).

The award honors educators who inspire students to make informed decisions about environmental issues, promote environmental responsibility and inspire student involvement and action.

Holmberg, a professor of environmental science and biology at Northwestern Connecticut Community College (NCCC), was recognized for her ongoing effort of integrating citizen science and service-learning labs and student data collection projects of both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems throughout the curriculum.

Holmberg’s ecology students conduct labs in the nearby rivers and forests and uses the same professional tools, techniques and analyses as ecologists.

And drawing on her background and partnerships with local organizations like the Northwest Conservation District, Farmington River Watershed Association and the Highland and Lake Watershed Association, she’s able to create opportunities for her students to submit their data to local, state, national and global organizations.

“When I look back at my own opportunities, I want to give my students the same thing so I really sought out partnerships and opportunities where their data means something,” said Holmberg. “I think it helps them become more vested in what they’re learning and the quality of the data. But then also, they have the opportunity to see what other students have done before them.”

In the classroom, Holmberg rarely lectures. She said that her students are involved in activities and projects and she facilitates class discussion and initiates problem-based learning.

After receiving congratulatory emails from a lot of her former students, Holmberg “of course said thank you” but also reassured them that they are responsible for the recognition as well.

The award is “for them too because they’re part of these projects and of this work … whenever I talk or speak or give presentations, I’m talking about the work that they’re doing and we’re doing collectively,” she said. “I’m happy to be able to talk about the work that they’re doing because it’s important to see that students can be very active in their process.”

Holmberg has been on the faculty of NCCC for almost 17 years. In addition to serving as a professor, she is also the program coordinator for the Natural Resources program and the department chair of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at the college.

As a program coordinator, Holmberg advises students as they move through  the program and she works with them on their next steps after graduating from the community college.

“I have a careers course that they take with me where they are kind of figuring out exactly what they want to do because within environmental sciences or studies, you can fit into any field,” she said.

In addition to working in the higher ed space, Holmberg is involved in several community service and volunteer work to help educate the community through creating environmental and conservation programs. She is a member of the Alcoa-Howmet Community Advisory Board, member and social media coordinator for the Northwest Conservation District, a social media coordinator for Farmington River Watershed Association and a volunteer gardener for Sharing Garden.

Holmberg said that she is invigorated by her interaction with students.

“When we’re having a discussion that kind of takes a life of its own, and even if it was something that I hadn’t planned on, it just ends up being just a really great, rich discussion that I end up learning about them, they end up learning about the topic or the field. It just ends up being a real dialogue,” Holmberg said. “Those don’t normally happen. They have to be very organic, and when they do, it just absolutely makes their day and everyone is engaged and those are really great moments.

Holmberg earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, a master’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree from Arizona State University and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Antitoch University New England.

Monica Levitan can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @monlevy_.

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