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Mammoth Cave’s Messenger receives award for environmental education

Mammoth Cave’s award-winning environmental education program received further accolades in November when its leader, Cheryl Messenger, received the regional Freeman Tilden award, recognizing Messenger as the best interpreter in the Southeast Region of the National Park Service (NPS).

Cheryl Messenger

“I am not bragging when I say that Mammoth Cave’s environmental education program is second to none,” said Superintendent Patrick Reed.  “Past honors seem to fuel Cheryl and her staff on to greater endeavors and deeper partnerships that bring unparalleled opportunities to teachers and students in south central Kentucky.”

The Freeman Tilden Award is an annual award recognizing outstanding public contributions in interpretation and visitor services by a NPS employee. Freeman Tilden, who wrote The National Parks, What They Mean to You and Me and Interpreting Our Heritage, greatly influenced the development of NPS interpretation and education programs.

By partnering with WKU’s education program, Messenger received a National Park Foundation grant to initiate the largest inquiry-based outdoor learning training for education majors in the country.  Focusing on students who are about to become teachers, it demonstrates the advantages of using outdoor settings and inquiry-based learning techniques to teach critical thinking skills in both science and social science subjects.  Since the grant began two years ago, 400 WKU students have been immersed in the overnight, in-park learning experience.

“Very few teacher-education programs provide outdoor learning as part of their curriculum requirements for graduation,” said Reed.  “This grant combines Western Kentucky University’s goal to produce innovative and well trained teachers, with the park’s goal to connect people to the value and significance of Mammoth Cave through learning experiences.”

“Inquiry-based learning produces a sense of discovery as students seek answers to their own questions and interests,” explained Mike Adams, chief of interpretation at Mammoth Cave, who nominated Messenger for the award. “The process creates a powerful personal and intellectual connection to the park.  We have been told by students that this was the most useful courses in their college career.  Many students who were hesitant to participate have left enthused, anxious to bring their own classes to the park or use inquiry-based learning in other settings.”

Messenger and her staff also work with more than 30,000 K-12 students each year, both in the schools and all around the park.

Past honors received by Messenger and her staff include:

  • Kentucky Association for Environmental Education 2011 state award winner for Excellence in Environmental Education;
  • 2010 commendation from NPS Southeast Regional Director David Vela for “…outstanding work in EE with WKU, the NPS Geoscience Teachers-in-the-Park program, and in grant partnership efforts with the National Park Foundation”;
  • By Governor appointment, Messenger serves on the Kentucky Environmental Education Council (2006-present);
  • With WKU, the Mammoth Cave environmental education program was awarded a $100,000 National Park Foundation grant in 2009;
  • Messenger served on the “Master Plan for Environmental Education in Kentucky” task force in 2009;
  • Messenger graduated from the inaugural class for “Kentucky State Environmental Education Non-Formal Certification” program in 2004;
  • Mammoth Cave’s environmental education program is a 21st Century Learning Center partner with Barren County Schools and Caverna Independent Schools.

Contact: Vickie Carson, (270) 758-2192

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