2018 Enos A. Mills Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient
The story of Kelly Keena’s career is a fascinating one. For 25 years in education, Kelly’s journey has included various roles, across multiple scales, and in many settings. Her evolving vocation can be compared to concentric circles and spirals with layers of understanding and influence moving further and further outward rippling from the local to the state, national, and international levels. Each of Kelly’s many experiences has built upon the previous ones giving her an ever-widening perspective and impact in the field of environmental education (EE). Madeline Bachner Lane, Program Director of Cottonwood Institute, shares, “Kelly makes a huge impact in EE as she pushes the field forward through thoughtful leadership, continued curiosity, insightful critique, and shared joy in this work.”
Currently, Kelly is the Director of Education for Underwriters Laboratories, a global safety science company and nonprofit with a mission to help make the world a safer place, an ever-evolving definition that includes environmental and human well-being. She is also on the faculty of the Educator Academy in the Amazon, a teacher professional development program that travels with educators to the Peruvian Amazon and works through the process of place-based education and science alongside practicing researchers and indigenous communities to support classroom science education when participants return home.
Previously, as co-founder and Principal Consultant for Blue Lotus Consulting & Evaluation, Kelly and her partner, Dr. Corrie Colvin-Williams, worked to help EE organizations understand their impact. When Kelly and Corrie created Blue Lotus, they wanted to build the evaluation capacity of their clients, and to use what they were learning to create a system to increase evaluation capacity within the field. As a result, the Colorado Collective Outcomes for Environmental Education Project was born. In partnership with Colorado Alliance for Environment Education (CAEE), the project works to bring together practitioners, funders, and evaluators to tell a stronger story about the impact of EE through evaluation and is one of three case studies in a national effort to build capacity for collective evaluation of EE and has the potential to tell a story about EE that will drive continuous improvement, bring greater investment to the field, and demonstrate the cumulative strength of EE in improving quality of life.
Before her work in research, Kelly spent more than 10 years as a non-formal educator with Thorne Ecological Institute (now Thorne Nature Experience) and Jefferson County Open Space, and more than 10 years in public schooling as a science teacher leader and instructional coach with Jefferson County, Douglas County, and Mapleton public schools. This work focused on teacher professional development and strengthening science practices in elementary and middle school classrooms and on creating communities of practice using outdoor classrooms for learning. Cara Gizzi, Vice President of Education & Outreach with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., notes, “Kelly is both an avid teacher and an avid student because she has an unmatched passion for life and constant thirst for knowledge. She is revered for her ability to ask, understand, and then solve. And, her true colors shine when she is able to create programs that empower youth to advocate for change. She sees the hope for the field through the lens of a child.”
Kelly’s doctoral work at University of Colorado Denver in the School of Education focused her research on the quality of children’s experiences in green schoolyards fueled by her curiosity about student learning while engaged in outdoor settings. She discovered participant-generated data to understand the nature of these learner experiences. Kelly’s research and evaluation interests focus not on the number of hours that learners have access to experiences, but the qualities of those experiences. Louise Chawla, Professor Emerita, University of Colorado Boulder, wrote, “Kelly’s work culminated in a beautifully designed and executed dissertation, Portraiture of a Green Schoolyard: A Natural History of Children’s Experiences. It remains a model for the qualitative exploration of the genesis of a naturalized outdoor classroom and the opportunities for learning and being that it afforded. What distinguishes Kelly’s dissertation—and everything else that I have seen her do—is her combination of passion and intelligence to understand and facilitate learning environments and teaching approaches where children and nature can thrive together.”
Kelly has worked in teacher professional development, curriculum and resource development, and as an advisor in multiple scales and capacities in EE. She is currently the Chairwoman of the National Environmental Education Advisory Council (NEEAC) for the Environmental Protection Agency where she works on national EE priorities and partnerships, including evaluation. Her consulting work in EE includes projects with the Children’s Museum of Denver, National Wildlife Federation, and two international organizations: Living Literacies and Underwriters Laboratories.
Kelly’s work also includes more than 15 years in higher education as honorarium faculty for the University of Colorado Denver and the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education. For both institutions, Kelly taught integrated science and social studies methods to pre-service teachers at the graduate and under-graduate level. As a research affiliate for the Children, Youth & Environments Program (CYE) at the University of Colorado, she conducted multiple literature reviews for the CYE Journal and consistently reviews submissions for the Environmental Education Research journal.
In addition to her work for nonprofit organizations as an educator and administrator, Kelly also volunteers her time on a variety of nonprofit boards. Her first board tenure was with CAEE where she served for six years, one term as Board Vice President. During that time, Kelly advocated for the first Colorado EE legislation in 2010 and drafting of the Colorado Environmental Education Plan in 2012 and Colorado Kid’s Outdoor Bill of Rights. She also worked on setting up the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion working groups for CAEE and continues to work on equity in EE in all facets of her work.
Most recently, Kelly’s board work includes serving as the President of the Morpho Institute’s Board of Directors, the nonprofit board doing conservation education in the Amazon, as a member of the Blue Sky Funder’s Forum Advisors Panel, and for Our First Garden, an organization committed to school gardens in developing countries. She also served on the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Foundation’s Board.
The underpinning of Kelly’s varied career is EE and the backbone of her work has been CAEE’s community, beginning in 1996 when she attended her first CAEE conference. The common thread of this work is facilitating teacher professional development from side-by-side training to workshops. Christa Dillabaugh, Director of Amazon Rainforest Workshops, shares, “Her passion for the environment and for environmental education is contagious. She lives and breathes this work and continues to find new ways to share her passion with fellow educators – in Colorado and around the world!” To date, Kelly has worked with over 1500 educators in five countries.
Kelly is a native of Colorado and currently lives in Littleton, a few miles from where she grew up, with her husband, Shannon, and daughter, Skyler. Kelly enjoys grand adventures with her family, her garden, her paddleboard, skiing, as well as doing and teaching yoga.