Deb Schlueter, Pine River-Backus science teacher, received the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education's Formal Environmental Educator of the Year award in recognition of her impact on environmental education at Pine River-Backus School.

“When we look at nominations, we look at what they have done - if they created a legacy in what they have done for their students or school or nature center or whatever they have done that will last longer than their own tenure there,” said River Ostrow, chair of the awards and scholarship committee and treasurer for MAEE.

"I was very surprised to find myself nominated," Schlueter said by email. "And really pleased that someone noticed the quality of work I try to do. I will be sharing the award with my students when I get back to school, because they’re the reason we do so much, and they deserve to share in the accolades. Most of what we’ve accomplished lies on their shoulders as well as mine."

Schlueter's lesson on buckthorn removal in the school forest was of particular interest to the MAEE group choosing award winners.

“We were impressed to see the effort she made partly because as a high school teacher, sometimes environmental education is harder to make time for,” Ostrow said. “Often our award winners are for younger grades because they have more of that flexibility. That was the first thing that impressed us. She is a science teacher. It can still be hard to make the case for getting kids actually outside.”

The project became a recurring part of Schlueter's course after 2017, when her class first worked together with volunteers and specialists to fight back against a buckthorn invasion of the school forest. Students not only helped to physically remove buckthorn but learned about the plant's life cycle and what makes it invasive, and they presented to the school board, fellow classmates and others on buckthorn and its removal.

The many angles of the hands-on lesson contributed to Schlueter's consideration for the award.

“We were impressed by how the nominator explained that all these students were helping with the event and took roles as a part of the event,” Ostrow said. “Some were teaching other kids about buckthorn. Some were getting the word out to the community. Some were planning the actual event. We thought it would be easy enough to just do a buckthorn event, but the way Deb did it really gave kids their own agency and empowered them to maybe do something like this somewhere else. They're learning but they are also really feeling their own place in the natural world.”

There were seven nominees from across the state this year for the award, from which two were selected.