SIUE alum’s environmental educational programs stimulate interest in museum activities

When Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann moved to the St. Louis area from Phoenix, she said she enrolled at SIUE to enhance her teaching career.

SIUE alum Erin Hilligoss Volkmann receives the 2014 Hiram M. Chittenden award for Interpretive Excellence from Col. Anthony Mitchell, St. Louis District Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Photo courtesy of Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann)

Instead, through her experiences here, she found her new calling.

Through an internship program at SIUE at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center in East Alton, she eventually landed a position as a Park Ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the National Great Rivers Museum. Since joining the Corps in 2009 as a student worker, she has earned recognition for her work as a Ranger, most notably through the Bonkers for Birds program. During her time at the museum, Hilligoss-Volkmann has coordinated more than 300 educational outreach programs.

Hilligoss-Volkmann said SIUE’s environmental sciences curriculum with its emphasis in environmental education provided her with a solid foundation for her new career. Hilligoss-Volkman, who graduated from SIUE with a master’s degree in environmental science, formerly worked as a middle school teacher in the Phoenix area.

“(SIUE) opened a lot of doors and gave me a solid foundation in the sciences,” she said. “I was a teacher now I teach environmental sciences and outdoor education for the Army Corps of Engineers.”

Since the SIUE grad took over Bonkers for Birds, it has grown from three classes and 27 children at its inception to 110 classes and 2,662 students today. Hilligoss-Volkmann earned the 2014 Hiram M. Chittenden award for Interpretive Excellence from the Rivers Project Office, St. Louis District.

Hilligoss-Volkmann made classroom visits by Rangers an integral part of the program, providing 4th and 5th grade children with interactive experiences where kids receive lessons about local bird species from park rangers. Children also have the opportunity to use their new knowledge by creating their own field guide. Students enter a drawing contest where each student is assigned a different species of birds and also complete a short description of their species.

“It’s really important to increase their science literacy,” Hilligoss-Volkmann said. “A lot of times students are focused on math and reading and writing but they’re running out of time for science and we’re just working to infuse that science back into the curriculum. They’re focused on fundamentals and science sometimes get squeezed out of that.We want to help teachers put science back into the classrooms.”

During the course, students learn about different species of birds and their anatomy.

Science vocabulary  and concepts like biodiversity, adaptations, and niches.

“We are using science in a way that they are familiar with so they can engage right away on a meaningful level. They are pretty excited to get started on their research and artwork.,” Hilligoss-Volkman said.

In addition to Bonkers for Birds, Hilligoss-Volkmann led an interactive program for preschoolers called River Runts, which was created in conjunction with Riverbend Head Start Schools. The program taught 3,074 students at four preschools during the 2013-2014 school year.

She also assisted in the development of an upper Mississippi River curriculum guide geared toward 5th and 6th grade students that focused on the Mississippi River. Hilligoss-Volkmann also served as a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math ambassador for the St. Louis District where she mentored students on those subjects. Hilligoss-Volkmann also runs a geocaching program for 7th graders, where students go on a scavenger hunt using GPS technology.

Hilligoss-Volkmann, who earned her undergraduate degree in education at Arizona State University, coordinates several programs regarding environmental education and the Mississippi.  She coordinated special events including family campouts and the Riverlands Paddle Festival where participants have the opportunity to paddle along the River.

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