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Association for Environmental & Outdoor education

AEOE strengthens environmental education in California by connecting providers, building professional expertise, and championing environmental literacy and outdoor learning.

Celebrating Sarah-Mae Nelson: A Trailblazer in Climate Education

June 22, 2024 1:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Celebrating Sarah-Mae Nelson: A Trailblazer in Climate Education

Sarah-Mae Nelson accepted her award at the 2024 Statewide Conference for environmental and outdoor education at Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center. From left: Ryan Mayeda, AEOE’s Board President & Chair; Sarah-Mae Nelson, and Estrella Risinger, AEOE’s Executive Director.

It’s hard to imagine a time when climate change wasn’t a part of the narrative of outdoor education. With dire predictions for the Earth’s changing climate, climate advocacy, education, and engagement are more important than ever. Sarah-Mae Nelson remembers a time when climate conversations weren’t a part of the dialogue. She is one of the nation’s leading climate interpreters. Sarah-Mae currently works with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) as the UC Climate Stewards Initiative Academic Coordinator.

Sarah-Mae Nelson was recognized as the California Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education’s 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, an honor that celebrates her unique path and 28 years of service in the field of environmental education.

We sat down with Sarah-Mae Nelson to learn more about her journey as a trailblazer in climate education.

What was your connection to the outdoors growing up?

My dad's family was very much into hunting, fishing, camping, and being outdoors. I got my first fishing pole when I was two years old. We were constantly in state parks and national parks in California. We did RV camping every summer and went all over the place– North Carolina, South Dakota, Colorado, everywhere. My dad had an incredible love for nature. So did my grandparents and my great-grandparents on his side.

My mom's family came from North Carolina, and they grew up in the Great Smoky Mountains. My great grandmother was actually born in the mountains where the park is now, before it was a park. We were mountain people on my mom's side, and gardeners with a love for the dirt, animals, and being connected to the world around us.

That's how I was raised. I was also raised to be a steward. We were part of the world and the world was part of us, and it was our responsibility to take care of nature.

The climate predictions are dire. What keeps you inspired?

It’s my co-workers. My colleagues across the country and across the world, and my students.

The Climate Stewards class is an adult education focused class. Our youngest student was 14, our oldest was 87. It's really important to me that we're working with adults because so much emphasis is put on K-12 or K-16 education, but in the United States, most people over the age of 30 did not learn about climate in school. It just wasn't part of the curriculum. So now we have this incredible opportunity with environmental education to reach generations of people.

There is this moment with students, it doesn't matter how old they are, when they get something, and you can see it in their eyes. It is a transformational moment where they go from being who they were to who they are going to be now that they've learned this thing. And that really is what inspires me.

What advice would you give an environmental educator who is starting their career?

The environmental education field has so much potential for support and camaraderie, even if that is not what you naturally gravitate toward. You can ask for help when you need it.

We know anecdotally that the environment is so important to us. But now we also know from scientific research that being outside fundamentally changes the chemistry of our brain. So we need to get outside when we can. We need to do a better job of understanding that nature isn't wilderness. If you're in the middle of a concrete jungle, nature's still there. Birdsong is still there. Water is there. Air is there.

So find your people. Make friends, look for nature, and know that we're all doing our best. The greatest gift that you can give to someone else is allowing them to change their mind. Not everyone has grown up with these opportunities, so seeing people change their mind is even more powerful than those lightbulb moments. 

Sarah-Mae Nelson was selected to be part of a Climate Education panel at the White House in recognition for her work and impact.

Sarah-Mae Nelson’s work has impacted thousands of people, equipping them with the knowledge and confidence to be Climate Stewards. We are grateful for her contributions to the field of environmental and outdoor education. To nominate another leader in the future or learn more about the Annual Impact Awards, visit


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