An Interview with Susan Seacrest, The Groundwater Foundation

An Interview with Susan Seacrest, The Groundwater Foundation

Susan Seacrest founded The Groundwater Foundation in 1985 and has served as its President since that time. Under her direction, the Foundation has grown to become a nationally known, well-respected voice for public groundwater education. Foundation programs have been featured in TIME Magazine, National Geographic, and as part of broadcasts on National Public Radio and "The Osgood Files" on the CBS Radio Network.

Ms. Seacrest's expertise in groundwater education has been recognized by the US Environmental Protection Agency through her appointment to several EPA advisory boards including the Children's Health Protection Advisory Council and two terms on the National Drinking Water Advisory Council. In November, 1999, she was the keynote speaker at a Water Issues briefing at the United Nations.

She holds a Bachelor's of Arts from Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a Master's of Science in education from the University of Rochester, in Rochester, New York. She is also a member of the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation, American Water Resources Association, and the North American Association of Environmental Education.

Ms. Seacrest & Her Career

When and why did you decide to pursue an environmental career? How did you know that environmental education and communication was the right niche for you?

My interest in the environment actually began long ago when I spent part of the summer months on my grandparent's farm. I had a great time helping feed and water the cattle, and these experiences led me to appreciate the value of water for life. One of my most vivid memories is waking up each morning to the sound of the windmill. Education seemed like a natural because another life-long joy for me is having the opportunity to learn. Teaching others is one of the best ways to keep on learning.

Tell us about how your career has unfolded so far. Where did it begin? How did you come to specialize in groundwater education?

After my undergraduate degree, I became an English teacher and later a guidance counselor. Learning along with my students, I came to greatly appreciate the power of education to create positive change. And, in keeping with my interest in the environment, I also volunteered for the National Arbor Day Foundation.

In 1981, my oldest son, became very ill as an infant (he is now completely recovered) and taught me that our greatest gift is good health. All of these factors came together when I read about leukemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma rates and possible connections to groundwater contamination in Nebraska's Platte Valley near the farm of my youth. In response, I launched a self-education effort and, in this process, developed a great appreciation for this valuable but under-appreciated natural resource of groundwater. (My spouse described it as being "born again" in groundwater!) I decided to combine my professional background as an educator with the new passion for groundwater, and I founded The Groundwater Foundation in 1985. I've had the privilege of leading it since that time.

What is The Groundwater Foundation, and why did you found the organization? How do you accomplish your mission?

The Groundwater Foundation is a non-profit educational organization that educates the public about the nature and value of groundwater toward a mission of creating factually informed citizens caring about and for groundwater. This mission is advanced through a wide variety of programs with a focus on youth and community involvement. These programs include:

The Foundation also organizes an Annual Fall Conference that examines topics of current interest in groundwater science, policy and education, and Sandhills Sojourn, experience based learning for adults. We distribute several electronic and print publications; and produce educational materials and products.

What is so compelling about groundwater?

  • Groundwater is the source of drinking water for half of all Americans. If you include the food grown with groundwater irrigation, almost every one of us consumes groundwater everyday.
  • Thanks to gravity, groundwater functions as the environmental bottom line. A person or community protecting groundwater is also protecting surface water, soils and air, and disposing of hazardous materials in a safe manner.
  • Groundwater is often an economic resource as well as an environmental one and as such can contribute greatly to the economic vitality of a community.
  • Groundwater serves humanity. Most of us only experience groundwater when it is coming out of pipe-an irrigation center pivot, our kitchen tap, wells for livestock. What other natural resource does so much for so many?
  • As the hidden resource groundwater demands the best we can offer. Groundwater moves so slowly that the positive results of groundwater stewardship will benefit people and places we will never know and yet groundwater stewards exist in every community in the world.

Do you have a personal environmental philosophy?

My philosophy about the environment is that we all have an obligation to take personal responsibility for leaving the earth a better place. A way for me to do this is to repeat to myself, "Here's what I can do" instead of thinking "Here's what others should do." It's also very important to me to do my best every single day.

You've won awards from the National Council of Women, the US Geological Survey, and the National Ground Water Association, to name only a few. How important is this kind of recognition to you, personally and professionally?

The greatest value in recognition of this kind lies in the fact that national awards can help raise awareness about groundwater. Anytime the work of the Foundation is recognized in a public way, it provides us with an opportunity to call attention to the valuable contributions groundwater makes in our lives. I also greatly appreciate the generous spirit behind this recognition and the opportunity to work with outstanding organizations like the ones you mentioned.

Who or what have been the biggest inspirations for your career?

That's a great question because it has a very specific answer. In 1984, I read a story in the Omaha World-Herald about the health problems in the Platte Valley that I mentioned earlier in this interview. The story described the work of a Dr. Dennis Weisenburger who was conducting groundwater related research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Always eager to learn more, I wrote Dr. Weisenburger, and he responded with a thoughtful and detailed description of his work and a challenge to me to learn more. He pointed out that problems remain unsolved until average people like me become educated and involved. I took him up on his challenge and began my groundwater journey. The lesson for me: Respond thoughtfully and respectfully; you never know what impact a single action can have! And to this day, I call Dr. Weisenburger the founding muse of The Groundwater Foundation.

The Actual Work

Describe a typical day at work for you. How much time do you spend in the office, in the field, on the road?

I wish I had more time in my office; we have a great staff and I enjoy working with them. I spend approximately 60% of my time in the office. When in the office, I am reviewing and discussing program plans, meeting with staff, contacting and responding to partners in the field, tending to correspondence - both electronic and written - and writing grant proposals. I spend about 25% of my time on the road attending meetings that are related to our work and speaking about groundwater and the final 15% in the field attending Groundwater Foundation events.

Tell us about where you work. How many people work in your office? What's the atmosphere?

The Groundwater Foundation office is located in a small retail area in Lincoln, Nebraska. (Nebraska is a key groundwater state and home to 2/3 of the volume of the famous Ogallala Aquifer) We have 12 paid staff members, 8 full and 4 part time. The atmosphere and dress is casual, and we work together well as a team.

The Foundation has come a long way under your leadership. What can you tell us about the rewards and difficulties of running such an organization?

The rewards are immense. Every day and every year is new and challenging. Programs develop and we learn from our colleagues and partners all the time. I enjoy the opportunity to learn from experience and constantly improve what we do and what we offer the public.

The challenges are primarily financial. Groundwater Foundation programs have been well-accepted by the public, but it is challenging and sometimes difficult to find on-going support, even for successful programs. I strive to achieve financial stability for the Foundation while retaining our reputation for excellence and innovation.

As an educator and communicator, what do you feel are the best ways to reach the average person with important lessons about the environment?

The most important factors are accuracy and clarity. We need to get the science right and communicate about it as clearly as possible. It is also important to add humor and fun whenever possible. For example, we taught about various pollutants at the 2001 Festival through "Survivor III: The Ogallala Aquifer." The Preservation Tribe (Best Practices, Wellhead Protection, and Water Conservation) won an immunity challenge but the Contamination Tribe (Leaky Tank, Hazardous Waste, and Over Pumping) had to make their respective cases to Kid Councils. The Councils decided who (or what!) had to go first!

Is it difficult to develop environmental education programs about a hidden resource?

It is very easy because groundwater is a uniquely local resource. Groundwater interacts with soils, exists in karts and caves, nourishes wetlands and ecosystems, and provides water for drinking and irrigation. It has been the experience of the Groundwater Foundation that when people learn about groundwater and the bounty if provides people are excited to learn more and to get involved themselves.

You've been the keynote speaker at a United Nations Water Issues briefing, and you've served on EPA's Children's Health Protection, National Environmental Education and National Drinking Water Advisory Councils. Why do you do this and how is it important to your job?

It is very important for me to participate in these events. It is an excellent way to learn about the groundwater related work of other organizations and meet people from across the United States and around the world who share our interests. I've found that I always learn more than I share and this helps us continually improve and develop our programs to include new ideas, emerging science, and innovative implementation ideas. In addition, this is a way for us to participate with and contribute to the organizations and agencies that have offered generous assistance to us over the years.

How important is it to create and maintain relationships within the field? What are the best ways to do it?

Relationships are simply the most effective way to get anything of value accomplished. I believe that treating everyone with respect, including voices from a wide variety of audiences including those not often heard, and nurturing relationships with frequent contact and assistance are important in developing and maintaining working relationships.

What has been an important key to the growth and success of Groundwater Foundation programs?

One of the important things for us has been to stay focused on our mission. When considering new program ideas we ask a simple question-Does this help the public understand the nature and value of groundwater? This litmus test has helped us to put the mission first and in doing so we've been able to create energy and integrity-long term success requires lots of both!

Education Information & Advice

What degrees do you hold? What did you like and dislike about your environmentally related education and/or training?

I have a B.A. degree from Saint Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota and M.S. Ed. from the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. I was pleased to be educated away from my home state simply because the experience of living in different places and interacting with people from different backgrounds was stimulating and helpful. Both my undergraduate and graduate work imbued me with a love for learning.

Did your education prepare you for what you actually do now? If not, could you have done anything differently?

That's a great question because sometimes I wonder why I wasn't more attracted to earth science as a young person. I always loved geology, and I even had a large rock collection as a youngster. I also remember the thrill of receiving a chemistry set as a 6th grader. But I didn't connect these interests to a vocational choice, and today I often look wistfully at the hydrologists I know who get to interact with groundwater all the time!

However, and I think this is important: My lack of formal science knowledge has sometimes served me well. I remember that, in the early days of Groundwater Foundation program development, it was often said that we needed to make our information so simple that "even Susan can understand it!"

I also think that it is difficult for any specific educational program to correlate closely with any given job description. Knowledge can be gained, but dedication and the joy of discovery need to be ingrained.

What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in environmental education and communications?

Try to get as much on the ground (pun perhaps intended) experience as possible. There is no better way to find out if the field is right for you. I would also advise taking the time to learn how to write well. Clear and concise writing is one of the most difficult, yet at the same time one of the most valuable skills, an educator can have. I am not a naturally good writer and have had to learn on the job. We've found that clarity in writing requires clarity in thinking.

What factors should prospective environmental students consider when choosing a program?

I would look for a program that offers a variety of field experiences, an opportunity to work with many different audiences, and a tradition of academic excellence in basic and applied science.

How important is it to belong to professional organizations? What are some of the prominent ones for environmental education and communications?

Professional organizations offer opportunities to build those very important human relationships. The National Science Teachers Association, the North American Association of Environmental Education, and the American Water Resources Association all come to mind as excellent organizations that offer professional development and networking. These groups and others may have local chapters, and that's a great place to begin.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected programs for environmental education and/or communications that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?

One of the most frequently mentioned is the program at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. University of Wisconsin faculty members have conducted outstanding research in the area of environmental education evaluation and have trained many outstanding environmental educators. A former Groundwater Foundation staff member received her Masters Degree there and had a wonderful experience.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of California, Davis, West Virginia University and many coastal universities have excellent water and environmental education programs.

Many programs that have focused on journalism have now expanded to include mass communications and media. Northwestern University, University of Missouri and the University of Kansas all come to mind in this area.

However, I think prospective students can find great programs all across the country. To me, the dedication and energy of the student far outweighs other factors.

Does it make a difference in the industry to graduate from a prestigious school?

I'm not sure about the field as a whole. For me, personal qualities always outweigh pedigree.

Job Information & Advice

What kinds of jobs are available for those graduating with a degree in environmental education or communications?

The field is varied and wide open. Environmental education and communication about environmental science and issues take place in many diverse settings including: public and private schools; museums; nature centers; local, state, and federal agencies; conservation districts, agriculture, private industry and non-profit organizations. All of these settings and their related programs need people who can communicate environmental information effectively. Some jobs may be more related to teaching, others, research, still others public policy formation and communication.

What's the pay scale for an educator in the environmental field just starting a career? How about for those at the senior level?

This varies tremendously according to location and size of the organization. Here in the Midwest, starting salaries will be in the $20-25,000 range and senior level managers and executive directors might expect to make $40-55,000 on average. However, I know of at least one Environmental Educational organization where the top person makes over $200,000 per year. (Not me by any stretch) I worked for no salary at all for almost nine years. I also like to remind our staff that although we're not getting rich, we sure have a heck of a good time.

What are the best ways to find a job in environmental education or communication?

I think one of the most effective ways to find a job is to volunteer time to an organization in which you have an interest. This is one of the ways in which we have found some of our best staff members. During a student or community volunteer internship, both the individual and organization can determine if the placement is a good fit. In some cases, an organization can even tailor a job to meet the interests and talents of the individual person.

How is the job market right now? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

I think the job market may be a bit tough right now. I know our budget has taken a beating in recent years and our membership income is down, due in all probability to the large amount of information we make available free of charge on our website. However, I believe that this is only temporary and that just around the corner will be wide spread expansion. This will be due to the increasing role of technology in environmental protection, the continued growth of citizen involvement in local issues, and an emphasis on the benefits of education as a tool for environmental compliance - especially locally.

What are the hottest specialties within the field of environmental education right now? What do you think they will be in the next 10 years?

One very popular area right now is in the use of technology and Internet based information. These technologies include Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Geographic Positioning Satellites (GPS), and real time monitoring data. These tools have made it possible for many communities to know more than ever about environmental conditions. That's why we need educators and effective communication strategies. Data is important, but it is through education that we'll put it to use.

Also important right now is applying the rigor and methodology of the social and natural sciences to environmental education. We want to assess the impact of environmental education as well as describe its implementation. Measuring outcomes will become increasingly important as competition for resources increases. Educators who can design these measurement strategies and conduct outcome related research will be in high demand.

The Foundation's 2000 National Conference examined environmental education evaluation and coming up in November of this year we will be taking a close look at the increasing importance of technology in all aspects of environmental protection.

It is difficult to predict the future but the long-term trends seem to indicate accelerated use of technology in environmental data gathering and a turn toward a larger state and local role in environmental compliance.

Industry Trends

What are some trends that you see in the field that might help prospective students?

As I mentioned earlier, developing expertise in the use of technology and innovative strategies in evaluation are important right now. The Groundwater Foundation is interested in developing new programs in life long learning, after school programs, and community service. Early childhood education programs and enhanced citizen monitoring opportunities are also popular.

How have computers and the Internet affected the everyday life of an environmental professional?

Until last night, when I completely lost the first version of my answers to this interview, I would have said something positive. Something like "Computers and the Internet are great, we're more informed and connected than ever." Today, I'm not so sure.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter the field of environmental education and communications?

I feel especially blessed that I was able to discover something that I truly love doing. The great thing about environmental education and communication is that everyone who enters and stays with the profession is making a difference in the world. The field may not produce riches, but it does produce riches of the spirit.

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