The Charger Blog

Graduate Student Recognized Among Best Young Environmental Advocates in the World

Olivia Walton ’21 M.S. is dedicated to sharing her passion for environmental science, and she has focused her research on promoting environmental education and conservation among kids at a primary school in the Bahamas. She has now been recognized by a leading educational organization for her commitment to promoting environmental education.

March 10, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Olivia Walton in San Salvador.
Olivia Walton ’21 M.S. and primary school students observing brittle stars during an intertidal field trip on San Salvador Island (Photo credit: Robert Rattner).

Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Olivia Walton ’21 M.S. always felt connected to nature. She enjoyed the time she spent swimming, scuba diving, and hiking, but it was teaching others about the environment that truly became her passion.

The first University of New Haven student to earn a Switzer Environmental Fellowship from the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation, Walton received a grant that enabled her to expand her thesis research. She is identifying the most effective ways to teach primary school students about the environment and the importance of conservation.

Olivia Walton ’21.
Olivia Walton ’21 M.S.

A candidate in the University’s graduate program in environmental science, Walton designed and implemented an environmental education program at a primary school on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. Working with students at Gerace Research Center, which has a longstanding partnership with the University, she immersed herself in educating her students and in sharing her passion for preserving and protecting the environment.

As part of her research, Walton has assessed positive environmental behavioral changes resulting from students’ exposure to environmental education in the school curriculum. She also surveyed the community to examine their environmental science knowledge or behavioral changes.

“One of the biggest insights was the value of representation and consistency in creating an engaging and impactful environmental education program,” she said. “Having the freedom to design a research project that was interdisciplinary and incorporated my various passions in the environmental field was invaluable. I am very grateful to have an adviser like Dr. Roman Zajac who supported and encouraged my creativity throughout my graduate work.”

‘I love the wonders of nature’

Walton was able to use some of the funding she received from the fellowship to attend her first North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) Conference. She has presented her research as part of the conference for the last three years.

Olivia Walton in San Salvador at Gerace Research Center.
Olivia Walton ’21 M.S. with primary school students from San Salvador at the touch tank at the Gerace Research Center.

NAAEE has recognized Walton’s dedication to advancing environmental education, honoring her as part of its prestigious 30 Under 30 Class of 2020, a group of high-achieving educators, researchers, social entrepreneurs, and artists from 14 countries.

“NAAEE is extremely aligned with my personal vision for a more sustainable and equitable future,” said Walton, who earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from Cornell University. “It has been a network I have utilized since starting my graduate career. I was elated and honored to be selected by NAAEE as one of the leading 30 environmental educators under the age of 30 in the world.”

Walton and her fellow honorees will receive ongoing support to expand their work, including grant and networking opportunities. She plans to use what she has learned about the importance of equitable environmental education as she begins her own outreach program. Called “Field Trips for Earth,” the organization will combine nature-based trips and inspirational and representative conservation role models. She hopes it will encourage students in underserved communities to celebrate and investigate their own local environments.

“I love the wonders of nature,” said Walton. “But what I enjoy the most is seeing the next generation fall in love with the outdoors and become passionate about preserving and protecting it.”