Rachael Rost

Education Specialist, Topeka Zoo and Conservation Center

Topeka, KS, United StatesAge: 29

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am currently the Education Specialist at the Topeka Zoo, working within the Conservation and Education Department. My zoo is small, with only three of us in the department; however, we are a very driven crew. I teach the majority of our environmental education classes, having taught over 1,000 classes to more than 100,000 community members including students, seniors, adults with special needs, and many more. Each audience and day is different. I am also involved in many conservation efforts, from leading citizen science classes to conducting field research on black-footed ferrets. Environmental education is not just a career for me; it’s a lifestyle!

I always knew I wanted to work with kids, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity. After graduating from college, I got an internship at the Topeka Zoo to gain experience with children; however, I fell in love with the animals and conservation efforts. During this internship, I realized I was meant to be in the environmental field.

Since starting full-time at the zoo, I have immersed myself in my career. I returned to school for my Master’s in Biology, conducted field research in Belize, Kenya, and Costa Rica, and have connected with conservationists around the world. In 2017, I was selected as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions, and I continue my work with National Geographic by serving on their Kansas Advisory Council for geographic and environmental education.

What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?

My first inspiration is my love for traveling. When I was 20, I set a goal for myself to visit all seven continents before I turn 30. I just turned 29, have visited six, and am going to Antarctica in December. Every time I travel, I make it a point to interact with the local people and wildlife. I have seen the world and the wild creatures I’m trying to protect, so I have a personal connection to both biodiversity and culture.

Secondly, my work at the zoo inspired me to learn more about conservation. When I first started as an intern, I knew very little about the environment, but within my first few intern days I quickly realized that a new passion had ignited. To this day, I still absorb as much as I can about conservation and am constantly seeking new ways to empower others to affect environmental change.

My work as an environmental educator motivates me because I am on the frontlines of conservation. Although I am not often in the field conducting research, I am a wildlife warrior on the home front—connecting people to their planet. My job is vital to the health of the environment and its future leaders. If people do not connect to animals, how are they going to love and protect them? Knowing I make a difference is all the motivation I need!

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

For people to care about the environment, they must first connect to it. When trying to bring about positive change through EE, there has to be a live animal component. Whether that is outside exploring nature or through a zoo’s animal class, a connection to the environment is not as strong if people do not meet the creatures we are trying to protect. When live animals are not an option, use pictures, cute videos, and endearing stories to get people connected.

After people have connected to nature and want to conserve the environment, you must think of activities that are both impactful and interactive. Talking at people about conservation is less effective than involving them in it. One of the things we do well is to involve the public in citizen science. We have free citizen science programs once a quarter, where people first learn about the project in an engaging way before becoming a part of it themselves.

Finally, do not be afraid to tell the truth—even if it is sad. Many of the issues we talk about as environmental educators can be pretty depressing, but the truth must be told. Never forget that your voice is powerful! Use pauses, tone, and inflection to your advantage. Make sure to also tailor your language to be age-appropriate. ALWAYS end classes with a message of hope, so that your audience understands the issues but also knows how to help solve them.

Who do you look up to as inspiration for your work?

When I first read this question, I thought of the iconic conservation leaders like Jane Goodall, David Attenborough, and Dian Fossey. Yet, they did not necessarily inspire me to join this field. The person who truly launched me into my career and still inspires me is my boss, Dennis Dinwiddie. He is the Director of Conservation and Education at our zoo, and is the one who took a chance on me from the beginning.

Dennis is a military man – he was a First Sergeant in the army for 30 years before segueing into a career as an educator. He was a 5th grade classroom teacher and director of a nature center before coming to the zoo. Dennis transformed the Education Department from barely functioning to a conservation force within our community. Not only is he an outstanding educator, he is genuinely one of the best people I know. He has taught me what it’s like to be an effective leader, as he supports me in all that I do. I strive to be a better educator, conservationist, and person because of him. I am so lucky to be in a field that I believe in, with an inspirational mentor who believes in me.

What pro-environmental behavior do you think would make a big impact if everyone in the world started doing it?

It is no secret that our environment in is dire need of help. From habitat loss to climate change, we are destroying our Earth at alarming rates. Human consumption is one of the many reasons our planet is degrading. Many societies desire the nicest materialistic things like fast cars, juicy steaks, big houses, electronics, and more. A famous quote by Gandhi sums it up perfectly: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for everyone’s greeds.”

Two major threats are the number of consumers and the nature of what they consume. It is not just that our population is growing, but rather that people consume more than in the past. Additionally, wealth and consumption are unevenly distributed throughout the world. With 10% of the global population living in extreme poverty, the key to fixing our consumption problems relies on shifting societal trends from materialistic wealth to the overall well-being of all.

However, this opinion is an unpopular one. A shift in consumption means adopting a lower-carbon lifestyle – eating less meat, driving less, using fewer electronics, and much more. Even with these measures it would take broader efforts, such as empowering women, to really slow down our consumption rate. Could we achieve a large-scale consumption shift? That remains to be seen, but it would make a big impact if everyone started doing it.

Nori Rost

Emily Rost