Mary Ann Cromer Brittain (’62) was recently honored with the Order of the Long Leaf Pine award for 43 years of outstanding service to the State of North Carolina.
A science educator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, she developed Curiosity Classes, hands-on natural science programs for groups visiting the Museum’s classrooms. She also developed the award-winning UTOTES (Using the Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science) program, which has been a catalyst for schools to get students involved with learning about the world they live in by using their school grounds as outdoor teaching laboratories.
As director of Prairie Ridge Ecostation for Wildlife and Learning, the museum’s outdoor learning facility, Brittain led the conversion of a former cow pasture into a field station for outdoor education. By recreating the traditional biodiversity once found in this area — planting hundreds of native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers — she and her co-workers prepared an urban classroom/laboratory for generations to come. Now, wildlife abounds for visitors and school groups to enjoy in an ideal setting for experiential learning about the natural world.
Tell us about your job at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
I came to the museum in the summer of 1977 for what I thought would be a relatively short stay before I returned to working with children with special needs. At that time it was called the North Carolina State Museum of Natural History and had fewer than 30 positions to carry out its mission. There were only three educators in place, and my job as the curator of school programs was to offer science education to the entire state.
Now 34 years later I am the director of Prairie Ridge Ecostation, which serves as the field station and “backyard” of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the Nature Research Center. Prairie Ridge has 45 acres of restored and reconstructed prairie, forests, streams, ponds, native plant gardens and arboretums.
It is a resource for learning science education methods and strategies, a model for environmental sustainability, and an outdoor lab for educator, student and general public participation in citizen science and scientific research. My job and privilege is to oversee this program and to work with our Prairie Ridge staff to continue to provide great programs and great opportunities to connect with nature.
Why is it important to you that students learn the science of nature?
When I was about 10 years old I lived in Winston-Salem in an apartment complex with a creek and woods behind them. My older brother Bill was in school at Bowman Gray studying to be a doctor. During that time he and I would occasionally go on a walk through those woods behind our apartment.
One day we were sitting in the woods on the bank of the creek when a bird began calling repeatedly. My brother said “Listen, it’s a red-eyed vireo. I can tell from its call.” I think at that moment much of my future direction was decided. I just could not imagine how he was able to know the bird’s identity from that call. It seemed like pure magic to me, and I wanted to know more and be able to do magic myself!
My memories of similar experiences are the reason I know how important it is to reach children and adults with opportunities to learn about and be more connected to the natural world. With the exploding growth of electronic and virtual connections it is even more important that all of us have opportunities to be outdoors, having the chance to connect to other living things.
You’ve obviously made many contributions, such as converting a cow pasture to a field station. What are the one or two that have been most fulfilling for you?
Probably the best thing I’ve ever done was that I hired great people who came to work at the Museum during this time of incredible expansion. They brought with them energy and dedication to helping people learn about and appreciate the natural world plus a wide variety of strengths and skills.
The other important thing I did was I got people in the habit of sitting in a circle instead of the traditional classroom of row after row. One of my former supervisors used to joke that I left my early life of being an airline stewardess because they wouldn’t let me put the seats in a circle. But this practice actually grew out of my belief in the importance of meeting learner’s inclusion needs before learning can even begin.
Also I had a preference for creating learning experiences that are designed to give participants more responsibility and opportunity to be in charge of their learning with the group leaders responsible for facilitating that process. I also brought with me the belief of the importance of “hands on” strategies seasoned only with a smattering of didactic learning.
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is a grand honor. Could you describe how it feels to be recognized by the State of North Carolina?
Receiving this honor has been a very humbling experience, and I feel very grateful to have been singled out to receive it. It made me realize how much I love this place called North Carolina and how privileged I’ve been to spend virtually all my life living here. I also want to make clear that I have accepted this honor with the understanding that there are countless good people standing beside me that made whatever I did possible.
Were there particular people or classes at Wake Forest that shaped the path of your career?
Yes. John Davis was my biology professor freshman year. I was his lab assistant for three semesters, and he definitely helped me with my interest in science. However, the most important thing he did was he read my record and discovered that I had had an older brother who had been pre-med at Wake Forest. When he discovered that he called me to his office for an appointment. During this appointment he took time to listen to this very nervous freshman and offered me help if I should ever need it. Taking his time to talk to me was very important, and I shall always be grateful to him.
Could you name something you miss about Wake Forest?
The people, of course. Also the wonderful camaraderie we girls had. There were approximately 20 of us who roomed on the same or on a near hall each year of our WFU stay. That group continues to get together today on significant birthday years. This past year was the 70th birthday for most of us and we gathered in Charlotte. I was the baby of the group and was 16 when I came to Wake Forest. I miss all the caretaking and help I got from these exceptional women. As I now say often … they helped raise me.