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Melanie Biersmith

Personnel Profiles

Melanie Biersmith

Biersmith combines love of science and the outdoors for the perfect career

When it comes to 4-H, Melanie Biersmith is in the minority.

She didn't grow up in 4-H like most of her co-workers on the Georgia 4-H state staff. She took to her job as the state's environmental education coordinator as the perfect one for her and for the program.

Born in South Carolina, Melanie was raised in a military household. As a result of her father's army appointment, her family moved all around the southeast. "Sometimes I went to base schools and sometimes I went to public schools from South Carolina to Florida and parts of Georgia," she said.

She never lived on a farm. She didn't raise chickens or show a cow. And she wasn't a 4-H'er.

"I came to the 4-H lifestyle through the science education route," she said.

After earning a bachelor's degree at Georgia College (majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry), Melanie worked for UGA Marine Extension for three years. She earned her master's degree in science education at UGA and taught science at Greene County High School for two years.

When the environmental education coordinator's job became open at the Jekyll Island 4-H Center in 2003, Melanie found her home in 4-H. She was there for five years; first as coordinator and then as director.

"The job at Jekyll helped me define my passion," she said. "Before then, I had only seen the environmental education aspect from inside the classroom. I'd had the coastal passion from my time working with marine Extension and I'd always taken my students on field studies to the coast when I taught in the classroom. I feel like I always knew I wanted to be back in the world of informal education, but I needed some street credit."

In 2008, Melanie transferred to Rock Eagle 4-H Center and the state 4-H staff where she serves as the statewide environmental education coordinator. She feels her "street credit" from inside the classroom helps her serve the teachers who bring their students to the environmental education program at Rock Eagle.

The Georgia 4-H staff makes a concerted effort to keep teachers involved in the state environmental education program.

"We recently revamped our entire evaluation process which included a focus group with teachers who have used our program for a long time," Biersmith said. "I was expecting to hear that they value how we cover the standards and complement science content. They mentioned that, but the main focus was how the program helps them build relationships with their students. It also helps with peer-to-peer interaction and their connectedness to nature. You can't accomplish this in the classroom. You have to do it where the walls are down and the playing field is level."

Melanie loves her job, but once in a while she pines for her days in the classroom.

"I have more flexibility in my day but I also have less opportunity to build relationships with the students," she said. "So now I work to develop relationships with the 4-H staff at the centers and in county offices."

All five 4-H centers offer environmental education programs but what's offered at each center is uniquely different. At Jekyll, Melanie taught two to three classes each week and worked with students every day.

Melanie Biersmith"Now, when I teach, it's to county staff or 4-H Ambassadors so I'm removed from the piece that gave me so much joy as a teacher," she said. "I had to come to grips with my new role. It's great to now see (the program) - from the balcony - and see the statewide impact. I don't have to worry about whether or not I have enough change to run the canteen or watch the weather to make sure we can get the kids off the beach in time. I miss those daily freakouts, but I now get rewards from sitting in this chair and hearing how awesome our state's program is."

Melanie and her team are excited about welcoming the one millionth student into the program in the fall of 2013.

"We aren't the ones that save the world, we just enhance what the teachers do all year long. The partnership between the classroom and what we offer is where the sweet spot is," she said.

When she's not spending time with teachers and students, Melanie enjoys spending time with her family of self-declared science nerds. Her husband Andy teaches high school chemistry at Morgan County High School. The couple lives in Madison and has a 7-year-old daughter Drew and a 6-year-old son Sam.

(Written by Sharon Dowdy, a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Released December 2012.

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