June 9, 2023

Outdoor Educator

“Ra-ppa-han-nock,” chants a group of third-graders, mimicking UMW graduate Lowery Pemberton as she moves her arms up and down with each syllable.

The name of the river comes from a Native American word meaning “to rapidly rise and fall,” a fact Pemberton explains to the wide-eyed students as they sit by the river during their Friends of the Rappahannock (FOR) field trip.

Newly armed with the master’s degree in education she earned from UMW this May, Pemberton is poised to grow FOR’s environmental learning programs as the organization’s education coordinator. Combining her love of nature with her master-level teaching skills, she’s found her niche in outdoor education.

Lowery Pemberton talks to students during a field trip to the Friends of the Rappahannock.
Lowery Pemberton talks to students during a field trip to the Friends of the Rappahannock.

For Pemberton, teaching has always been on her mind – and in her family. Her great-grandmother was a school principal in Essex County and her mom and grandmother were both schoolteachers. So when Pemberton graduated from UVA with a bachelor’s in environmental science, she was looking for a way to teach what she knew – but with her own twist.

“I never wanted to go into a traditional classroom,” said Pemberton, who is from Sharps, Va., where she grew up fishing, crabbing, tubing and swimming on the river. “My work is outside and in the field. I like getting my hands dirty.”

Watching Pemberton gracefully minimize distractions and field questions from the fidgety 8-year-olds, you can tell she’s experienced as an educator – a skill she credits to her master’s courses at UMW and her mentor at FOR, Daria Christian.

“As an environmental educator, I work with new students almost every day,” said Pemberton, who studied classroom management and various teaching methods at UMW. “Being able to quickly assess students and knowing how to be flexible in my teaching strategies has been especially helpful.”

At FOR, Pemberton helps lead the program called A River Runs Through Us, a yearlong, meaningful watershed educational experience for sixth-grade students. Recognized for its school system partnerships and environmental educators, the program recently received the Virginia Mathematics and Science Coalition award for Programs that Work with Richmond County Public Schools.

Working with schools in several Virginia counties, Pemberton helps students investigate how they impact the river, monitor water quality, explore the outdoors and complete action-based activities such as participating in cleanups and writing reflective letters to local officials and newspapers.

“The beauty of environmental education is that it gives meaning to classroom studies,” said Pemberton, who often has kids ask her if they can come back again. “I can show kids things they don’t normally get to experience in the classroom.”