Spotlight Heidi Ballard

Heidi Ballard
Leading at the Intersection of Science, Education and Social Justice

Coming from a long line of teachers, Heidi Ballard was sure of one thing when she entered college: she was not going to become a teacher. Five years later, she found herself teaching high school biology.

“My mother always warned me not to become a teacher; you work too hard and the pay is too low,” said Ballard. But after earning a BA in biology and an MA in science education, Ballard earned a teaching credential at Stanford University.

“During college, I went with a friend to the Earth Island Institute and saw all these posters on the damage tuna fishing does to dolphins, and I became absolutely passionate about conservation issues,” said Ballard. “I went back to school looking for every environmental class I could take.”

The more she studied, the more she realized how much environmental issues reach beyond science to include issues of culture, society and economics.

“I went home thinking I was really going to shock my mother with the news that I was going to pursue environmental sciences in some way,” said Ballard. “My mom just laughed and reminded me that I read Ranger Rick and World magazine every night as a kid. She wasn’t surprised at all,” said Ballard.

In her senior year of college, Ballard studied at Oxford while working on her MA in science education.

“I still wasn’t sure I wanted to be a teacher.” But a talent in curriculum development led a mentor, Mary Budd Rowe, to suggest she earn a credential. Ballard eventually wound up teaching at a high school in Palo Alto for nearly five years.

“It was fantastic,” said Ballard. But after traveling to Costa Rica for a summer-intensive course in conservation biology and working on another MA in botany, Ballard caught the research bug and decided to pursue a PhD.

“It was hard to leave my high school students, but friends convinced me that I could still have an impact on young people as a college teacher,” said Ballard.

At UC Berkeley, where Ballard earned a PhD in Environmental Science, Policy and Management in the College of Natural Resources, she really found her calling.

“I got really interested in the management aspects of my field,” said Ballard. “That is where the intersection of environmental science and people come together. For instance, any time you decide to leave a piece of land undeveloped, you are managing that land. It’s all about choices. There are a huge set of environmental issues that can be looked at in this way.”

At Berkeley, Ballard began to construct her focus on participatory research. Through a series of projects–including working with scientists and local citizens on a collaborative monitoring program to track oak regeneration in Walnut Creek, California, and working with forestry workers in Washington to research the sustainability of harvesting salal, a common plant used in floral arrangements–Ballard combined her knowledge about
environmental science and her passion for conservation into a potent approach to social justice in environmental research and management.

“I have a lot of interest in environmental justice and in making science something that non-scientists understand, trust, and can use themselves” said Ballard.

“My approach to address the problems that scientists are facing and the problems that society is facing, with the public skeptical about science and decisions based on science, is to look at the pieces and put them together in novel ways. I want to know how this contributes to our better understanding environmental systems and social environmental systems and how to manage them so that we can behave in a sustainable way as individuals and as a society.”

Ballard, now an assistant professor of environmental science education, brings this interdisciplinary approach to her work as an education researcher and faculty member in the School of Education. Always the trailblazer, Ballard points out how unusual her position is with only a few others like her in higher education.

“The School had a lot of foresight about linking education with environmental science in a single position,” said Ballard. “I got very lucky.”

In addition to teaching pre-service science teachers, MA and PhD students in education and undergraduates, Ballard is a member of the Environmental Justice Project at UC Davis, an interdisciplinary group of faculty from the humanities, sciences and social sciences committed to applied research on current environmental justice issues in Northern California and the
Central Valley.

Recently she has been working with pollinator biologists and conservationists on projects that train volunteers and landowners to identify and monitor native and European honey bees and their habitat, and with the Center for Land-Based Learning on developing science classroom writing prompts and evaluating the impacts of their restoration activities on student learning.

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