Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Jeff Cantrell observing Barbara's Buttons plant

Jeff Cantrell

Conservation Educator
Missouri Dept. of Conservation
Joplin, MO

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
My Bachelor of Science and Master’s Degree in Biology were both earned at Missouri State University

Briefly describe your current job.
The summary of my current position with the Missouri Department of Conservation is simply to be a “bridge” to connect educators (formal and informal) plus youth leaders and even general public classes to their local environment. I assist teachers on how to utilize the components of nature to instruct a variety of subjects and help hone the students’ learning and life skills. The platforms vary from using the outdoor classroom, a structured college credit course to a Saturday program focusing on a range of topics from Leave No Trace to forest ecology.

How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
I was part of the Grow Native! program initially back in the 1990s and have continued supporting native plant and natural community concepts in naturalist programs, scout badges, teacher training and school district’s curriculum.
Instruction and observations in the outdoors is the foundation of my career whether in a school’s outdoor classroom, on a nature trail or some type of conservation related recreation. Native plant life and plant communities are instrumental in all nature studies. I frequently design a school’s butterfly garden or share advice on what will bloom in the outdoor classroom while school is in session. Most importantly, my recommendations of the native garden or plant’s individual connections to learning and existing lesson plans.

What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
The quick answer, instilling wonder!
The most exciting aspect certainly lies in fortifying a teacher with the tools or strategies to build their personal interest in native plants, birds, and insects …the feedback and frequently the friendships are rewarding. Moreover, I know personally if the teachers, homeschool parent or youth leader are comfortable outside and a life-long learning in nature, they are likely instilling that sense of wonder in their students.

What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
I have taken botany, plant taxonomy, biogeography, and ecology courses in college. However, the most helpful training or courses I have participated in are the environmental education opportunities in graduate school. Simply because it is important to me to know how to read my audience or community and serve their interests. We have to know how to relate the value of a native species, local watershed etc. so someone may begin to appreciate it or act to protect it.

What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
Basic hands-on ecology classes and any kind of field biology courses were very formative. The “ologies” of mammalogy, herpetology, entomology and ornithology …make you better rounded for ecological landscape decisions.

Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
My volunteer naturalist position at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center was instrumental. Other fieldwork (mostly botany and bird ecology) includes surveying the camps at Crowder, Clark and Macon National Guard Camps plus part time work for The Nature Conservancy and The Wildlife Conservation Society.

What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Be prepared for data and information gathering and use whatever method or combination methods are comfortable for you. The ecology/naturalist type career continues to build on itself and your experiences. The basic science note-booking and journaling still have value. Digital information/research gathering is easier for storage and having backup. If this material is primarily fieldwork observations try to get in the routine of dating everything and labeling the location and any pertinent specifics (e.g. who was with you when you documented the event).

What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
Take pride and remind yourself regularly you are an important part of a worthy cause. You are and will be a mentor for some, assistance for others and “shoulder to shoulder” with a network who are devoted to biodiversity. The rewards are countless for our community. However, I always feel the benefits most of an environmental career field when I am enjoying my free time hiking, floating and birding.