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June 18, 2018

6/8/2018 7:29:00 AM
Licia Kuckkahn Johnson wins Non-Formal Educator of the Year
North Lakeland Discovery Center naturalist earns WAEE Award
contributed photograph

Licia Kuckkahn Johnson was recently awarded the Non-Formal Educator of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education.
contributed photograph

Licia Kuckkahn Johnson was recently awarded the Non-Formal Educator of the Year Award from the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education.
Dean hall/lakeland times

NLDC naturalist Licia Kuckkahn Johnson enthralls a group of kids while demonstrating how the wings of different raptors sound when flapping through the wind during the “Skulls, Skin and Scat” Summer Children’s Event on July 15, 2015, at Snowshoe Park in Lake Tomahawk.
Dean hall/lakeland times

NLDC naturalist Licia Kuckkahn Johnson enthralls a group of kids while demonstrating how the wings of different raptors sound when flapping through the wind during the “Skulls, Skin and Scat” Summer Children’s Event on July 15, 2015, at Snowshoe Park in Lake Tomahawk.

Evan Verploegh
Special to the Lakeland Times


For the last 12 years at the North Lakeland Discovery Center, Licia Kuckkahn Johnson has worked to educate young and old about the natural resources of northern Wisconsin. Her dedication to her work, and to the NLDC has earned her the honor of Non-Formal Educator of the Year from the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education.

Beginning as a intern, Kuckkahn Johnson has worked her way up to education director and the lead naturalist at the NLDC. In that role, Kuckkahn Johnson oversees programming, along with working with libraries, lake associations, and other environmental organizations to develop programming both off and onsite at the North Lakeland Discovery Center.

Another large part of Kuckkahn Johnson's job is working with local schools, where she commonly makes visits along with leads nature walks and classes on the property of the expansive NLDC. Wearing many hats, Kuckkahn Johnson, also spends a significant amount of time in the Nature Center, where she works with live animals and oversees their care. Not to mention, managing the summer intern program.

"Among many other things," Kuckkahn Johnson said, laughing.

It's safe to say Kuckkahn Johnson is quite busy, but it is because she truly loves her job and the attention it brings to the natural resources.



Getting started

Born and raised in Woodruff, Kuckkahn Johnson developed a passion for the outdoors from an early age. She originally attended Carroll College in Waukesha, where she pursed a math degree. After taking up an opportunity to go to Alaska after her second year of college, where she and seven other students studied culture, landscape and wildlife, she saw the passion of some of the people she encountered along the way.

From there, Kuckkahn Johnson headed straight down a path towards environmental education. While Carroll College did not offer a degree in environmental education, Kuckkahn Johnson graduated with a degree in natural resource conservation and geography. During her senior year, Kuckkahn Johnson interned at Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha, where she began to understand how her career path could be tailored towards introducing kids to the wonders of the natural world by simply seeing the excitement that can be garnered by seeing something unique on a walk through the woods.

After working at both Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River and at a YMCA Environmental Education Camp in Washington state, Kuckkahn Johnson returned to the Northwoods in 2007 to take an internship at the NLDC.

"I loved working in Washington, but the Northwoods is where my family is," Kuckkahn Johnson said. "I just love this area so much, and to have the opportunity to do what I love to do here was just perfect."

The Discovery Center is now in it's 22nd year, and Kuckkahn Johnson said it has changed a great deal even in the 12 years she has been a part of it. Along with an ever-growing staff, interest has continued to grow with the programs that the NLDC offers and the property itself, which offers hiking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and many other forms of recreation.

"It's been really fun to see the growth of the Discovery Center. I think we've (NLDC) been putting ourselves out there a little more and worked to really show all that we have to offer. Certain programs have really taken off and we've really extended our reach to libraries, lake associations and other educational organizations throughout northern Wisconsin," Kuckkahn Johnson said. "I think we've really found our niche."

Education has always been the focus of the Discovery Center, as it developed out of the outdoor education program at North Lakeland School. With features such a bog, a mixed forest and a heavily-habited lake shore, the NLDC serves as sort of a mecca to teach in a hands-on fashion.

"It really is an environmental educator's dream. Everywhere else I'd worked, we'd have to bus kids to a bog, or bus them to go canoeing. Everything is right there, so it's a natural fit to have an active education community there," Kuckkahn Johnson said. "It has been absolutely awesome to see it grow and education continues to drive our growth and programming at the Discovery Center. It's our mission and it's our focus."

One goal for Kuckkahn Johnson is to continually inspire those to explore the natural world and to give individuals the tools to take it upon themselves to continue their education. She attempts to give people tangible connections so they can see how small things play into the larger environmental picture.

"If someone doesn't realize why a certain thing affects them, and what it can do for them, a lot of times people will not have that connection," she said. "I'm always looking for creative ways to put the importance of something on display and why, besides the aesthetic value, are the positive properties plants and trees can have, whether they be medicinal or otherwise."

Kuckkahn Johnson said she loves to bring in traditional culture into her programs. With her mother being a tribal member in Lac du Flambeau, Kuckkahn Johnson sees the value in making those connections to deepen the understanding of how integral the natural resources are.

"Ultimately, for kids it's all about allowing them to have fun. You can't just drag them down through the woods saying 'this is this' and this is why it's important,'" she said. "Kids love to play games and to take on a role in something. That is something that I love about my job - the ability to be creative. We don't have a set curriculum, so all we do is work develop programming that gives people a reason to care."

Receiving the Non-Formal Educator of the Year was a significant honor for Kuckkahn Johnson, as she has been a part of the WAEE and has worked to set up the award banquet in years past. After being nominated and chosen, Kuckkahn Johnson said she was a bit surprised, and very proud to accept.

"In this profession, we all work very hard. It's not a job where you can see the effects of what you are doing, because I might instruct a group of students and then never see them again," she said. "It was really neat that people took the time to recognize my work and thought I was deserving of the award."

Kuckkahn Johnson said she is continually impassioned by the joy students radiate when discovering something new or understanding the way something small fits into the grand scheme. She is also driven by her favorite animal - the bat - and wants to continue efforts to illuminate just how integral they are towards the ecosystem in Wisconsin and beyond.

"Most of the big environmental centers are down in near Milwaukee and Madison, so for people to recognize the work the we are doing here in the Northwoods is a big deal," she said. "I'm really proud of what is being done up here by both the Discovery Center and all the organizations that are doing really important work."

For more information on the North Lakeland Discovery Center, you may visit www.discoverycenter.net.



Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2018
Article comment by: Karen Dixon

Evan did a fantastic job with his article about Licia Johnson. The North Lakeland Discovery Center is proud of her accomplishments and the well-deserved recognition she has received.
Karen Dixon
Board Chair, NLDC




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