Image of Elise Petersen standing in front of a tree

The National Museum of Dentistry educator encapsulates sustainability education across her life within her teaching, volunteering, and mindset.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) Office of Sustainability would like to recognize Elise Petersen as a Sustainability Champion! Petersen works at the Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry (NMD) as the museum educator and has been at UMB since April 2022.

Petersen’s role as NMD museum educator is to engage minor students with oral health education. Her role is critical as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease. Petersen conducts field trips and community programs and develops educational resources that center on the importance of hygiene, healthy eating, and visiting the dentist. She especially strives to support local schools and families, while also extending NMD’s resources across the state, region, and country.

Petersen has incorporated sustainability into two major efforts underway at the museum. The first is a field trip program developed in 2022 called “Protect Your Teeth, Protect Your Planet” catered to fifth-grade students. In this program, students visit the museum and confront the environmental impacts of plastic hygiene products. They familiarize themselves with sustainable oral health products, including bamboo toothbrushes and toothpaste tablets. The students also use their grade-level algebra to model the environmental impact of discarded plastic toothbrushes each year.

The results showed that if the students were to line these toothbrushes up end-to-end, the line could wrap about 4½ times around the Earth’s equator. This program also helps students understand that they have the power to make an immediate difference in conservation efforts just by turning off the tap while they brush.

The second program Petersen has been working on is the installation of an oral health product recycling bin at the museum in partnership with the Colgate Oral Care Free Recycling Program. Once open, the recycling bin will accept items like toothpaste tubes and caps and floss containers. In addition to these two major projects, Petersen participated in a multi-session museum educators workshop hosted by the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to help the center develop climate education resources for teens.

Outside of work, Petersen incorporates sustainability into her life in a variety of ways. She points out that “one of the best ways to show allyship with our planet is to learn and become more informed about how it works.” Petersen exemplified this belief by becoming a certified Maryland Master Naturalist in 2023, and she currently serves as a Master Naturalist volunteer with Maryland parks and nature centers (as shown in her picture where she is volunteering at Patuxent River Park). She also volunteers at her son’s school, running a nature club that she hopes will “raise the rising generation to be more attuned to the Earth and our relationship with it.”

Eating a meat-reduced diet and supporting local food producers are two ways Petersen strives to be conscientious in her consumption. She also sews and makes her own clothes when possible and shops secondhand for other clothing.

“Sustainable living is a mindset, and I have been working for many years to shift my habits and thinking toward it. I have more work to do, but I’m showing up,” she said.

Petersen emphasizes that following the UMB Office of Sustainability on social media is a wonderful way for students, staff, and faculty to help contribute to the University’s sustainability efforts (and we cannot help but agree).

“[Senior specialist of sustainability] Angela Ober and her colleagues are doing incredible work in sustainability education. They are helping to make sustainable habits accessible,” she said.

Lastly, Petersen wanted to highlight that she is grateful to be a part of a University environment that takes sustainability seriously.

“As a campus and community member, I benefit personally from campus resources devoted to environmental education,” she said. “I also really appreciate the support I have received from my colleagues, supervisors, and campus as a whole in my own sustainability-related work.”

Do you have a UMB Sustainability Champion you would like to nominate to be featured? Please fill out this form. Self-nominations are welcome.

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