As a child, Liam McGranaghan was obsessed with nature, bringing home critters he found near his home in Fairfax County, raising frogs and turtles in the yard and once coaxing an injured crow back to health.
In his adult life, his obsession was reduced to a hobby as he embarked on a meandering career that took him from a history degree at Virginia Tech to gigs in the construction business. During a lull in work, he started substitute teaching and discovered his passion. After getting a master’s degree in biology, he was hired to teach biology and then environmental science, a career that combined his childhood obsession with his affinity for the classroom.
McGranaghan now teaches at Loudoun Valley High School, and his unorthodox class gets his teen students into the wild as much as possible. They take field trips in canoes and hike to the woods nearby to study trees and wildlife. Students don galoshes to wade into a nearby stream to measure its water quality.
McGranaghan was one of 15 winners of the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, an honor given jointly by the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. The award recognizes teachers who employ innovative approaches to environmental education.
“I often remind my students that they can learn the academic book version of environmental science, but if they don’t recognize the world around them to which it applies, they are still environmentally illiterate,” McGranaghan wrote in his application essay.
The 26-year veteran of teaching said he gets his students outside as much as possible.
“For the most part, I use the outside as my classroom,” McGranaghan said in a recent interview. Much of the time he and his students venture out to a wooded area adjacent to campus where his students built a mile-long trail, complete with informational placards.
His students learn about air and water quality, but also about local flora and fauna. Students learn 30 species of bird common to Loudoun County and about every reptile and amphibian they will find outdoors. These localized lessons are central to McGranaghan’s purpose: to teach students about the outdoors so they will be inspired to conserve it.
“If you don’t know what’s outside your house or your window, how do you protect it?” McGranaghan said.
His hobbies also become a part of the curriculum. An avid falconer who wrote an introductory book on the subject, he sometimes brings his bird, a red-tailed hawk named Odessa, to the classroom.
“You bring a hawk into the classroom, you have the student’s attention,” McGranaghan said.
One of his former students, 22-year-old Ashley Lohr, can testify to the power of his teaching. Lohr, like McGranaghan, traces her love of nature to childhood. But it was not until taking his class that she decided to turn it into a career. She got a degree in wildlife management and now works as a field technician.
“The class and him as a person is what really inspired me to do what I do today,” Lohr said, speaking on the phone from a field in Iowa, where she was out surveying birds as part of her work on a research project. “It’s what really just set me on that path. I want to study wildlife. I want to be outside every day.”
She said McGranaghan’s course was hands-on, and she recalled a canoe field trip and venturing outside to sketch trees and leaves. His enthusiasm for the subject was apparent and infectious, and she said he inspired more students to care about the environment, to recycle more and to litter less.
“If we had more people like Liam in this world, then we would have significantly fewer problems than we have,” Lohr said.