By Brian Powell
(Published in 2020)
Flinn Scholar alumnus Kevin Bonine (1990) is director of education at Biosphere 2 and a science faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. At Biosphere 2, he helps design learning experiences for 100,000 annual visitors and 10,000 K-12 school children, offers teacher professional development, and facilitates residential research internships.
Kevin grew up in Tucson, attended Tucson Unified School District schools and then UArizona as a Flinn Scholar, before earning his Ph.D at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been back in Tucson with his wife, Angela, since 2001. They have two daughters, currently attending TUSD schools, and “absolutely love our beautiful Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands.” Kevin, also a Flinn-Brown Fellow (2014), chairs the board of trustees of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and enjoys chasing Gila monsters in his spare time.
Can you please describe your work and how public policy impacts the way you manage your operation?
My work is primarily at the intersection of environmental stewardship and science education. In a variety of roles for almost two decades, I have been able to serve southern Arizona nonprofits, the K-12 education system, and UArizona.
One of the most striking memories I have of the first meeting of my Flinn-Brown cohort was how many of the people—well over half—in the room referenced the natural setting as their most valued aspect of living in Arizona. At the global scale, the natural environment provides all the resources for human societies, and more locally is critical for personal health and well-being, community pride, and long-term economic resilience. Our quality of life is intimately connected to our surroundings. I focus on helping people understand this important reality through accessible research projects, UArizona courses, public talks, and global treasures like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Biosphere 2. Arizona really is an amazing place that we should not take for granted.
Using field-ecology approaches, genetic analyses, and citizen science for local research on native species, including Gila monsters and canyon treefrogs, some of my work has provided land and natural resource managers more information about population sizes, connectivity, impacts of disease and urbanization, and species-wide variation. By engaging staff and visitors at partner sites like Saguaro National Park, we have been able to increase understanding and interest in the health and diversity of our unique Arizona ecosystems.
One of the keys to environmental valuation and protection is education. And, education—especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields—is highly correlated with personal economic well-being and community development. I have taught many thousands of students at the University of Arizona and have worked with many other educators in both formal (e.g., school districts) and informal (e.g., science centers, museums, national parks) settings to inspire and motivate students and the public to understand the value of science education and how our planet functions.
Policy and my work are tightly integrated, as I expect is the work of most of us. The activities described above include many policy links: K-12 and higher education; federally funded research and programming; local, state, and federal land jurisdiction; regulations governing pollution (and other externalities that are extremely challenging to inject into markets without some form of government intervention); nonprofits that receive tax breaks and other incentives; the influence of lawmakers, appointed officials, and voters; and the results of several hundred years of policy and law along with both their planned and unintended consequences.
As individuals, we both reflect the values and policies of society and have the obligation to uphold and improve both for equitable distribution of resources and opportunities across current and future generations. Investment now in people and the environment can improve quality of life for millions for decades to come. Arizona deserves this kind of investment, the kind that both the Flinn Foundation and Thomas R. Brown Foundations are making.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
As an employee of a state university, I have modified teaching to online from in-person, experienced dramatic shifts in availability of financial and other resources—especially as public visitation of all types has been curtailed and school field trips and classes cancelled—and seen a shift in emphases towards virtual engagement and its efficacy. The work I do with my colleagues is as important as ever—especially as we see among members of society the differential acceptance of expertise and evidence that is part of the current tug-of-war between the repercussions of economy versus health prioritization in Arizona and around the world.
A couple of examples of specific projects include, as chair of the board of trustees at ASDM, multi-faceted fundraising efforts to see us through closure and reduced visitation. With more work to come, we have been successful to date in mitigating layoffs because of generous donors and foundations, and tremendous staff efforts to obtain CARES Act loans and grants, especially under the Payroll Protection Program. A second example aligns efforts of ASDM, Biosphere 2, Visit Tucson, the Southern Arizona Attractions Alliance, and many participating venues such as the Reid Park Zoo, Pima Air and Space Museum, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Together we launched a #VirtualTucson campaign to maintain visibility of venues that rely in large measure on paid attendance. Virtual tours, experiences, and content allow these venues to reach the public and contribute to new ways of learning outside of school. These partnership successes will make all of us stronger, more resilient, and more globally relevant.
How has the Flinn-Brown Network been useful to you?
The Flinn-Brown Network has been especially valuable because of the variety of intelligent perspectives, allied efforts, and diverse backgrounds of the Flinn-Brown Fellows. Several collaborative projects since my cohort have only been possible because of the relationships and connections of the Network, including a very successful teacher-training workshop day this past fall that provided 30 Arizona teachers with experiential education tools using the elevational transect afforded by the Mt. Lemmon Highway, which goes to the top, at more than 9,000’ elevation, of the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Flinn-Brown Fellow Tamara Prime (2014) deserves special recognition for her wonderful efforts to make this teacher workshop event possible.
How has your work at the University of Arizona and Biosphere 2 intersected with Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap and the advancement of bioscience research in Arizona?
One of the Flinn Foundation pillars, bioscience, also connects research, education, and economic development in ways not dissimilar from my description above. My work at UArizona, Biosphere 2, ASDM, and with other colleagues and partners emphasizes the importance of research and evidence-based decision making, the value of investing in effective STEM education, and fostering a culture of innovation and creative excellence. Although my work is less explicitly linked to health and medicine, the Bioscience Roadmap also includes elements of agriculture, which aligns well with Biosphere 2 efforts to contextualize the environment and Earth systems with the Food-Energy-Water Nexus—an important way we present research to visitors and the public to foster engagement and understanding.