Climate Stories Episode #11 – Mary Jo Veverka (HBS 1978): Fostering Actionable Climate Literacy

“Students are our futures. Look at the impact of Hurricane Ian. We need to focus less on field trips and more on field studies to help them save this planet!” - Mary Jo Veverka

Mary Jo Veverka (MBA 1978) has had a storied business career. In the 1980s, she became the first female partner at Booz, Allen and helped build the consulting firm’s pharmaceutical practice. In the early 1990s, she was a deputy commissioner at the Food & Drug Administration, where she launched initiatives that slashed drug approval times and propelled the agency to adopt 20th century information technology. She doesn’t like the word “retired.” Instead, MJ says that she “ceased paid employment” in 2003 as a partner at Accenture.

Only now, however, does she feel that she is creating a lasting legacy. After founding her Veverka Family foundation, she set about learning how to become an “impactful” philanthropist. She pursued her love of the outdoors by systematically visiting each of the now 63 national parks. Her passion for improving recreational access and trail restoration inside the parks opened the door to her current focus on climate education.

“I wanted to create programs that would sustain student learning, programs that would be more impactful than a one-off field trip. These students are our next generation of climate stewards!”

Today, Mary Jo is using her funds, energy and creativity to foster and sustain actionable climate literacy programs in school districts throughout her home state of Maryland, programs that can and should be replicated across the United States. She is proud that Maryland was the first state to establish environmental literacy as a graduation requirement in 2020. “I had a state education structure where I could get the most leverage for my financial support.”

The actual projects are awe-inspiring.

In Maryland’s smallest county, Kent County, students removed debris from Radcliff Creek, which flows into the Chester River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The county’s “Watershed Watch Program” serves all of the County’s 7th graders. The robust effort covers “nine curriculum modules that include watershed mapping, looking at types of land use, getting out on the creek at two different points, water testing and macroinvertebrate sampling to determine the health of the creek, lab work, student team research and presentation on one animal or plant in the ecosystem and the development and presentation of an action project.”

Because the school district lacked the resources to develop such a program, MJ’s Veverka Family foundation partnered with a local non-governmental organization, the Sultana Education Foundation. Together, they developed and now deliver the program at no cost to the public schools.

“I look for partner organizations that can help embed field studies into classroom learning. This way,” MJ said, “we are changing the education paradigm.”

MJ has launched programs in Maryland’s two largest counties, whose school districts reach nearly 300,000 students.

In Montgomery County, the state’s largest, MJ has partnered with the Audubon Naturalist Society. In 9th grade biology classes, students are studying macroinvertebrates and salt incursion. In 10th grade chemistry classes, students are studying the nitrogen cycle. 150 biology teachers have been trained and MJ has launched sophomore chemistry programs in 25 high schools in Montgomery County.

The “Mussel Power Program” is conducted in Prince George's County. In collaboration with the Anacostia Watershed Society, 9th graders are studying biogeochemical systems. Under the curriculum, teachers took tanks home during the pandemic, so that students could observe mussels growing via Zoom. Now, the 9th graders have returned to growing mussels in their classrooms and transferring them to the ponds in the field.

“We began our environmental studies pilot program in five schools in Prince George’s County. Students just loved going out into the field. Science became real to them. They could see the relevance of why the Anacostia River and watershed are important to them as well as to the mussels.”

MJ is expanding her climate literacy support to additional school districts in Maryland, once they are vetted for stakeholder and partnership buy-in. For example, she said, “With the Montgomery County Public Schools, the team is formalizing a working group to unite disconnected efforts with the potential to bridge gaps in the curriculum. The goal is to connect student learning experiences with a more intentional and scaffolded progression of learning throughout a student's school experience and beyond.”

Climate education has the potential to make a major dent in the U.S. carbon footprint. MJ cited a 2020 study included in the National Library of Medicine, which estimated that individual yearly carbon emissions could be reduced by almost 19 gigatons if all secondary school students were taught about climate change. And yet, experts say that the quality of climate change education is spotty at best.

This fall, New Jersey became the first state to integrate climate change topics across grade levels and content areas. Anecdotally, MJ has heard that Maine and Washington State have new statewide climate change curricula. However, she cited a study by the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Fund which graded each state on its teaching of climate change in its science standards. 24 states earned no better than a C+ and some of the most populous states (Pennsylvania and Texas, among them) received failing grades.

The political difficulties of inserting outside content, funders, and advocacy organizations into school districts are not to be underestimated. Even when there’s an interest in innovation, MJ said she fully understands the challenges that school districts and individual teachers face. She ticked off this list:

  • Teachers are overwhelmed and especially during the pandemic, many have become burnt out.
  • Too many teachers are uncomfortable teaching science. Elementary school teachers, in general, are not trained to take their students outdoors. Although high school teachers are qualified in the science subjects that they are teaching, many school systems focus primarily on improving math and reading test scores.
  • Students are worried about their physical safety because of the proliferation of gun violence.
  • Mental health issues are a major concern for schools.
  • Historically, school districts have directed their climate focus toward facilities and bus fleets. However, now, many recognize there is a learning opportunity for teachers and students to be connected with these "green" efforts and resiliency. Their focus is also being extended to topics like food waste.

Yes, MJ says, “It’s important to replace HVAC systems with heat pumps and to reduce food waste. But we need to sync installing solar panels on school buildings with what the students are learning in the classrooms. Students are our future and they’re inheriting a climate mess.”

Happily, Maryland has welcomed climate education innovation. MJ said her own $2.5+ million investments have been augmented by two other substantial funders: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides grants for “authentic experiential learning for K-12 audiences through "Meaningful Watershed Educational Experiences" and the Chesapeake Bay Trust awards more than $10 million in grant funding each year to local organizations for hands-on projects that are greening coastal bays. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the North American Association of Environmental Education is setting stringent requirements for professional certifications for high-quality, effective environmental education programs.

Despite all the energy and enthusiasm, all – yes all – of the key players in MJ’s in-school and partner organizations in Montgomery County turned over this summer. “All of them were recruited to other programs because the ones we had started together were so well loved.”

But MJ has found a silver lining. “I have been thrilled by the new energy and ideas that have come from their replacements as they embraced the existing programs. My commitment is to develop sustainable models that don’t die out when personnel move on or state testing standards change.”

MJ dates her interest in climate change to her college years. “I was in college in the 1960s. We were an activist generation, especially with regard to the environment. We protested against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. When I moved to California for my first job, I got involved in outdoor activities, specifically hiking and backpacking throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” No surprise – MJ’s focus shifted to her career, HBS, marriage and her family. But in 2003, when she “retired” from paid work, she began visiting national parks. “Around 2010, I got involved in a C&O Canal classroom program in my own backyard. My trip to Glacier National Park introduced me to their extensive citizen science program.”

The rest is history.

MJ has published a Field Study Guide that captures the lessons learned from the eight 3-year demonstration projects that were originally undertaken with the National Parks Foundation and National Park Service. The Guide captures how to develop effective partnerships in support of field studies embedded in the classroom curriculum.

After more than a decade of experience, though, MJ is continuing to experiment, to search for new and better ways to serve school districts, teachers and students. “I am vetting for the best partner organizations and collective impact models to support additional school districts throughout Maryland. In addition, I've established a Climate Literacy Endowment Fund so that other donors can contribute to this effort.” The Climate Literacy Endowment Fund is a component fund of the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Contact to learn how to make a gift.

MJ’s work is nowhere near done. “The greatest need I have heard from non-profit partners was the funding cliff that many faced from traditional grant-giving organizations. Think of the VC or venture capital model. There are funds for start-up programs. But I want to be thought of as a Series A funder, a resource when a school district, a climate literacy program, and an NGO partner have been successful and want to expand their work.”


Mary Jo Veverka and Climate Story author, Jacqueline Adams, were HBS section mates. They have been friends ever since they sat together in Aldrich 8 more than four decades ago. Adams continues to admire MJ’s great work: “Researching this Climate Story has revealed the true extent of MJ’s patient, innovative, and impactful efforts in creating a variety of climate literacy programs for U.S. school children. Her lengthy journey and dogged experimentation constitute an extraordinary legacy.”

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.