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Past Winners of the Chris Ruffatto Excellence in Education Award

2017 Nicky Ouellet
Montana Public Radio Reporter

The 2017 Chris Ruffatto Excellence in Education Award was presented to Montana Public Radio reporter Nicky Ouellet at the Whitefish Chamber Annual Gala. Ouellet received this prestigious award for her extraordinary contribution to water quality education through her "SubSurface: Resisting Montana's Underwater Invaders" podcast. The podcast—aired in 5 episodes during November and December of last year—educated the public on scientists' and resource managers' efforts to understand and combat Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS). Nicky travelled to the mid-west—a hotbed for aquatic invasive mussels—to conduct research into this pressing and complex issue. Each 20 minute segment delves into lessons learned from communities where zebra mussels exist and discusses the challenge now faced by all Montanans to prevent this unwelcome invader from entering our aquatic systems. Her work to closely examine and describe for Montanans the increasing threat of AIS constitutes a breakthrough in public education on water quality issues. Nicky's dedication supports those who work to prevent aquatic invasive species infestations, and community members who want to prevent them from our waters. Nicky's prior work producing radio and web stories in northwest Montana has included excellent coverage on natural resource, land management, tribal, and political issues.

2016 Colleen Sullivan
Retired Whitefish Teacher

Colleen Sullivan dedicated nearly 40 years to her career as a biology and physical education teacher and coach for all three Whitefish district schools. She coached Whitefish High's first volleyball team, was one of the first teachers to keep grades electronically, and was likely the first woman to teach science at Whitefish High. Colleen came to Whitefish in 1978 after two years of teaching in Baker, Montana. She was hired to teach PE at the high school that had lost its gym to a fire and it had not yet been rebuilt. A creative educator, Colleen was undeterred. She coached track from 1978 to 1984, volleyball in 1978, 1979, then from 2003 through 2008, and again in 2015. She began teaching biology in 1986 when classwork focused on plant and animal systems. Things changed significantly since then with students now learning on more of a molecular level. Again she employed her creativity in the classroom, which she attributes to a handful of former teachers who helped guide her along the way. Colleen retired in 2016 after an amazingly dedicated career in the Whitefish School District.

2012 Patti Mason
Education & Outreach Specialist/Watershed Coordinator
Flathead Conservation District

Patti was recognized for or her lifelong dedication to natural resource education. She has applied boundless passion and expertise from her early years as an instructor at Flathead Valley Community College in geology, earth science, environmental science, and physical geography—to her work as Earth Sciences Specialist for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, then as an environmental consultant for air and water quality—and finally in her current position as Outreach & Education Coordinator and Watershed Coordinator for the Flathead Conservation District.

Since 2005, Patti has led the district's efforts to sponsor educational initiatives that teach all ages about the importance of conserving our natural resources. She has hosted a plethora of workshops, festivals, events, trainings, presentations, and other educational efforts for K-12 students as well as adults.


2011 Chris Ruffatto
Retired High School Teacher

The Whitefish Lake Institute is proud to have named our new educational stewardship award in honor of Chris Ruffatto. Ruffatto is the first recipient of the award, recognizing his lifetime dedication to environmental education. Chris mentored thousands of students during his career as a high school educator. The award recognized him for always seizing the opportunity to involve young people in contemporary environmental issues and for challenging their thinking process by introducing them to innovative learning techniques. His extraordinary dedication to establish the Project FREEFLOW program and involving his students in the Montana Envirothon demonstrated his willingness to extend the classroom and engage the next generation of environmental stewards. We look forward to honoring future recipients of the Chris Ruffatto Excellence in Education Award.