10. Changing Young Lives Through Outdoor Education

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Changing Young Lives Through Outdoor Education

Thursday, October 20 at 1:00-2:40 pm, Cedar Room

Session Description: Outdoor education for California’s young people is a vital way to foster empathy, understanding and passion for the natural world. Hear from outdoor educators who are leading programming and experiences for young people that cultivate these connections and fundamentally address aspects of outdoor access, equity and environmental justice.

Session Chair: John Sanders (Delphinus School of Natural History, Los Osos, CA)

10.1 ELSEE (Environmental Laboratory for Sustainability and Ecological Education) and Its Impact on the Build 25 Initiative: A Network of 25 Mixed-Income Ecovillages with Native Teaching Gardens and Regenerative Farms

Alrie Middlebrook (The California Native Garden Foundation, San Jose, CA) 

Since 2008, CNGF has worked to replicate our flagship ELSEE Teaching Garden at schools by providing design grants, and more recently in partnership with large institutions, like First 5, Educare SV, San Jose Parks Department, Santa Clara County and area school districts. ELSEE is designed to protect local ecosystem services using 200 benchmarks (as defined by Sustainable SITES Initiative [www.sustainablesites.org]).

ELSEE includes native plant communities, an array of pedagogical components including re-used, recycled, and natural materials, original art, water conservation, re-use and cleansing, alternative energy, and innovative ways for handling waste onsite such as composting and biogas. We also recognize the importance of local food security using technology such as controlled environment agriculture (CEA) like aquaponics farming to grow native wetland edibles or building up soil organic content and sequestering carbon using no-till agriculture and native hedgerows. 

Our “Playing with Intent” pre-K curriculum, developed at ELSEE, explores the relationship between native plants and animals, using a combination of indigenous people’s storytelling, music and movement, arts and science, gardening, cooking, and gratitude/snack. Based on our success, we are expanding the model to multiple schools, and teaching similar programs for different ages, including Earth Heroes Nature Camp (6-12 yrs.), the Mindful Aging Project for immigrant seniors (offered with our partners at FACTR and ACHI), and the CNGF Youth Corps and YES (Young Ecoliterate Speakers) Team. Our goals are to expose children directly to wild nature and healthy soil, and to train teachers to design and teach in an outdoor STEAM education classroom, where children can grow local food in soil that has been restored using no-till, compost, vermicomposting, polyculture, native edible and insectary plants, and native hedgerows. ELSEE gardens are a component of our Build 25 Initiative – our goal is to work with landowners to create a network of 25 affordable ecovillages with native teaching, training, and research gardens and regenerative organic urban farms by 2030. These farms and teaching gardens can be designed, created, and maintained, in part by Youth Corps volunteers, and in part by underserved students in the ecological certification programs that we offer with the SJECCD-Workforce Institute, and developed in partnership with multiple community partner experts.

10.2 School Native Gardens: Fertile Ground for Deepening Learning About the Natural World

Chris Nutter (Cupertino Union School District)

Chris Nutter has been an elementary school teacher in Cupertino for over 15 years. Along with his family and the larger school community, Chris has nurtured children’s love of local plants and animals through curriculum development, partnerships with conservation groups after school programs, and hundreds and hundreds of plants in the ground.

Schools are where communities come together, where people of all walks pursue shared goals for the sake of future generations. My first goal is to celebrate the joys of nurturing bonds between the school community, the larger native plants and conservation community, and our local flora and fauna. 

I hope to share the story of our garden’s creation as a community project in 2008, its evolution, how it has been integrated with instruction, and the challenges mature school gardens present.

Another goal is to further conversation on this work, its opportunities, and challenges. I seek to network with educators and administrators. School grounds are important recreational spaces in their communities. How can they be used to further the mission of regreening our communities? How can students be better brought into the process of establishing, maintaining, and learning from native gardens? What curriculum resources have we used, what is available, and what is needed?

10.3 Curating Real and Imagined Plant Communities through Experimental Photography and Natural History Collections

Zoe Makepeace Wood (University of California, Davis, CA, USA; Cheadle Center for Biodiversity, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA), Dr. Katja Seltmann (Cheadle Center for Biodiversity, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, USA)

Natural history collections, including herbaria, are invaluable repositories for deepening ecological understanding and fostering personal growth, but these collections are often only appreciated by other scientists and collectors. The practical, aesthetic, and emotional value of collections therefore rarely reach wider audiences. Through a year-long project with the Cheadle Center for Biodiversity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as an Art-Science Research Fellow I focused on 4 main goals:

– approaching ecological inquiry through artistic process

–  using experiential education to reconsider scientific frameworks

– centering California plants, natural history collections, and photography to inspire connection to place 

– engage community members and students in an art exhibit 

Conversations with Collections began as a set of informal, directed inquiries using 35mm photography that challenges how we perceive the spatial and temporal dynamics of the places we frequent. I used multiple exposures to create layers of images of plants and insects that simultaneously celebrate the knowns and unknowns within our understanding of biological complexity. The Cheadle Center of Biodiversity offered a free, multi-meeting student photography and ecology workshop in which students learned how to “see photographically,” how to identify local plants, and about the practice of preserving biodiversity and plant specimens through restoration and herbaria. Students developed an independent observational study on a subject or scene that they revisited over time, recorded their observations, and witnessed through photography. The workshop culminated in a widely-attended art exhibit that highlighted student efforts and local plant diversity.

10.4 You’ve Got a lot of Galls:  Examining connections between California’s native oaks Quercus spp, arroyo willows Salix lasiolepis, and various species of cynipid wasps as a model for examining symbiotic relationships in nature

John L. Sanders (Delphinus School of Natural History, Los Osos, CA, USA) 

There is a significant distinction between scientific and environmental literacy and the type of nature awareness that promotes environmental stewardship. Outdoor science and environmental education is not mandated in California schools. Programs too often still offer curriculums that are essentially packaged lessons with titles full of acronyms. When developing lesson plans, teachers are often confronted with “science standards” they must use as benchmarks. This form of scientific literacy, however, does not necessarily motivate students to change their personal behavior or become environmental advocates among their peers and within their communities.  Without experiential learning, it is difficult to develop those personal connections that translate into behaviors that help preserve our natural systems.  

Native oak communities are perhaps the most important land-based food sources for California wildlife, significantly impacting both the abundance and variety of wildlife populations. Coastal and inland oaks and arroyo willows provide direct or indirect sources of energy and provide ideal habitat for wildlife that frequent oak woodlands and riparian corridors.  

Oak and willow galls and their various symbionts form the basis of an elaborate food web that provides an intriguing, accessible model for both classroom and outdoor education and helps amplify the importance of preserving native tree habitats. 

Delphinus School of Natural History is a unique, regional, outdoor science program in San Luis Obispo County for elementary and middle school students. Our programs are engaging, interactive and student driven, which fosters self-expression. Our explorations and adventures engage all the senses and allow each explorer to create personal relationships with nature based on their own interests. Although we fully embrace the tenets of the “Natural Cycle of Learning,” our camps are often unstructured but have a scientific undertone that informs and instructs in ways that encourage individual investigation. Our explorations facilitate retention of scientific knowledge as related to natural processes among plants and animals and promotes further exploration. Oak and willow galls are excellent examples of the types of accessible phenomena that Delphinus School of Natural History uses to spark the curiosity that draws young learners into deeper relationships with California’s natural world. We firmly believe that students who develop a deep personal relationship with nature become environmental stewards and not just casual observers.

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Please join us in thanking our major sponsors for making this year’s event possible! Become a sponsor today.

Giant Sequoia


Valley Oak


Moulton Niguel Water District

White Sage

H.T. Harvey & Associates Ecological Consultants
East Bay Municipal Utility District

Melo Gardens

California Poppy

Westervelt Ecological Services

Carol Witham

Jepson Herbarium
Helix Environmental Planning