How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

Today’s interview is with Elise Dillingham, Wildlife Ecologist and DRLC Program Coordinator for the Sonoran Desert Network and Desert Research Learning Center. Elise was interviewed by Sehdia Mansaray.

 

How do you make sure our national parks are welcoming to everybody?

At Tucson’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC), the National Park Service is working to ensure that environmental education is accessible to everyone.

Cienega High School students made adobe bricks and are building a mini horno oven.

There are more than 61 million people with disabilities living in the US. For many of them, national parks can be difficult to experience. Some parks offer few opportunities for people in wheelchairs to explore areas beyond the frontcountry. At others, it’s difficult for people with disabilities to find information about what kinds of opportunities are available to them once they get there. For people to care about national parks, they need to feel like they belong in them. Through educational programs and citizen-science opportunities, Elise Dillingham and the DRLC staff are helping to make that happen.

Elise Dillingham helping students weave agave fibers to make bracelets.

Located adjacent to Saguaro National Park, the Desert Research Learning Center is an ideal space for connecting people, resources, and science. The center provides space and support for visiting researchers and interns, hosts hands-on experiential learning for local student groups, and displays examples of sustainable practices and native horticulture. Its mission is to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks.

The DRLC has ongoing partnerships with several local schools. When the center’s coordinator, Elise Dillingham, learned from teachers at Cienega High School that students in special education programs often have limited field-trip opportunities, she wanted to make sure the DRLC was one of them.

This challenged Elise and her staff to see their programming through a different lens. They made changes to many of their standard activities, so people with a variety of differing abilities could participate. Field projects were brought closer to the DRLC. A lingering plan to build wheelchair ramps to an artificial stream was completed. Classroom activities were modified to make them more tactile and accessible to students with different learning styles.

Cienega High School students learning how to harvest fibers by pounding agave leaves.

With no formal training on how to work with people with disabilities, the DRLC staff also learned to adapt to the various ways students engaged—or didn’t engage—with the activities. Sometimes, students needed to leave in the middle of a program, had outbursts, or participated with headphones on. With the help of the students’ regular teachers, Elise and her staff came to understand these as new behaviors to learn to work with—not signs of disrespect.

Their efforts have paid off. A group of students from Cienega High School now visits the DRLC for a variety of programs several times each semester. Students are becoming more engaged and getting the opportunity to learn about and visit national parks, just as their peers without disabilities do. For a few students, their first trip to DRLC was their first time on a field trip.

Elise shares the story of one young man who started in the program as a freshman and initially sat through DRLC programs with his headphones on and was not interested in volunteering to help with activities. Over time, he became more comfortable with the programs and eventually was the first to volunteer to complete tasks, such as setting up remote wildlife cameras. By the time he was a senior, he said he was sad to graduate because he wouldn’t be able to participate in the DRLC’s programs anymore.

Cienega High School student picked rainbow Swiss chard from the DRLC’s heritage food garden.

The improved programming at the DRLC is just one example of the National Park Service’s recent efforts to make parks in Arizona more inclusive. In collaboration with Special Olympics Arizona, several parks have created the Unified Hiking program, which provides opportunities for Southern Arizona athletes and supporters to maintain healthy, active lifestyles. The kickoff hike was in Flagstaff, but more hikes are being planned in Tucson and Phoenix. Finding wheelchair accessible trails has been a challenge for these events, but they plan to keep up their efforts. The park service has also published a plan for improving accessibility across the system. And US citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities can apply for a National Park Service Access Pass, which provides free admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five Federal agencies—for life.

For its part, the DRLC plans to continue to improve programming and expand opportunities for students with disabilities. Elise would also like to get formal training that would help her and her staff to better serve these students. She encourages anyone looking to engage with diverse student groups to talk with local teachers to learn about their community’s needs and ways to assist.

 

Turning Waste into Purpose

Today’s conversation is with Barbara Eiswerth PhD,  Executive Director of Iskashitaa Refugee Network (IRN). 

Barbara was interviewed by Kathe Sudano, May 8, 2020.

It is shocking to think that the largest single source of waste is in the United States is food!  Unbelievable that this is the item that takes up the most room in landfills.  People in the United States are obsessed with how food looks but are less concerned or unaware about nutritional value. Fruit is also so cheap that most individuals do not give a second thought to waste. Additionally, most backyard fruit trees are a pretty addition to homeowner’s space but are hardly utilized to their full potential. Starting to see the picture?

Barbara Eiswerth, executive director, with Iskashitaa volunteers at the UArizona Community Garden

Dr. Barbara Eiswerth, disturbed by the “colossal food waste she witnessed in America and how people, made poor, survive”, decided something needed to be done about this issue back in 2003.  Thus, Iskashitaa Refugee Network (IRN) was born to help reduce food waste in Tucson while integrating United Nations refugees into the community. Out of the nearly 20 million refugees in the world, fewer than one percent are considered for resettlement worldwide. And resettlement has its own challenges, from being dropped into a country with a new culture and language, to acquiring healthy, fresh foods. Iskashitaa seeks to remedy both challenges: help integrate refugees into their new home and provide the community with fresh produce.

Iskashitaa translates to ‘working cooperatively together’ in a language of the Somali Bantu ethnic group.  Eiswerth’s created the organization based on efforts to introduce youth and United Nation refugees to volunteering and sharing their foodways,  She built on thousands of hours working alongside the community to assist  Southern Arizona hunger relief organizations.  To begin with, Eiswerth recruited refugee students to participate in a project identifying and mapping locations where edible trees were growing and where much of the produce was going to waste in Tucson.  The process was one of trial and error and according to Barbara, “mistakes were made – including cultural and religious ones”.  But mistakes became learning opportunities. Over the years, the IRN team put in long hours and herculean efforts and located, harvested, and redistributed locally grown fruits and vegetables which would otherwise go to waste.

An Iskashitaa volunteer harvesting grapefruit in 2019

The programs have evolved from harvesting a few thousand pounds of fruit to an annual harvest of over 50 tons of fruits, nuts and vegetables from backyards, local farms, and orchards.  Dr. Eiswerth emphasizes that IRN would not be able to harvest over 150,000 pounds of local produce annually without the dedication of many volunteers, interns, and AmeriCorps members that have built the network to what it is today.

According to a NY Times article Meet the Gleaners, IRN was one of many organizations that was “perfectly positioned to leverage one problem- a bounty of unsellable crops- to help solve another: rampant hunger”. IRN operates the only year-round gleaning program in Southern Arizona.  They educate their volunteers on the multiple uses of traditional and non-traditional, native, and non-native fruits, nuts, pods, seeds and even flowers.  Most IRN families have limited incomes and few opportunities for social interaction and this practice of “gleaning”, or gathering produce after the harvest, presents a solution to both issues. IRN events provide access to fresh, health produce and allow refugees to build their community networks.

IRN quickly recognized the need to identify community refugee leaders as “ambassadors” and engage them in the work of their organization.  By recruiting refugee volunteers, the organization increased its visibility within different cultural groups while also helping new residents become familiar with their new city and its outdoor spaces. IRN builds bridges in the community that increase cultural competency and diversity awareness. IRN programs have been addressing issues related to social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion since its inception.  Refugees face language barriers that permeate almost every aspect of their lives, such as their ability to use public transportation. Through Iskashitaa’s harvesting division, volunteers have the opportunity to visit gardens, farms, green houses, and residential neighborhoods.

A traditional Eritrean meal of njera with various meat and vegetarian entrees

In turn, refugees offer up their skills and knowledge in various forms, including cooking classes and cultural luncheons that are a part of the new culinary division.  IRN currently partners with over forty different local hunger relief organizations to make their programs happen.

These activities provide a two-way cultural exchange. Refugees learn more about culture in the US as well as the English language. At the same time, local community members learn about the culture and languages of the refugees. IRN has worked to educate community volunteers about the cultures they serve and the food that grows in the Southwest.  This way, Iskashitaa helps refugees and asylum seekers integrate into the community. Programs and tools that achieve these goals include the Tucson Botanical Garden Edible Tree tours program, language cheat sheets, and picture dictionaries with commons foods found in markets in Arizona.

IRN helps restore the lives of UN refugees by creating partnerships between refugees, volunteers, and local organizations. Their local food-focused programs cultivate community connections, networking, education, entrepreneurship, leadership and applied English language practice. IRN’s intent is to empower others to develop the skills necessary to grow not only towards self-sufficiency, but towards community integration.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to leave your home, your city, your country.  Imagine needing to be relocated but knowing little about your new home, the local food, or the language.  How would you go about feeding yourself and your family?  What assistance do you imagine you would require?

If you would like to help, IRN has many opportunities for you to volunteer! We are always recruiting, especially those interested in diverse cultural experiences, translation, and local agriculture. Every citrus season we need fruit trees to harvest. Become a fruit spy and help IRN identify possible harvesting sites within your community!  Got citrus trees or other in-season fruits? Fill out our Fruit Donor Form to let us know you’d like us to come harvest. Our harvesting coordinator will get back to you as soon as possible!

Oranges harvested by Iskashitaa, 2018

Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace

Today’s conversation is with Kendall Kroesen,  Community Outreach Coordinator at Mission Garden.  Kendall was interviewed by Lorianne Barnett, May 14, 2020.  This blog was compiled by Jan Schwartz.

Do you ever wonder how people lived in this difficult desert environment long ago? What kinds of food did they grow and how did they grow it as the landscape changed?

Mission Garden is a re-creation of a Spanish Colonial walled garden, developed by the non-profit organization that manages it: Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace. Located in Tucson, AZ, it is a living agricultural museum that interprets over 4,000 years of Tucson’s history through heritage fruit-trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants. This beautiful, lush garden sits at the base of Sentinel Peak, AKA “A Mountain.” Because of the dark, volcanic rock on the hill, the Native American village that once sat at the base of this hill was known as S-cuk Son (Base of Black). This is the origin of today’s name, Tucson.  Many Tohono O’odham still refer to the city as S-cuk Son.

60-day corn with “the hill” in the background

By growing and harvesting these heritage crops and sharing this historical knowledge with the public, Mission Garden helped Tucson become the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in December 2015. It is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network which has several fields, including Gastronomy. According to the UNESCO website, “Located in the Sonoran Desert, Tucson has the longest agricultural history of any city in the United States of America. It has a 300-year tradition of vineyards, orchards, and livestock ranching that have forged the wide array of the local heritage foods, a source of identity and vitality for the local population of 1 million inhabitants. The distinctive cuisine of Tucson developed from a culturally layered history, a variety of heritage food ingredients, and a continuity of traditional food preparation techniques.” https://en.unesco.org/creative-cities/tucson

The Mission Garden website includes a short timeline of the garden since its inception. Following the initial planting of the Spanish Colonial Heritage Fruit Tree Orchard in February and March 2012, Mission Garden expanded to interpret the timeline of our remarkable agricultural story.  Specific gardens illustrate that timeline starting with the Early Agricultural period and continuing with Hohokam, Pre-contact and Post-contact O’odham, Spanish, Mexican, Territorial and Statehood Chinese, Yaqui, Anglo and African American farming, and ending with Tomorrow’s Garden.  Tomorrow’s Garden combines ancient knowledge with modern experimental solutions for today’s challenges.

Garden harvest

Mission Garden continuously works to increase the involvement of the Indigenous communities within Pima County. The Garden tells the long and complex history of the area going back to the Indigenous peoples of more than 4,000 years.  The two annual Native American Arts Fairs have been successful in attracting participation from several tribes.  The artists work in a variety of media from baskets to jewelry to painting.

Kendall Kroesen, Community Outreach Coordinator, emphasizes the importance of building relationships.  Kroesen reaches out to Indigenous people to create more diversity in volunteers, board members, and visitors.  Unfortunately, the global pandemic has made it difficult to find the space to continue to cultivate those relationships. Fortunately, Mission Garden now has a University of Arizona graduate student intern from The Coverdell Fellows Program to help move the work forward. The garden is also recruiting an AmeriCorps employee.  In addition, Mission Garden looks to the community and to other organizations to help build the relationships needed to be a fully inclusive organization. To date, FOTB has partnered with over 50 other community organizations.

San Ysidro Festival 2020

Mission Garden has a number of festivals throughout the year which bring in multicultural audiences.   The Agave Festival celebrates agave as a food, a fiber and, of course, tequila.  This festival is a part of the larger city celebration of the agave plant and involves native communities.  Additional festivals such as the Membrillo (quince) Festival and the Festival of San Ysidro, the largest festival, occur yearly.  Garden board members with connections and relationships within their communities make these and other festivals possible.  The Garden also has a strong relationship with the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, which is reflected in the Chinese heritage garden.

If we could experience history through taste and smell, how might we look differently at our local food sources? Would we be more likely to try unfamiliar foods?

For more information on the edible gardens of the Mission Garden please visit their website at https://www.missiongarden.org/

and visit the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage at https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/preserving-historical-edible-landscapes-arizona

 

Meet the 2020 Excellence in EE Award Winners!

Wow! 2020 was a memorable year to say the least. Despite unprecedented local and global challenges facing our communities, Arizona environmental educators stepped up to meet the challenge. Each year the Arizona Association for Environmental Education honors the individuals and organizations that have made a significant impact on environmental education in Arizona. Although we couldn’t do the awards ceremony in person this year, we had a blast celebrating these leaders at our 2020 year-end virtual mixer. Scroll down to meet the amazing Excellence in EE Award winners of 2020, and stay tuned for more details from the nominators about what makes each of these EE organizations and individuals so exceptional!

2020 Outstanding Environmental Educator of the Year – Ellen Bashor

Ellen is the Education Director at the City of Prescott’s Community Nature Center and the Environmental Education instructor for Prescott College. In 2020, Ellen revived an underutilized piece of city open space property called the Community Nature Center Open Space Preserve and developed an intergovernmental agreement between the City of Prescott and Prescott Unified School District to provide free outdoor and environmental programming for K-6 public school students without adult care, meal, and virtual learning options available to them during the pandemic. This program was so successful that, as the district returned to in-person learning, teachers and school programs have continued this outdoor and environmental learning relationship. In less than a year, thousands of students have received services from the Community Nature Center, averaging 100-200 student visitors a week. The district and city plan to continue the partnership under the shared goal of increasing access to healthy outdoor learning and recreation for all public school students in the area.

www.prescottcommunitynaturecenter.org

2020 Outstanding Environmental Education Program – Camp Colley

The Camp Colley foundation provides wilderness experiences and environmental education for underserved Phoenix children to nurture healthy development and resilience, foster meaningful relationships, and encourage wilderness exploration. Since its inception in 2005, the nonprofit Camp Colley Foundation has focused on funding camper scholarships and investing in facilities at their City of Phoenix owned camp in the Coconino National Forest. Camp Colley. Despite major pandemic setbacks deterring their opening of the summer camp, the Foundation quickly pivoted to virtual environmental education programming as an alternative to reach kids while keeping them and their families safe. The result was the Camp Colley Foundation’s free Virtual Environmental Learning Program which consisted of nine online activity sheets and accompanying videos which guided children and families to have fun, learn, and connect with nature right from their own home.

www.campcolley.org

2020 Outstanding Business Committed to Environmental Education – Desert Awareness Committee of Foothills Community Foundation

The Desert Awareness Committee is an organization under the 501c3 non-profit Foothills Community Foundation serving the North Phoenix communities of Scottsdale, Carefree, Cave Creek, and Wickenburg. Their environmental education activities include those for children and adults, schools and scouts, private organizations associated with homeowners groups, live-in care facilities, and more! Since 2004 the Desert Awareness Committee has been presenting our highly acclaimed free environmental program to all fourth graders in the schools of the Cave Creek School District as well as local charter and private schools and youth programs. Their members have also written 3 books, “The Fragile Desert”, “Chloe and the Desert Heroes”, and “Our Tastes of the Desert”. Due to the pandemic restrictions, their members were unable to bring classes to the park so they innovated and created a virtual tour of the park to be used in online instructions. This video will continue to be used by Cave Creeks students in 2021 in service to their mission of “educating all ages about the Sonoran Desert.”.

www.hollandcenter.org/programs/desert-awareness-committee

2020 Young Environmental Education Professional – Erin Scott

Erin Scott has been working as the unofficial program coordinator for the Whetstone Prison Project (WPP) for nearly 3 years. She took over the bare-bones program in 2017 as a full-time art student and at the time, the program had just begun a garden at the Whetstone prison unit in Tucson, AZ. Erin has grown the program considerably, creating & teaching her own lesson plans and forging connections community organizations to bring in further expertise. In February 2020, Erin wrote and was awarded an $84k grant to support this project. Since then, WPP has expanded from a simple garden at the prison to a full workshop for the inmates; and this project now has University support with Erin as a paid program coordinator, another graduate assistant, and a four-credit course with a dozen interns. Erin’s next step is to roll the WPP into a non-profit organization and to expand this amazing opportunity to inmates in other prison units.

www.instagram.com/whetstonepp

2020 Outstanding School Committed to Environmental Education – Tucson Unified School District’s School Garden Network

TUSD’s School Garden Network delivers high quality environmental education programming to a diverse community of K-12 students, University of Arizona (UA) students, parents, and K-12 educators. TUSD serves an 80% non-white student population with 70% of students qualifying for Federal Free and Reduced Lunch. Over the 2019-2020 School Year TUSD SGN delivered broad reaching environmental education programming in collaboration with University of Arizona Community and School Garden Program. Before pandemic closures, the Network hosted a STEM EE Conference with 40 participants and 30 K-12 teacher trainings and a Green Academy Workshop Series impacting 91 educators and reaching 3,000+ students,. Quickly adapting to pandemic restrictions, the Garden Network took action to reduce the social and academic impacts of the pandemic on TUSD students. To do this, they distributed 50 computers to in-need TUSD families, provided K-12 distance environmental education and virtual teacher support, and coordinated groups of UA students to restore gardens in preparation for the return to in-person learning in 2021.

www.schoolgardens.arizona.edu

2020 Outstanding Inclusion Programming in Environmental Education – Ironwood Tree Experience

Ironwood Tree Experience, led by Suzy and Eric Dhruv, is  an organization has been committed to the diversity of its board of directors, staff, and participants since its inception. Through it’s 15 years as an organization it has only increased this commitment and has become even more focused and conscious of efforts to become inclusive. Especially important is the opportunities and encouragement that ITE provides for youth participants to engage in their community as leaders. Just as one example of this commitment is ITE’s Youth Action Corps (YAC), where teens are encouraged to embrace their love of nature, people, and community by engaging in activities, initiatives, internships, and programs through Conservation & Restoration, Environmental Education, and Sustainable Community Development! In 2020, ITE continued to provide a virtual and safe space and guidance for a diverse and inclusive community to grow in supporting youth leadership in the Tucson area.

www.ironwoodtreeexperience.org

2020 Lifetime Achievement in Environmental Education – David Pijawka

After 37 years at Arizona State University professor David Pijawka stands out for his commitment, leadership, and impact in delivering environmental education for university students, the Arizona community, and the academic profession. This year he retired as Professor Emeritus after mentoring around 35 doctoral students to complete their PhDs and many Masters students through their theses or Applied Projects mostly on environmental topics found in Urban Planning and Sustainability. This outstanding commitment to environmental education does not stop with student mentoring but includes over sixteen national awards given to his graduate students for their achievements in environmental research and service to the profession. Teaching in two disciplines, Urban Planning and Sustainability, he is known for introducing interdisciplinary environmental education to students, developing education programs, and providing the latest and pressing information on issues related to environmental justice, hazards and resiliency, socio- ecological modeling, as well as urban sustainability planning and global needs.

www,sgsup.asu.edu/david-pijawka

The University of Arizona Garden Kitchen

Today’s conversation is with Jennifer Parlin, Assistant in Extension, for The Garden Kitchen. The Garden Kitchen, located in South Tucson, is a University of Arizona Cooperative Extension program established in partnership with the City of South Tucson, Pima County, and the University of Arizona. The Garden Kitchen’s mission is to empower Pima County residents to build community wellness and make healthier choices through food, fitness, and gardening education.

According to Making Action Possible in Southern Arizona, in 2017, 137,450 individuals in Tucson had limited access to food.

Broader food security on the other hand, proved an issue for nearly one million people in Arizona. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization defines food security as a circumstance that “exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food insecurity, and particularly the inability to access food, can be heightened by many factors, including household composition, race/ethnicity, income-to-poverty ratio, area of residence and even census region. With stay-at-home orders, overwhelmed pantries, school closings, and unemployment rates rising due to COVID-19, vulnerable households are being impacted even more by food insecurity and access.

Many organizations within Tucson work with communities to increase access to affordable and nutritious foods in areas where they are needed. One such organization is The Garden Kitchen, which itself is located in the middle of a food desert. A food desert refers to a geographic area with where people have low access to food. These areas are often the result of food apartheid, a term coined by food justice activist Karen Washington that roots the disparities of food access and systems in discrimination, racism, and other systemic issues. Indeed, food insecurity and the lack of nutritious resources affect many families in the 1.2 square mile city of South Tucson, with many minority groups such as Hispanic and Native American communities, single mothers, grandparents, the indigent, and LGTBQ+ individuals experiencing homelessness being disproportionately affected. As an organization, The Garden Kitchen aims to increase food security and the availability of healthy foods for everyone, including these underrepresented communities. They partner with organizations in Pima County to change policies, systems, and environments to address health issues by making healthy lifestyle choices equitably accessible to all community members.

The Garden Kitchen is funded by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) program, an evidence-based program that teaches qualified individuals how to shop for and cook healthy meals, and stretch their food dollars. By nature of their partnerships, they reach out to a variety of audiences, including those who access SNAP benefits and those who are involved with community gardens and classes through other community organizations.  Building trust is a top priority when working with communities within Tucson — not just with state and university partners, but also with local and grassroots communities. Trust is a component that can be difficult to establish, particularly when dominant systems and actors have participated in marginalization, but it is essential to the evolution of work and exchange of knowledge in the Tucson community.

Tackling food access is not just about education or having geographic proximity to food. The Garden Kitchen is also involved in suggesting changes at the policy level in many communities within Pima County, such as initiatives to serve healthy food options at events, change vending machine choices, and empower families to select healthier foods. Policies around food make some food items harder to get based on location, price, quality and availability. This can include organic, cultural, and non-fast food choices. The fewer resources (e.g. time, money, transportation) someone has, the more likely they are to be in a position where they consume the food they can access. By partnering with different community organizations at the policy level, The Garden Kitchen is able to have longer lasting effects with their efforts. The Garden Kitchen advocates for policies that make nutritious foods convenient, affordable and appealing, as these factors contribute to people changing their consumer habits.

While providing their own support to the Tucson community is an important part of The Garden Kitchen’s mission, so too is empowerment. The Garden Kitchen works with community members to be in charge of their own health. Before COVID-19 changes, The Garden Kitchen would hold free weekly and monthly events, such as “First Fit Saturdays,” which welcomes all community members monthly to get involved with gardening, cooking, and physical activity. They would also host a “Gardening Hour” each week to provide a space for locals to learn about home gardening and to allow them to harvest produce.

Although they aren’t currently hosting any in person events, they have provided online resources regarding food security, employment, sanitation, wellness and community gardens. More than ever, the conversation around food security, access and the systems which shape them must be addressed. How is health and wellness being advocated for in your community?

#HowWeNature is a series of posts dedicated to conversations about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in Tucson’s natural history programming. This post was written by AAEE intern, Phoebe Warren. Phoebe is a student at Appalachian State University who is majoring in communication studies with a minor in sociology.

Questions to ponder: How can you advocate for the health and wellness of everyone in your community? Are you reaching out to and welcoming underserved communities to your spaces? Are you including accurate cultural history in your teachings?

The Garden Kitchen is always in need of volunteers who are knowledgeable about gardens, food sources, and culture. Check out their ‘Get Involved’ page at https://thegardenkitchen.org/get-involved/ to learn more.

Urban School Gardens: A Nature Niche

by Jessie Rack

The world’s intrinsic beauty and complexity is a never-ending source of inspiration for educators. And we’ve all seen the results of being outside on our students, no matter what age — immersion in nature invites focus, observation, and simple noticing. Students with behavior or attention issues are sometimes stabilized in an outdoor environment. The smallest insect or rock becomes a fascination, and questions bloom without effort. 

As environmental educators, we don’t need to be told about the benefits of taking our students outside. In the last two decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of studies on outdoor education, with authors citing results like better grades, higher test scores, and improvements in focusing attention and regulating behavior. But for those of us who, like more than 80% of the US population live in urban areas, helping our students reap the benefits of the outdoors is sometimes more complicated than simply taking them outside of the school. So how do we give urban children the experience and benefits of playing and learning outside? One way to do it is through school gardens. 

This approach works because school gardens occupy something of an in-between space: they are not quite the structured, rule-bound, indoor world of the classroom, and yet also not the unstructured freedom of the open desert, or the forest, or even the playground. And yet they encompass aspects of all of those spaces. Gardens are a place in which collaboration and communication happen naturally, in which rules are still followed, but in which students can learn from experience and from others, and can literally get their hands dirty, while their teachers can still achieve their curricular objectives and meet state and national standards.

There has also been a lot of research about the benefits of school gardens specifically – it’s been something of a hot topic for the past couple of decades. Research is ongoing, but it seems that school gardens can affect students in a variety of ways. These range from the most obvious areas of healthy eating, nutrition, and science to more subtle impacts such as positive social and emotional skills, group collaboration, and even increased environmental stewardship. 

With all of this in mind, stay tuned for a series of AAEE newsletter articles about school gardens. In future editions, I will be sharing some tips for starting and maintaining school gardens, and for using these gardens to fill the nature niche that many urban schools lack. My position, with the University of Arizona’s Community and School Garden Program, is unique; I run the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities Program, in which I work directly with students at Title I schools, providing weekly environmental education lessons to students at these low-resource urban schools in Tucson. I also work with my colleagues to install school gardens at schools around Tucson and to help train teachers to take care of the gardens and to use gardens in their curricula, using the gardens and outdoor spaces at the schools as living laboratories to get students outside and immersed in nature. No matter the age group or ability level, school gardens are an effective tool for engaging students, for improving focus and achievement, and for getting kids excited about their environment. And, of course, for getting a little dirty.

 

Jessie is a Board Member at AAEE. She received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Connecticut in the spring of 2016. She is currently the Program Coordinator of the Supporting Environmental Education and Communities (SEEC) Program, an offshoot of the Community and School Garden Program at the University of Arizona.

Interview with an Environmental Educator: Joining Together

As a community, we can do better by joining forces. Collectively we can empower larger audiences and, I believe, shift the trajectory of our planet’s future.”

Elise Dillingham: Program Coordinator, Desert Research Learning Center

What is your professional role and how does Environmental Education help you do that work? 

My professional role is the Program Coordinator of the National Park Service’s Desert Research Learning Center (DRLC). The DRLC is home to a diverse team of scientists that oversee the inventory and monitoring of natural resources at Sonoran Desert national parks (11 total). In addition to conducting research, DRLC staff utilize environmental education to promote the scientific understanding, protection, and conservation of Sonoran Desert national parks. Environmental education enables us to share the marvel of the Sonoran Desert, facilitate science communication, and inspire the next generation of environmental stewards. 

Who is your primary audience in your work and what outreach do you offer that audience? 

The DRLC’s primary audience is high school and college students ranging in age from 14-22.  We provide internships, citizen science and volunteer opportunities, and programs for student groups.

Why is Environmental Education important to the work that you do?

Environmental education is important to our work because it enables engagement of diverse audiences outside traditional land management realms. It elevates the visibility of science in the National Park Service and increases awareness of conservation issues facing national parks. At the DRLC, environmental education enables scientists to reach broad audiences beyond our peers, which builds support for science and reinforces its relevance.

What are your entry points for engaging your audiences in Environmental Education, Environmental Studies, science, etc.?

Sonoran Desert flora and fauna that exist in urban settings are an entry point for environmental education. We often use these familiar and seemingly mundane species to open doors into the wondrous natural history and ecology of the Sonoran Desert.

 

Who do you consider underrepresented audiences and what are the challenges you face in reaching them?

Students with disabilities are one underrepresented audience that we have actively been trying to reach. Accessibility in outdoor settings is one challenge that we must overcome when engaging with this audience. To help overcome this, we offer programs designed for people with disabilities and have increased wheelchair-accessible activities and amenities at the DRLC. 

How can we all do better?

I believe the strength of the EE community lies in the knowledge of educators, the curiosity of students, and the passion of both. These attributes foster critical thinking and innovation, which are desperately needed to combat our planet’s climate emergency. As a community, we can do better by joining forces. Collectively we can empower larger audiences and, I believe, shift the trajectory of our planet’s future. The more we collaborate and play off each other’s strengths, the better.

A Nature-Based Preschool in the Desert?! You Bet!

By AAEE Member & Volunteer: Diona Williams

I am a full-time Early Childhood Education Professor a few days out of the week at a Tribal Community College called Tohono O’odham.  However, I have worked with children birth to age 8 for the last 17 plus years in many different capacities. My career has allowed me to work as an Infant/Toddler Mental Health Clinician II (behavioral health), Arizona Early Intervention Program, and CHILD Find Team/Public Educator as an Early Childhood Special Teacher.

What inspired me to open Out Back Learning LLC is truly my desire to grow my knowledge in the profession in Early Childhood Education and discover new and innovative ways to work with young children. I had an opportunity to attend a conference a year and a half ago at Prescott College, where I was able to learn about Nature-based Place and Play in Early Childhood Education. I was so inspired by the movement that I implemented the ideas and knowledge with my students the following school year, which led to gardening and outdoor lessons. I decided to leave public education to pursue higher education and to start this Nature-based Preschool Program. I love teaching college students about Early Childhood Education, but I absolutely love working with young children and families. The program is a passion project, but I have witnessed first hand how children can benefit from outdoor nature-based preschools.

Offering a Nature-Based preschool in the desert is unique from the typical nature-based and forest schools in the northwest, northeast, and midwest programs, because the desert environment is so different. In the desert we have everything from giant mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus & their fruit, to the scorpions & poisonous spiders.

So, how do the Out Backers survive the desert?

 

In Out Back Learning I have discovered the beauty of nature in a different way with my students, also known as the Out Backers.  For instance, one day the Out Backers discovered the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant has seed pods, and they could create, count, snap, build, and grow seeds. However, this plant has led to many other discussions beyond that. One example would be, when Leo asked, “Why do we not water this plant, but we water the jalapeno plant?” Or, when Isaac wondered, “Why does this plant have so many seed pods?”. This plant has led to even more conversations about pollinators, the importance of bees, and why butterflies hang out by the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant.

Life in Out Back Learning also gives the Out Backers an opportunity to take nature walks daily, even in the desert! I remember the first time the Out Backers took a nature walk, and we learned the importance of signs, landmarks, and directions. Now, the nature walks take twice as long because the Out Backers have discovered the wonders of every part of nature such as the pine needles, different rock varieties, flowers, leaves, cacti, etc.

Out Back Learning LLC also offers gardening opportunities for the Out Backers in the fall and spring, another easy way to connect with nature in the desert. Our fall garden currently has corn, herbs, cabbage, strawberries, jalapeno, cucumber, tomatoes, and sunflowers.

Every Monday the Out Backers get to harvest any item from the garden that they like to eat, take home, or cook. There are so many ways for young learners to safely play in and with nature in a desert environment. Knowing there are so many benefits to spending time in nature and nature-based learning & play, it’s important that we give all learners these opportunities, no matter what environment they’re growing up in!

You can follow the Out Backers’ adventures on their Facebook page and their Instagram @outbacklearning2019

 

 

Do you want your program featured in AAEE’s newsletter, on our website, & on our social media platforms? Contact us on our Facebook page, Instagram @EEinArizona, or comment on this article!

Be part of our Community of Practice at the conference!

In 2018 we launched the Environmental Literacy Community of Practice (ELCoP) to bring together people from across the state to help solve the challenges around improving environmental literacy for Arizonans. Current ELCoP members will be hosting two special conference sessions and we’d love for you to join the conversation.

EE and the Well-Rounded Student: Accessing Title IV-A Funds to Support Programs

The ELCoP PK-12 Working Group has been in conversation with the Arizona Department of Education to help demonstrate the value of EE programs for supporting well-rounded students, a requirement of the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). Join us at the conference on Saturday at 10:45 to hear what we’ve done, learn how you can contribute to the conversation and understand how to access Title IV-A funds (support for well-rounded students) to support your programs with PK-12 classrooms. 

Arizona Green Chamber Roundtable

The ELCoP Stakeholder Working Group has been exploring how to bring more voices to the conversation about environmental literacy. One particular voice that is often overlooked in education-focused conversations is that of green businesses. Partnerships for environmental literacy between green businesses and environmental educators have the potential to broaden reach through EE messaging to customers, and to strengthen educator capacity by applying business strategies to EE programs. Help us explore this potential with members of the Arizona Green Chamber in a roundtable and panel discussion during Saturday’s lunch.

Are you a green business owner? Arizona Green Chamber members can register for the AAEE Conference at the AAEE member rate. Email elp@arizonaee.org for more information!

Learn more >>

Preparing to Build Capacity – AAEE Board Members at the 2019 ee360 NAAEE Leadership Clinic

AAEE Board of Directors at Asilomar State Beach

This June, AAEE’s Board of Directors was honored to be selected as one of ten NAAEE Affiliates to participate in the second ee360 Affiliate Leadership Clinic. Our five board members traveled to beautiful Asilomar State Park Conference Center for five days of workshops, discussions and planning sessions (plus some beach time!) all focused on helping us create an action plan for capacity building.

Together with other first-time Affiliate attendees and team members from the first ten Affiliates that participated in the 2017 Leadership Clinic, we explored transformative leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion, fundraising best practices and action planning, while networking with board members, staff and community members of the19 other Affiliates and NAAEE staff and colleagues.

ee360 Leadership Clinic participants

 

 

 

A highlight of our time with the other Affiliates was the Share Fair, an evening where each team shared their strengths and conundrums so we could all learn from and support each other. Inspired by this event, we plan to host a similar opportunity at our Conference in September.

AAEE’s booth at the Share Fair

The AAEE team was proud to share our successes with EE Certification, the re-launching our membership program, our new website and resource section, our strategic plan, strong collaborations with other organizations and the upcoming state conference. Our conundrums were very similar to other states in that we are missing a lot of voices from communities throughout our state in our conversations, and funding and people power are continually limited.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the clinic for the AAEE Board Members was to have such a concentrated amount of time to be together in the same space, getting to know each other better and most importantly, thinking deeply about EE in Arizona. For an all-volunteer organization, opportunities like these are rare and we tried to savor every moment – including the beach time.

AAEE Board bonds at the beach

Ultimately we recognized as a team that an important key to our capacity building is to make sure we are deeply listening to all EE voices in Arizona, so that everyone is included and can help shape AAEE to be what is most needed for the diversity of practitioners and audience members in our state. That includes persons of color, people of different-ability, and folks who do not necessarily consider themselves environmental educators but are doing work to educate community members about our world’s natural systems and environmental challenges. 

The more people that feel valued and can see the value of AAEE, the stronger our capacity will be. We were already on this path with our focus for the September state conference, Arizona We are EE, and have started working to strengthen our focus on inclusion at the conference and beyond.

We recieved great feedback for our conference planning

We’re so grateful for NAAEE, the US EPA and the seven other partner organizations for providing the resources to strengthen what we do in the field via the ee360 Program, with goals designed to drive excellence, be more inclusive, cultivating collective impact, and mobilizing access to high-quality resources and networks. We are also thankful for the time the NAAEE staff puts into creating these opportunities for and for doing so much to help strengthen Affiliates across the network. Keep an eye out for future updates and ongoing evidence that your AAEE Leadership Team is listening! Have a question for us or a suggestion on how we can do better? Contact LoriAnne at president@arizonaee.org