Significant Life Experiences Research and the “Secret Sauce” of the UEC

The Urban Ecology Center was founded on the belief that land can be healed and that urban communities can be transformed by giving people access to nature. In particular, we saw the potential in connecting kids to green spaces when they are provided with consistent access and a caring adult mentor. This belief was grounded in a field of research that explores the impact of “significant life experiences” in childhood.

That was back in the late 1990s, and if we’ve learned anything since then, it is that the evidence for this approach continues to build, both in academic publications and in anecdotal experiences, like those of kids and families around Riverside Park, Washington Park, and the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee. These are not the only locations where this work is bearing fruit, but the systematic approach to environmental education in the UEC’s branches demonstrates the ongoing potential.

Specifically, the research suggests that two factors serve as the biggest predictors of whether or not a kid will grow into an environmentally conscious adult. The first is access to green space, which is available in parks, woodlands, and restored prairies, as well as in and around lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. The second is access to a mentor who can spend time on a regular basis encouraging exploration and learning. We combine these two in the programming we offer to students (as part of school programs), kids after school and on the weekends, and families throughout the year. As a result, the UEC contributes to the development of attitudes aligned with land stewardship, nature preservation, scientific understanding, and an ethic of care.

In this episode, we learn more about this research and how it became the foundation of the Urban Ecology Center’s environmental education model. The main segment of the episode provides a firsthand account from Ken Leinbach. He reflects on his experience developing programming on land outside of Arlington, Virginia. His decision to pursue a graduate degree emerged from an awareness of how kids learn in nature and the impact it has on them. Ken was introduced to significant life experience research through the work of Professor Louise Chawla. The potential for behavior change in society, he recognized, might have an impact on the planet if it could be aligned with environmental education. This realization propelled Ken to focus on building an organization that would use this approach to transform communities across generations.

Following the conversation with Ken, UEC educator Kelli Johnson took time to interview a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chris Diehm. Professor Diehm teaches philosophy and environmental ethics, and Kelli was a student in one of his classes. Much like the research they discuss, Kelli’s understanding and attitude was shaped by the learning and mentoring she received.

This approach is so central to the work of the UEC that we offer this episode as a foundation for learning more about the Center. In future episodes, we talk more about programs and activities, and in many cases, the underlying design builds on significant life experiences research. We share the “recipe” of what is sometimes called our secret sauce at every opportunity. If you are looking for a place to begin transforming your neighborhood, or even the world, this is it!

Originally dropped: 11/16/20

Thank you!

Chris Young, Project Manager, Urban Ecology Center Institute

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