UCSB’s Kids in Nature program is getting kids outdoors and generating surprising results. Through the dedication of instructors and generous benefactors, students are experiencing environmental science education like never before.
Looking back to elementary school, you may recall piling into a bus for a science field trip, unleashing the excitement that comes from stepping out of the classroom and into a new environment. Some of us guarded our lunch boxes and giggled with friends, while teachers encouraged us to connect with something we had only ever studied in books.
But how much did we actually learn from these experiences?
Former Kids in Nature (KIN) intern Michelle Sakai-Hart ’13 says that you may not recall everything. “[Children may not] remember the name of the plant, but they’ll remember the experience in nature,” she reflects. And if it’s a positive memory, then that’s all it takes.
“It’s about creating a lasting experience in a student’s mind,” echoes Laurel Phelps ’11 MED ’13, former KIN intern. “The world around us matters, understanding that you have a place in the environment.”
Born out of a vision to provide yearlong science education, KIN approaches its 16th year of teaching environmental science to 5th grade students. The award-winning program features hands-on classroom activities and field trips, all designed to get kids outdoors. Students visit UCSB’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration (CCBER) and partnering programs that include the Coal Oil Point Reserve, Arroyo Hondo, and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
“Children aren’t out in nature very much anymore,” says Dr. Jennifer Thorsch ’76, ’81, CCBER Director Emeritus. “They’re watching television, they’re in their classrooms, they’re playing computer games. The Kids in Nature program takes children out in nature…and we expose the children to the environment that surrounds them every day and help them become comfortable in that environment.”
The beauty of KIN arises not just from its curriculum, but from its UCSB students enrolled in the Science and Nature Education Practicum course. After completing the course, students can apply to become “KINterns” (as they’re affectionately coined), where they teach lessons in the classrooms and on field trips. Many of the KINterns serve as role models for 5th graders and their UCSB peers.
“There’s mentoring that goes on,” says Thorsch, “and the 5th grade students become familiar with the university campus and then believe that they, too, can go to college in careers in science and mathematics.” She notes that younger students respect their KINterns, viewing them as positive role models whose names they remember well after they have completed the KIN program.
“[Students] get exposure to something they wouldn’t otherwise get,” says Sakai-Hart. “The [KIN] team is so positive [and] excited to work with kids. This might be all the science they get.”
Disguised as simply a “science program”, KIN has sprouted into something quite significant. The program has managed to address not only science education requirements, but a host of skillsets critical to students’ development. 5th graders are mastering language arts skills through writing exercises that require use of evidence and a demonstrated command of vocabulary. In fact, KIN’s
1 teacher: 4-5 students ratio drives dynamic dialogue, encouraging students to integrate their outdoor experiences with their classroom learning.
“Students are no longer just the passenger [in their education],” says Phelps. “They’re also driving the car.”
For many KINterns, the program marks the beginning of their teaching careers. Both Sakai-Hart and Phelps chose to become educators after graduating from UCSB: Sakai-Hart now a 5th & 6th grade associate science teacher, and Phelps a 6th grade classroom teacher at Roosevelt School in Santa Barbara.
KIN’s far-reaching impact has captured much attention, affecting the lives of hundreds of teachers and students. In fact on an annual basis, KIN engages 125 kids, which has proven to increase students’ science and language test scores by up to 75%. Those percentages speak for themselves, and are inspiring people to invest in the program.
“It’s important to support the areas that I really believe in,” says Thorsch, whose investment in CCBER not only includes time and energy, but financial commitments made with husband Charles Kaska. Together, the couple is an educational powerhouse: Kaska, a now retired, award-winning Santa Barbara teacher who’s been teaching for decades, and Thorsch, CCBER Director Emeritus and active curator of the CCBER botanical collections. The two have devoted their lives to supporting the things that matter most to them.
“Give to where your values are,” advises Kaska. “Any potential donor [can] lead by example at some level of contribution.”
KIN continues to sustain a web of connections, enabling KINterns like Phelps and Sakai-Hart to keep in touch with Thorsch and Kaska. The couple’s legacy is not soon to be forgotten, as Phelps explains: “There are people who are genuine and kind, and watch the world go by. That’s not Jennifer and Charles! They go out of their way to make people’s lives better. What an amazing legacy to leave behind.”
Phelps adds: “The point [of KIN] is to leave a deep understanding of our place in the world. How can you compare that to just one field trip?”