Julie Chen ’17, Education Outside

Julie-ChenEducation Outside is a nonprofit organization that facilitates outdoor classroom programs at public elementary schools in San Francisco. Not only does the organization help build school gardens, but it also trains members of the Education Outside Corps program, who maintain these gardens and teach students science in an outdoor, hands-on environment. I had such a great time shadowing my alumni contact Joyce Lin-Conrad ‘02, the organization’s Director of Learning, as well as the other employees I met in my time there.

On the first day of my Princeternship, I arrived in the office at 9:30 am to attend a staff meeting. The office had a casual vibe to it – it was populated by only six employees, who all welcomed me with friendly smiles and punctuated the meeting with updates on birthdays and personal matters. The business side of the meeting encompassed hiring high school volunteers at their new summer camp, remodeling the website, getting technology for a new hire, and planning a new “boot camp” for the Corps members. I was amazed by how young the organization was (the Corps program is only three years old!) and how quickly it evolved.It seemed that the changes they were implementing all resulted from issues they faced only recently.

In the afternoon, I followed Rachel, Director of Programs, to two elementary schools in the area, where she met withChen 1 the Corps members working there to discuss progress so far and needed supplies. It was a great chance for me to see what the gardens looked like. At the first school we visited, I was surprised to find that not only did Carson, the Corps member stationed there, run the garden, but he also helped the school’s compost program and organized carpools to school. Through the garden program, students were learning how to be environmentally conscious in addition to learning about science. In contrast, the second elementary school was located in a poorer neighborhood. As the program had only just been started, Danielle, the Corps member there, was having trouble getting teachers to bring their classes out at the scheduled time. As I observed one of her classes, I saw that she also experienced more behavioral issues, which seemed to be exacerbated by the newness of the program. The garden was also much smaller – there were only several beds, as well as a segment above the school that had only recently been constructed.

Chen 3On my second day, I went straight to the San Francisco Botanical Garden for a Corps member training session. It was a beautiful, sunny day, which, as we learned, was extremely unusual for January in San Francisco. The training session focused on the climate of San Francisco, because many of the Corps members were from different parts of the country and were unfamiliar with the environment in which their students grew up.. As Corps members, not only would they teach their students about San Francisco’s climate, but they also needed to know which plants could grow at which times of the year in San Francisco’s generally foggy, breezy climate. Not only did I have a great time meeting the Corps members and finding out what brought them to Education Outside, but I also learned many surprising facts about San Francisco’s environment. For example, before human involvement, the city was made up of sand dunes, not the trees and grass we see today.

On my last day of shadowing I headed to ER Taylor Elementary School to shadow Elizabeth, one of the first Corps members of the organization, which was a fantastic conclusion to my Princeternship. I helped her set up for her two fourth grade classes that day. The first class played games in the garden to simulate the rock cycle; the second class learned about erosion by observing the effect of “rain” (hose water) and “wind” (their own breaths) on soil. I supervised an activity where after building soil “mountains” with dead plants and sticks inserted throughout, they poured water on top to see how the “mountain” eroded differently depending on where the “trees” and “buildings” were. As nine- and ten-year-olds, they were predictably hyperactive, but they were also so excited to be outside and building things with their own hands.

Later, I met up with Elizabeth and her group of first and second graders for her afterschool program. We played a couple of games in the garden as a prequel for the main event – cooking a stir-fry from school-grown, organic veggies that the participants harvested and cut themselves. It was amazing to see the children get so excited about eating broccoli! After finishing the meal, everybody carefully composted their leftovers and the biodegradable plates.

Thank you so much, Education Outside, for letting me come by this Intersession! I had an amazing time learning about how nonprofit organizations operate on a daily basis and seeing firsthand Education Outside’s great impact on San Francisco science education. Though I came into Princeton as a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering major, after my Princeternship, I’m interested in learning more about how science and technology can be used to improve education. It has also led me to realize that providing a seemingly small service – a weekly class in an outdoor garden – can be deeply impactful on a community, not only by educating kids about science but also by getting more families to think about their environmental impact. Seeing kids have so much fun learning sciencewas an inspiring experience, and I look forward to seeing how project-based education will become more prominent in the future.