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Brokered Learning Pathways: Young Naturalists

Adults who recognize teens as whole people--not just learners--build supportive relationships to help teens find and follow their passions.

Partnerships between teachers and non-formal educators play an important role in connecting teens who are interested in nature with people, programs, organizations, and future learning opportunities. By leveraging personal relationships built on trust and familiarity, we help teens access experiences and networks that suit their passions, abilities and personalities as they enter adulthood.


Information on this page is provided by the innovator and has not been evaluated by HundrED.

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March 2019
One thing I got from this program was meeting and bonding with people who have the same passions as me – that are passionate about nature. I like it because around my neighborhood there’s not a lot of people that love nature as much as we do. I don’t go out outside as much and link up with friends, because they don’t like the same things I do. [...] It was cool coming out here and meeting new friends that have the same interests as me.

About the innovation

Learning Brokers Support Teens in Navigating the Outdoor Learning Landscape

Starting in 2014, educators from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) worked with a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh’s Science Learning Activation Lab to design a supported learning pathway to bridge in-school and out-of-school experiences for teens interested in nature and the environment. Since then, the pathway has expanded to connect with a wide range of partners, programs and people in the regional landscape of outdoor learning opportunities.

Learning pathways are the conceptual routes that a person takes to follow their interests and gain knowledge, skills or expertise. These pathways may consist of a combination of in-school, out-of-school and/or online learning experiences. Each step in a student’s pathway connects to, and builds on, other formal and informal learning experiences throughout their lifetime.

Our pathway is built around Young Naturalists, a five-week paid internship for high school students who study ecology, gain outdoor work and leadership experience, and collaborate with a diverse cohort of other teenagers who are interested in the environment. Throughout the summer, participants engage in meaningful, paid work doing research and restoration in an urban park in Pittsburgh, PA.

To reach a diverse pool of applicants, PPC formed strategic partnerships with classroom teachers, schools, community groups and other youth-serving organizations. Formal and non-formal educators intentionally recognize and affirm students in school-based, afterschool, summer, community and volunteer programs, and support those students during the application and interview process for Young Naturalists. As a result, the program brings together participants from a wide range of neighborhoods, schools and organizations and promotes teamwork and friendship between people with diverse perspectives, skill sets and backgrounds.

The base of the program pipeline utilizes threshold experiences - programs designed to engage students with varying levels of prior experience in the outdoors in a safe, fun and welcoming environment. Threshold experiences prepare students for deeper engagement by building their comfort and confidence outdoors, by engaging their personal interests, and by developing social capital among students and staff members across multiple visits.

Many teens growing up in Pittsburgh have limited exposure to the outdoors. Even for those that have experience, it can be challenging to find peers who share their passion and curiosity for nature. They may feel isolated if opportunities to experience nature aren’t apparent or accessible to them, or if their family and friends aren’t interested in the same things. Threshold experiences provide a place where students are free to discover and explore these interests.

Adults play an important role in supporting teens to find next step learning opportunities by connecting them with people, programs and organizations that provide positive experiences. By leveraging personal relationships built on trust and familiarity with the students, we can better ensure that youth find the right fit for their interests, abilities and personality. This intentional practice of connecting students with future learning opportunities is called brokering.

The responsibility for brokering has traditionally fallen on parents and guardians, but this can be greatly impacted by a parent’s awareness of opportunities and their ability to provide support like time, money and transportation. As adults who are knowledgeable about regional learning opportunities, we are uniquely able to provide guidance and support for teens (and their parents) as they navigate the complex landscape of outdoor learning opportunities. By positioning ourselves as learning brokers and designing our programs and partnerships with a focus on equitable access, we have built a close-knit community among diverse teens who share a common interest in nature and the outdoors.


Staff mentors from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy keep in touch with the students after the program to support them in applying to additional opportunities to work, learn, and explore in the outdoors. Throughout their college careers, several of the Young Naturalists have returned to work with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in a variety of capacities:Nyjah (Young Naturalist, 2016) is now studying Theater with a minor in Environmental Science at Ohio Wesleyan University. She returned to the program as a co-leader and educator in the summer of 2018, with plans to return in 2019.Geneva (Young Naturalist, 2014) is now studying Marketing & Communications at the University of Pittsburgh, and interned as a part-time Communications Associate in the fall and winter of 2018.Jaxon (Young Naturalist, 2014) is now a Liberal Studies major at Carlow University and returned to work as a summer camp counselor in 2018.Michael (Young Naturalist, 2014) is now studying Biology at Robert Morris University and returned to work as a summer camp counselor in 2017.
Adult mentors and role models serve an important role by providing support and guidance to help students follow their interests. The Young Naturalists met and worked with experts representing various fields that directly or indirectly involve conservation including artists, educators, ecologists, computer programmers, a chef and a woodworker. This diversity recognized that people connect with nature in different and unique ways. ECOLOGIST - PETE WOODS As part of their team building retreat, the Young Naturalists worked alongside ecologist Pete Woods from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy to survey moth populations in the Laurel Highlands. Their sampling methods involved identifying moths on a sheet lit with ultraviolet light, as well as using a no-kill  funnel bucket trap. CHEF – CLAUDY PIERRE Together with students in Grow Pittsburgh’s Urban Farmers in Training program, the Young Naturalists hosted local chef, Claudy Pierre, for a day of cooking, eating and exploring cultural identity as it relates to food. Vegetables and herbs from the From Slavery to Freedom Garden were harvested and used in the recipes. EDUCATOR – PATTY HIMES After honing their own aquatic macroinvertebrate identification and classification skills, the participants led a series of stream exploration hikes for 4th graders enrolled in the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s summer camp programs. The Young Naturalists shared their knowledge and enthusiasm and directed the campers in collecting and identifying the organisms found in the stream. Students also worked with developers at Carnegie Mellon University to assist with the development of an opensource online macroinvertebrate reference collection - www.macroinvertebrates.org. VIDEOGRAPHER – DI-AY BATTAD A series of short documentaries were planned and produced by the Young Naturalists, with guidance from videographer Di-ay Battad. The students experimented with interview techniques, storytelling, using DSLR cameras, shot styles, and pre-production planning during a series of sessions throughout the program. The interviews explore the Young Naturalists’ relationship with nature as young people growing up in Pittsburgh. All footage was planned and shot by the Young Naturalists. MUSICIAN – RYAN MCMASTERS As part of his residency at the Frick Environmental Center, sound artist Ryan McMasters collaborated with the Young Naturalists to create an art installation piece. The students were presented with a design challenge: build a structure using natural materials that allows cymbals to create sound when it rains. The structures were placed in the rain veil where the cymbals weathered in the rain. Those cymbals were used in a performance piece later in the summer. WOODWORKER – MIRIAM DEVLIN The students worked with a local woodworker, Miriam Devlin, to cut, drill, sand and stain the wooden base of these smartphone magnifiers. Next, they assembled the stage and lens housing which uses a variety of hardware, plexiglass, epoxy and the lens of a laser pointer. When a smartphone camera is placed over the lens, the object is magnified on the device’s screen. Students used the magnifiers to observe organisms and record information in the form of photos and videos. These students organized their observations using the iNaturalist app.
Providing teenagers with meaningful paid work gives them an opportunity to learn while being active and to explore their own identity by making a difference in the community. It also flexes their social skills through teamwork, communication and leadership. Research projects this summer included a survey amphibians and macroinvertebrate indicator species to assess the health of urban watersheds. Restoration projects included managing and monitoring invasive species, installing erosion control features on hillsides and in gullies, and caring for recently planted trees.
These short documentaries were planned and produced by the Young Naturalists with guidance from local videographer Di-ay Battad of Pisano Films. The students experimented with interview techniques, storytelling, using DSLR cameras, shot styles, and pre-production planning during a series of sessions throughout the program. The interviews explore the Young Naturalists’ relationship with nature as young people growing up in Pittsburgh. All footage was planned and shot by the Young Naturalists.Click here to watch the videos the Young Naturalists produced!
High School Urban EcoStewards gives 9th-12th grade students the opportunity to work together as a class on collaborative, hands- on volunteer projects to improve the ecological health of their community. Students experience the outdoors throughout the seasons during four sessions to learn about urban ecology and the benefits provided by parks and other green infrastructure in cities. Click here to watch a video about the program!
Youth who have participated in Young Naturalists report that the positive impact of the program extends beyond the summer of their internships. The social support of both peers and mentors continues to buoy teens’ interest and commitment in continuing to learn and grow in their own interests and identities. In post-interviews, 100% of participants reported increased interest in learning about science, nature, and the outdoors, as well as increased connection to place and community as a result of participating in the program. 100% of participants also reported developing a sense of self-efficacy, as well as strengthening 21st century skills such as communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and leadership through the program.“It was really nice to learn about nature and all this cool stuff when you don’t really have the place to do it otherwise. A lot of my friends like nature and like being outside - they’re all science nerds, too - but they wouldn’t do something like this. It’s hard to find someone who will be that person… who will go out on a hike to look at cool stuff and figure out what things are. It’s really cool that I’ve found a place for that.”  “One thing I got form this program was meeting and bonding with people who have the same passions as me – that are passionate about nature. I like it because around my neighborhood there’s not a lot of people that love nature as much as we do. I don’t go out outside as much and link up with friends, because they don’t like the same things I do. [...] It was cool coming out here and meeting new friends that have the same interests as me.” “Usually, I’m not the type of guy who would go up to someone and try to be friends. I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to, but you know, it’s just not easy. But having the chance to interact with everyone mixed things up and made it better. It’s different from a school where they just throw you in there and say, ‘here are all these hundreds of people – do what you do’. This was different from that and made it enjoyable.” “It was really cool meeting everyone, but especially the people my age who share this common interest of nature because I didn’t really encounter that anywhere else. I always thought I wasn’t the only one, but I didn’t have anyone to spout out to or talk about this stuff with. It was really cool meeting people who connect to nature in different ways and in their different professions.” “I never realized there are some many kids in Pittsburgh who love nature! Obviously, there are more of us. We need to find them and help them out. Show them the opportunities. I feel like I found more people like me where I live. I mean, my friends obviously appreciate nature and they recycle and stuff, but they also say, ‘you’re a little nature weirdo’ and ‘you hug trees,’ and I’m like ‘yeah’. I found my people and it makes me really happy.” “Your interview process and the way you present yourself at the beginning really gave us an excitement that other educators and mentors don’t have. Your energy, and the way you picked us, and the way you represent this program and this place as a family made everyone excited. That really makes this different from other programs. And the people who come out of it different from other programs.” “I feel like you [the crew leaders] are both learning with us, which is really cool. Even when we’re doing our walks and stuff like that, you could tell you’re interested in what you’re doing and you want to learn more. You’re not just there teaching us. You’re also working on your own knowledge.” “Some programs are a whole bunch of kids who really don’t care. That was something I was really afraid of coming into this program. […] I was going to come in excited and that the other people wouldn’t care as much. This was way different from what I’ve seen. It made me think of teenagers as different now, because what I’m used to seeing is kids who don’t really care about anything.”
This map shows how the intentional partnerships we form with teachers, schools, community organizations, and partner programs allow us to reach students from across the city.

Implementation steps

Get the Lay of the Land

Gain an understanding of the people, programs, and organizations who work with teens in your area of interest and categorize them by the kinds of opportunities offered, requirements for participation, and who is served.

Identify, contact, and build a relationship with existing knowledge brokers (teachers, outdoor educators, recreation leaders, parents and community groups).

Put People First

Support and encourage teens to find and follow their passions, even if these ultimately lead away from the stated theme of the program. Treat participants with unconditional positive regard and position yourself as someone who is learning and growing alongside them.

Design a Supportive Threshold Experience

Provide diverse and authentic experiences that prioritize moments of personal engagement.

Build social capital with and among students by providing a safe, fun and welcoming environment .

Encourage students to recognize, talk about and apply their individual skills and interests .

Identify and leverage students’ existing learning brokers (parents, teachers, mentors) .

Treat students with an unconditional positive regard and employ restorative practices .

Provide affirmation and recognition to students who may not self-identify as nature-oriented.

Allow less-experienced students to build comfort and confidence across multiple engagements .

Highlight and foreshadow next-step learning opportunities related to student interests .

Provide Opportunities for Deeper, Immersive Experiences

For example, our Young Naturalists program

  • Provides bus passes, weekly stipend and necessary field gear to all participants
  • Engages and challenges students through meaningful research and restoration work
  • Positions students as experts by placing them in teaching, leadership and speaking roles
  • Partners students with diverse experts, leaders and professionals to complete projects
  • Takes time to build a supportive group culture by establishing shared agreements and goals
  • Promotes open communication through regular check-ins and group reflection
  • Provides structure and focus while maintaining flexibility to follow questions and interests
  • Highlights and foreshadows next-step learning opportunities related to student interests

Think of Yourself as a Learning Broker

Recruit from a variety of programs and partners to strategically promote equitable representation .

Use inclusive language, structure and visuals in program materials and application .

Encourage students to identify people who can assist them in completing the application .

Invite parents/guardians to the interview to ensure mutual understanding of the program and to build relationships with learning brokers .

Gather input from teachers and staff about which students excelled during threshold experiences .

Reflect on implicit cultural biases during the application and interview process .

Nudge students, parents, teachers and mentors with reminders about deadlines via email/phone .

Clearly outline the program’s structure and expectations to students, staff, parents and teachers to ensure a ‘good fit.’

Follow up with Participants

Establish system to maintain personalized communication, tracking and follow-up .

Continue to offer experiences within your organization (volunteer days, special events) to reconvene the group(s) from the next-level experience and maintain or strengthen the group’s sense of community over time. 

Provide students with nominations, recommendations, references and next-steps .

Maintaining contact with past participants not only allows them to benefit from continued social support, but also allows your organization to assess the longer-term impact of the program on learners’ lives.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat!

The best environmental educators combine a passion for learning about nature, learning about teaching, and learning about learning. We continually push ourselves to improve our programs and practices by reflecting on our own needs as well as the needs of participants.

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