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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.

Web presence






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.

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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