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

Brokered Learning Pathways: Young Naturalists

Pittsburgh, United States
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.

Learning Brokers Support Teens in Navigating the Outdoor Learning Landscape

“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. ”

Young Naturalist, 2018

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.

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Innovation Overview
14 - 18
Age Group
Tips for implementation
1) Access to urban greenspace with the ability to complete stewardship activities (e.g. invasive species removal, trail building or woody plantings), conduct research, or perform other meaningful paid work within that area. 2) Ability to build relationships with knowledge brokers and/or tap into existing networks of outdoor educators, experts or other diverse youth serving professionals in your region. 3) Staff & leadership who understand the importance of consistency and unconditional positive regard in students’ lives, who are committed to youth development, and who can implement programs over a several-year span as well as train/mentor seasonal staff in this approach. 4) Time set aside to intentionally reflect with staff, participants and partners. 5) Funding to support student stipends, transportation, outdoor gear and program expenses to promote equitable access.
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Get the Lay of the Land
Survey your region’s outdoor learning landscape.
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Put People First
Maintain a focus on youth participants as people first, and make this focus explicit to all staff and outside partners who work with youth in your program.
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Design a Supportive Threshold Experience
Create a threshold experience program that offers a diverse set of program activities for all learners and offers consistent social support to enable learners to build comfort and confidence in those activities. Promote this program to partners who have deep community reach.
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Provide Opportunities for Deeper, Immersive Experiences
Identify and offer “next level” experiences, and, if necessary, build a next level program in your organization. While the Parks Conservancy offers the summer Young Naturalist program -- filling an unmet need in the Pittsburgh region -- we also connect participants to other local opportunities.
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Think of Yourself as a Learning Broker
Support teens in making the leap from threshold experiences to more in-depth experiences
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Follow up with Participants
Keep in touch with participants as they continue to explore their interests and seek our opportunities to learn. Staff should intentionally position themselves as learning brokers as teens are entering and leaving their programs.
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