Developing Changemakers through Environmental Education

    December 13, 2018
    by Estrella Risinger

    This post comes from Estrella Risinger, National Education Manager for NatureBridge, and a presenter on Blue Sky's October 2018 funder webinar on social and emotional learning in nature-based programs.

    “Before I had the opportunity to travel to Olympic National Park, I had begun to feel discouraged about the impact I really could make in the world. Through NatureBridge, and in particular because of my educators, I gained the confidence to speak up about what I wanted to do with my life. By gaining a stronger relationship with nature and discovering a deeper part of myself, I now see the influence of my actions and the amount of power that I have in creating change.”

    These powerful words were spoken by Marisa Granados, NatureBridge’s 2018 Student of the Year.

    NatureBridge programs strive to inspire environmental stewardship in our participants. Whether through the development of a personal connection to nature or to each other, we motivate students to be changemakers in their communities.

    Marisa first came to attend NatureBridge in Olympic National Park with her school, where her immersion in the natural world during her trip made her realize the crucial role that nature plays in her life. Marisa returned home with a new passion, one that consisted of playing a role as a spokesperson for the environment. She returned to Olympic National Park as a participant in a NatureBridge Summer Backpacking Program. These experiences inspired Marisa to develop, with the support of the U.S. Forest Service, a handbook and curriculum for middle school students to learn and apply environmental stewardship effectively. Marisa is now a freshman in college and plans to major in environmental engineering.

    “Because of the meaning my NatureBridge experiences have given to me, I have the courage to step up and change the path of my own future, I have gained the courage I need to make a difference in the world and I have learned to always look up, no matter the situation. All of this has shown me that I am unstoppable, and that I have a purpose to be an ally for our environment and for future generations.”

    Marisa embodies the characteristics of the changemakers that we hope to inspire through our programming. Through the skillfully crafted experiences and mentorship of trained and experienced educators, Marisa has strengthened and begun to apply knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to act as an environmental steward.

    Each year, residential environmental education (EE) providers like NatureBridge collectively touch the lives of nearly one million young people in the U.S. These children spend multiple days with their classmates, sleeping away from home, sharing meals and engaging in learning in outdoor settings. Alongside gains in scientific discovery, an understanding of ecological systems and increased comfort and appreciation for the outdoors, residential EE settings are well-poised to support growth in social and emotional learning* (SEL).

    NatureBridge is proud to be among the cohort of 13 youth development organizations selected for funding by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation as part of its effort to elevate character development on a national scale. Roughly 48% of our nation’s youth will come into contact with one of these organizations over the course of their K-12 career.

    Through this funding, NatureBridge has gained a better understanding of the social and emotional learning outcomes that our programs have on our students. In our immersive programs, relationships are strengthened and students feel empowered to stretch themselves in ways that they never would at school.

    As interest in SEL grows nationally, classroom teachers, district leaders, and parents increasingly demand attention to social and emotional skill development. While many residential EE providers strive to create inclusive learning environments and increase personal and interpersonal development through immersive programming, we have lacked a common language and framework for these efforts.

    With funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, NatureBridge is convening a group of organizations, known as the Residential Environmental Education Partnership, to collaboratively work through the question of how to most effectively incorporate SEL frameworks, research, and preferred practices into residential EE programming. NatureBridge is eager to engage with other residential EE organizations to develop such common language and better understand the role of SEL in our field. It is an incredibly exciting and humbling opportunity to collaborate with others to contribute to the sector in this way.

    Residential Environmental Education Partnership (REEP) organizations include Canyonlands Field Institute, Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, Multnomah Education Services District Outdoor School, NorthBay Education Foundation, Teton Science School, The Ecology School, Sierra Nevada Journeys, Wolf Ridge and YMCA Camp Orkila. In addition to these ten organizations, BEETLES representatives are joining NatureBridge as thought partners in this work.

    Over the next year, REEP will aggregate collective wisdom in the service of establishing common language and developing shared tools related to SEL in the context of residential EE. To ensure that this effort is truly collaborative, the working group is facilitated by Learning for Action. Ultimately, REEP findings will be disseminated to the extended residential EE community. To get updates on the progress of the collaborative, subscribe here.

    With the support of the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, we aim to learn more about the intersection of environmental education and social and emotional learning so that, like Marisa, every student can develop the self-confidence and connection to nature to become a champion of the environment.

    *The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (

    Estrella Risinger is the National Education Manager for NatureBridge. Founded in 1971, NatureBridge provides environmental science programs for students in the world’s best classrooms—our national parks. NatureBridge’s mission is to connect young people to the wonder and science of the natural world, igniting self-discovery and inspiring stewardship of our planet. As the largest residential education partner of the National Park Service, NatureBridge serves more than 30,000 students and their teachers each year and offers programs in six national parks: Yosemite National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Olympic National Park, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, Channel Islands National Park and Prince William Forest Park. For more information, visit


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