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A pathway to change: environmental science career training for youth

Volume 8 Number 1 - April 2011
Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

French:  Un parcours pour changer: une formation pour les jeunes aux carrières en sciences environnementales

Spanish:  Un camino al cambio: ciencia del medio ambiente como carrera de entrenamiento

Despite an increasingly diverse US population, African-American and Hispanic students are still under-represented in natural science careers. Jennifer Schwarz Ballard outlines Chicago Botanic Garden’s ambitious mentoring scheme in science education for secondary school students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As environmental sustainability becomes increasingly important to global, political, economic, and social stability, botanic gardens have both the opportunity and the obligation to take a leading role, not only in natural resource/ecosystem conservation, but also in environmental education that fosters social sustainability through inclusion. Our current environmental crises require a new generation of interdisciplinary scientists well versed in fields such as ecology, reproductive biology, biogeochemistry, hydrology, and climatology – yet these careers draw the fewest graduate students overall, particularly from among African Americans and Hispanics (Czujko, 2004). The increasingly diverse population of the US makes this of particular concern to botanic gardens, since their attendance is more representational of the demographics of the country than traditional museum audiences. By providing compelling informal science experiences that inspire students and transform academic knowledge into passion for the environment, gardens can play a critical role in creating a sustainable global community.

US educational and social contexts

Attracting young African Americans and Hispanics to plant science is especially important as the demographics of the US change and the demand for plant science research escalates. According to the 2000 US Census, the number of people who identify themselves as African American increased by almost 16 per cent and as Hispanic by almost 60 per cent between 1990 and 2000. Under-resourced, urban public schools present a challenging academic climate for students and teachers. The City of Chicago, which the Chicago Botanic Garden serves, is a case in point. On average, Chicago Public School (CPS) students perform lower in science on state and national tests than their suburban and rural counterparts and also score among the lowest of 11 major US urban areas. Among all CPS students, 35 per cent score below the basic achievement level in science, rising to 70 per cent for Hispanic students and 81 per cent for African-American students, a further decline from 2005 performance levels (data from National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2011). A 2005 report states that only 8 per cent of CPS graduates attained a four-year college degree by their mid-twenties, dropping even lower for African-American and Hispanic males (Allensworth, 2005). The challenges these students face in elementary science leaves few eligible for university recruitment programmes and scholarship opportunities.

Case study: The science career continuum

The Chicago Botanic Garden’s five-year Science Career Continuum (SCC) is a pilot initiative designed to strengthen connections between Garden programmes and to create academic and social support services for underserved CPS students in their middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies in natural science. The framework for the SCC is formed by CBG’s existing, successful programmes for underserved African-American and Hispanic teens, as well as its higher education programmes. Individually these programmes provide stepping stones towards science careers, but without any ‘mortar’ – programmatic connections and support networks – the path is difficult to follow.

Teen programs

The Chicago Botanic Garden provides five years of programming for teens in grades 8 through 12 (ages 14–18). CBG launched its first programme, College First, in 1994 to engage Chicago 11th and 12th graders in environmental science and facilitate college acceptance. This year-round programme begins with an eight-week, paid summer internship. Students spend mornings working with CBG staff mentors in horticulture, conservation science, and education. Afternoon studies and field research focus on advanced concepts in environmental science and ecology. The summer culminates in a research project that integrates students’ internship experiences with knowledge gained in the classroom. At monthly meetings during the school year, College First students explore the college application process and visit area colleges.

From its inception, College First has been continually evolving. In its early years, students appreciated the summer job opportunity and college preparation activities, but few expressed interest in science. Subsequently, CBG developed Science First in 2002. This four-week intensive programme is offered twice each summer, to a total of 40 students in grades 8–10 annually. Targeting a younger age-group with a hands-on curriculum that uses the entire Garden as a classroom, CBG excites these middle school students at a critical time in their education, when interest in school and in science typically wanes. After grade 10, Science First students are encouraged to continue participation through College First.

Higher education programmes

As CBG education staff developed teen programmes, CBG scientists expanded higher education opportunities, including summer internships for undergraduates and graduates and, most recently, Master’s and PhD programmes in Plant Biology and Conservation. CBG’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Plant Conservation, funded by the National Science Foundation, provides college interns from schools across the US with rich research experiences and access to world-class facilities. Annually since 2004, eight undergraduate interns have spent the summer studying integrated conservation, restoration, and management of human-altered landscapes. Opportunities continue with the Conservation and Land Management Internships, supported by the Bureau of Land Management. Recent college graduates receive mentoring, training, and hands-on experiences in the fields of conservation and natural resource management. Five- and ten-month assignments with mentors from the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and National Park Service teach valuable skills and conservation experience as they explore environmental career opportunities. The Masters and Doctorate in Plant Biology and Conservation are collaborative programmes between Northwestern University in Evanston, IL and CBG. Students take courses and conduct research with faculty and scientists from both institutions, gaining experience in both academic and applied conservation research. While a goal of all these programmes is to engage students from under-represented groups in science careers, finding interested and qualified participants has been challenging.

The CBG pathway to social inclusion

While CBG programmes are successful individually, we do not currently see College First graduates participating in the Garden’s higher education programmes, despite expressed interest in science and qualifying academic performance. Simply facilitating academic achievement is not sufficient to overcome the social, cultural, and political structures that limit diversity in the scientific disciplines. The Science Career Continuum seeks to do more than provide academic enrichment. It incorporates programme components, identified by education and diversity research, that support students from under-represented groups in successfully following the path from middle school, through the graduate experience, to careers in natural science.

Creating a community of practice

 To successfully address global environmental challenges, botanic gardens must engage diverse populations to understand and act on what have been called the ‘five tectonic stresses’ –population, energy, environment, climate and economics (BGCI, 2010). This only becomes possible when young people are prepared for action through meaningful, ongoing participation in the larger social and political community. Thus, a critical component of the Science Career Continuum is the establishment of a scientific community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) into which teens are welcomed as respected apprentices, encouraged in their scientific endeavors, and supported by experienced mentors throughout their high school, undergraduate and graduate experiences.

Participation in this community begins with multi-directional mentoring relationships. New Science First students learn content and community norms and practices from returning students, while College First students act as mentors for the older Science First students. During the summer, Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) interns act as College First mentors and role models for both Science First and College First students. REU interns provide an essential link between the teens and their professional mentors. Only a few years older than the College First students, REU interns are approachable and provide the latest information and guidance for aspiring teens. Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internships take place off site, so Science First and College First students learn about these field-based experiences through video conferencing. Mentoring relationships continue through the school year, supported by social networking sites that provide opportunities to share college and career resources and a way to stay connected with students from College First who have entered college.

By formalizing inclusion in the Botanic Garden’s scientific community of practice, CBG hopes to better engage young people in a collaborative, socially, and environmentally important joint enterprise. The bond should be formed through a shared repertoire of routines, sensibilities, artifacts and vocabulary developed over time. Inculcation of students into this practice lays the groundwork for individual success and social change – ideally resulting in the inclusion of diverse populations in environmental science.

Supporting academic interest and achievement 

The Science Career Continuum leverages the ability of botanic gardens to provide immersive and inspirational experiences with nature that can transform detached knowledge into a passion for science. Students begin College First with an in situ research experience. From summer 2011, each new cohort will spend three to five days at a collaborating organization (e.g. University of Michigan Biological Station) working with scientists on their research.  In this way the programme makes academic pursuits real through experiential learning and long-term exposure to, and participation in, science and research-based communities. The experience is designed to excite students with fieldwork, introduce them to careers in the biological sciences, and provide a shared experience to help strengthen community bonds.

Academic support does not end with high school graduation, but continues throughout the student’s undergraduate and graduate experiences. Social networking and on-line resources allow ongoing support for students as they begin college. Facebook sites include a discussion area, individual groups for each cohort, and a resource area. Current students can ask questions of older students and learn from their experiences. Students in college can report on their school progress, ask questions about adjusting to college, and discuss career options and the courses required for them. As the depth of the website grows, it is likely to become a career resource for students, further strengthening community bonds. Once students begin college, they are eligible for Garden-dedicated spaces in the REU and CLM internship programmes and for scholarships for Plant Biology and Conservation graduate programmes. This steady communication with students supports their continued interest in and pursuit of natural science careers.

Parent support and education  

The Garden must attend not only to the needs of our students, but also those of the communities from which they come. The continuum engages caregivers on two levels – personal and educational. Teens attend programmes for as long as five years, which allows students and their families to forge personal bonds with summer instructors and Garden staff.  Families are invited to attend the Science First and College First presentations of their culminating research project, as well as a holiday gathering in January.

Because most students who participate in Science and College First will be the first in their family to go to college, parents are unprepared to guide their children through complex college application and financial processes (Smith, 2001; 2009). Research suggests that African-American and Latino parents with limited education demonstrate a high level of concern about their children’s academic achievement, but their ability to support their children in preparing for college is constrained by their life situations and knowledge of higher education options (Delgado-Gaitan, 1994; Smith, 2001). Consequently, a parental education component is integral to the success of the Continuum. The University of Illinois Extension, Early College Outreach Program, is providing workshops for SCC student parents that cover the importance of higher education and how to negotiate the process, filling out college applications, and applying for financial aid. Workshops in English and Spanish are scheduled for evenings and weekends in a variety of locations around Chicago, to ensure that working parents are able to attend.


The Science Career Continuum is one example of a programme that enables botanic gardens to be leaders of social and environmental education. By integrating social, academic and community support, the SCC can do more than provide academic enrichment. It can be a demonstration project, informing the future role of botanic gardens in providing under-served youth with the resources to overcome social, cultural, and political structures that limit diversity in the scientific disciplines.


Bibliography and References

  • Allensworth, Elaine, 2005. Graduation and Dropout Trends in Chicago: A Look at Cohorts of Students from 1991 to 2004. Consortium on Chicago School Research, University of Chicago: Chicago, IL.
  • Botanic Gardens Conservation International, 2010. Redefining the role of botanic gardens – towards a new social purpose. BGCI: London, UK.
  • Boushey, Heather, Fremstad, S., Gragg, R. and Waller, M., 2007. Social Inclusion for the United States. In The Inclusionist (April), Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion: London, UK.
  • Czujko, R., 2004. Painting by the numbers: The representation of minorities in the Geosciences. Eos, American Geophysical Union.
  • Colley, Helen, 2001. Problems with ‘Bridging the Gap’: the reversal of structure and agency in addressing social exclusion.  Critical Social Policy 21 (3): 337–61.
  • Delgado-Gaitan, C., 1994. Spanish-speaking families’ involvement in schools. In C. L. Fagnano & B. Z. Weber (Eds.), School, family and community interaction: A view from the firing lines, pp. 85–98. Westview Press: San Francisco, USA.
  • Prilleltensky, Isaac, 2010. Child wellness and social inclusion: values for action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46: 238–49.
  • Lave, J. and Wenger, E., 1991. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY.
  • Russell, Susan H., Hancock, Mary P. and McCullough, James, 2007. Benefits of undergraduate research experiences. Science (April), 316 (5824): 548–9.
  • Scardamalia, M. and Bereiter, C., 2006. Knowledge building: theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, pp. 97–118. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY.
  • Smith, Michael J., 2001. Low SES black college choice: playing on an unlevel playing field. Journal of College Admission (Spring), 171: 16–21.
  • Smith, Michael J., 2009. Right directions, wrong maps: understanding the involvement of low-SES African American parents to enlist them as partners in college choice. Education and Urban Society (January), 41(2): 171–96.
  • Wenger, Etienne, 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.


La diversité croissante dans la population des Etats-Unis, et l’importance accrue de la conservation des ressources naturelles et des écosystèmes, pour un développement environnemental et social durable, sont des arguments irréfutables pour attirer les étudiants afro-américains et hispaniques vers des carrières en sciences naturelles. En dépit des programmes de recrutements universitaires et des opportunités de bourses, les résultats, souvent insuffisants, de ces élèves en sciences à l’école primaire sont l’une des difficultés. Les Jardins botaniques jouent un rôle crucial en s'attaquant à ce défi, grâce à leur capacité à fournir des expériences informelles motivantes, qui peuvent transformer le savoir des étudiants en passion pour l'environnement.

Le jardin botanique de Chicago s’est appuyé sur ses programmes éducatifs et de recherche pour créer un “continuum en carrières scientifiques” sur cinq ans, qui renforce les liens entre les programmes, et qui permet de mettre en place des services académiques et sociaux pour les étudiants défavorisés au collège, au lycée, à l’université et jusqu’au programme d’étude pour les licences en sciences naturelles. Individuellement, ces programmes constituent les premières marches vers une carrière scientifique, mais sans le ciment (les connections entre programmes et les réseaux d’aide), le chemin est difficile à suivre. Ciblée, cette formation aux carrières en sciences environnementales, avec un soutien pour les jeunes des minorités, demande des investissements en programmes de haute qualité et une aide intensive pour les étudiants tout au long de périodes de transitions stimulantes, mais c'est un outil puissant pour construire un contexte favorable à une intégration sociale qui est la marque d'une société performante.



La creciente diversidad de la población de los EE.UU. y la importancia de la conservación y sosténabilidad de los recursos naturales, son un reto para  atraer estudiantes africano americanos e hispánicos inarticulados a las carreras de ciencias naturales. A pesar de los programas de reclutamiento por medio de becas universitarias, ellos se encuentran consistentemente aislados en la representación de los programas de ciencia básica. En este contexto los jardines botánicos pueden señalar y dirigir este cambio compilando información de experiencias científicas que pueden transformar el conocimiento y pasión de los estudiantes por el medio ambiente. El jardín botánico de Chicago ha propuesto el crear un currículo de cinco años en sus programas de educación e investigación ‘Science Career Continuum’; el que estresa y forma académicamente la conexión con servicios y apoyo social para dichos estudiantes que se encuentran en educación media, alta, no graduada y graduados en el área de las ciencias naturales. El currículo consiste en programas individuales, en los que paso a paso el estudiante se involucra hacia las carreras científicas, pero sin la pesadez o bombardeo de temas que éstas carreras comúnmente exigen; por medio de conexiones programadas y redes de apoyo, el sendero es difícil de seguir, pero posible. Enfocar continuamente un entrenamiento de una carrera científica para una juventud minoritaria requiere de una calidad muy alta, inversiones y apoyo intensivo para estudiantes que se enfrentan y cruzan estos periodos de transición; este sendero es una herramienta poderosa para llevar a cabo este tipo de incorporación que será el sello para una sociedad con éxito


Jennifer Schwarz Ballard

Center for Teaching and Learning
Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Road
Glencoe, IL 60022, USA