Life Lab

Life Lab cultivates children's love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education.

Life Lab’s Education Director Whitney Cohen


Discovering the Ground Beneath My Feet – Whitney Cohen

If you’re out for a walk and you come across a car parked in front of a school, stuffed to the gills with buckets of worm compost and hand trowels, baskets of fresh fruit, chart paper, books, and colorful lesson materials … you’ve probably found me! Take a look over the fence and into the school garden. If you see a group of teachers and parents learning the Six Plant Part Song, or gathered around a garden bed talking about how to manage large groups out in the garden, then you’ve definitely found me!

As the Education Director at Life Lab, my task is to take all of the exciting work we are doing on the ground with children and youth in our Garden Classroom in Santa Cruz, CA and share it with teachers across the country. During my time here, I have had the tremendous pleasure of working with educators from New York to Los Angeles, from suburban towns in Arkansas and Texas to rural towns in Northern California, to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Truth told, this is my dream job. My route was circuitous, but I am thrilled that this is where I have landed. Growing up, my parents instilled in me a deep love for travel, adventure, and the outdoors. We went everywhere together, hiking through the red rocks in Utah, floating down rivers in France, picking mushrooms in Finland, and touring the Museum of Natural History in New York City. In short order, I became that kid who refused to purchase anything sold in Styrofoam. I adopted whales for people for holiday gifts, and set up recycling at my grandparents’ house. In my mind, I was well on my way to saving the earth!

After eighteen years in Laguna Beach, California, I moved across the country to attend Vassar College in New York. I became deeply involved in Urban and Latin American Studies. During the summers, I lived, studied, and eventually worked in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Oaxaca, Mexico. During this time I became fluent in Spanish (particularly the Spanish you need to build a latrine in a small, rural village, because that was typically the type of project I was working on). Meanwhile, during the school years, I designed and completed an independent major at Vassar in Sustainable Community Development.

While farming with a women’s cooperative in a very rural, Andean community in Ecuador, I discovered the absolute miracle of food growing from the ground. In my work now, I hear adults all the time lament, “kids today have no idea where food comes from! They think eggs come from the store!” Well — confession alert — that was me! I was honestly completely amazed the first time we pulled potatoes from the ground and cooked them in a soup. I was even nervous that these potatoes, having never been bagged or boxed, might somehow disagree with me! Fortunately, my fears about farm-fresh foods have disappeared completely, but my sense of awe at all of the Earth’s bounty is as strong as ever.

There is a profound difference between knowing about something and knowing something. Of course, if you had asked me, I would have been able to tell you where potatoes came from. Having never grown any food myself, however, I really didn’t know that food came from the earth until that day. And from that day forward, I became committed to never forgetting it! I worked on educational farms, farm-based summer camps, and eventually at San Mateo Outdoor Education in the Santa Cruz Mountains. During these years, I slept outside more often than in, I learned the names of the plants and animals that shared the space, and I reveled in every seasonal change. I remember returning to my parents’ home during these years and feeling as if I had never seen their neighborhood before — the very same neighborhood I lived in for my entire childhood! Using the very basic sensory awareness activities I had learned in environmental education, I quickly noticed orioles nesting in the palm trees, Eucalyptus sap drying into beautiful, glass-like structures that caught the light, and a resident red-shouldered hawk hunting over the hills around our house. I felt very awake, very alive, and very happy to have learned to see beauty and adventure not only on big vacations, but also in the day-to-day details of the world around me. It was also during this time that I met my soon-to-be husband, Tod. (No wonder I didn’t want to go anywhere anymore!)

I probably would have been a teacher at an outdoor school forever if it weren’t for Fridays. Every week, we had a new group of students, and we had a great time exploring the redwoods, tide pools, organic gardens, and creeks. Every Friday, though, they packed their suitcases, shed tears, hugged one another, and left. I hated that. I wanted to go back with them. I wanted to find ways to incorporate all of these engaging, life-changing experiences into their “real” lives back home. And it was then that I decided that I wanted to become a teacher.

In the years that followed, I came to UC Santa Cruz to earn a Masters in Education and a Bilingual Teaching Credential, and then I started teaching science at Pescadero Middle School. In Pescadero, the students, families, fellow teachers and I developed a school garden, a watershed adoption project, and multiple overnight field trips to lighthouses, lakes, and the like. For five years, my students — or sometimes my lesson plans! — were the first thing I thought about when I woke up and the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep. It was a very wonderful and busy time for me.

In 2007, I turned in notice to Pescadero Middle School because my husband and I were ready to travel the country and find somewhere to settle down more permanently. At that same time, I was asked to teach a workshop at a conference for fellow teachers on working with English Language Learners. At that conference, I reconnected with Gail Harlamoff, Life Lab’s Executive Director. She had worked with Life Lab Founder Robbie Jaffe to teach my Science Methods course at UCSC, and I was excited to tell her about the impact their class had on my teaching. She mentioned that a job was open at Life Lab, and the application deadline was the following day. I remember calling my husband from the conference that afternoon to say, “What if we stayed in Santa Cruz? I think I just found my dream job!” Here’s to chance encounters!

In 2010, Tod and I became the unbelievably happy and proud parents to our little boy, Nation. I can think of nothing I love more than sharing all of this — rooster calls, pumpkin patches, bean tipis, and healthy, farm-fresh food — with my family.

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3 days ago

Life Lab

In the face of the myriad challenges of 2020, all of you in SGSOs across the country are innovating in creative and inspiring ways to sustain and enhance garden education for their students. We are eager for other SGSOs to learn from you!💚

We want to honor the time and expertise you all bring to the table and, therefore, with generous support from Whole Kids Foundation we are so pleased to be able to provide stipends for peoples’ contributions to these Working Groups.🌱

This year’s SGSO Institute is open to newcomers and SGSO Institute Alumni! Applications are due Nov 6, 2020.
To learn more about this exciting opportunity and apply, visit: lifelab.org/sgso See MoreSee Less

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6 days ago

Life Lab

The Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation is proudly celebrating five years of supporting nonprofits that teach students and communities about the goodness of fresh ingredients. This year, the Foundation awarded more than 110 Neighborhood Grants to nonprofit organizations, with Life Lab being one of them!

We are grateful for the continued support from Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation. Life Lab is honored to have been chosen as a recipient of the Neighborhood Grants. Our partnership reflects Sprouts Farmers Market’s core values of education, environmental stewardship, and nutrition.

With this support we have been able to launch and sustain BackPocketLearning.org, a robust directory of easy to use activities that require no screen time, promote healthy eating and inspires creativity. This site is perfect for teachers and parents alike! BackPocketLearning.org has garnished over 7k users from all over the world, in almost every continent, since our launch in April.

Sprouts Farmers Market

#sproutsfarmersmarket #MyLifelab #local #nonprofit See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

🌱 Join the SGSO Leadership Institute 🌱

Every year, we host a School Garden Support Organization Leadership Institute to provide an opportunity for school garden professionals from across the country to collaborate, learn from one another, and develop resources to share with a national audience. Collectively, SGSO Institute participants have improved their own work while also sharing ideas and resources to help others do the same.

In the face of the myriad challenges of 2020, all of you in SGSOs across the country are innovating in creative and inspiring ways to sustain and enhance garden education for their students. We are eager for other SGSOs to learn from you! With generous support from Whole Kids Foundation , we are pleased to be able to provide stipends for peoples’ contributions to these Working Groups.

This year’s SGSO Institute is open to newcomers and SGSO Institute Alumni!

🚨 Applications are due November 6, 2020 🚨

To learn more about this exciting opportunity and apply, visit: lifelab.org/sgso See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

Life Lab celebrates Indigenous Peoples Day with special recognition of the land on which our gardens grow and by sharing beautiful family friendly resources highlighting indigenous storytelling and efforts of Native peoples to reclaim food sovereignty, cultural identity, and native land stewardship.

The Life Lab Land Acknowledgement, now shared at all formal gatherings in our Garden Classroom on the UCSC campus:

“The land on which we gather is the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, comprised of the descendants of indigenous people taken to missions Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista during Spanish colonization of the Central Coast, is today working hard to restore traditional stewardship practices on these lands and heal from historical trauma.”

*Land acknowledgement developed in partnership with the
Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman and the Amah Mutsun
Relearning Program at the UCSC Arboretum.

Learn more about the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and the
www.amahmutsunlandtrust.org/

Life Lab is honored to support the film, GATHER (Gather) with a
FREE virtual screening on October 30th at 7pm

📷 credit: Amah Mutsun Land Trust website See MoreSee Less

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2 weeks ago

Life Lab

Looking for some #garden #joy? Join us for a sweet sharing of Life Lab Reimagined: program updates, inspired learning, and community at our Fall Benefit this Saturday at 10:30am 🌱Register at Lifelab.org/fallbenefit 🌱Learn about our New Curriculum, New Life Lab Educator Certification Program, New Staff, and New Garden Additions👀Plus all the beautiful work we’re doing to support school garden education locally and nationally🌻Participants are automatically eligible to win a raffle prize courtesy of @synergyclothing ❤️ #schoolgarden #education #kisstheground #teachtheyouth #landstewardship #fundraiser See MoreSee Less

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4 weeks ago

Life Lab

It’s Harvest Festival Week🌻happening virtually October 5-10th. A collaboration between the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems UCSC CASFS Farm Life Lab​, and students of UCSC Food Systems Working Group
Mark your calendar! The week-long series is full of fun virtual activities for all ages, with live streamed musical performances, a lecture on agroecology from a panel of experts, and ending the week with Life Lab’s #Funtastic Fall Benefit highlighting new program updates and staff/garden additions. Register at www.LifeLab.org/fallbenefit

Visit bit.ly/ucscharvestfest for a complete schedule of events and registration instructions.

Monday, October 5
7:00 PM – 7:45 PM
Life Lab Backyard Chickens Q&A

Tuesday, October 6
10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Saving Seeds, Sustaining Our Communities

Wednesday, October 7
1:30 PM – 2:45 PM
The evolution of agroecology as a practice, a research discipline, and a social movement

7:00 PM – 7:45 PM
Nurture Yourselves With Nature!

Thursday, October 8
4:00 PM – 5:00 PM
Cider Donut Workshop and The Everything Apple Panel

6:00 PM – 7:00 PM
Celebrating Queers and Nature

7:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Giant Green Anemone! Going Deep Into Local Tide Pool Explorations

Friday, October 9
12:00 PM – 2:00 PM
Planting Seeds For Success: Community Connections to Water Your Garden for Wellness!

2:30 PM – 4:00 PM
What is the Food Systems Working Group and what does it do?

5:00 PM – 7:30 PM
Rachel Carson Garden Cooking + Poetry Workshop/Mic!

Saturday, October 10
10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
Life Lab Fall Benefit Gathering
#schoolgardens #gardeneducation #lifelab #harvest #gratitude See MoreSee Less

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4 weeks ago

Life Lab

Happy weekend everyone ☀️Enjoy this sweet share of the UCSC Farm featuring Life Lab 🌱and our chickens! 🐓We look forward to sharing more with all of you as part of our upcoming Fall Benefit on October 10th. Register at Lifelab.org/fallbenefit youtu.be/uEAv4SabLoA See MoreSee Less

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1 month ago

Life Lab

In celebration of the Fall Equinox 🍁we are excited to share a poignant new film called Kiss the Ground Movie🌱Life Lab is honored to have partnered with Kiss the Ground to develop middle school curriculum and accompanying training video for educators, focused on the process of capturing and storing carbon in living organisms such as soil, plants and algae.🌿

This hopeful film showcases part of the solution to climate change that is right under our feet: biosequestration in the soil. Life Lab invites you to join a Global Watch Party for the film, followed by a live Q and A at 6pm PST / 9pm EST. For more info, go to Kiss the Ground Movie 🌍 #Lifelab #regenerativeagriculture #schoolgardens #soilhealth #earthactivist #climatechangesolutions See MoreSee Less

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1 month ago

Life Lab

It’s World Gratitude Day! 💐Life Lab is grateful for our community and to continue our 40+ year mission of cultivating children’s love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden based education🌱#life lab #schoolgardens #education #worldgratitudeday #gratitude See MoreSee Less

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1 month ago

Life Lab

Join us on October 10th at 10:30am for Life Lab’s Fall Benefit: A Celebration of Learning and Community.
Register at LifeLab.org/fall-benefit
This virtual event includes a tour of Life Lab’s evolving work and vision. Plus we have a surprise announcement! We are thankful for your encouragement and support as a member of our Life Lab community. Despite the challenges of this unprecedented year, Life Lab is moving forward with grace and creative innovation. The events of this season have provided opportunities to support our local community and national networks in new ways, expand our reach through virtual connections, and dive more deeply into justice and equity in all of our work. We are strengthening the roots that feed Life Lab programs as we continue to transform the Nature of Education. Continued cultivation of children’s love for learning and connections with healthy food and nature during COVID is essential and brings hope, wonder, and a much needed breath of fresh air. We are excited to share the inspiring work of our dedicated staff with you! #gratitude #schoolgardens #education #lifelab #fundraiser #gardens
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Stock up your Garden Classroom

Life Lab 40th
Life Lab’s 40th Gala – Sunday, October 13th  Celebrate 40 years of bringing learning to life in gardens. Learn more  
Life Lab's 40th Gala
Life Lab provides truly inspiring training. Their breadth of experience, joy for teaching, and commitment to sharing knowledge highlight the best practices in food and garden education.
Erica CurryTraining and Professional Development ManagerFoodCorps
Thank you for such a wonderful field trip experience! Your leaders did such a great job at keeping our kids engaged.
Sheila BrickenKindergarten TeacherSan Lorenzo Valley Elementary
Terry had another awesome two weeks at Life Lab. I think he learns more there than in any other part of his year. School is great, but he’s passionate (and often dogmatic) about what he learns there.
Tara NeierCamp ParentSummer camp mom
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