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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1 week ago

Readers To Eaters

Great opportunity for young beekeepers! 🐝🐝 Check out Bee Grant from Whole Kids Foundation in partnership with The Bee Cause Project.Both WKF and BCP have been wonderful partners in promoting bee education and food literacy. See• WFK "World of Honey Bees," wonderful resource including Bee Activity Box featuring The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter. bit.ly/3h5SEb4• BCP Q&A with BEE author/illustrator Shabazz Larkin on #creativity #mindfulness & how we can take steps to care for the earth. bit.ly/3AoptJmGreat sharing for September #FoodLiteracyMonth and October National #FarmToSchoolMonth! ..#Bees #Pollinators #BeeEducation #BeeGarden #SaveTheBees #GiveBeesAChance #SchoolGarden #GardenEducation #OutdoorEducation #EnvironmentalEducation #ClimateEducation #FarmToSchool #AITC #AgClassroom #AgLiteracy #ScienceEducation #STEM #STEAM #FoodLiteracy #FoodEducation National Farm to School NetworkNational Agriculture in the ClassroomAmerican Farm Bureau Foundation for AgricultureJunior Master Gardener ProgramThe American Horticultural Society FoodCorps Common Threads Farm Center for Ecoliteracy Life LabThe Edible Schoolyard Project Edible Schoolyard NYCBzzt! Bee grant applications are now open! If you are interested in receiving an educational beehive or support for bee programming at your school or organization, apply for our bee grant in partnership with The Bee Cause Project. Learn more and register for our 9/15 webinar at: bit.ly/3DDfkL3

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4 weeks ago

Save Our Shores

Annual Coastal Cleanup is just around the corner and we are still looking for site captains for 7 of our region’s sites. This is a tremendous opportunity to join the region’s biggest annual volunteer effort to help protect our life-giving waters! For teens who are willing to partner with a parent or guardian, it’s also a fabulous way to practice leadership skills while earning community service credits!Ready to join us as a site captain? Sign up at docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfEoLUWDzybzQ_iUyKQhCetuywE8eKlnmZSi6neKIjdBHLSgQ/viewformWant to volunteer on Sept 18? Sign up at docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLScdrSlrMTFOR7PBuGjwmSxx0DItsoctuloI5EI7eisRx8H6jw/viewformFriends of Santa Cruz State Parks Santa Cruz County Bank KindPeoples California State Parks Foundation California State Parks Kayak Connection Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center – Unofficial Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Monterey Bay Aquarium FishWise Seafood Watch Surfrider Foundation Santa Cruz Chapter The Bird School Project Life Lab Santa Cruz County Office of Education City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Lookout Santa Cruz County of Santa Cruz Aqua Safaris Scuba Center Live Like Coco Good Times Santa Cruz Santa Cruz Sentinel KAZU 90.3 Return of the Natives Restoration Education Project Santa Cruz State Junior Lifeguards

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4 weeks ago

Life Lab

🌱 We only have 2 spots left in our School Garden Educator Certification Program! 🌱 Sign-up today for the entire series of courses on our website. Our first course, Building Connections in the Garden, starts with asynchronous work on September 1st and our first synchronous session will be on Wednesday, September 8th from 3:30 – 5:00 PST. You may continue to sign up through August 31st or until all spots are filled. Upon completion of the 4 courses, participants will receive a certificate and the distinction of being a Life Lab-Certified Garden Educator. Each course will last approximately 4 weeks long and include 4 synchronous meetings, at-home work, and a unique coaching model tailored to each individual’s needs.lifelab.org/educator-certification-program/💚 We look forward to working with you!💚

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1 month ago

Nikki Patterson

Beautiful way to end this spontaneous day. Thank you Don💐 Thank you Life Lab Thank you UCSC CASFS Farm and Thank you Matthew Raiford#grateful #Interconnections #bressnnyam #blackfarmers #heritagefarm #yeschef #badass #organicgardening @bookshopsc ❤️

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1 month ago

Philip Lee

Good read during summer zucchini season! See Booklist review of LAS CALABACITAS DE ZORA, translated from Zora’s Zucchini: "By story’s end, Zora has learned the importance of growing, harvesting, and, above all, sharing food. [Anna] Raff’s appealing watercolor illustrations are soft and inviting, and an author’s note explains the ‘Donate, Preserve, Share’ concepts behind growing gardens. The translation’s well-chosen Spanish is simple to read aloud in a classroom or storytelling setting." bit.ly/3jWFZcGWe’re thrilled that LAS CALABACITAS DE ZORA audiobook is out this spring from Live Oak Media!Come hear author Katherine Pryor discuss ZORA and connecting food & literacy, on Big Green‘s webinar, along with Marie Dennan, BG’s Memphis program manager, and Micheál Newman-Brooks, program manager of school gardens with Chicago Public Schools. 8/18 @ 1PM ET / 10AM PT. Free register@ bit.ly/2XuQsV3Get zucchini recipes, food swap ideas@ bit.ly/3xx996Z..#SpanishChildrensBooks #Zucchini #SummerReading #SummerGardening #KidsGardening #SchoolGarden #BackToSchool #GardenEducation #FoodSwap #FoodWaste #FarmToSchool #AgClassroom #AgLiteracy #AITCThe Edible Schoolyard Project Edible Schoolyard NYCSlow Food USA School Garden Network Green Bronx Machine Life Lab Common Threads Farm Center for Ecoliteracy

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2 months ago

Philip Lee

See Our School Garden! author Rick Swann present on connecting school garden & literacy on 8/10, last of the Food Literacy Summer Author Series from Clemson Extension School & Community Gardening and South Carolina Farm to School Also presenting will be Tracy Miskelly at SC Ag in the Classroom. Register at bit.ly/3C2WjkyRick is a former Seattle school librarian. His work researching on creating a garden for his school led to his poems for OUR SCHOOL GARDEN! See discussion guides on OUR SCHOOL GARDEN from The Bee Cause Project Book Club. bit.ly/3rU2D7URead more about the Summer Author seriest: "Clemson Extension launches author series aimed at improving food literacy for SC youth." bit.ly/2Vlzc3A..#Poetry #FoodPoetry #FoundPoem #SchoolGarden #GardenEducation #SummerReading #SummerLearning #FarmToSchool #AgClassroomJunior Master Gardener ProgramSlow Food USA School Garden Network Common Threads Farm Life Lab FoodCorps

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Magical seeds are being planted at Starlight Elementary in Watsonville that will blossom into a garden and teaching kitchen where students will learn, grow & thrive. Community Foundation staff was thrilled to visit the site last week, meet with partners, and learn more about the project (a recipient of a 2021 community grant. (Pictured from left to right: Judit Camacho, Jennifer Holm, Michelle Rodriguez, Hilary Bryant, Kevin Heuer, Jackie Medina, Don Burgett, Francisco Estrada, & Julie Edwards)with:Emeril Lagasse Foundation Life Lab Community Health Trust of Pajaro ValleyPajaro Valley Unified School District

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2 months ago

Readers To Eaters

Happy National Urban Beekeeping Day! See info on urban bees from Detroit Hives. Good day to share The Thing About Bees: A Love Letter. See author/illustrator Shabazz Larkin read the book for PBSThirteen WNET New York with wonderful message at the end on how to take care of bees, our environment, and ourselves! bit.ly/32LQ0S0..#nationalurbanbeekeepingday #urbanbees #beekeepers #beeeducation #savethebees #givebeesachance #pollinators #pollination #farmtoschool #agclassroom #agliteracy #AITC #summerlearning #summerreading National Agriculture in the ClassroomMichigan Agriculture in the Classroom New York Agriculture in the ClassroomWisconsin Ag in the Classroom ProgramEdible Schoolyard NYC The Edible Schoolyard Project Life Lab Big Green Common Threads Farm Slow Food USA School Garden Network

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3 months ago

Life Lab

¡Estamos emocionados de anunciar la versión en Español del curso GRATIS aclamado, Enseñando en el Aula de la Naturaleza! Conéctese con otros educadores y desarrolle nuevas estrategias y maneras de ver el aula al aire libre. Es una gran oportunidad tanto para educadores nuevos a la enseñanza al aire libre y educación basada en el jardín como para los más experimentados en esta práctica. Lea más y registrese aquí: wischoolgardens.org/EAN-curso/Wisconsin School Garden Network _________________________________We are excited to announce a Spanish language version of the acclaimed FREE course, Teaching in Nature’s Classroom! Connect with educators and develop new strategies and ways of seeing the outdoor classroom. A great opportunity for educators new to outdoor and garden-based learning, as well as educators who are experienced in the field. Learn more and register here wischoolgardens.org/EAN-curso/Wisconsin School Garden Network

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Stock up your Garden Classroom

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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