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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4 weeks ago

Life Lab

Building on Life Lab’s 40 years of experience in the school garden movement, we’ve updated and put together a series of 4 virtual courses that will guide and support educators in becoming a Life Lab-Certified School Garden Educator. 🌳At Life Lab, we believe the world needs informed, inspired, creative, and collaborative leaders, ready with the skills and the motivation they need to work for justice, sustainability, and healthy communities. And we believe that the garden is an ideal space for growing just such leaders! Now, more than ever, we need dedicated educators to lead children in cultivating a love of learning, healthy food and connection to our natural world through garden-based education. 🐝Your support makes this work possible 💚 – thank you for being a part of the Life Lab community and broader school garden movement! If you have already donated to Life Lab recently, thank you! If you haven’t yet given this year, please help us keep all of this vital work going and growing by donating now. Gifts of any size are deeply appreciated and have real impacts.www.lifelab.org/donate

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4 weeks ago

Life Lab

🌻 🔬 Next Generation Science in the Garden 🔬🌻 “I’m a Scientist!” exclaim students in the garden, empowered by Life Lab’s inquiry-led approach to science education. A garden is rich with teachable moments inviting observant students to experience foundational life and natural science concepts. As birds fly overhead, plants fruit or bloom or hibernate, decomposers make dirt; students learn science by observation and experience, having fun and gaining deeper academic knowledge. Life Lab’s Next Generation Science in the Garden (NGSG) curriculum is developed by teachers, piloted by garden educators and a wonderful tool for connecting academic curriculum to robust garden environments.Your support makes this work possible – thank you for being a part of the Life Lab community and broader school garden movement! NGSG Curriculum is available now! ow.ly/ATOW50HhQb4

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1 month ago

Life Lab

Thank you for supporting hands-on learning and well-being for all children and being part of the growing school garden movement! We appreciate your partnership and wish you and your loved ones a joyous holiday season.

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I’ve been a teacher educator for 15 years. I started with literacy methods, then migrated to science, but what I most love to teach is garden pedagogy. Thanks to @ucmastergardenersnapaco I was able to bring lessons I learned from @ucdstudentfarm Life Lab and @beetlesproject to Napa. From 2013-2017 the #SchoolGardenTaskForce hosted several workshops aimed at increasing the horticultural knowledge of garden educators. I found a community of like-minded folks to connect with in California. #communityconnection #gardenbasedlearning #learningfromthebest

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2 months ago

Readers To Eaters

#GoodReads in Spanish, incldng LAS CALABACITAS DE ZORA, translatd from Zora’s Zucchini.Also see ESPINACAS DE SYLVIA, translated from Sylvia’s Spinach, a 2020 selection.See full lists from 2019-2021: bit.ly/3rkZa5nBoth SYLVIA and ZORA, in English & Spanish, are available in #audiobooks from Live Oak Media. ..#SpanishChildrensBooks #DiverseBooks #FoodLiteracy REFORMA Reforma Los Angeles ChapterNational Association for Bilingual EducationCABE California Association for Bilingual EducationThe National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) California Association for the Education of Young ChildrenViva Farms Big Green Life Lab Common Threads Farm The Children’s Book Council ALSC – The Association for Library Service to ChildrenThe Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DCOur ’22 Best Spanish Language Picture book list comes out in January. For now, enjoy ’21 @CuentoDeLuz @charlesbridge @reforma @ALALibrary @Candlewick @kokila @BarefootBooks @ReadersToEatersbankstedu.info/3D3NBl3

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Our partners, Life Lab, are hiring to work with #PVUSD students. Check it out!Nuestros socios, Life Lab, están contratando para trabajar con estudiantes de #PVUSD. ¡Échale un vistazo!lifelab.org/about/internships/jobs/Life Lab PVUSD Parents

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2 months ago

Readers To Eaters

Happy National Homemade Bread Day! November is also National Bread Month. Share Bread Lab on the science and joy of whole wheat sourdough breadmaking. bit.ly/2VQjVo7"This engaging picture book about the science and joy of making bread is named for Washington State University’s influential BreadLab and co-written by its managing director, Kim Binczewski, and agricultural scientist Bethany Econopouly. Illustrated lovingly by Hayelin Choi, this book should inspire folks of all ages to explore the world of sourdough baking."Eater SeattleSee video with Kim introducing the book and her work at the WSU Breadlab. bit.ly/3r9RIqz..#NationalHomemadeBreadDay #HomemadeBread #Bread #WholeGrain #WholeWheat #Sourdough #SourdoughStarter #Fermenation #FoodLiteracy #FoodEducation #ScienceEducation #FoodScience #PlantScience #SoilScience #Farming #CulinaryEducation #KidsCooking #FarmToSchool #AgClassroom #AgLiteracy #AITC The Bread Bakers Guild of AmericaNational Agriculture in the Classroom American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture Whole Kids Foundation Pilot Light FoodCorps Life Lab Big Green Washington Ag in the Classroom California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom (CFAITC) California Farm to School Edible Schoolyard NYC The Edible Schoolyard Project Center for Ecoliteracy

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3 months ago

Kirby School

Another wonderful Community Involvement day is in the books!Some of the activities students participated in to serve our community today:* Learned and practiced land stewardship (improve biodiversity, revegetation, weed removal)* Food preparation and distribution* Resource conservation* Home construction for low income families* Care and clean up of our community’s shared spacesThank you to these amazing local organizations and groups for their continued work to better our world through the lens of environmental advocacy and social justice: Coastal Watershed CouncilSave Our ShoresHomeless Garden ProjectEvergreen CemeterySan Lorenzo Valley Native Habitat Restoration ProgramGrey BearsLife LabSecond Harvest Food Bank Santa CruzHabitat for Humanity Monterey BayReStore Santa Cruz Home Improvement Store & Donation Centerwww.facebook.com/groups/SantaCruzFoodNotBombsSanta Cruz Museum of Natural HistoryCity of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation

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3 months ago

Readers To Eaters

Happy National STEM Day! #GoodFoodReads for #stemeducation: The Thing About Bees: A Love LetterFarmer Will Allen and the Growing TableBread LabBook info @ bit.ly/xoWr0H Find CurriculumMatrix for these titles @ National Agriculture in the Classroom bit.ly/3H0J9H4 ..#NationalSTEMDay #STEM #STEAM #stemeducation #scienceeducation #gardeneducation #environmentaleducation #MakerEducation #farmtoschool #agclassroom #agliteracy #AITC #FoodLiteracy #naeycAC The Alliance for a Healthier GenerationNational Science Teaching AssociationWSTA-Washington Science Teachers AssociationCalifornia Farm to School National Farm to School Network FoodCorps Big Green Life Lab Edible Schoolyard NYC The Edible Schoolyard Project Green Bronx Machine

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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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