ULIEA Winner Q&A: The Wild Center & The Adirondack Youth Climate Program

UL and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) developed the UL Innovative Education Awards (ULIEA) in 2015 to honor programs in the United States and Canada leading the way in project-based learning, community citizenship and using the environment as a platform to STEM learning (E-STEM). In 2015 and each year since, we’ve awarded five organizations that create sustainable community solutions and provide innovative K-12 programming to solve real-world environmental issues.

The 2016 Tier-Two winner, The Wild Center's Adirondack Youth Climate Program, engages youth in developing climate change solutions (among many other things!). Here's their story.

The Wild Center, Adirondack Youth Climate Program, 2016 Tier Two Winner

ULIEA: Tell us about your organization
The Wild Center is a not-for-profit, world-class natural history museum in the six-million-acre Adirondack Park - an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and New York State Park. We at The Wild Center are devoted to educating our 150,000 annual visitors about the Adirondacks' distinctive natural history, inspiring a lifelong connection between people and nature, and sharing an example of how humans and the rest of the natural world can successfully coexist. We implement this mission by presenting innovative and interactive exhibits, naturalist experiences, and educational programs that evolve visitors' perceptions about the natural world.

More specifically, The Wild Center's science-based experiences, exhibits and programs allow our visitors to interact with natural scientists’ latest discoveries - it is our living laboratory for trying new methods and ideas. Outside the museum, there are naturalist tours, hikes, and interpretive exhibits including the new Wild Walk - a more than 1,000 foot, universally accessible, elevated trail through the forest that uses interactive exhibits to help visitors see nature from a new perspective. The Wild Center also provides a modern, year-round example of sustainable design by being the first museum in New York to earn the Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. From live otters to fish to films to the building itself, The Center has developed a unique multidisciplinary approach to environmental education.

There may be no more important issue facing humankind than discovering better ways to coexist with the rest of the natural world, and there may be no better place to understand that effort than in the Adirondacks. We believe that a connection to nature inspires positive action as well as a personal and collective responsibility to improving our world. The Wild Center is the place to see and appreciate the natural side of that vital story and the mission of The Wild Center is to ignite an enduring passion for the Adirondacks where people and nature can thrive together and set an example for the world.

ULIEA: Tell us about your award-winning program
The Wild Center's Youth Climate Program is a year-round program that aims to increase youth climate change awareness and decision-making skills. We ask participants to develop and implement a Climate Action Plan - a framework for reducing emissions and climate impacts in one's community. Participants are invited to present their action plans at the Youth Climate Summit, an annual event that brings together over 200 students and teachers to learn about climate science, impacts and local solutions. Plans have included the completion of school gardens, composting projects, recycling programs, carbon neutral dances, "ban the bag" campaigns, outdoor classroom construction, student-run community climate awareness events, etc. The program's success has led organizers to establish a Youth Climate Leadership Retreat that helps students further develop leadership skills. Retreat alumni have even been invited to attend the signing of the Paris Climate Agreements in NYC.

Additionally, we've developed a free, online toolkit that details our Adirondack Youth Climate Program model - our successes, challenges, and lessons learned - to help other schools and organizations host their own youth climate summits. Already, we've seen events in Vermont, Detroit, Seattle, Finland, and Sri Lanka with more planned across New York State, at the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium and Munich International School in Germany. We're so proud to be creating and empowering a global network of youth climate leaders with these other organizations.

ULIEA: Why did you include an environmental piece with the STEM initiative?
The environmental piece was a no-brainer. Our question was how to more intentionally include STEM. But when we unpacked our program components - the youth leadership development, the Summit, the hands-on workshops, and the project-based learning within the Climate Action Plans - we saw they all integrated STEM learning. The problem-solving, critical-thinking, and creative-researching skills that go into creating an achievable Climate Action Plan are STEM-based.

ULIEA: How has your program been received by the community?
We are very fortunate to receive strong community support. We've been recognized regionally with two appreciation awards from the Adirondack Park Agency and the Region 2 award for environmental excellence from the EPA. Students have been invited to speak at other youth climate summits, schools, town board meetings, churches, and community groups. In 2015, The Wild Center's Youth Climate Program was recognized by The White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and included in former President Obama's Climate Action Plan. Student leaders and The Wild Center staff spoke at the UN COP 21 climate talks in Paris and attended numerous climate events at the United Nations complex in NYC.

Parents are also excited about the work we are doing and the transformation they see in their children. We want to build on the program's success to involve more people, reach out more intentionally to teachers, and grow capacity to create sustained positive change in schools and communities.

ULIEA: What is your program's biggest success? What do you hope to achieve?
Every student who is engaged in climate change as a result of The Wild Center's Youth Climate Program is a success. We hope our program can advance climate change education and youth empowerment while preparing our communities with the skills, knowledge and passion to develop innovative solutions. The Youth Climate Program creates youth leaders who are at the forefront of the climate change movement in business, innovation, engineering, accounting, science, policy, teaching, art, and many other fields. We celebrate our youth who feel empowered to enact change in their schools, communities and beyond. Our dream is to have an even larger network of youth climate summits around the world that are empowering and engaging youth to act on climate change in their communities.

How will the ULIEA grant money help your program?
The ULIEA grant has allowed us to:

  • Implement our mini-grant program and fund more student projects
  • Give students access to Al Gore's Climate Reality Training program
  • Engage with and present to students at other youth climate summits throughout New York State, Vermont, and Sri Lanka
  • Add an intensive leadership training program at the Summit that allows different schools' student leaders to network with each other
  • Host incredible and inspiring speakers like National Geographic Explorer Alize Carrere and climate scientist Curt Stager at the Summit
  • Connect our rural youth with leaders, innovators, explorers, and scientists to learn about new green job pathways
  • Building a network of youth climate leaders across the Adirondacks

ULIEA: What does it mean to be a ULIEA Winner?
On a personal level, being a ULIEA winner has connected us with a whole new professional network of peers and mentors that help problem solve and brainstorm on a regular basis. Building these relationships and learning about best practices from an amazing community of like-minded people has been one of the best parts of this program. We know we're not alone working on climate change education and it gives us the strength and resolve to do the work that needs to happen for a sustainable and resilient future.

The Wild Center's Youth Climate Program is unlocking the potential of the next generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, change agents, and leaders because of the ULIEA grant. We are expanding the idea of what is possible, and while the hard work is really just beginning, we have the courage and hope for a bright future for generations to come. Thank you to UL and NAAEE for helping us be part of the solution. We are so grateful for the incredible support and feel so fortunate to be a part of this wonderful community of people.