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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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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