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.

View all staff

follow us on Facebook

7 days ago

Life Lab

🌱Moment of the Month🌱

Life Lab Summer Camps are always a beautiful and nurturing way to share the interconnections of nature with children. Although our campers could not join us in the Life Lab Garden Classroom this summer, we wanted to make it possible for them to have fun at home! So our camp team assembled Summer Activity Care Packages full of materials, recipes, and advice for 225 children who had already registered for camp. They then carefully and lovingly hand delivered them to each family, occasionally getting to say Hi! from a safe distance, too.

"Thank you so much!! I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for pooling your ideas together for non-screen fun and learning opportunities. We can’t wait to dive in!
With much gratitude,"
Ellie

We are grateful to each and every camp family for their kindness, generosity, and patience as we all navigated the new realities of this year. As a community, the camp families even donated more than $12,000 of their camp fees towards ensuring that Life Lab will continue cultivating children’s love of learning, healthy food, and nature through garden-based education during this challenging time.

While we cannot deliver care packages to everyone in our broader Life Lab community, we hope that our growing BackPocketLearning.org website will help families seeking simple, fun, nature based activities and healthy family recipes to enjoy together at home this summer!🌈🐝🌻🌞

#lifelabmomentofthemonth #mylifelab #lifelab #summercamp #summerfun #gardenbasededucation #gardenlife #garden See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

2 weeks ago

Life Lab

Our “Share Your Garden Saturday” video series continues with a sweet share from Emma Christie in the Life Lab garden at Starlight Elementary School in Watsonville🌸#shareyourgaredLL #school gardens PVUSD Food & Nutrition Services #LifeLab AmeriCorps See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

2 weeks ago

Life Lab

In love with our @reneesgardenseeds flowers❤️thank you Renee for years of support & providing seeds for Life Lab gardens. We appreciate you! #reneesgardenseeds #lifelab #outdooreducation #gardensofgratitude #schoolgardens See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

3 weeks ago

Life Lab

“Education is a practice of Freedom” #emancipation #juneteenth #americanhistory #blackhistory #teachablemoments See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

3 weeks ago

Life Lab

Happy National Eat Your Veggies Day!😋🥕

To celebrate today we wanted to share some of our impacts this past school year. In our seven PVUSD Partner Elementary Schools, 98% of kindergarten, 1st and 2nd teachers reported that the Fall 2019 NGSS in the Garden programs improved their 1,900 students’ attitudes towards fresh fruits and vegetables, their emotional well-being, and their connection with nature.

Our Kids Cook presentation brought exciting hands-on cooking and healthy eating to more than 1,500 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at these schools, too, in January, February and March. In tastings surveys 72% of the children reported liking or loving the fresh, healthful foods they ate, with 63% said they were trying a new fresh produce item for the first time.

278 second-graders from our partner schools enjoyed hands-on learning in field trips to our Blooming Classroom this school year. 59% reported tasting new healthy food items for the first time in lesson-based tastings, and 70% said they loved or liked what they tasted.

We would also like to remind you to eat a rainbow 🌈🥗

A diverse and colorful diet nourishes a strong and healthy body. All fruits and vegetables contain different combinations of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. In addition, they contain phytonutrients, which give fruits and vegetables their vibrant colors and also play a wide range of roles in keeping our bodies healthy.

Thank you to our partners and sponsors for making this work possible. @sagegardenproject @pvhealth @pajarovalleyusd
@unfi @foodcorps

#eatyourveggies #EatYourVegetablesDay #mylifelab #vegetables See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

3 weeks ago

Life Lab

Timeline Photos See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

3 weeks ago

Life Lab

Life Lab Stands With Black Lives.

The injustice of systemic racism must end. Our work at Life Lab to foster empathy, love and inclusion with the children who are the next generation will continue, and it is no longer enough. This painful moment is an opportunity and a catalyst for us to take the next steps to more purposefully weave antiracist learning into all that we do.

This is a time of active learning for us, as we listen and dig deeper into Life Lab’s part in historical and present-day oppression. We see opportunities to provide foundational antiracist lessons and experiences more intentionally throughout our curriculum and programs, joining with others who are on this path.

There are seeds of hope in this moment that we can nurture in garden classrooms. Our work with children, educators and schools can motivate actions, large and small, individual and collective, to help create real change for a more just society.

Black lives matter, and Life Lab commits to countering racism through education and love.

We know this process will include learning, unlearning and relearning. We welcome this collaborative work, and we will report back to you on our progress.

~ The Life Lab Team See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

1 month ago

Life Lab

🥕Meet Cara, our Garden Programs Manager!🥕

Cara began her current position at Life Lab in 2014, but has worked with Life Lab in a variety of roles since 2007. While going to school at the University of California Santa Cruz, she found her calling to be an outdoor educator while interning at Life Lab in the field trip teaching program. Graduating from UCSC with a B.A in Environmental Studies and a minor in Anthropology, Cara brings 12 years of education experience to her position, specializing in environmental education and professional development for beginning educators. Growing up in Chicago, she jumped on opportunities to volunteer and work at learning institutions, such as the Evanston Ecology Center and the Field Museum of Chicago. Cara moved to Santa Cruz in 2003 and loves living in a community that appreciates healthy living, eating well, and the natural world. When she is not hard at work, she is hard at play, hiking, dancing, cooking, traveling and doing yoga.🥘🌎😁 See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

2 months ago

Life Lab

Our “Share Your Garden Saturday” video series continues with a sweet share from Abby Hauth at the Life Lab garden at MacQuiddy Elementary🌸 #shareyourgardenLL #schoolgardens #lifelab @foodcorps @pvusdschoolfood See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

2 months ago

Life Lab

Eat a Rainbow this Memorial weekend! Fruits & veggies provide nutrients essential for good health 🌈🥗💪🏽 #chard #carrots #schoolgardens #lifelab #eatarainbow #nutrition #gardeneducation #teachtheyouth See MoreSee Less

View on Facebook

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
Translate »
Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial