Learning from Nature, Not Only about It

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.
A Conversation with Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center of the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Al DeSena, interviewer

Billy Spitzer, executive director of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Massachusetts, is a member of the coordinating team for the Action for Climate Empowerment National Strategic Planning Framework and a member of the leadership board for the Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network. Before coming to Hitchcock Center in August 2021, he was vice president for learning and community at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where for more than twenty years he applied learning and social science research across education programs, exhibits, visitor experience, and community outreach. He served as principal investigator for numerous informal science education projects funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency. These include a series of projects focused on public engagement on climate change, including the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. With more than thirty years of experience developing and implementing science education programs, exhibits, and materials, he has been recognized by the White House as a Champion for Change for engaging the next generation of conservation leaders.

Al DeSena retired in 2019 after fourteen years at the National Science Foundation, where he was a program director in the Advancing Informal STEM Learning Program.

Listen to a recording of this live interview!

ACM · Learning from Nature, Not Only about It

AL: For years, children’s museums have provided experiences for children and their families pertaining to nature, the weather, the earth, the environment, etc.  But now, given the considerable global attention to climate change, worldwide loss of biodiversity, a green economy, and environmental justice, many children’s museums have been considering what opportunities they should be providing for their audiences to improve the knowledge and skills that affect their individual lives and humanity in general.

What are the overarching questions behind the important decisions that children’s museums are wrestling with on this topic? How are these decisions affected by the implications of the last two years of the pandemic as museums move forward?

BILLY: Having worked in the science education field for a long time, my interest has always been: How do we give people in a participatory democracy the scientific understanding, tools, and ways of engaging that are critical to enabling us as a society, not just as individuals, to make good decisions and pursue the right courses of action? About twelve years ago, at New England Aquarium, we were wrestling with the most important issues facing the ocean. Climate change kept coming up as a major issue in the zoo and aquarium world, which I think went through what the children’s museum and science museum world is going through now: if we really care about the future, what issues do we need to address in our public programs and exhibits?

We realized that we needed to start working with other aquariums and zoos to figure out how to talk about climate change. We started with the fundamentals: trying to understand the science—and the communication science—better, and then looking for what kind of interventions would make sense. Should we be developing educational materials? New exhibits? What would be the most effective way to get going? We settled on exhibit interpretation as the place to start. It’s harder to change physical exhibits, but it’s a lot easier to work with staff. We started a collaborative program to help educators and interpreters at aquariums and zoos talk about climate change in a way that was true to the science, but also reflected what we know about effective communication. Over time this collaboration grew into a national network that exists to this day with about 400 highly-trained climate communicators in thirty-eight states across the country who have, in turn, trained about another 40,000 informal educators and other communicators in the last ten years. Children’s museums are at an interesting point now: new issues are impinging on child development—climate change being one, and the pandemic and related health issues being another.

AL: How does your work at the Hitchcock Center—and previously at the aquarium—relate to children’s museums that primarily serve families with younger children?

BILLY: The Hitchcock Center started almost sixty years ago as a traditional nature center. Committed to focusing on sustainability, in 2016 they built what’s called a “living building,” and also committed to working on climate change and environmental justice. That new direction drew me out here last year. Like a lot of museums, the center is focused on education, particularly for children. We do programs for adults, but we have a really strong set of programs for kids from preschool to high school, along with afterschool and homeschool programs, summer camps, and leadership programs for teens, including a climate summit program. A lot of our programs are analogous to what you’d find at a children’s museum. We have a small nature exploration center inside the physical facility. So, in many ways, this place looks and feels like a lot of children’s museums.

AL: How might children’s museums define or frame the actual domain of climate change and what activities it entails?  Should they be thinking about it as a way to develop systems thinking in children?  What does it mean to learn from nature instead of about it?

BILLY: I think dealing with climate change is about shifting our perspective from thinking of it as a science or environmental issue to thinking of it as a societal issue, a social challenge. You can think about it as a crisis of public health, as an issue of social and environmental justice, as an issue related to developing a future workforce and building healthy and resilient communities. All of those perspectives are important to consider when framing the subject of climate change and a museum’s role in relation to it.

Once you start diving into climate change as an issue, it becomes not so much about learning climate content, but more about developing the skills, habits of mind, attitudes, and behaviors that will enable us collectively to find a path forward in terms of what we need to do to both mitigate and slow down climate change and also adapt to it. Systems thinking is a great example of that approach. Young kids are natural systems thinkers; educators can cultivate that skill. Kids are also very natural problem-solvers. And we need creative and hopeful problem-solvers to help us work our way through all that we need to do to respond to climate change.

At the Hitchcock Center, we’ve been focusing on moving from learning about nature to learning from nature, using the principles of ecological design, like those we used to design our living building, to help us design better human systems.

AL: Many children’s museums are wondering whether they should engage in the climate change domain at all.  What are some of the major factors that are important to consider when museum leaders are deciding whether their organizations should get into it?

BILLY: Start with your organization’s mission: what does it tell you? A lot of museums, and a lot of children’s museums in particular, have strong community-based missions. What are your community needs in relation to climate change? Who is already working on this issue that you could talk to, learn from, and partner with? What do you know about what’s going on in your own community around climate? What are public attitudes? What is the general level of knowledge people have? Where are the gaps?

The Yale Project on Climate Communication, a great resource, offers a wealth of data on public knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors around climate. People are often surprised by the fact that the vast majority of the public understands climate change is a problem, is looking for help in figuring out what to do about it, and often look to places like museums for those answers.

Understanding the readiness levels of both staff and your board is also really important. If you’re facing a lack of readiness in either group then you need to figure out how you’re going to work on that.  But again, there are probably a lot of good resources in your community already, including community organizations or public health agencies. Many cities and towns have climate action plans. Figure out what’s already happening and where can you connect to it.

AL: How can children’s museums customize their programs based on what they know about their audiences?  Visitors of different ages, knowledge, abilities, interests, skills, cultural backgrounds, etc.?

BILLY: There’s a mantra from environmental educator David Sobel, “No global disasters before 4th grade.” Years ago, kids learned about the rainforest before they learned about their own backyards. You have to start with where your audience is already in terms of environmental education—what kind of prior experiences do they have, what are they interested in, what kind of questions are they asking—and respond to that. In the case of climate, you don’t want to start with, “Well, here’s what’s happening to the planet.” Instead, “Here’s what’s happening that you can see and observe.”

You can introduce systems thinking at many different ages or levels of sophistication and depth. For example, if you’re talking about a squirrel, how do you help kids understand that it’s not just about a squirrel, but it’s also about the acorns and the trees and the forest, and what other animals are like squirrels. How do squirrels relate to chipmunks? What do squirrels eat, and what eats them? Where do they fit in the big picture? Using that perspective to look beyond an individual animal or phenomenon and think about the bigger system, is the skill you need eventually to understand what’s happening with the climate system and how it interacts with ecosystems and with us.

Finally, what worldviews are your audiences coming with? They might not be all come from a western scientific or cultural worldview. What cultural backgrounds are your audience coming from, and how do you incorporate these different perspectives? These aren’t new ideas to people working in children’s museums: the same principles that apply to good child education in general apply to climate education.

AL: In your programs at the Hitchcock Center, what different approaches do you use for preschool kids vs. kids who are nine years old, for example?

BILLY: At all age levels, but particularly at younger levels, we incorporate a multi-sensory approach, combining experiential and tactile learning with social and emotional learning. For really young kids, it’s important to foster physical comfort in the natural world. An affective connection and appreciation are really, really important ingredients to build on. But if you’re working with older kids who haven’t had much experience with nature or environmental education, you need to start there.

AL: Are there particular experience formats that might be more appropriate to children of different ages or cultural backgrounds? The Hitchcock Center’s tagline is “Education for a Healthy Planet.” What kinds of learning experiences relate to that basic idea?

BILLY: Things often overlooked are the aspects of an experience that you provide that are not necessarily what you consider formal parts of the program. Take our building’s composting toilets, a wonderful example of how nature never wastes anything. Kids—especially young kids—are incredibly fascinated by them. They often go home and when their parents ask, “well, what did you do today?” that’s what they talk about first. Kids who spend a lot of time at the center end up taking it all for granted. Of course, you get your energy from the sun and your waste gets recycled, and that’s just how things work.

In our programs, the games may change depending on the age level, but the concept of play and using the arts as a form of expression are common threads all the way through. Although language abilities and attention spans differ by age, kids’ interests are quite similar. Activities that we’ve done with young kids come back in a slightly different format with older kids. Maybe the program is a bit longer and the level of depth is a bit greater, but some of the same program formats work across a wide range, whether it’s an afterschool format or a summer camp format. As kids get older, we emphasize learning and applying their learning to some kind of community action. As kids get into the teen years, we focus on programs that develop leadership skills. We participate in the Youth Climate Summit, where we bring teams together to learn how to create climate action plans and programs and projects in their schools. So, staff-led preschool programs eventually lead to youth-led work.

AL: At what age do you think that the approach should align with what kids are hearing on TV or other media about climate crisis? There are reports of many kids experiencing anxiety about it.

BILLY: Unfortunately, there have been more and more reasons to figure out how to help kids process really scary and difficult things, from terrorist attacks to school shootings, pandemics, climate change, disasters and so on. Often, the first thing kids want to know is, “Am I safe? Is my family safe? Are we going to be OK right now?” Usually the answer is yes, and it’s really important to provide that reassurance.

And then listen to what kids are asking about rather than just dumping a lot of information on them. They’re not necessarily asking about the same things that are on an adult’s mind. From educators, to interpreters, to visitors—kids and adults—fostering hope and self-efficacy are the keys to keeping people motivated and involved. The idea isn’t to ignore the problems, but to understand that collectively we have the power to change things. We can be creative problem-solvers and come up with collective solutions. If we see things in the world that we don’t like or don’t think are right, we have the power to change them. That’s really a critical attitude to cultivate in people of all ages, but particularly young people.

AL: Are there strategies you might suggest to children’s museum professionals for how they might make timely adjustments to the conditions of our fast-changing world, and in particular to challenges their communities and regions might be facing?

BILLY: First, understand which things aren’t changing quickly. What is enduring? The kind of values you want to help promote in people, the kind of skills and habits of mind you want to develop and encourage, tend to be more durable than the latest crisis. Second, you should do this work alone. This is an opportunity to work with other organizations in your community that have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening—people working on public health, social justice issues, poverty alleviation or racial and environmental justice. People working at the grassroots level, who see people facing daily challenges, and who are very focused on responding to those challenges. This gives you a very good perspective on which of today’s concerns are really important in the community around you.

AL: Circumstances are going to be quite different for different institutions at different locations and points in time, whether a hurricane has just gone through a region, or whether fires or a drought are dominant issues, as well as how active individual communities are in terms of being responsive to such things.

BILLY: There have been some wonderful examples of museums responding in times of need or crises, whether serving as physical places of refuge for people in the aftermath of natural disasters, or as places for COVID testing and vaccination clinics. There are all sorts of ways in which museums can participate in community and civic life which helps build trust and familiarity that can be really helpful the next time a crisis or controversial issue comes up.

AL: Ideas about climate change have evolved.  Are we engaged in crisis mitigation or adaptation? Some geoscientists think we’re probably beyond the possibility of humanity to mitigate.  We’re just going to have to learn how to adapt. How do you deal with local/global adaptation/mitigation issues?

BILLY: To mitigate or adapt is not a choice. We need to do both, and there are actions that meet the criteria for both. As people learn about what we need to do to prepare and adapt to all of the consequences of climate change, their reaction is, “Oh, my god, how are we going to do it? Is there anything that we can do to make it easier?” And then you start getting into mitigation: “Well, if we start shifting where our energy comes from and become more efficient, then we will have less to adapt to.”

There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, but the second best time is today.” There is not the time for delay. This is a time for doing everything we can. We need a big transformation in how we operate as a society, as an economy. But a lot of the technology and resources we need are there—what’s not there is the political will. And that’s where public engagement is so critical.

We also need to work at a scale that’s bigger than the individual but smaller than the whole planet. Working at a community scale, where people have the strongest sphere of influence and can actually see change happen, feels doable. You can take advantage of the social diffusion of innovation and knowledge that tends to happen among people who have some kind of a connection, whether it’s a town, a neighborhood, a faith community, a school, a workplace, etc. And you can build from there—from local to regional to global. If you start with the global it tends to be really, really overwhelming and puts people off. It doesn’t enable you to cultivate that sense of self-efficacy as effectively.

AL: In the beginning of this discussion, you talked about staff training. Do you have any thoughts about the role of staff training and the best approaches to it?

BILLY: Education staff at museums—even more than exhibits or programs—are an incredible resource to help effectively engage the public. Because they can have the responsive and adaptive conversations, whether it’s with kids or adults, needed  to develop human relationships. Educators can be very, very skilled at reading their audience and responding to their questions and interests. But to do that effectively on an issue like climate, you need to understand what effective communication looks and sounds like and develop the skills to do it.

In a project with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation, originally funded by the National Science Foundation and now continuing with funding from NOAA and other sources, we developed an effective training model for acquiring these skills. The training program, which originally took about 100 hours, is now available as a “crash course” that takes about 25 hours and can be done online. We’re happy to partner and share that work with children’s museums.

But it’s not just about training, it’s also about building a supportive community of peer professionals, at your institution and at other institutions, so that when issues come up you can share resources, problem solve together, and give each other emotional support in what can sometimes be very challenging work. The network worked a lot with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Association of Science and Technology Centers to advance the state of the art in climate communications. Organizations like ACM can play a really important role in the same way.

AL: Some children’s museum they might say they don’t have sufficient in-house expertise to work successfully in the climate change domain. What recommendations do you have about possible collaborations that could bring the required expertise to the table to maximize their impact?

BILLY: Start locally: who can you work with? It could be another museum, your public health department, a university, or another community organization. If museum leadership is ready and willing, think about what kind of role you want to play. A museum can directly engage and educate the public, but it can also be a place for conversation, a forum for deliberative discussions to engage the public. Think about how you want to demonstrate sustainable practices at your institution. Or about how you want to partner with community organizations to help strengthen community resilience, which could be about climate, or it could also be about building social capital and social cohesion. Think about working with youth organizations to help cultivate youth leadership and advocacy in some form.

More broadly, think about how you want to work regionally and nationally, whether it’s with other children’s museums or other organizations to be part the larger public engagement movement around climate change. Over the past couple years, I have been working with what is now called the US ACE (Action for Climate Empowerment) Coalition, which focuses on a part of the Paris Agreement that’s focused on promoting public engagement, and not just reducing carbon emissions. We’ve started building a nationwide coalition of non-government actors who are involved in that kind of work to join those on the government side. There are a lot of opportunities for coalition building and collaboration at multiple levels.

AL: In seeking climate education collaborations, aside from the public health entities you mentioned, what other folks in the community should we be paying more attention to?

BILLY: Think about community organizations that are working on issues that you might not immediately think are climate-related. A lot of artists and arts organizations are interpreting climate issues. In my work at the Hitchcock Center, I’ve been talking to folks who are doing different kinds of community work—health, housing, economic opportunity, or food security. They’re really interested in the intersection of their work and climate and partnering with other groups like us to explore that. Children’s museums have some incredible assets as places that focus on holistic wellness and child development, and those are important resources to bring to the table. Once you start stating your interests and intentions, you find more and more people interested in exploring partnerships. Every time you talk to a potential partner, ask them, “Who else should be I talking to?” The number of contacts starts to grow exponentially. Cast a wide net.

AL: How does the issue of environmental justice factor into the work that you do?

BILLY: The intersection of climate and environmental justice issues is becoming more apparent. Who is disproportionately impacted by environmental issues, climate and other economic disparities, social risk factors, health risk factors? They’re all interconnected, and folks in the public health world really see that intersection systematically. A population with some vulnerability is likely to have multiple vulnerabilities in multiple areas. At the Hitchcock Center, we used Census data to identify populations facing a predominance of risk factors—economic, social, and health—and then overlaid them with the environmental and climate risk factors to help target who’s most important to reach first in terms of programming and partnerships. The unfortunate fact is that the populations who tend to bear the brunt of climate-related issues are the ones who can least afford to deal with it, and have done the least to contribute to the problem.

AL: Final thoughts?

BILLY: It’s clear we’re facing some really, really big challenges around climate, and as a society. This is the time for all of our institutions to think about stepping up to the plate and understanding how critical education is to a healthy and effective democratic society.  This is our opportunity to think about how the work we do is so necessary and can become even more impactful. We have a high hill to climb but we can do this together.  I’ve seen so much progress in the last few years in the aquarium and zoo field. Climate has gone from an issue that was rarely talked about to the norm. The children’s museum field can take heart in that and really get excited about working together.

Listen to a complete recording of this live interview.