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Cultivating urban naturalists: Experiential education through nature

Cultivating urban naturalists: Experiential education through nature

Traci Warkentin

Professor Traci Warkentin’s interdisciplinary work examines the intersections of experiential learning, place/context, environmental ethics, and human-animal relationships. Her interests in the ethical, educational, and cognitive dimensions of human-animal encounters were inspired by her experiences working at the Vancouver Aquarium during her undergraduate years having pursued a B.Sc. in Honours in Biology from UBC, an M.A. in Values and the Environment from Lancaster University, and a Ph.D. in t Environmental Studies at York University.

From a feminist epistemological standpoint that understands environmental education as necessarily intertwined with social justice, her teaching practice and pedagogical research bring together content with form by investigating the influence of material and social contexts on how and what people learn about the environment and animals, as well as by developing methods for ethical ways of making knowledge. With a broad vision of innovation and excellence in education, Warkentin has been developing the inclusion of two experiential learning tools in her teaching practice – creative environmental activism and citizen science/amateur naturalism – with the firm belief that the learning process is more important than the end-product.

Students engaged in project-based learning

“These tools help students to connect theoretical concepts with real-world practices and tangible situations they can directly relate to and learn from first-hand, “she enlightens. “Moreover, these tools facilitate environmental action and empower students to get involved and do something about the issues they are studying,” she adds.

Beyond the classroom, Warkentin is engaged in public environmental awareness to reach non-academic audiences, employing tools of creative advocacy and popular technologies. Her Urban Animal Advocacy Lab is a nexus of research and advocacy for practical animal ethics and presents insights from her research, and other emerging naturalist practices that capture the essence of interspecies etiquette that humans strive to meet animals in places that enable its expression.

Recently, Warkentin received an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) for a project on “Critical Ecopedagogy for Animal Worlds: Examining Somatic and Project-based  Methods  for Embodied  Experiential  Learning.”  The goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship of teaching and learning, focusing on the efficacy of ecopedagogical strategies: 1) for students to engage in project-based learning to create real-world interventions relating to human-animal cohabitation in Toronto, such as critically analysing and developing urban wildlife policy, mapping spatial dimensions of conflict to create a mitigation plan, or developing educational curriculum; and, 2) with overlapping experiential learning dimensions meant to nurture attitude and perceptual change through cultivating both a theoretically informed and deeply embodied understanding of urban wildlife species, including their habitat needs, sensory capacities and cognitive abilities ultimately aimed at providing a sense of the city we share from the animals’ perspectives.

Migratory birds at Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto

Warkentin is also collaborating on a two-year, Category I AIF project with Gail Fraser and Lisa Myers on “Environmental Education of York University Students: Windows, Art and the Conservation of Migratory Birds’. For her part, she has re-designed her undergraduate environmental education course (ENVS 3140) to embed the research as a semester-long project, via a series of assignments, that is student-led from start to finish; integrated educational theories of experiential and project-based learning in the curriculum; and, incorporated in-class, skills-building workshops in research design, survey design, survey implementation, survey analysis and report writing for educational research.

Warkentin is Assistant Professor and Coordinator for the Environmental & Sustainability Education Diploma (MES program). She has been steadily building a record of teaching excellence, early evidence of which is demonstrated in the consistently outstanding evaluations of her innovative and engaged teaching in undergraduate and graduate courses to date, which include: ENVS 1000 Earth in Our Hands: Perspectives in Environmental Studies; ENVS 3140 Environmental & Sustainability Education; ENVS 3150 Human/Animal Studies; ENVS 4140 Environmental Thought; ENVS 5100 Interdisciplinary Research in Environmental Studies; and, ENVS 6140 Environmental Education. Recently, she has developed ENVS 4800B: Animal Worlds which is an exciting new seminar this Fall 2020 and through which she is conducting in the more recent research project. She specializes in critical ecopedagogy and experiential learning in environmental education, which she actively employs in all courses as well as studies through her research, examples of which have been published in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, Ethics and the Environment, and the Journal of Geography.