Archive for March, 2014

March 31, 2014

Upcoming Lecture TODAY: Climate Policy as Wealth Creation

by Melissa Harding

climate change lecture

March 31, 2014
4:30 pm
University Club, Ballroom B
123 University Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15260

How well do you understand the science of climate change? Recent research shows that most people have a minimal understanding of the ins and outs of this important issue. In an effort to bring about awareness and increase scientific literacy on this topic, The University of Pittsburgh’s University Honors College (UHC) has initiated a series of lectures to educate students, faculty and staff, as well as others in the Pittsburgh community. To bring this series to a wider community audience, they are partnering with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and the National Aviary.

We need to drive investment in renewables and energy efficiency through economic signals, including carbon pricing as well as conventional environmental regulations. If and when we price emissions, via a carbon tax or a cap-and-permit system, a crucial economic and political question is: Who will get the money? Join us for the next Climate Change Lecture by energy economist James K. Boyce from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
A panel discussion will follow the lecture featuring:
Erica Cochran, Carnegie Mellon University
Paul Ohodnicki, National Energy Technology Laboratory
Stephen Rose, Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center
Moderated by Christina Gabriel, University Energy Partnership

Click HERE to reserve your spot at the lecture today.
We hope to see you there!


March 27, 2014

Inspire Speaker Series, April 10: Spreading the Message of Sustainability Through Silence and Action

by Melissa Harding


Presented by Green Building Alliance and Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, the second year of this lecture circuit will continue to plant the seeds of inspiration throughout our community.  

Planetwalker: Spreading a Message of Sustainability Through Silence and Action

In this edition of the Inspire Speakers Series, audience members will feel fortunate to have the opportunity to hear ONE WORD from Dr. John Francis, not to mention an entire lecture!  That’s because he once went 17 years without speaking.  That’s right – 17 years!  When John was 26-years-old, he witnessed an oil tanker collision on San Francisco Bay.  He felt so disturbed (and partially responsible for his use of oil), that he decided to give up motorized vehicles – a decision which spurred so many arguments with friends and family members that he decided to stop talking.  This was the beginning of a 17-year journey that led him to be known as the Planetwalker.  During the nearly two decades that followed, John received a Master’s degree, a PhD, and founded the Planetwalk Foundation (a nonprofit environmental awareness organization) – all while spreading a silent message of sustainable living.

Ending his silence in 1990, Dr. Francis has spent his subsequent years carrying that same message across the country.  Trust us – you’ll be glad that John decided to start talking again – and that you have the chance to listen!

More About John Francis

  • Author of Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.
  • Author of The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World
  • Read an article about John here
  • See John’s TED Talk here

Come grab dinner and enjoy an opportunity for networking in Phipps Cafe starting at 5:00 p.m.  Inspire Speakers presentations will follow at 6:00 p.m.  Register here to join the speakers for dinner after their talks.

Check out the rest of this year’s Inspire Speakers presenters here!  GBA Members save $51 by purchasing the entire series!

March 26, 2014

School Program Spotlight: Habitats

by Melissa Harding


This school year, our department has added some new programs to the mix and we are so excited to be sharing them with our students and with you! In School Program Spotlight, we explore the content of some of our newest school programs.

A crime has been committed at Phipps! Someone stole a bunch of bananas from the forest and we need a detective to figure out who did it!

One of the most effective ways to capture a student’s attention is to tell them a story. Even better, tell them a story in which they can play a role. People love solving mysteries; it’s why we read Agatha Christie novels and watch crime procedurals on television. Students are no exception to this and using a well-crafted mystery can not only interest them in a science class, but in science in general. Why are mysteries so engaging? They turn students from passive listeners into active learners. Students must work with evidence, form a hypothesis, test that hypothesis and evaluate the results. Another name for this kind of learning in inquiry, but we prefer to think of it as detective work. In our new Habitats class, students are asked to solve a mystery in the jungle, learning about habitats along the way. This class consists of a classroom portion and a tour.

In the classroom portion of this field trip, students must solve the crime of the missing bananas. They are given some background on each suspect, a series of rain forest animals that live in different layers of the forest. Students eliminate suspects from their list by interviewing a variety of plants, each of whom has information on one suspect. Each plant reveals a clue as to who is responsible, or not, for stealing the bananas. Many plants provide an alibi for a particular suspect based on their own interactions with that animal. A plant may reveal that a particular animal doesn’t even eat fruit, but rather acts as a pollinator for it’s flowers. Another may reveal that a suspect was busy taking a nap in its branches during the crime. Each plant hints at the idea of interrelationships in nature and gives practical examples of the different parts of a habitat. After the criminal is finally found, the students explain to us that the plants and animals actually need each other to be a functioning habitat.

The tour portion of the program consists of a self-guided or docent-lead tour of the Conservatory. Those who would prefer a self-guided experience may request a PDF of our self-guided tour or explore on their own. Those who choose the docent-lead tour will learn about the history of the Conservatory and the plants of our tropical and desert biomes.

If you are a teacher and would like more information on how to sign up for this or any other school program, please use the “Registering for Programs” link in the menu above. Please note that scout groups, home school groups and other groups of 10 or more may sign up for any of our school programs as well!

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

March 25, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding


“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.



March 24, 2014

The Importance of Kindness: Teaching Empathy Through Interaction with Nature

by Melissa Harding

Phipps Science Education_ Butterflies (3)

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
– Henry James

Everyone wants to be liked.  There is an inherent human need to feel like an accepted member of a group. That is why many of us join clubs and professional organizations. We all feel our best when we think we are liked for who we are; it makes us happy. However, if the number of books on happiness research are any indication, we are all striving to be happier. This can be especially difficult for children, who are learning to navigate the social landscape as they go. Fortunately, there is new research from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University that suggests the best way for children to feel liked and accepted by their peers, to feel happy, is through practicing kindness.

A sense of empathy, or the ability to put oneself into the shoes of another, is the basis for kindness; if a person is empathetic, he is able to read a situation and put the needs of others above his own. Prompting people to engage in pro-social behaviors, such as helping others, increases feelings of well-being; conversely, people who are happy are much more likely to help others. In an experiment conducted in 19 classrooms in Vancouver, 9- to 11-year olds were instructed to perform three acts of kindness per week over the course of 4 weeks. A control group of students was asked to visit three places in the same time frame. Students in both groups showed improved feelings of well-being, but students who performed acts of kindness experienced greater peer acceptance than students from the control group. In essence, those students who were kinder and more empathetic to others were more popular and well-liked.

With the high incidence of bullying in schools, as well as spikes in depression and anxiety in students, this is an idea worth considering. Peer acceptance is an important goal, as it increases a sense of well-being. Empathy is not only an essential social skill, but an academic one; research shows that successful learners are not only knowledgeable, but also empathetic. Successful students not only exceed in the classroom, but in the community. The ability to be empathetic is found naturally in all of us, but requires nurturing to be properly developed. One way to teach these skills is through engagement with nature.


Children often have a natural affinity with the natural world, especially animals.  Animals are a constant source of wonder for children, baby animals in particular; children naturally feel emotionally invested in animals. This fact is well-known in the medical community; there are a growing number of pet and equine therapy programs for children who are the victims of abuse or who have mental illness. Owning a pet, volunteering at an animal shelter or caring for a class pet are all ways that children can bond directly with animals. The bond that forms between child and animal has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people.

Another way to create a sense of empathy is through creating a sense of place. Whether it is a backyard or a local park, allowing children the time and freedom to explore, play in and care for a green space will create an affinity with the area. Research shows that those children with a sense of place are also more likely to turn their love of one place into a love for all of nature; this creates a sense of empathy with the natural world. Even caring for plants, for instance in the form of gardening, is beneficial. Spending time outside with trusted adults and watching them demonstrate their own care for nature helps to form a child’s sense of stewardship for the plants and animals within it.


Among those plants and animals are people, which are surely also part of nature. As children learn to treat the world around them with respect and care, so they will also treat each other. Caring for each other is an important part of any community. The more able children are to act with kindness, the more successful and happy they will become. As James Boswell once wrote, “We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over. So in a series of acts of kindness there is, at last, one which makes the heart run over.”

Here are a few ways to teach empathy and kindness at home:
1. Create a secure attachment relationship between child and caregiver: This means showing empathy to your child and comforting them during times of distress. While it seems like simple parenting, about two-thirds of American children have a secure attachment to their caregiver; the one-third who do not have this security have decreased academic and social competency. Empathy comes from being empathized with.
2. Be a good example: Model the behavior that you would like them to have.
3. Help children to recognize their own feelings: Helping your child to learn what they are feeling and express it will help them to better communicate their feelings with others
4. Take care of others: Giving a child the opportunity to nurture a pet or a garden will help develop empathy.
5. Perform random acts of kindness: Performing acts of kindness as a family is a great way to build connections with the community and among yourselves.
6. Spend time in nature: Not only does time in nature boost cognitive skills, but it also allows children to develop a sense of place.

For more activities, check out the Humane Society’s The Empathy Connection.
Learn more about pro-social behavior in schools from Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, at This American Life.

The above photos were taken by Science Education Staff and interns.

March 20, 2014

Biophilia: Pittsburgh, March 20 – “Connecting Children to Real Food” with Kelsey Weisgerber

by Melissa Harding


Biophilia: Pittsburgh

Thursday, March 20, 2014 – 5:30 p.m.
Free to attend – RSVP required.

Connecting Children to Real Food with Guest Speaker Kelsey Weisgerber

In today’s fast-paced food culture, kids are increasingly exposed to processed, junk and fast foods, including relentlessly marketed sugary cereals. At this meetup, guest speaker Kelsey Weisgerber will examine the importance of taking pause and connecting families back to the roots of real food through gardening, cooking and learning. She will also share tactics and stories from her efforts to strengthen kids’ connections to the food they eat and the systems that support healthy and natural nutrition choices. Weisgerber is the food service director at the Frick Environmental Charter School and a Slow Food Pittsburgh board member, leading multiple cooking initiatives across the City of Pittsburgh.

About Biophilia: Pittsburgh
Biophilia: Pittsburgh is the pilot chapter for a Biophilia Network dedicated to strengthening the bond between people and the natural world through education, discussion and action. The group meets monthly at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes classroom at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens where, over delicious small-plate food and a happy-hour cash bar, a discipline or behavior will be identified — often by an expert guest speaker — and discussed among the participants in the interest of sharing ideas and identifying opportunities. Join the conversation!

RSVP by sending an email or signing up at the group’s Meetup page.

What is Biophilia?
The term “biophilia,” stemming from the Greek roots meaning “love of life,” was coined by the social psychologist Erich Fromm. It came into use in the 1980s when Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson defined biophilia as “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.”

In the last twenty years, studies examining human attraction to nature have yielded convincing evidence that links interactions with nature with positive gains in productivity, increased healing rates, and even enhanced learning comprehension in a wide range of sectors.

Biophilia Pittsburgh

The top image was taken by Kate Borger.

March 20, 2014

From the Ground Up: Urban Farming at Eden Hall

by Melissa Harding


As part of the Museums Connect program, made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, Phipps is partnering with the Gidan Makama Museums in Kano, Nigeria to provide an immersive experience for 15 local high school students in each city. Participating students will learn about nutrition, cooking and cultural food traditions by following local food from farm to table and will be communicating with students at their partner institutions. This project will last from September to June, resulting in the creation of a community cookbook that will be designed and created by participating students. Students will also meet each month for a Saturday workshop involving activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. Calling themselves the Global Chefs, this group of students is excited to learn more about what food means in their lives.

Last weekend, the Global Chefs took a field trip to Chatham University’s Eden Hall Campus, where they experienced what it’s like to work on an urban farm and how their experiences relate to those of their Nigerian partners. This all day workshop was jam-packed with activities and, with the weather cooperating on their side this month, the students had a great time both indoors and out.

To begin, they stepped into the kitchen with Chef Jamie Moore, Director of Sourcing and Sustainability for the Eat ‘n Park group, a local chain of family restaurants. Joining him were Nancy Hanst of Slow Food Pittsburgh and Kathy Brinjack. Together, they helped the Global Chefs cook an Asian-inspired meal based on the students’ own recipes. They cooked chicken fried rice and vegetable stir fry; they also marinated chicken, skirt steak and tofu to add to the stir fry. Finally, they made baked onion rings with panko bread crumbs, a healthier take on one of the student’s favorite recipes. While cooking, some of the students harvested lettuce and tatsoi for the stir fry, while others had ample opportunity to practice their knife and sautéing skills. When finished, this healthy meal was a delicious look into the food culture of some of the Global Chefs.


After lunch, the students toured the Eden Hall campus, getting a closer look at the hoop houses and farm. This 388-acre campus was the perfect place for the students to better understand urban farming and the variety of plants and animals that can be grown in the middle of the city. With the tour under their belts, the students were then tasked with some team-teaching exercises to help them learn more about their Nigerian partners. They each taught the group five facts that they had learned about Nigerian culture, especially surrounding food. The students learned that Nigeria has a huge film industry, called Nollywood, and that it is the most populous country in all of Africa and is an important country for trade.

Finally, the students worked on their cookbook. This was no easy task, as trying to come up with a way to approach such a project can be daunting to say the least. They decided to include all the recipes that they cooked, as well as to include one recipe from each student’s family. Each student also decided to create an original page about their families and individual food cultures. The students ended the day with an assignment to go home and work on their pages. Next month’s meeting will be back in Pittsburgh and focus on planting in the Edible Garden.

To see more images from the day, check out the slideshow below!

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The above photos were taken by Kate Borger.


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