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Researchers - Catherine Elliott

Catherine (Cathy) Elliottcathy_elliott
Associate Extension Professor
University of Maine Cooperative Extension

What problem/s are you working to solve?
Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to describe the consequences of children not getting “unstructured play time in the outdoors.” Even in a rural state like Maine, it is not uncommon for there to be few opportunities or little support for children and youth to spend time outdoors. It is astonishing to learn that children living 20 miles from the ocean have never been there.  This has to change.

Many people are struggling with the challenges of living in a culture that is experiencing increasing social, environmental, and economic stress, and they often feel trapped by expectations and social norms to do more, have more, be more.  The issues are complex, with solutions that seem beyond the influence or ability of the individual, and so the result for the individual can be inaction at any level.  I am working on connecting with, engaging, and motivating people as the first step to a shift in attitude so they see that they can make a difference within their own sphere of influence.

What progress are you making toward solutions?
Through Cooperative Extension’s three 4-H Camp & Learning Centers, in Lincolnville, Tenants Harbor, and Bryant Pond, we provide opportunities for Maine kids to “get outside and play.” Our goals are to strengthened children’s relationships with the natural world through a combination of inspired outdoor fun, practical skills, and “hands-on” conservation and sustainability education. We strive to help young people, and the adults in their lives, learn to take care of our natural world and themselves when they are in it, see themselves as part of an interconnected world, and be committed to a sustainable future. We do this through summer day and residential programs, summer trip and leadership programs, school programs, and after-school programs.

Increasingly, we are incorporating service learning as a teaching method, with school programs in particular.  Youth gain knowledge and skills as they learn about their communities and select an issue to address.  With support and guidance from adults, youth develop goals and SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, realistic, time-bound) objectives as part of action planning, and then implement their project. This is proving to be effective in engaging youth in solving real-life issues, and engaging communities in supporting youth as contributing members of the community.

Making our programs affordable is a challenge that we meet through scholarship programs that are funded through partnerships with agencies and organizations, grant seeking from state and federal agencies and private foundations, and donations from individuals and businesses. One of our newest efforts is the Environmental Living and Learning for Maine Schools Project (ELLMS).  It is a four‑partner collaboration among Tanglewood, Bryant Pond, Chewonki, and Ferry Beach Ecology School; a partnership among competitors that we are learning is unique in the environmental education field!  We are seeking grant funding for scholarships for Maine public school students to participate in our residential outdoor programs. The goal for the 2011-2012 school year is $500,000, of which we have raised $290,000. Ultimately, over the five years of this Project, we hope to raise more than $7 million and reach more than 37,000 Maine students.

We will be conducting research on the impact of our programs and the outcomes for young people, parents, camp counselors, teachers, schools, and communities.  USM’s Muskie School is developing assessment tools for us to use starting in January 2012.  Anecdotal evidence shows that for many students, being in an outdoor setting and taking responsibility for their learning and living is a profound experience, especially for students whose modes of thinking and learning are not always supported in the classroom.  In several instances, students with multiple behavioral challenges have excelled, taking leadership with their peers and controlling their own behavior in a way that parents and teachers have not previously observed!

Sustainable Living programs focus primarily on helping individuals take a look at their values, goals, and choices, and how they can make changes that will more clearly align what they value with how they live. Workshops, an online course, and supporting publications, websites, and other resources are some of the delivery modes for these programs.  Participants are asked to make specific commitments to changes they will make over the coming weeks and months.  Follow-up with participants is conducted to determine what actually gets done, what challenges came up, and what was helpful in making changes.

How could your findings contribute to a more sustainable future in Maine and beyond?
The young people of today are the leaders of tomorrow.  It is a bit of a cliché, but we believe that by developing young people with strong leadership and teamwork skills, who are ecologically literate and committed to taking care of the natural world as well as the communities in which they live and work, we are supporting a more sustainable Maine, both now and in the future.

For the adults who attend our programs with students, or interact with them through service‑learning projects, they learn that young people can make a difference, that they can take leadership and follow through on commitments, that they can be contributing citizens, right now, as well as when they become adults. In many instances, the students become teachers in raising awareness of issues and creating solutions to those issues.

Participants in Sustainable Living programs are primarily adults.  For many, it is the first time they have really thought about what they value, taken the time to examine their lifestyles and the choices they make, and intentionally chosen to act differently.  It is the beginning of a change in attitude that is essential to on-going, lifelong, sustainable living.

Why did you decide to join SSI?
The goals and approach of SSI speaks directly to my personal and professional interests in the environment.  Professionally, as a forester and wildlife ecologist, and now environmental educator, my work has always been about sustainability.  Indeed, I believe that the work of Cooperative Extension is all about sustainability—from teaching a low‑income family how to purchase and prepare healthy, nutritious food, to helping an entrepreneur establish a new business; from implementing integrated pest management programs to minimize the use of chemicals, to supporting Maine’s growing organic farming community; from teaching youth how to keep records on their steer project, to helping incarcerated fathers bond with their children—it is all about supporting sustainable social, environmental, and economic systems.

Key to Extension’s work is engaging with the citizens who are affected by, and working to address, issues that are important to them and their families, businesses, and communities.  SSI is addressing the very important connection between research and engagement with citizens who are affected by or can benefit from that research.  Although I am not working on a specific SSI project, I am part of the Knowledge-to-Action team, and support the continued development of connections between SSI and Extension faculty members as exemplified by Esperanza Stancioff. Although our approaches, language, and culture often differ, there is, as with all multi-disciplinary teams, a great deal we can learn from each other and together. That certainly has been true for me.

What’s the best part about collaborating on SSI research projects?
The people, the energy and the genuine desire to make the world a better place and solve real problems that will make a difference in the future—what could be better than that!  I am fascinated by the way different disciplines describe their work, using language in such different ways, and then trying to translate that into language that the larger citizenry can understand.

Where’s your favorite place in Maine?
That is a very hard question!  There are so many amazing places in Maine.  If I had to pick one it would have to be Spencer Pond, east of Moosehead Lake.  A beautiful, peaceful spot that is full of wonderful memories and connections—I got engaged there!

What’s your ultimate Maine experience?
Another hard one!  Hiking Katahdin, paddling the Allagash, camping all over the state, a whale watching trip out of Eastport when we were surrounded by over 25 right whales, sitting on a rock watching the waves crash in … all great experiences.  But more recently, having my son (22) and daughter (19) express their appreciation for the beauty of this place they call home, and that although they have seen and lived in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, there is magic for them in Maine—that is the ultimate!

Mud season survival strategy?
Wine, potlucks, and knitting—not always in that order.

What sustains you?
Knowing that I can make a difference, however big or small, in whatever I am doing.  I like to think that I have a positive attitude, and that I assume the best of folks.  I have family and friends who are just the best people in the world.  That sustains me.

More Information about Cathy and her SSI Research Projects

Cathy’s SSI Research Projects
Cooperative Extension Faculty Page


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