Climate Ambassadors Study Soil Health and Biodiversity in The Lawrence’s Backyard

May 2, 2024

Climate change is a global challenge, and it can be hard to imagine what we can do as individuals to help. Like many large-scale issues, it can help to start by thinking locally. Thanks to a new pilot program at The Lawrence, a cohort of passionate teen scientists gained valuable science investigation and communication skills and used them to conduct and share real scientific research in service learning projects. These Climate Ambassadors now have the experience to advocate for their communities and address pressing climate issues right in their own backyards.

“Being a Climate Ambassador at The Lawrence has given me the skills and vocabulary to communicate with both my peers and adults regarding solutions for climate change.”

Climate Ambassador Ava Litz

The Climate Ambassadors Program gave ten local teens an opportunity to learn to design and conduct a scientific study, collect data, and present their findings. Last summer, participants joined one of our two Teen Research Programs focused on environmental science (Forest Ecology or Marine Biology). Then, over ten months starting last fall, participants used their newfound skills to develop and conduct two research projects in and around the Outdoor Nature Lab at The Lawrence.

Participants were selected based on personal essays about their interest in science and communicating the impacts of climate change. With over 130 students applying for the program, the goal was to prioritize teens from limited STEM capital backgrounds: those with little experience and access to science learning outside of the classroom, from demographic groups that are currently underrepresented in climate and environmental sciences, and students who aim to be the first in their families to complete college.

“I wanted to become a Climate Ambassador because I wanted to learn more about the climate issues we’re currently facing and what I, as a high school student, could do to help,” said Climate Ambassador Victoria Ames. “Participating in this program has allowed me to learn about different careers related to climate and given me the opportunity to try out things like field research and data analysis!”


With the skills they learned in our Teen Research Programs, the Climate Ambassadors participated in two service learning projects at The Lawrence. Service learning is an education strategy that connects learning objectives to a specific project to solve problems in students’ communities. The Climate Ambassadors worked collaboratively with each other and with their “clients” to design and conduct the scientific studies themselves to tackle the questions set forth by the two groups they worked with.

“One of the things that’s really helpful for retaining student interest in STEM is being able to give back and engage with your community,” said Emily Weiss, head of teen research experiences at The Lawrence. “We asked the students to help us understand what they wanted to get out of participating in the program. They wanted the service learning component to really feel meaningful and to engage with career professionals to learn about their pathways into various STEM fields.”

A Climate Ambassador collecting a soil sample for testing during their project with the ‘ottoy initiative.
A Climate Ambassador collecting a soil sample for testing during their project with the ‘ottoy initiative.

The first service learning project was a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s ‘ottoy initiative, which aims to foster an understanding of and respect for Ohlone people and culture and to repair and improve Berkeley’s relationship with the Ohlone community. Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino, co-founders of mak’amham/Cafe Ohlone and leaders of the initiative, tasked the Climate Ambassadors with studying the health of the soil on the hillside near The Lawrence for a land reclamation project. They wanted to know what kinds of plant life the soil could support and whether any toxicity would prevent people from consuming anything grown there.

Through their research, students discovered no toxicity but also learned that some soil rehabilitation may be needed to better support plant growth. With this knowledge, Vincent and Louis taught the Climate Ambassadors about some indigenous land management practices they could use to promote healthy soil in the reclamation project.

“I enjoyed learning about native Ohlone agricultural practices from Vincent and Louis,” said one Climate Ambassador. “Even something like soil health impacts climate change directly, and I learned that sustainable soil practices and sustainable agriculture is a really big part of addressing climate change.”


The second service learning project the students engaged in was a study of the biodiversity of the flora and fauna that call our Outdoor Nature Lab home. Outdoor Nature Lab Program Lead Chris Ziska wanted to learn which plants attracted critters to the outdoor exhibit and whether the garden was truly increasing the biodiversity of The Lawrence’s backyard. The Climate Ambassadors developed a study observing the plants around the garden and what animals could be seen and invited visitors to The Lawrence to participate in data collection.

A Climate Ambassador collecting data as part of their study of biodiversity in the Outdoor Nature Lab.
A Climate Ambassador collecting data as part of their study of biodiversity in the Outdoor Nature Lab.

“Having the students around to lead data collection was so helpful, and you could feel the energy around the Outdoor Nature Lab. Each one of those students is extremely bright, driven, and full of thoughtful ideas,” said Chris Ziska. “I hope to use the data they collected to inform which plants are moved and/or removed from the space to make way for a fresh installation of new plants, all native species that benefit both our habitat and Ohlone culture.”

While the students interpret their findings and prepare a final report, visitors to the Outdoor Nature Lab can continue participating in data collection. The Climate Ambassadors will present their research to friends, family, and guests on May 19, celebrating their excellent work and support of their community and The Lawrence.

One Climate Ambassador has already taken what she learned in the program and applied it directly to advocacy in her community. Ava Litz was inspired to join her city’s climate action plan committee, where she discussed solutions for climate change-related issues in her local community.

“Being a Climate Ambassador at The Lawrence has given me the skills and vocabulary to communicate with both my peers and adults regarding solutions for climate change,” Ava Litz said. “Through the program, we met many people pursuing careers in climate-related areas, including one who was a project lead for her city’s climate action plan. This inspired me to reach out and join my community’s committee!”

In the future, Emily Weiss and the Center for STEM Pathways at The Lawrence plan to take what they’ve learned from the Climate Ambassadors pilot and develop more connective threads between our many offerings for teen scientists. The goal is to create an ecosystem of programs that foster myriad pathways for teens to get into science and follow through to a degree or career in STEM.

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