Elena Ortiz on Outdoor Education for Adults
Making connections to nature through working in a college garden.
Elena has been teaching with the Phoenix College Biosciences Department in the Maricopa Community College System for eleven years. She has taught environmental biology and general biology for non-majors. Her newest class is Plants and Society, a basic botany course for non-majors. As part of teaching this class, she brings her personal interest for gardening into the classroom. She says the garden is a great place to introduce, or reintroduce, students to nature and ecology.
Elena has a PhD in Plant Biology from ASU, a Master of Science in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico, and a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Her interests in ecology and gardening were both heavily influenced by her maternal grandfather who was a family doctor and gentleman farmer in Puerto Rico who retired on his farm. As a young girl, she would follow him around as he would spend the day working on projects, in his garden and orchid collection, or his farm. She credits him for most of the knowledge of the natural history of Puerto Rico that she still remembers today.
In This Podcast: Greg chats with an old college friend who is now teaching botany at Phoenix College. Elena shares what she is doing now and how she has brought her classrooms outdoors and into the garden. She describes how she believes it is important to make a connection with nature right outside your door, and how some of her students are surprised how easy it is to grow things in the desert. She also depicts how her students make the connections and take ownership of the garden enough that they want to stay working even after the class ends.
Listen in and learn about:
- How she kept the love of outdoors from her childhood
- Her path from Puerto Rico to Santa Cruz
- How she and Greg met at Arizona State University
- How her students at Phoenix College grow food in the garden and how they are surprised how easy it is to grow food in Phoenix
- Some of the remote places she has travelled to and that she recognized how important it is to make a connection to the nature right outside your door
- Who she is teaching and how she is connecting them with nature
- She has just under 100 students every semester and how she gets them outdoors and into the gardens
- The first day in the garden and how the students need to try to identify what is edible and what is left-over from the previous semester
- How some students take more ownership than others
- Some students kept going to work in the garden even after the class was over
- How the community garden on the campus is available to others outside the class
- Why she appreciates what the students bring to the community garden
- One example of a student who helped as a founding member of the Garden Club has gone to university classes and is now doing amazing things in the community and enjoying what she is doing
- How important fungi are and how they are beneficial in the ecosystem
- A bit about the research showing how beneficial working in the soil can be for us
As well as:
- How at 27 years old she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and told she might need to give up her activities, but she has not let it define her and has found ways to manage it and keep her spirits up
- Why when asked what her biggest success is, she says some of her students
- How making a difference in people’s live and opening their eyes to something new is what drives her
- Her advice is to “Enjoy being outside and share it with somebody – get outside!”
Elena’s Book recommendations:
How to reach Elena: