Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Tiffany Simons Chan (PhD09) breaks new ground as she fosters ecoliteracy across many communities.

Tiffany Simons Chan: Cultivating Ecoliteracy for Environmental Awareness

Tiffany Simons Chan

Tiffany Simons Chan (PhD09) has an aptitude for breaking new ground, both figuratively and literally, as she fosters ecological literacy across many communities. A passionate environmental educator, she integrates disparate interests such as ecological literacy, life narratives and hands-on garden projects as the education coordinator for Eden Place, a 3.5-acre nature center that was transformed from an illegal dump site to an urban oasis by residents of Fuller Park in Chicago.

"Ecological literacy (ecoliteracy) has been central in both my academic research and my work at Eden Place," says Chan, adding that understanding natural systems is one factor that can determine whether individuals will embrace environmental concerns in their own lives. "We need people in every profession and every sector of our world to be knowledgeable about sustainability issues," she says.

At Eden Place, Chan cultivates ecoliteracy by developing programs for community gardens, urban youth education and organizational advancement. She has taught urban residents sustainable ways to grow produce in community gardens and fostered environmental education through children's programs, community events, farmers markets and teacher workshops.

This creative learning sciences graduate also blends the high-tech world of digital media with the low-tech world of nature. Facebook and Twitter allow Eden Place to make resources available to the community, webcasts foster connections with the international conservation community, and community blogs develop a "sense of place," says Chan. "I see technology, such as online social media, as having the potential to support connections within and across communities so that we know that our actions as individuals are contributing to a broader movement … and learn from the work of others."

Chan is no novice at blending disparate fields. "I've always felt most comfortable at the intersection of different communities and different ideas," she acknowledges. At SESP her academic research fused the two doctoral programs, Learning Sciences (LS) and Human Development and Social Policy (HDSP). Focusing on both environmental commitment and life narratives, she conducted and analyzed in-depth interviews with 22 leaders in the green movement. These prototypical life narratives can help guide other leaders working through the challenges of the sustainability movement and can help educators nurture ecological literacy in the wider community.

Her innovative research grew from two very different experiences during graduate school — volunteering at Garfield Park Conservatory, where she connected with environmental leaders, and attending research meetings with HDSP professor Dan McAdams, where she learned about life narratives. "My idea was to take Dan's perspective on narrative identity and apply that framework to understanding how people become committed to environmental issues, especially drawing on LS theories," she explains.

Chan's inventiveness won her the inaugural Kinship Environmental Education Fellowship, established at SESP by Jim and Mary Nelson (BS67). Avid proponents of environmental science, the Nelsons founded a fellowship to support a student in the Learning Sciences program studying environmental education. "The Kinship Fellowship was a blessing that allowed me to devote my full attention to data analysis and writing," notes Chan.

Her background at SESP shapes her unique perspective on ecoliteracy. "As a Learning Sciences graduate, I know that knowledge is rooted in and framed by the culture and contexts that shape people's lives. And in the School of Education and Social Policy we are especially attuned to address disparities in the opportunities for learning across different communities," she says. "My commitment to Eden Place stems from my desire not just to promote sustainability in general, but to support this particular community in cultivating a stronger collective ecoliteracy that will enrich their lives," she adds.

With her gift for embracing community and melding diverse ideas into fresh approaches, Chan is creating rich ecological learning opportunities for adults and children alike. And as she does, her own story as a fully engaged environmental educator continues to unfold and inspire.