Norris Center aims to inspire naturalists across campus

$2 million gift will support programs, improve facilities

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Jessica Correa got so much out of her affiliation with the Norris Center for Natural History that she even had her graduation photos taken there. (Photos by Luis Cubas)
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Correa remembers being the only Latina in the Natural History Field Quarter class. "Initially, it was a huge culture shock," she said. "I love the Norris Center, and I love Environmental Studies, but it's really white. It can be intimidating if you're not familiar with your surroundings. If you see somebody else that looks like you, you say, 'Maybe this is a place for me.' "

Jessica Correa has loved insects since she was a little girl, when she kept ladybugs as pets and was fascinated by ants.

But it wasn't until she enrolled in the Natural History Field Quarter class in Spring 2018 that she really—really—looked at insects. That 15-unit course, made up of field trips to UC Natural Reserves around the state, immersed Correa in the natural world. She honed her skills of observation, exploration, and inquiry as she learned about plants, animals, birds, geology, land management, and more.

"Field Quarter changed everything, not just academically," said Correa, who graduated last June with a double major in environmental studies and sociology. "Before, I tended to dwell on minor life problems and was not awake to the beauty surrounding me. After that class, I started looking around and appreciating everything—all the trees, the color of the sky, how beautiful it all is. It changed the way I go about life."

It also set Correa on a career path as an environmental educator. Today she is an instructor with the Bird School Project, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit launched by two UCSC graduates who teach middle-school students about birds on their school grounds to help them develop the skills of a naturalist.

For Correa, the bridge between that immersive class and where she is today was the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History. Located in Natural Sciences 2, the Norris Center is part classroom, part working museum, and part community hub. It supports natural history education and research, hosts classes and workshops, supports internships and fellowships, and is home to an impressive collection of specimens, including birds, butterflies, plants, and mammals.

Built on the legacy of Ken Norris, the center's mission is to educate and empower stewards of the natural world. Formerly known as the Museum of Natural History Collections at UCSC, the center was named after Norris, a beloved professor of environmental studies, in 2015 and is poised to greatly expand its programs and reach thanks to an anonymous $2 million gift.

"We've gone from the basement of what's now Baskin Engineering, where we reached maybe 50 to 100 people a year, to reaching 2,000 students a year—or more," said Chris Lay, director of the Norris Center since 2008.

The gift comes at an auspicious moment, providing the security the center needed to scale up its programs and operations. The funds will enable the center to improve its facilities, offer more paid internships and research opportunities for undergraduates, support one or two graduate students per year who will mentor undergraduates, hire a full-time collections manager, grow its successful art-science initiative, expand teaching and leadership training, and build its alumni network.

Environmental Studies Professor Karen Holl, the faculty director of the Norris Center, is delighted that the gift will infuse every area that supports students, from introductory classes to post-graduation career support. "I'm so grateful for this recent large gift, as well as to the many donors to the Norris Center who enable us to not only expand the programs we offer now, but to grow our endowment so we know that we can continue to offer them for years to come," she said.

"A naturalist on every street"

Lay, who has watched natural history change the lives of countless students like Correa, can barely contain himself when he talks about the future.

"We're reaching many people, but we can reach many, many more," he said. "I want to put a naturalist on every street and in every meeting. I want them out there advocating for the natural world and inspiring others to be stewards of local places and beyond. It seems of the utmost importance to do it now."

Last fall, Lay took a big step in that direction when he partnered with Campus Natural Reserve Director Alex Jones to participate in the Merrill College and Rachel Carson College core courses. Lay, Jones, and a corps of 11 undergraduate mentors conducted field trainings with 660 frosh, introducing them to observation and inquiry just outside their classrooms.

"We took them into the redwoods and encouraged them to make observations, think critically about a puzzle they discovered, and support their own explanations with evidence they can observe,” explained Lay, a veteran natural history instructor.

One group was curious about the rings of young redwoods that grow around big, fire-damaged stumps on UCSC’s upper campus. Student mentors facilitated discussions—with a firm emphasis on exploration and inquiry, not on simply reciting answers.

"We're inspiring them to be curious," explained Lay. "They ask genius questions, things I've never thought of before. They develop their own hypotheses, and we help them find clever ways to gather evidence that supports their ideas. It's a magical process where we get to investigate alongside students. It's not top-down. It's a collaborative version of the scientific method."

The lessons learned in the forest have value for every student embarking on their college career, regardless of discipline, said Lay. "The world is complex, and nature is complex," he said. "You have to develop multiple hypotheses. You need to stay open to new ideas, new evidence. One thing you learn as a naturalist is to be humble."

Springboard to opportunity

For students like Jessica Correa, the Norris Center can be a springboard to opportunity.

"Jessica is amazing," said Lay. "She came to us wanting to learn this stuff, and she was a very conscientious, hard-working student. She did everything—independent research, internships, a senior project. She produced a field guide to an overlooked but very important fly pollinator group. She got so good we hired her to lead surveys of other insects."

After Correa graduated in June, Lay kept in touch. He recently met with her to discuss options for graduate school and to provide tips on additional hands-on experiences that will make her application—whether for school or work—stand out. That level of post-graduation support builds on what the Norris Center offers students, and Lay is eager to bolster his efforts by building the alumni network so students and graduates can support each other. "The only thing I do on Facebook is post jobs," he said, laughing.

Correa welcomed the brainstorming and the networking support.

"It's all about the ripple effect," she said. "A lot of it is word of mouth. People get interested, and they start talking. It's a cycle of good networking."

Correa is making her own ripples through the Bird School Project. This spring, she will offer the school's first Spanish-language instruction to students at a Salinas middle school.

Correa is hooked on environmental education. "When you ignite the curiosity, you ignite the love, and when you have the love, you ignite caring," said Correa. "It feels whimsical talking about it, but I see it in the faces of kids. It makes me feel good."

She has another reason for staying in touch with the Norris Center: She remembers being the only Latina, and one of only three students of color, in the Natural History Field Quarter class—a group of 25 undergraduates.

"Initially, it was a huge culture shock," she said. "I love the Norris Center, and I love Environmental Studies, but it's really white. It can be intimidating if you're not familiar with your surroundings. If you see somebody else that looks like you, you say, 'Maybe this is a place for me.' It makes it more accessible to anybody. And I don't mean just students of color. I'm talking about sexual identity, academic major, everything."

Outreach and inclusion are top priorities for the center, and Correa's ongoing connection to the center is the type of affiliation Lay hopes to instill in students.