Remembering Yale’s Dr. Stephen Kellert

Forestry professor confirmed outdoor experience's youth development value

Written by Frances Harte, SCA Foundation Relations Specialist

“Whether experienced in a wilderness setting, a suburban backyard, or a city park, the natural environment offers a vital medium for self-discovery and an enhanced sense of self-worth and personal identity.”

This was the conclusion that Stephen Kellert and his research team reached in 1998 with their large scale and highly influential work, “A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience.” Dr. Kellert, the Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies died at age 76 this past November following a long illness. It is with much sadness that The Student Conservation Association (SCA) joins others in the conservation community to mark the passing of an individual who made significant contributions to the field of biophilic design—design that recognizes the inherent human inclination to connect with nature.  

With his “A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience,” Dr. Kellert found that young people who participate in the outdoor programs of SCA, Outward Bound, and the National Outdoor Leadership School emerge not only as more effective environmental stewards, but also as more productive, creative, and self-confident leaders. Kellert continued to see the value of the SCA experience when he served on our Board of Directors and then our National Council, an advisory body. He was still asserting the fundamental importance of the human connection with nature in his last book, Birthright, published in 2012.

He is remembered not only as a leader in social ecology and an influential author, but also as a revered mentor. SCA is fortunate to count Jeanne Braha, one of his former students, among its staff. “I was fortunate to learn from Steve as he was thinking a great deal about the built environment and how we can continue to nurture biophilia in an urbanizing world. He helped me challenge my assumptions about environmental education and was all around just a delight to work with. I’m always excited, but never surprised, to discover that many of my professional colleagues are also former students of Steve – he leaves a rich legacy in both research and practice.” says Braha, our Director of Foundation Relations.

SCA is indebted to Dr. Kellert in many ways, but most of all for the research conducted by his team. It did much to help us understand that SCA’s magic formula – nature plus service plus caring adult leaders – can transform not only America’s green spaces but the nation’s young people as well.

In the years since Kellert published “A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience,” SCA has built on  its results by collaborating with the Search Institute to better understand how our programs affect their young participants, enabling us to strengthen our capacity to deliver transformative youth development experiences, and measure the human-level impact these experiences have.

 The youth outcomes study that Search Institute and SCA completed in 2014 reaffirmed what Kellert concluded in 1998. In addition to increasing conservation awareness, SCA programs were shown to deepen feelings of social responsibility, increase leadership skills, and help fuel continuous growth, thereby providing skills that position youth for success in school, at work, and in their communities.

Without Dr. Stephen Kellert’s pioneering work we would know far less about how SCA’s conservation service programs benefit not just the environment, but also their participants and their participants’ communities. It is for this reason and many others that we are happy to have known Dr. Kellert and honored to have been touched by his scholarly endeavors.