Youth Development through Service to Nature


A Study of Student Conservation Association Programs

Author: Samantha MacDonald Solberg, Web and Social Media Specialist at Search Institute

When Search Institute senior research scientist Dr. Amy Syvertsen asked staff members at the Student Conservation Association (SCA) if they think of themselves as a youth development organization, she received a resounding “no.” In fact, “they laughed and said “absolutely not,” said Syvertsen of the exchange.

SCA staff members think of themselves as environmentalists, but the organization—whose mission is to build new conservation leaders—is trying to get intentional about youth development. Part of these efforts include a partnership with Search Institute to assess the impact of SCA experiences on young people’s personal development and readiness for school, work, and life.

The results of this assessment indicate that SCA is clearly doing something right. Pre- and post-program metrics from 484 youth crew members showed significant positive change. “They really moved the needle in a lot of areas, like 21st century skills, thriving, and civic engagement,” said Syvertsen.

The video below displays the impact SCA has on youth involved in their programs. Hear youth talk about subjects such as feeling like they matter and discovering a spark or deep personal interest by participating in SCA.

Study Findings

One of the study findings that Search Institute researchers found exciting was that members who developed a strong sense of mattering through their SCA experience were four times more likely to report high levels of both stretching themselves beyond their comfort zones and conservation leadership. Furthermore, mattering—feeling valued and known by those around you—is deeply rooted in developmental relationships. “How one comes to feel like they matter is through relationships,” explained Syvertsen. “It’s by expressing care, challenging growth… all those things are a part of it.”

Another interesting finding is that the conservation experience promotes civic engagement. “We saw significant growth in having a sense of place, a consciousness of a larger world, and a sense of obligation to the greater good,” said Syvertsen. “These three indicators are really important.”

Syvertsen does caution that we cannot say for sure that these outcomes were caused by SCA. “Without a comparison group, we can’t statistically contribute this change solely to SCA experiences,” said Syvertsen. “However, this does not make the changes any less real. They are very real.”

“What is really interesting is thinking about the important role that nature can play in the field of youth development,” said Syvertsen. SCA programs are clearly helping youth do more than build trails and clean beaches. They are helping young people develop the skills they need to be leaders in the conservation movement and in life.

Want to learn more about the findings? Download the Youth Development through Service to Nature Research Brief here.

Search Institute is an international leader in discovering what kids need to succeed in their families, schools, and communities. Using applied research and improvement solutions, we collaborate with youth programs, schools, and community coalitions to build on young people’s strengths and put them on the path to thrive. For more information, visit