Erika Perloff directs educational programs for the Life Lab Science Program, a nationally recognized, award-winning nonprofit science and environmental organization located on the UC Santa Cruz campus. Founded in 1979, Life Lab helps schools develop gardens and implement curricula to enhance students’ learning about science, math, and the natural world. The program has trained tens of thousands of educators in more than 1400 schools across the country.
Life Lab’s specialized projects include LASERS (Language Acquisition in Science Education for Rural Schools), now renamed the Monterey Bay Science Project, which trains teachers to teach language development through scientific exploration. The organization’s Waste Free Schools program helps teachers and students reduce school waste through conservation. Its model Garden Classroom, located at UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, is used for teacher training and school field trips and events.
Perloff’s interest in garden-based science education began with a love of natural history. As a college student, she transferred from Carlton College in Minnesota to UC Santa Cruz, where she double-majored in environmental studies and biology. Among her formative educational experiences was UCSC’s celebrated Natural History Field Quarter. After graduating in 1983, she worked in outdoor education jobs for the National Park Service, the Yosemite Institute, and the Headlands Institute in Marin County. Eventually, desiring more sustained contact with students, she earned a teaching credential at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education.
While working as an elementary science specialist in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, Perloff took a Life Lab teacher training, which inspired her to revive an old garden patch at her school. “There was nothing as exciting,” she said in this interview, “as walking into the classroom and the kids would see my keys for the garden, and they would just jump up and down and say, “El jardín! El jardín!”
Perloff began leading Life Lab teacher workshops herself on weekends, and soon was flying around the U.S., funded by a Department of Education program called the National Diffusion Network, to train Life Lab teachers in other states. She joined the Life Lab board of directors, and in 1990 accepted the job of education coordinator.
In this interview, conducted by Sarah Rabkin at the UCSC Science and Engineering Library on July 9th, 2008, Erika Perloff described the colorful variety of projects and initiatives that have occupied her attention at Life Lab. She also reflected on the national impact of the program, and its possibilities for the future.