Julie Byle enjoying outdoor scenery

PhD Candidate Receives NSF Award to Research Ecological Educational Equity

September 20, 2021

Born and raised in South Florida, Julie Byle found joy in the outdoors. Her formative years were filled with immersive outdoor experiences with her family—from fishing in the pacific northwest, to hiking in the Rocky Mountains, to camping throughout Appalachia. It didn’t take her long to realize her experiences and funds of knowledge were unique. While her classmates spent holiday vacations riding roller coasters at theme parks, she had stories of kayaking through salt marshes trying not to startle an alligator while deep in the Everglades. All of these experiences made her passionate about two things—nature and teaching.

Photos of Julie Byle kayaking, sitting on tree trunk, hiking on a trail, and standing next to a marine wallpaper background
CU Denver PhD candidate Julie Byle has always been passionate about the environment. She currently leads nature programs for high school students.

NSF Grant Funds Place-Based Learning Research

Currently, Byle, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a master’s in the Learning Sciences, is a PhD candidate at CU Denver’s Department of Integrative Biology. As a current NSF fellow, she recently received an award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that incorporates her third passion—pedagogy.

Inclusive pedagogy, to be exact. Byle had started to think not only about nature and teaching, but also about how we teach, what information we prioritize, and how we evaluate students. She decided that informal learning sites outside of school settings—museums, nature centers, farms—provide spaces for responsive pedagogy. According to Byle’s NSF proposal, such spaces create “opportunities for cultural equity that may be constrained in formal institutional structures.” Learning while out in nature can create a more equitable dynamic in which students can feel like they have agency.  

As part of her NSF research, Byle works with high school students at the Nature Kids La Jovenes Naturaleza (NKJN) program in Boulder County, which serves youth from communities that lack safe access to outdoor spaces. “I bring individuals into nature and provide experiences they wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said.

“Traditionally, assessment of informal education programs do not prioritize culturally inclusive evaluation practices that fully take into account the cultural funds of knowledge of the participants to better support the needs of the community being served. To remediate this, I look at what is being taught to the whole child: head (ecological literacy), heart (social emotional learning), hands (experiential education), and feet (sense of place).”

Honoring Funds of Knowledge

Part of taking the whole child into the learning equation is showcasing their funds of knowledge. Funds of knowledge refers to the understanding that comes from a person’s lived experience, which is necessarily influenced by the community they grew up in.

Early on in her journey as a nature teacher, Byle noticed that students from vastly different marginalized communities knew important things about the environment. “They would bring their own knowledge from their parents, and everyone was saying things in their own way,” Byle said. “Why is one form of knowledge deemed less valuable?” she wondered.

Byle wanted to balance Western ideas of science with her students’ traditional funds of knowledge. “The outcome is for program participants to be an agent in their own learning,” she said. By practicing educational equity, scientists can legitimize multiple forms of knowledge.

With a keen eye for inclusive practices and a compassionate ear for honoring diversity, Byle says we can address the need for equity in education and advance the fields of science programming, teaching, and learning. Ultimately, she brings her heart to this work with the aim that, “when all youth feel honored in the learning experiences that they bring with them, I believe both our broadest and our deepest impacts will be met.”