ELI class outside of the Marine Science Building

Written By Connie Yoon

UC Santa Barbara’s green and blue locale gives the campus community strong impetus to practice sustainability—through student activism, on-campus organizations, and countless other initiatives. One of the most important aspects of building a sustainable future for our world, however, is not only getting people involved in such initiatives but also developing environmental leaders equipped with skills to bring into the future. Dr. Simone Pulver, an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Director of the Environmental Leadership Incubator, saw that there was a gap in leadership development for undergraduate students, so she started the Environmental Leadership Incubator. 

The Environmental Leadership Incubator, or ELI, is an academic year-long program for undergraduate students to develop environmental leadership skills. It is targeted to second and third-year students regardless of major (though seniors are also welcome to apply), as long as they have an environmental project in mind. Students have extreme flexibility in choosing the scope and subject of their projects, and can choose to work independently or as a team. Throughout the year, they are also matched with experienced mentors—to collaborate, share expertise, and support them in implementing their projects. ELI is one of the only programs geared specifically toward undergraduates students that allows them to do a project that is truly applicable for their futures. Having this hands-on experience is extremely valuable in setting students apart in their job and internship searches. 

“ELI helps students learn leadership skills and apply them in real-world situations. ELI provides students with a unique opportunity to develop essential workplace skills, uncover their strengths, discover what they enjoy doing, and hone in on what they want to do in the future. This is such a unique opportunity for undergraduates students, and our ELI alumni tell us it is the most transformative experience they had as an undergraduate,” says Dr. Erika Zollett. Alongside Dr. Simone Pulver, Dr. Erika Zollett works as the ELI Program Manager. As the Program Manager, she manages the mentorship program, advises students on their environmental projects, and organizes the logistics of the program. She loves the intersection of environmentalism—taking science and applying it to real-word problems. Thus, she got involved with ELI because she wanted to be a part of this opportunity for students to engage in real-world problem-solving early on in their education. Not only this, but through her role, she is able to expand her own knowledge by working alongside students on the diverse projects that they implement each year.

Despite the difficult circumstances students faced this last year, they have been hard at work on their projects—from addressing declining insect populations to creating environmental podcasts. 

One student worked on a project called Plan Bee, through which she aimed to address declining insect populations, particularly for native bees. By creating habitats and educational opportunities on campus, her goal was to increase awareness about issues affecting native bees and provide ways for students to take action and join conservation efforts. She built pollinator gardens with native plants and with support of the UCSB community and administration, she is applying for UCSB to become a certified bee-friendly campus with Xerces Society. She plans to continue her efforts in the fall.

Two other students started an outreach program on sustainable nutrition for fifth and sixth graders in local elementary schools with a focus on plant-based nutrition. They have talked to elementary school students in the Goleta Union School District and have also created recipe bags with ingredients that they drop off at schools, so the students can work on making the recipe at home. They plan to continue their work this upcoming fall by partnering with UCSB Kids In Nutrition, and additional elementary schools in Goleta Union, Santa Barbara Unified, and the Hope School District have expressed interest in working with them.

Another pair of students created a podcast called Envirosations, engaging in conversations with environmental activists to see environmentalism through their eyes—with a focus on intersectionality. Through the podcast they examine race, class, gender, and other diversity issues to see what kind of work people are doing and what empowers their journey as environmentalists. 

Project Green Path is an environmental initiative aimed at encouraging high school students to consider careers that integrate environmentalism.  The ELI student goes to high schools as a motivational speaker and exposes students to the possibility of integrating environmentalism into whatever career they may pursue—whether it be law, engineering, journalism, or whatever they are interested in. 

One team pursued a computer-based project in which they created a geographical data visualization tool in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Food Bank to see where their locations are and where poverty is centered in our community. Through this, they can determine whether the food banks are in the right locations and whether they need to add new access points. Ultimately, they want to make sure that people can access food banks through public transportation without traveling excessively to get the resources they need. 

Beyond these five innovative projects, there are other fascinating and diverse projects from ELI students working on initiatives such as carbon neutrality, plans for energy efficiency in dorms on campus, issues related to food waste, and other valuable work. Even working remotely, students demonstrated incredible resilience and drive.  

Dr. Zollett encourages undergraduate students from any major and background to apply for the ELI program. They are open to all different types of projects, from engineering and technology focused to hands-on restoration, giving a place for anyone to bring their ideas to fruition. To learn more about the Environmental Leadership Incubator and previous students’ projects, visit www.eli.ucsb.edu.