Empathy Education

Como’s education programs are back in full force, with a growing emphasis on discoveries that foster new connections with nature.

“What do you think this plant would taste like?” a second grader from St. Paul’s Capitol Hill Magnet School wonders aloud.

“Yucky,” says her classmate, as she contemplates a table full of mint, cacao and other plant specimens from the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory.

“But maybe not,” says a third student, leaning in for a sniff. “This one kind of smells nice…”

Using all five senses to explore the world of plants is the power of Plant Detectives, a popular school partnership that brings second graders from the St. Paul public schools to Como with free tuition provided by Como Friends. In a classroom in Como’s Visitor Center, small teams of students work their way from station to station, smelling, touching and observing all they can about plants, and comparing their notes in a high-energy setting guided by Como’s education specialists.

During the pandemic, when school programs like this were put on pause, virtual programs like Como Connections helped classrooms around the state learn about conservation through fun and interactive videos. But as education coordinator Tim Buer says, there’s nothing like being back in person again for getting kids fired up about learning. “It’s been great to re-establish the connection that we’ve had with schools for so many years,” he says. “We don’t even have any space left in this program, it’s been so popular with teachers.”

Como field trips are a familiar tradition for many schools, but this year, the conservation curriculum is taking a new shape thanks to a new education strategic plan supported by Como Friends.  

“As our school partners were coming out of COVID, we took the opportunity to think really intentionally about all of our education programs, making sure that they’re all aligned with our conservation mission,” says Bekah Hanes, Como’s education and conservation curator.

Through Como’s growing partnership with Advancing Conservation Through Empathy (ACE) for Wildlife, a nationwide learning network, Como’s education programs have also been updated to reflect the growing body of research that shows that fostering empathy with animals and plants is a powerful tool in building life-long conservation behaviors.

Como visitors will notice the new conservation-focused vibe all across campus, from the full roster of summer camp programs relaunching this summer, to the new field trip enrichment stations you’ll see near the Visitor Center during the busy spring months. “It’s wonderful to hear the noise and energy of kids being in classroom spaces that we haven’t used for awhile,” says Hanes. “Seeing those school buses come back, and knowing the next field trip is on its way here brings us all a lot of joy.”


Your support for Como Friends has been critical to the resurgence of Como’s education programs this year, with new scholarship offerings for schools and families. Here’s a look:

Hitching a ride: With rates for school bus rentals on the rise, Como Friends is helping provide bus scholarships to schools in need to ensure that finances are never a barrier to school field trips.

Summer camp surge: After a successful pilot run last season, Como’s popular summer camps are making a full return with 12 weeks of great programs about animals and plants for preschoolers through sixth graders. Como Friends provided scholarship funding for families to enroll in Camp Como this season. Your Como Friends’ membership can also help save 10 percent off your registration costs.

St. Paul Partners: With field trips back in full swing, Como has resumed its popular second grade field trip program with the St. Paul public schools, a program paid for by Como Friends.

Nature Walk: Led by teens taught to interpret Como’s animal and plant collections, this engaging conservation program is all about getting the next generation excited about nature. At interpretive carts stationed around Como during the busy summer months, Nature Walk volunteers role-model what’s cool about conservation, connecting with an estimated 200,000 visitors every year.

Curriculum Updates: With a new focus on fostering empathy with animals and plants, Como’s education department hired a dedicated curriculum writer to update all of Como’s programs with best practice strategies for inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

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