During the weeks leading up to October 21 and 22, 2023, all eyes were on the weather forecasts as event coordinators put the finishing touches on Temple Ambler EarthFest’s the Great American Campout and the Science of Scary, the capstone events for EarthFest’s 20th year of providing environmental education programs to students, teachers and the region as a whole.

It wasn’t looking great.

“Cold and rain — a lot of it. That was the forecast we were staring at,” said Jim Duffy, Content Manager for Temple University Ambler and one of the coordinators for Temple Ambler EarthFest. “With a couple hundred visitors expected — half of them planning to camp with us overnight — we were moving ahead and making plans that would ensure that, despite the weather, our guests would have a fun, educational experience. As it turned out, while it might have been cold, the rain held off, and we had two terrific days that were a fitting capper to our 20th anniversary year.”

For Duffy, the trepidatious weather woes were like coming full circle.

“On April 22, 2003 — Earth Day — we held our very first EarthFest event. It poured solidly for the first 90 minutes,” he said. “Then the sun came out as we had a great day after our 40 exhibitors and 1,500 guests dried out a bit. We took that day as a learning experience, and we’ve taken every EarthFest event since to do the same. Our goal has remained the same for 20 years — working with partners within Temple and throughout the region to promote sustainability, environmental stewardship and citizen science to as broad an audience as possible.”   

Since 2003, EarthFest programs have welcomed more than 125,000 students, teachers, parents and community members to Temple University Ambler. The creation of EarthFest “will have a lasting impact on the future through its influence on youth and helping to teach them about sustainability and giving them a venue to present and teach others,” said Dr. Vicki Lewis McGarvey, Vice Provost for University College.

As with many important things, it all started serendipitously during a meeting.

Celebrating Sustainability

In fall 2002, faculty from Temple’s Intellectual Heritage program came to Dr. Jeffrey Featherstone, then Director of the Center for Sustainable Communities at Temple University, with an idea for a day-long conference focused entirely on sustainability, which would be held on Earth Day, April 22, 2003. Meetings began soon after about the form and function of the conference and the intended audience.

The day’s conference topics included: “When and how do private and public interests collide,” “Does preservation and conservation mean a rejection of ‘Progress,’” “How might science and social values meet,” “How can business help enhance our natural and cultural heritage,” and “Indicators of sustainability: How can state, county, and local governments assess progress?”

“The environmental movement is essentially a distant memory at this point. We need to refocus,” said Featherstone in November 2002. Dr. Featherstone tragically passed away after a sudden illness in 2016. “During recent Earth Days, there has been very little activity in this area to draw attention to these important issues of sustainability. As a university we want to take a lead role in offering people ways to learn about, discuss and deal with them.”

It was during those early meetings that a seed was planted that has grown into something much more than originally envisioned — EarthFest, a diverse collection of educational events and programs held throughout the year.

For tens of thousands of students and educators, it was Featherstone’s vision of celebrating sustainability and citizen science that connected them to people and organizations on the frontlines of environmental stewardship year after year.

“Jeff and I talked about the idea of having an event for the public outside while the conference was taking place inside, something that would bring environmental organizations and companies together to share concepts and ideas. He was all in from the start,” said Duffy. “That was Jeff — he always valued your opinion and was always willing to share his own insight. We had never done something like this as a campus before but where others might have seen challenges, he saw opportunities.”

Featherstone and Duffy took the idea to Michael Schlotterbeck, then Director of Marketing and Communications at Temple Ambler, who took the ball and ran with it. They also enlisted the aid of Spinella Sacks, former Manager of Research of Temple University Ambler and former co-coordinator of EarthFest programs, to turn the concept into reality.

“We always felt like the Ambler Campus was a hidden gem. We were eager to find ways to get people on campus, especially young people,” said Schlotterbeck, now Director of Marketing and Communications at Moorestown Friends School. “It seemed like a great opportunity to educate area students, teachers, adults and parents about the programs that we had on campus.”

With degree programs such as landscape architecture and horticulture and community and regional planning (now city and regional planning and community development offered at Main Campus by the Tyler School of Art and Architecture) “we had faculty and staff who had connections where we could reach out and have outside organizations be willing to participate,” Schlotterbeck said.

“If anything, what surprised me was how we were able to get as many people involved as we did, whether they were vendors, non-profit organizations, government agencies or other educational institutions,” he said. “That first year laid the groundwork for getting the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) to partner with us and make the Junior Flower Show and Kids Grow Expo part of the event in 2004, which was huge for the growth of EarthFest. EarthFest 2003 was successful, and it showed that this was a great way for any kind of organization to network and get their message out to people young and old — you could roam around and learn so much, whether you were six or 76.”

One Year Becomes Two, then 10, then 20

While 2003 paved the way for what would become an annual event and began Temple Ambler’s long running partnerships with diverse organizations inside and outside of Temple, initially Sacks was convinced “this will never happen again.”

“How can you be successful when you can’t control the elements? What I remember however, was walking around and seeing exhibitors deeply engaged with the visitors. You could see people that were truly engaged and enjoying that interaction,” said Sacks, a Temple alumna, who was a research assistant with the Center for Sustainable Communities at the time while completing her master’s degree in planning — she would later return to the Center as Assistant Director.  “There was something special about watching that interaction take place. It lit a small fire that continued to grow.”

One logistical question as EarthFest continued to expand each year — “Where do you put all of those school buses?”

“Buses would pull up, one behind the other, and wait for the children to get off the bus in the morning and board the bus in the afternoon. Once the bus had everyone aboard, the bus would pull out, and all the buses behind it would pull forward, which worked very well for the first couple of years,” said Larry O’Reilly, Information Technology Services Manager for Temple University Center City who helped coordinate school arrivals and departures at EarthFest for many years. “EarthFest was a great success from the start, and the number of buses increased rapidly. The lion’s share of success of the bus parking really had to do with the volunteers who provided invaluable feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Bus parking might not be very glamourous, but it was a critical part of EarthFest and we had a core group of volunteers that helped us year after year.”

Dozens of people worked behind the scenes each year to ensure that the various moving parts of each event — things that most visitors would never think about such as parking — went smoothly to ensure students, teachers, families and other visitors could simply focus on learning, having fun and immersing themselves in the idea of “sustaining our communities,” the theme that has been at the core of EarthFest for 20 years.

The Center for Sustainable Communities, the planning programs, landscape architecture and horticulture provided “opportunities to reach and make impacts on young adults, community members, businesses and institutions,” Sacks said.

“EarthFest was the vehicle through which we were able to reach that younger audience so that they could see just a little bit of what a big impact a small change could make. Sustainability was so broad and Jeff (Featherstone), in my opinion, wanted to show the world how broad it was,” she said. “EarthFest was our opportunity to do that through hundreds of exhibitors over the years who, while they all had the same mission, approached it completely differently. We had everything from animal exhibits to electricity exhibits to aquaponics to food sustainability to a junior flower show and dozens of student-led exhibits from area high schools, middle schools and elementary schools — students became the teachers each year. Everyone that attended found something of interest to them and that was the key.”

For Featherstone and the army of people that worked on making EarthFest programming possible, “sustainability” wasn’t just a buzzword — it was the overarching goal around which every Earth Day celebration, bioblitz, astronomy night, World Water Day, Arbor Day, Campout and Science of Scary event that followed was predicated.

Sustainability is one of the legacies that Featherstone leaves Temple, said Sacks.

“He had the personality and wherewithal to not only emphasize sustainability in the classroom but outside of it, to other faculty, other disciplines and within the community. And it wasn’t just the Center talking about these concepts,” she said. “Jeff wanted the University to practice not only what he was preaching but what other faculty members were trying to achieve. He helped start the conversation and had the strength to move the University forward and become a leader in sustainability education.”

According to Nancy Featherstone, Jeff “saw that development could happen in a sustainable way or in an unsustainable way — there are choices to be made.”

“For everyone who has an awareness of sustainability, of course you’d chose that. It’s a matter of creating awareness. Jeff saw that Temple could be a leader in that and work with all of the area universities toward that goal,” she said of her husband. “He saw it as ‘We have to do this together,’ and isn’t that the essence of sustainability? It isn’t something imposed by somebody. It comes organically through the interaction of people and the environment.”

Jeff Featherstone helped to open every EarthFest Earth Day celebration up to and including 2016.

“EarthFest really was the most important event for him of the year. It was the last thing he did. He came home from EarthFest in 2016 and went right to the hospital — we didn’t know how seriously ill he was. It was that important to him; it was the highest priority for him” she said. “I see EarthFest programming as becoming even more important over time. Having developed so many wonderful, lasting partnerships with organizations and groups throughout the region, EarthFest is now working with them and adapting to meet the needs of families and communities. Instead of just having one day a year, Temple Ambler has created an EarthFest community within Temple and the Delaware Valley as a whole offering educational and awareness opportunities throughout the year. I think Jeff would be thrilled with that — it says that what he cared about mattered.”

Partnering for the Planet

EarthFest programming would be impossible without the hundreds of partner University departments and external organizations and government agencies that have participated in events — in-person, online and sometimes a bit of both — for the past 20 years.

Several of those partners, such as the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Delaware River Basin Commission have been part of EarthFest since year one.

“EarthFest is a hands-on approach for children to experience our connection to the natural world. Exposing them to all of the different environmental organizations, including ours, helps instill within them an appreciation and respect for science and the natural world,” said Stephanie Berardi, Community Relations Coordinator in the Pennsylvania DEP’s Office of Communications. “A strong environmental ethos is not inherent; it must be taught. The DEP hopes the kids take away values that protecting our environment is important, and that there are a lot of different things they can do to make our world a better place. If they have fun and learn that as children, then as adults they might continue to do it as well.”

Children know what firemen, police officers and doctors are, “but a stream biologist? Why should anyone care about bugs in the water?” said Berardi.  “If we can briefly explain how important it is to study the health of our streams, and we can change their screams of ‘Ew, is it alive?’ and ‘Bugs are gross!’ to ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool, I didn’t know that’ then the DEP has successfully done our job.  Each year when children’s eyes light up its clear that we made a difference.” 

Sarah Chowning, Education Administrator at the Elmwood Park Zoo, said events like those offered through EarthFest are beneficial in "helping make conservation more accessible and relatable by allowing guests to engage with different aspects of the natural world that they may not have previously encountered or wouldn't be comfortable exploring on their own."

“It helps to introduce them to ways that they can personally be involved, even in a small way, through citizen science,” she said. “When a guest has a personal connection to our animal ambassadors, it can lead to better understanding and more empathy towards the species and its habitat and will hopefully encourage positive action in protecting and conserving wildlife.”

The different types of EarthFest exhibitors, “runs the gamut of what’s out there in terms of how to take care of our planet and how to make better decisions — what are the cascading impacts of choices made upstream,” said Mari Radford (City and Regional Planning, Tyler School of Art and Architecture, 2010), Hazard Mitigation Planning Section Supervisor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Region III.   

“It’s the whole spectrum of living on this planet and how to treat it better. As an exhibitor, it’s been a fabulous opportunity to showcase the many things we do that people might not know about. We have made all kinds of connections,” said Radford, a Temple planning master’s program alumna who participated in EarthFest the first couple of years as a graduate student. “I look forward to going to EarthFest events and seeing my colleagues at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or Montgomery County Emergency Management and I get to reconnect with my Temple colleagues and my professors. These are people we know we can reach out to.”

Radford said she has had the opportunity to be a guest lecturer in some of Temple’s planning courses “where I’ve been able to talk about the opportunities that student in the field might have at FEMA.”

“Some of the non-profits we’ve connected with and other federal agencies, it’s a great resource to determine where there might be nexus points between our programs and initiatives,” she said. “At EarthFest, we’ve engaged with kids who have never talked to a federal government employee before, never considered it as a potential job, never understood what FEMA does.”

Partnerships are key to outreach and education, said Kate Schmidt, Communications Specialist at the Delaware River Basin Commission.   

“Being able to work together to share information not only about our organization but also about important environmental issues such as clean water, pollution prevention and climate change helps amplify the message and reach more people,” she said. “EarthFest has given us the opportunity to provide mini presentations about clean water to thousands of kids, maximizing our outreach and education capabilities.”

The partnerships created through EarthFest “developed so organically,” said Sacks.

“We had organizations talking to each other and networking with each other that might have never crossed paths otherwise,” she said. “We created a lot of synergy — some of the exhibitors would stay for an hour or two after the event just talking to each other about sustainability and ways to work together. It makes me wonder how much change came out of those interactions that we would never know about.”

Citizen Science for Today and Tomorrow 

EarthFest is no longer just a day, it’s a series of events held throughout the year. Now part of the Ambler Arboretum, EarthFest programming is developed working closely with Arboretum educators, the Temple Ambler Field Station and other University partners such as the Department of Biology, the College of Science and Technology, Recreation, Outdoor Education and Wellness at Temple Ambler and the University’s Office of Sustainability.

Online citizen scientists may take deep dives into any number of environmental topics with virtual celebrations of World Water Day, Earth Day, Arbor Day, the Great American Campout and the Science of Scary.

“We realized that the important themes of EarthFest — sustaining our communities, environmental education and awareness, preserving animal habits, STEM education, emergency management, living healthy — really couldn’t be contained to a single day,” said Duffy. “Building on what we’ve been able to achieve with a single event, we now host a variety of events designed to get people really thinking about the world around us.”

EarthFest events today are designed to provide more personalized opportunities to interact with exhibitors and for students to get hands-on with citizen science. Planned Ambler Arboretum EarthFest events in 2024 include the return of favorites such as the Science of Scary, World Water Day and a campus bioblitz in addition to new programs focused on the importance of dark skies, diversity in the sciences and World Food Day, which brings awareness to global food insecurity.

"One of the great things about holding these events on campus is that we have an opportunity to help people understand what plants are a little better, what plants do, and their role within the greater system," said Kathy Salisbury, Director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University. "We can't exist without plants. Our future depends on how we interact with the world around us."

EarthFest is about providing visitors food for thought and the fuel to power engines for positive change, said Dr. Amy Freestone, Director of the Temple Ambler Field Station.

“For any of these programs, we want visitors to come away with new understanding, an appreciation for our environment, and hopefully ways to integrate this new appreciation into their daily lives,” she said. “The partnership between the Temple Ambler Field Station, the Ambler Arboretum and EarthFest has enabled us to communicate our research to the public — to share what we have learned, and to highlight why this is important.”

Many people have heard about climate change and changing weather patterns, Freestone said, “but this can feel abstract and not relevant to people's daily lives.” 

“We hope that by sharing our research on the recovery of a forest after a severe weather event, such as the tornado that struck Temple Ambler in September 2021, or any of our other research endeavors, that it makes abstract concepts feel concrete, while highlighting ways we are still learning and creating new knowledge to address big environmental challenges,” she said.

Twenty years on, the creation of EarthFest continues to be a point of personal pride for Schlotterbeck.

“I still refer to it as my biggest professional accomplishment. I think EarthFest today and in the future provides a natural distillation for what the Ambler Campus and surrounding communities have dealt with in recent years — it’s amazing the amount of resilience that is in everybody’s spirit,” he said. “Clearly the campus community has done a wonderful job in trying to regroup and repurpose some of the things that the campus has been known for. EarthFest in 2023 and beyond can educate the community in the ways that the campus itself is recovering.”

Moving forward, Nancy Featherstone said, she would like to see EarthFest continue to evolve and grow “and be even more robust in a way that brings young people into the fold about what they can do to have an impact on their own environment.”

“I think the whole idea is focused on keeping an eye to the future. What can we do to support continued growth and development in a sustainable, ecological way,” she said. “What are the individual responsibilities we all have? We need to do more around reuse and recycling, mass transportation, scaling back on our use of carbon fuels and all of those principles. My hope is that part of Jeff’s legacy is training tomorrow’s leaders and I’m confident that will happen.”

We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of sustainability and environmental stewardship, Nancy Featherstone said.

“There is so much yet to do, and each person can do something. If you help people know what they can do, most people are willing and excited to do their part,” she said. “I think EarthFest has been and will continue to be an essential avenue in giving people the tools they need to protect and preserve their future.”

Learn more about Temple Ambler EarthFest at https://ambler.temple.edu/earthfest.