Southern Illinois University at Carbondale’s Touch of Nature Environmental Campus

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 2 : September 1999  [Partnerships]

By Marian Brown and Mark Cosgrove

When the Sustainability Project at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (SIUC) was launched in July 1998, the project team arrived at several objectives, which included conducting a campus-wide environmental audit, reviewing purchasing practices, and identifying research opportunities. Initially, the team reviewed existing programs, curricula and research which fit in with the sustainability agenda. This article discusses the environmental education programs offered by SIUC’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center, and how the Center’s staff has incorporated sustainability issues into a wide variety of program offerings. Touch of Nature serves over 22,000 people each year, from K-12 students to senior citizens, educators, special populations, at-risk youths, and, of course, the SIUC community.


Touch of Nature is located eight miles southeast of the SIUC campus in the rolling hills of Southern Illinois. The 3,100 acre facility is bordered by a 700 acre lake, Giant City State Park, and the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the Shawnee National Forest, providing over 300,000 acres of public lands for observation and study. Established in 1949, the Center’s programs have expanded to include:

  • Therapeutic Recreation – for youths and adults with physical and mental disabilities
  • Underway/Wilderness Adventures – designed to challenge the physical and mental capabilities of each participant and to develop group cohesiveness
  • Spectrum Wilderness – for young people having serious difficulties in school, at home, or in the community, and for people making the transition from institutional care to independent living
  • Environmental Ed-Ventures – with a focus on ecological concepts, local natural history, natural areas in Southern Illinois, and environmental ethics


The Environmental Ed-Ventures programs range from a few hours to two weeks in length, and involve pre-schoolers through senior citizens. Programs teach about natural resource utilization, water management, land management, and the complexities of the human relationship to the environment. Participants gain perspectives on nature and on themselves that can lead them to develop a strong environmental ethic. Solutions to environmental problems and appropriate actions are typically addressed. Often, the programs serve as people’s first introduction to these concepts.

Touch of Nature also provides environmental education for teaching professionals and students. The Center hosts regional and national conferences, including Project Wild, Plan-It Illinois and Project Learning Tree. The Project Wild workshop is primarily attended by science and environmental studies teachers from statewide school systems from K-12. Project Wild is defined as an interdisciplinary, supplementary environment and conservation education program for educators. Key staff at Touch of Nature are trained to instruct the workshop and certify participants who successfully complete it. The same program is also offered through the University’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction with assistance from Touch of Nature staff and facilities.

Plan-It Illinois is a statewide initiative also aimed at primary and secondary teachers in science and environmental studies. It determines much of the form and content of Environmental Education in the schools of Illinois. The program is administered at Eastern Illinois University and conducted at Touch of Nature, where Center staff assist with the instruction.

Touch of Nature’s Project Learning Tree is recognized as one of the premier environmental education programs for students. Learning Tree provides K-12 students with opportunities to investigate environmental issues and encourages them to make informed, ethical decisions through hands-on, interdisciplinary activities. Project Wild, Plan-It Illinois and Learning Tree are each weeklong residential programs.

In the fall of 1998 the Center hosted the Midwest Environmental Education Conference. Sponsored by the Environmental Education Association of Illinois, this five-day conference provided a wide range of environmental education concepts and hands on learning opportunities to 250 environmental educators and environmentally minded citizens from an eight state area. Among the 70 educational workshops offered were: Understanding Sustainability; Readiness of Pre-Service Elementary Teachers to Teach Ecological Issues; and Environmental Action Options in the Classroom and Community.

In the spirit of experiential learning, participants practice waste reduction, reuse and recycling. No disposables are used by food services, and participants are asked to scrape their plates for subsequent composting. For groups attending short courses, such as school children on a field trip who bring in their own meals, the waste generated is analyzed to illustrate ways to reduce or eliminate it. Participants see for themselves how their consumption decisions affect waste generation and how to reduce that waste through purchasing choices, recycling and composting.

Touch of Nature staff practice what they preach. The Center has a comprehensive recycling program and food is composted where possible. In addition, staff reuse paper printed on one side, and make their own notepads out of used paper. All printed material is 100% post-consumer recycled content paper, using soybean inks.


The Touch of Nature Environmental Center is striving to become a model for the “environmentally sustainable community.” Achieving that goal, however, presents interesting challenges. Foremost among these is the food service operation, which is contracted to an outside vendor. Since the Center provides conference services and catering for special events, such as weddings, receptions and parties, eliminating disposable dinnerware is a hard concept to sell to cost-conscious customers. The Center is examining the feasibility of eliminating disposable service at a cost of some lost business. Another challenge is convincing the food service vendor to participate in the composting program. This would include food preparation waste as well as post-consumer waste. While the Center can mandate sustainable practices with their own programs, conferences and special events raise the question of who should bear the cost – the Center, the food service vendor, or the customer?

Other challenges for the Center include incorporating the sustainability agenda into programs such as therapeutic recreation. Participants in these programs have a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities, so concepts and behaviors must be introduced in creative ways.


Touch of Nature hopes to convert its operations to renewable energy sources in the future. The facilities, which include cabins, bunkhouses and lodges, could use some types of renewable energy, such as solar, to supplement or replace traditional fossil fuel derived sources. In addition to achieving more environmentally friendly energy consumption, this would save money in the long run and help the Center improve facilities and programs.

Marian Brown is the Associate Director of Operations at SIUC. She is responsible for custodial service, grounds maintenance, recycling, fleet operations, Printing/Duplicating Service and Campus Mail Service. She can be reached by email at, or by telephone at 618-453-8179. Mark Cosgrove is the Director of Touch of Nature Environmental Center. He also holds a degree in Environmental Science and has over 25 years of experience in environmental and experiential education.

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