The North Carolina Arboretum’s youth education program is designed to prepare children across North Carolina to succeed in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Annually, the Arboretum serves more than 26,000 school-aged youth through educational programs, including field trips, school visits, summer camps and outreach programs. To ensure that these children receive the best experience and education, the Arboretum has built a staff of dynamic, highly trained and passionate environmental educators. One of those educators, Jenna Kesgen, has combined her passions for art and science to create engaging maps for the Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE program. Recently, I had a chance to catch up with Jenna to learn more about what inspired her to blend her knowledge of environmental education with art.

1.) Science and art can oftentimes be so separated in terms of subject matter and learning. What led you to develop a passion for both?

I believe creative thinking is the impetus of scientific discovery, making art and science highly compatible to one another. For me personally, developing the skills as an artist allows me to look at our world in a more examined way. As I am drawing an American goldfinch, for example, I am able to closely study the variations of white and black on its wing, the conical shape of its beak and the precise shade of yellow of its body – all in a way that is not matched from simply just looking at one.

2.) What were some of the factors/considerations when creating the ecoEXPLORE maps?

I imagined the maps to be in a style similar to amusement park maps. The destinations that are emphasized on the maps have plants and animals that kids can observe. At each of the locations, these objects are intended to “pop-out” in order to entice kids to go there. I didn’t choose a particular time of the year for the maps because I wanted to show many things active and blooming. Also, some of the buildings have a slightly warped perspective that you wouldn’t see in real life to make sure all the needed features were included. Although kids can still use them as a regular map to find their way, the size and relative distance are not true to scale in order to make the maps more balanced and fit correctly on the page.

3.) In this day and age when GPS is so prevalent, why do you think it is important for children to learn how to read maps? Did you do anything in the development of the ecoEXPLORE maps to make it easier for them to follow?

As an environmental educator who encourages kids to explore the outdoors, being safe and prepared is the first priority to any outdoor adventure. You should never rely on technology to help you navigate through the woods, especially since your equipment could fail or run out of battery power. A map that you can understand and read is a much more reliable alternative.

To make the ecoEXPLORE maps easier to follow, I showed the features of certain locations as they look in real life instead of using symbols from a completely aerial viewpoint. For example, when a child is standing in the butterfly garden at the Madison County Public Library, they recognize the purple butterfly chair in the map and know they are in the right place.

4.) What do you hope children will gain from participating in ecoEXPLORE and following the guides?

Many children like to draw, and when they see a colorful drawing they often take notice. I hope that these guides act as way for kids to discover the ecoEXPLORE program and the wildlife that surrounds them and feel like it is a place that they can visit any time. This program emphasizes to kids in a real, hands-on way that they don’t have to visit a national park in order to observe cool things in nature – all they have to do is pay attention to what surrounds them, wherever they are.

The North Carolina Arboretum and the Madison County Public Library recently unveiled its Marshall branch ecoEXPLORE MegaSpot location – an area that contains multiple HotSpot observation areas and is also a place to check out field tools and science equipment. ecoEXPLORE participants can pick up a MegaSpot guide and use the map to “See It, Snap It, Share It.” On May 6, the Arboretum will open its North Asheville MegaSpot at Beaver Lake. For more information on the ecoEXPLORE program and upcoming events, please visit