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Branching Out

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 12:30


Photo Credit: 

Matt Perko


Nicole Poletto, a master’s degree candidate, had her eyes on UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management ever since she completed her undergraduate degree.

“I wanted to continue my involvement in environmental education and community outreach but expand my understanding of the intersection between science, business, policy, economics, and management” she said. “I am especially interested in the social aspects of science and management and how to add an educational component, specifically with students K-12.”

In her first quarter, she started in the Eco-Entrepreneurship focus, which aims at solving both a customer and environmental problem through the formation of a green business. She and her group formed over a concern about the decreasing amount of time people spend outdoors compared to indoors and on screens. Stemming from the Eco-Entrepreneurship thesis project, they created an educational product called BranchOut, to “unlock the outdoors.” BranchOut is a fun interactive game similar to an escape room. Kids and their families participate in an environmental themed mission, investigate clues that are distributed through the natural space, unlock boxes and use teamwork to complete their tasks in a race against the clock.

“We really strive to make learning fun,” Nicole said. “The kids get to approach the game using critical thinking and problem-solving, all in a team environment.” Although most escape rooms are indoors and usually for adults, Nicole and her team took it outdoors and focused on getting kids to interact with natural spaces.

Nicole really enjoyed the market research and customer validation aspect of the program. “It forced us to get out there and talk to people,” she said. “We had to approach our problem and design a solution that people want, not just exclusively a solution for the environment.” She and her group started out by testing her ideas, reaching out to parents and addressing parents’ needs. “We recognized that organizations in the community were actively looking for ways to draw more people to their spaces,” she said.

Her pilot project was featured at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in February. It sold out in 24 hours and became a huge success! It was then that Nicole realized she wanted to “go big and not go home.” After a pilot project at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, BranchOut will now be featured there as an exhibit every weekend beginning mid-July.  

Nicole and her team will also be working with kids at the Family Vacation Center over the summer. “After we figure out the feasibility of the museum model, we hope to spread to larger cities across California such as San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco,” she said. “In the long run, we hope to sell this as a game that the museums can run themselves and continue private parties and events.”

Describing UCSB in one word, she said: “dynamic.” “Each quarter was different and brought about new challenges for me to face,” she said. “I learned I couldn’t always be a perfectionist and that I’d have to find a balance.”

Nicole will be graduating this quarter with a master’s degree in environmental science and management. Her specialization is in energy and climate with a focus on strategic environmental communication and media. She will now continue to pursue marketing her BranchOut product and, she said, she hopes to “inspire the next generation of environmental stewards and have a lot of fun along the way.”

Written by Bret Rodriguez