Environmental education digs deep

Projects in great outdoors among the best ways to teach skills that cut across curriculum
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 11, 2015

Environmental education is not just a walk in the woods anymore. It’s a project-based walk in the woods with an iPad.

These days, instead of in the woods, the hike could be along a city street, at an abandoned reservoir or inside a school garden. And the learning goals span the curriculum, from STEM to social studies to language arts.

Today’s environmental education aims to get students engaged in projects that improve the health of local communities while also offering a change of pace from the tense “high stakes, high-testing” world inside schools, says Kelly Keena, a longtime environmental educator and sustainability consultant.

“It gives them a break from the four walls and fluorescent lights and lets them move around on uneven surfaces in the natural world with their natural curiosity,” says Keena, who also is a science teacher leader at Achieve Academy in Mapleton Public Schools near Denver. “Environmental education is very hands-on, very experiential and very student-centered.”

Rather than taking sightseeing trips to far-flung wilderness areas, students now try to solve problems of conservation, quality of life and sustainability in their local environments.

“Kids have a different perspectiveÑthey’re talking about recycling, about habitat loss, about all these big things that they’ve come to on their own,” Keena says. “There’s a lot of awareness that kids have and they have high expectations of adults for healthy communities.”

El Paso’s air quality quest

Copper has been a blessing and a curse for the residents of El Paso, Texas. In the early 1900s, the in-demand metal launched the now sprawling border city’s modern economy, but the Asarco company’s smelting factory that operated for about 100 years has left a legacy of air pollution, says Cynthia Ontiveros, a high school science supervisor at El Paso ISD.

A silver lining to these hazy, brown desert skies is a $2 million EPA grant, awarded in 2011, that has funded five-year studies of air quality by El Paso ISD students and The University of Texas at El Paso, says Ontiveros, who oversees the district’s program.

How to launch environmental programs

A school district doesn’t need a marine center, its own forest or an abandoned reservoir to incorporate the environment into the curriculum.

The Colton-Redlands-Yucaipa Regional Occupational Program, a regional vocational system in Southern California, doesn’t have an environmental job track; instead “green tech units” have been embedded into every course, Superintendent Stephanie Houston says.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the nursing or veterinary assistant programs or in geographic information systems, we’ve integrated that green instruction,” Houston says.

The units were added about four years ago when the program’s advisors from local industry told administrators that employers wanted job candidates with more knowledge of relevant “green” skills.

For instance, construction students learn about sustainable building practices and materials while fire service, law enforcement and automotive students learn about how the chemicals in hybrid batteries in cars change the way emergency workers respond to car accidents.

“In our labor markets, green jobs like solar panel installer and wind turbine repairman have been slower to develop,” Houston says. “With what we are doing, we are able get students practicing more responsibly within the sectors that do have jobs in our areas.”

When the Maine Administrative School District #11Ña small system about 50 miles north of PortlandÑinstalled new HVAC systems and lighting in its buildings, it seized an opportunity to teach students about energy efficiency, Superintendent Patricia Hopkins says.

An engineer from the company that installed and manages the system showed middle school students the data they needed to collect to analyze the performance of the new equipment. The program is expected to save the district about $4 million over the next two decades. “The project benefited the community with reduced energy costs but also brought real-life experiences into the classrooms,” Hopkins says.

An easy way to embark on environmental education is for a teacher to ask students about a local issue they had liked to tackle as a class project. Such an approach led students in Lynn, Massachusetts and Salt Lake City to help pass laws that ban cars from idling their engines, says Christiane Maertens, deputy director of the North American Association for Environmental Education.

“Environmental education is a real way to engage kids in STEM learning,” Maertens says. “It’s much more than planting trees and beach cleanups. It’s a much more comprehensive approach to education that teaches people how to think, not what to think.”

Teachers who have implemented these projects have had strong support from their principals and other administrators, Maertens says.

Another place to get ideas are the many STEM-related competitions sponsored by companies across the country. For example, California’s major water supplier hosts the CalWater H20 Challenge, in which students in grades 4 through 6 research conservation.

Educators can find ideas on the North American Association for Environmental Education site, which lists state and regional affiliates.

“Environmental education is typically taught from an ecological standpointÑyou learn about ecosystems and organisms and the impacts human have,” Ontiveros says. “Through this curricular approach we look at the situation in our own community. We’re not teaching this out of a textbook, we’re teaching it out of real life.”

Students collect and analyze soil samples from the smelter, which closed in 1999. They’ve also made air filters with Vaseline and cardstock to trap pollutants. In fact, every grade, from grade 3 to 12, focuses on a different aspect of air quality. And at each level, the depth and rigor increases, Ontiveros says.

Third graders created a book that teaches themselves and other students about air quality, and how daily fluctuations affect residents’ health. Fifth graders analyzed the environmental impacts of solar, wind, biofuel and other energy sources. Seventh graders researched pollution’s effects on income, health and education in other cities. High school students studied the copper refining process and pollution caused by other local factories.

Even though the grant period is ending, El Paso ISD is integrating the environmental lessons as a permanent part of the curriculumÑand hoping to share it with other schools.

“In everything we do, we tell students to understand both sides,” she says. “Asarco made El Paso what it isÑhaving high-paying wages with great benefits was something that was good for our community, but historically, we’ve had some pretty bad air quality issues.”

New Jersey reservoir revived

Most students at the Christa McAuliffe K-8 School in urban Jersey City, New Jersey, didn’t know about the semi-abandoned reservoir hidden behind the “No Trespassing” signs and imposing stone wall a short walk from their classrooms.

Students discovered it in 2010 as a place to release trout that had grown too big for classroom fish tanks. It has since grown into “Project Reservoir”Ña vibrant outdoor learning laboratory where students from Jersey City Public Schools have studied mosquito control, algae blooms and invasive plants, says Robert O’Donnell, a middle school science and environment teacher at Christa McAuliffe.

“Each year, we have had four or five teams of students focused on and studying environmental issues,” O’Donnell says. “They have developed a love for the reservoir and, in the process, a love for science and technology.”

Students, who are divided into various groups, or teams, do most of their experimenting after school and on weekends at the 13-acre site that supplied city water for about 100 years until it closed in the 1990s.

Still water in the reservoir means mosquitoes lurk. A middle school team called “Composquitoes” put a small solar cell on a bottle of compost to control the pests. The heat given off by the compost attracts the bugs, and the solar panel powers a small fan that chops them up.

The “Phrag Attack” team may cut a maze through a thick growth of an invasive plant called phragmites. Visitors can use smartphones to scan QR codes posted on signs to learn about how the invasive species crowds out native plants.

Another team, called the “Algae Extinguishers,” found a way to treat algae without using chemicals. In a school lab, the students bred small crustaceans called daphnia that can naturally remove toxic algae blooms that turn the water green.

All of the projects demand detailed analysis, and extensive writing is required to compose reports and to fill out applications for the national competitions that various teams from the middle school have entered, O’Donnell says.

He also touts the fact that many female students from the mostly Hispanic district have participated in Project Reservoir. And because the projects aren’t dictated by the district curriculum, students are free to come up with their own experiments. “It’s very dynamic for the kids,” O’Donnell says. “A lot of them have come out of their shell.”

Leveraging local environments

Pasco County sits on Florida’s west coast, but some of the 74,000 students in the district live up to an hour-and-a-half inland and have never been on the water. Luckily for the students, all 5,000 fourth graders engage in environmental education projects at the district-owned Energy & Marine Center, located on an estuary of the Gulf of Mexico.

A view of environmental ed

Follow the links to examine district environmental learning facilities

Stevens Point Area Public School District Boston School Forest
Jersey City Schools Project Reservoir
Pasco County Schools Energy & Marine Center
Seminole County Environmental Studies Center

Students use old technology, such as dip nets to collect plankton, alongside iPads and GoPro digital video cameras, which they use to record their work so they can make classroom presentations with the images and data they’ve collected, says Laura Rulison-Lange, a science coordinator in the district.

“We have the students sitting on the Gulf of MexicoÑthey’ve never seen it beforeÑthey’re sitting on the edge of the water with an iPad next to them,” Rulison-Lange says. “We want them to get dirty, feel the soil and the water, but we want to blend it with technology, so the technology further engages their learning rather than taking away from it.”

The center, which the district bought in the 1970s, is staffed by three environmental educators. But instruction starts before the students even visit. Classroom teachers receive lesson plans to introduce students to the vocabulary relating to the animals, plants and other organisms in the estuary. The also learn how energy is passed along the food chain and the local environment’s role in the health of the entire Gulf.

Students can also keep in touch with the Marine Center through its website, where, for example, daily photos are posted to show how natural events and human activity or error, such as the BP oil spill in 2010, reshape the natural environment.

The Energy & Marine center also has solar panels and wind turbines which can provide lessons on sustainability and model energy conservation, and make students more aware of humans’ impact, says Rulison-Lange.

On the northern edge of the country and in a much different climate, K6 students in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, visit the city district’s own 80-acre “Boston School Forest” every year to explore subjects that cut across their classroom curriculums. The forest is a blend of clearings and wooded areas that’s also home to an array of solar panels that powers the two buildings on the site.

Fourth graders, for example, blend science and social studies in examining the life of lumberjacks in Wisconsin’s timber industry. And sixth graders learn outdoor survival skills so they can potentially engage in the region’s two most popular activitiesÑhunting and snowmobiling, says Attila Wenninger, superintendent of the Stevens Point Area Public School District.

“Come to our home football games when it’s cooler and all the kids in the student section are wearing hunter orange,” Wenninger says. “It’s bred into them from a very, very young age that natural resources are to be respected if you want to enjoy them.”

In middle and high school, students use their math and computer skills to help the two state foresters who manage the site decide how many trees of each species to cut down every year. This prevents the forest becoming too dense, so trees don’t intrude on each other’s root systems or block light needed by smaller plants to grow.

Students in AP environmental science courses read authors like environmental pioneer Rachel Carson to better understand the philosophy behind the conservation movement.

It’s not just students who do their learning in the forest. Administrators and groups of new teachers have participated in team-building exercises on the ropes course. “Environmental education doesn’t happen one day a year,” Wenniger says. “We try to incorporate it into everything we do.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.