Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice

Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice

Equity in a Time of
Socio-Environmental Justice

by Max Jimenez
Environmental Literacy, Policy

This article was republished with permission and originally appeared in California Classroom Science (CCS), an e-newsletter produced by the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA).

hen we talk about the education system and how it can be utilized as a tool to promote equity and fight for socio-environmental justice, I’m sure we are all wondering, what can this possibly look like? As someone who has gone through California’s public education system from elementary school all the way to a four-year public university, I have so many ideas of possible solutions. My thoughts don’t just come from what I’ve read, they come from what I’ve experienced as an immigrant woman of color who came from a working-class family.
Reflecting back to when I was younger, I don’t recall having any formal discussions about what was going on in our environment. I believe that this was due to our underfunded and under-resourced public education system. In each grade, I had between two to three different teachers, making my education experience unstable and inconsistent. However, I remember watching commercials and cartoons with the jingle, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” to reduce pollution that was hurting our environment. Yet, I felt that there was never a reason that truly connected with me. Even if I heard of different ways I could make change for the better, I didn’t understand why it was vital for me to be a part of that movement for social change. Awareness is great, but no matter what age we are, it is much better to be conscious, and that only happens through thoughtful interactions that empower youth.
As I got older, I learned why the practice of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” was important and how pollution affects my family and me. I learned that my community was more susceptible to certain diseases due to our lack of access to clean air and healthy foods. This brings me to my first point, it is crucial to create spaces for young people to identify how certain issues are closer to them than they think. We cannot water down and sugarcoat problems because we believe that we need to protect young people from the harsh truth. By hiding the truth from young people, we are losing the opportunity to make change. We don’t have time to waste. Young people have the most to lose because these issues impact their future and they deserve to know the truth.
In fact, knowledge is so accessible nowadays that even if you don’t tell us, we will find out anyway. We know where our money is going and we will find out what key decision makers are voting on issues that affect us most. Young people are so fed up, that they are registering to vote in historic numbers and there has been an increased number of young people running for office!

My second point is that for education to be effective, it must be relevant to what students are going through in their daily lives. Often, this is related to climate and other environmental issues. If they are able to understand that these local issues are affecting them and the people they care about, then it’s only a matter of time until they will be able to connect it to larger, global issues. This doesn’t just create a better understanding of what is happening in our world, but this makes it easier for young people to find solutions to the issues they’re concerned about. As a benefit, this nuanced understanding that these different struggles are interconnected teaches young people what it means to be in solidarity with other people’s struggles.

In learning spaces, it is important to accommodate people’s understanding of the world. This brings me to my third point, students come from different backgrounds, and I have noticed that “environmental justice work” has been structured for white and affluent communities. We must consider how sustainability can be inclusive to people of color and working-class communities. We need to make sure that the movements we are fostering center around frontline communities who are being impacted most. Centering around frontline communities means honoring the resilience and experiences of those community members (for example, black and brown youth). This does not mean you can tokenize their existence and participation to benefit your own agenda. Some ways you can prevent tokenization of frontline community members is to avert your assumptions around the idea that all people they share their identities with (whether that’s race, gender, class, etc.) are the same because each is unique. Despite shared identities, there are different intersections of identity that people face, making their experiences unique from one another. Having one person carry this responsibility to represent everyone who holds the same identity is an unfair expectation. Another example of tokenization is when young people aren’t given the opportunity to claim their power in spaces that are meant to empower them. In addition, it is common for organizations and classrooms to tokenize marginalized community members for the sake of fulfilling a “diversity” requirement. Doing so is extremely disrespectful, and folks with privilege must do their own research* to find ways to honor the wisdom and experiences that marginalized community members face systemically.

I have experienced tokenization on different occasions. My first memory was when I was working with a climate education organization called Alliance for Climate Education (ACE). ACE took young people, including myself to the State Capitol to lobby for progressive climate policies. ACE helped us practice how to lobby with government officials and supported us throughout the whole process. My experience when lobbying was difficult because it was my first time talking to government officials and persuading them to support climate policies. What should have been an empowering experience, didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel empowering because when I would tell them why these climate policies are important to the livelihood of those in my community, and when I asked them to support a bill we were advocating for, they either applauded us or told us that we did a great job. It was obvious that they didn’t take us seriously. Some of them even asked to take a picture with us even if they didn’t seem serious about supporting what we asked for. It was hard to accept that even if the communities we were a part of were being affected by climate change and environmental racism, people in power didn’t seem to get past the fact that even if we are young, our voices matter. The fact that they had the audacity to make that experience a photo opportunity for them, to make it seem like they engaged with youth, was even more disrespectful because they didn’t take our demands seriously. This example of my experience being tokenized was disempowering and disheartening. However, I learned a lot about my experience lobbying and I hope that you can recognize that it is especially crucial for learning spaces, such as a classroom, to avoid this kind of culture. The first step to avoid this and honor young people’s experiences is to remember that we are all students (no matter your age) and there is so much we can learn from young people if we include them in the conversation.

Lastly, if we really want to honor young people in this movement, please take us seriously. Don’t give us a pat on the back or applaud us when we demand justice. Don’t patronize our experiences and don’t use our resistance as a photo opportunity to make yourselves credible in the same space where you are making decisions that don’t benefit future generations. It is not up to you to decide how and what we learn, the world is changing so fast and we don’t have the option of waiting until we are older to take action. We need y’all to make space, instead of taking space from us, so we can fight and create a world that we can AND want to live in. Accessibility for all is a priority if we want to embody the word, “justice,” because what is the point of having environmental or climate education if all students do not have access and if it’s not done in a way that respects local expertise. Making space can mean creating lesson plans that will give students the opportunity to share the knowledge they already possess with one another. Allowing students to build collective knowledge is essential in establishing their confidence, as well as creating opportunities for students to develop a community with one another. We must restructure these top-down, vertical learning structures where students are only learners and are only capable of retaining information. An effective solution I have seen is providing collaborative learning spaces that allow students to flourish. This means that educators take on the role of facilitator. Facilitators are still able to reach learning goals, but in this way, the participants have the agency to find their own way of achieving those learning goals. We must have faith that our students have the power to analyze their surroundings critically and that they are able to develop these skills on their own. From my experience, I learned the most when my teachers and mentors/femmentors constantly reminded me that the knowledge I possess has great value. Asking students what they want to learn about and involving them in the creation of lesson plans will show them taking the initiative over their own education is possible. I know that when I was given the space to take control over what and how I wanted to learn, it was easier for me to understand the concepts my teachers carefully planned and allowed me to recognize that I have the agency to empower myself through education.

To close, when we all talk about justice, people will have different approaches and when young people decide to be militant—don’t repress and silence us! We need your support in this intergenerational fight for socio-environmental justice. We need to remember that organizing and fighting for this justice is not glamorous, it is a necessity. The actions we take to defend our Earth, and our livelihoods are acts of survival.

Some good starting places for those willing to dig deeper:

Cohen, Julie. “How Social Justice and the Environment Connect.” Futurity, 2017.
Sandler, Ronald L, and Phaedra C. Pezzullo. Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.
Southern Poverty Law Center. “Analyzing Environmental Justice.” Teaching Tolerance, 2018.

Max Jimenez is a 4th-year student at the University of California, Santa Cruz studying Politics and Community Studies. She was raised in Northeast Los Angeles, where she continues to organize for environmental and housing justice.

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
– Sonya Renee Taylor

he outdoor science and environmental education (EE) field is reeling. The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating. The pandemic has revealed that across the country, organizations in this field are structured and have responded more like restaurants than school systems. Within days or weeks of the shutdown, there were massive lay-offs and furloughs, and by the end of the calendar year, if shelter in place and physical distancing guidelines are not lifted, nearly three-fourths of all organizations are uncertain about their ability to reopen (Collins, Dorph, Foreman, Pande, Strang, & Young, 2020). Ever.
For all of us, regardless of what sector of business, government or public good we are in, there is no playbook or set of best practices for making our way through this situation. Every organizational leader we’ve talked to is juggling competing priorities, responsibilities as novel as the virus itself, and no-win decision-making dilemmas, with fewer resources than they had before. It is clear that the challenges of 2020 will continue to test even the wisest and hardest working leaders.
And, as is a common theme during crises (especially economic crises), we are hearing from white-led organizations that work on equity, inclusion, cultural relevance, justice, and diversity, much of which began recently, is “being put on pause.” Some leaders are questioning whether or how equity work can continue when they don’t know if their organizations will survive this crisis or when most of their staff have been laid off. This line of thinking leaves the field on a path that will return us to the “normal” that resulted from decades of performative commitments to racial equity, inequitable policies that disadvantage Communities of Color, and exclusive and marginalizing workplace environments (Romero, Foreman, Strang, Rodriguez, Payan, & Moore Bailey, 2019). We suggest that anti-racism in our field is important enough that we should pursue it even when it is not convenient to do so.
What if we returned from this pandemic with a deep and profound commitment to a new way of being? What would it look like if, instead of this crisis making our work towards equity slower and less important, it became an opportunity for the field to work towards equity faster and make that work a higher priority? What if equity and inclusion were built into every fiber of our reimagined and reopened organizations, considered in every new initiative so that “pausing” is not possible as it is simply how we go about each day? As the Learning Policy Institute wrote, “(school) districts and states can make policy and practice decisions in the coming weeks and months that both respond to current needs and chip away at long-standing gaps in opportunity and access. (Cardichon, 2020)” We believe the same is true for environmental education organizations.
Here are seven ideas for white-led organizations to join the effort in transforming the EE field to a new way of being that is rooted in racial equity and has justice embedded at every inflection point:

1 Talk about racism.
Racism is at the heart of inequity in this country. Currently, the impacts of COVID-19 on health and the economy are being disproportionately felt by People of Color. When we think about how environmental education can emerge stronger from this pandemic, it must involve naming race as a factor in inequity. As The BridgeSpan Group wrote in a recent report, “A race-neutral approach would fail to account for the ways that existing disparities and structural racism affect outcomes (Patel, Smith, & Martin, 2020).” We need to directly talk about anti-blackness, white supremacy culture, police brutality, and how racism is built into our country’s policies and systems in deep ways that manifest in our everyday interactions. When white people speak out, People of Color don’t bear the burden alone to bring these issues to light. As Natasha Cloud wrote, “if you’re silent, you are part of the problem (Cloud, 2020).” Specifically, the environmental movement and environmental education field are steeped in racist history from John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, to the formation of our National Parks, to the field’s insular hiring and advancement trends, to the appropriation of indigenous culture while simultaneously erasing its current context and contributions, to the stories we tell and songs we sing at campfires. We have a responsibility to read, discuss, and to educate ourselves and each other about the harm embedded in our history, our “monuments”, and which ones need to be pulled down (Brune, 2020).

2 Rethink goals, priorities and measures of “success.”
There is a damaging, harmful paradigm in our field that tells us that the value of our work is defined by “numbers served.” This paradigm privileges quantity over quality and outputs over outcomes. When our funders, our boards, and our egos tell us that more is better, and the surest sign of resilience when we reopen is to return to our previous scale as quickly as possible, equity is always the casualty. Prioritizing numbers served will lead to two racist outcomes: we will design programs for majority audiences first and wait until “later” to adapt them for marginalized communities with “special needs;” and we will offer programs first to customers that can pay retail program fees because more revenue allows us to hire more staff and run more programs. Scholarships, tuition waivers, transportation grants, and community partnerships will have to wait until “we are back on our feet,” until we have “more bandwidth.” A new paradigm would have us look away from head counting, and instead prioritize addressing the needs of the most vulnerable communities first. Communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, hammered by school closures, failed by remote “learning,” traumatized by racist violence, and historically denied the physical and emotional benefits of access to safe outdoor spaces–what if we designed our reopening strategies to serve these communities first? We can make the case to our philanthropy and government agency partners that they should also adjust their measures of success to address relevant societal challenges rather than simplistic numeric targets.

3 Re-imagine the workplace.
For those of us still working, the workplace looks radically different. Not only have our office locations largely shifted to our homes, but ways of interacting, meeting, conducting programs and doing business have been completely disrupted. This disruption is an opportunity to examine our existing workplace structures, systems, and cultures through the lens of white supremacy culture (Okun, n.d.). Tema Okun and Keneth Jones write that white supremacy is part of the fabric of all of our organizations, but the good news is, there are antidotes. Let’s re-envision how we work with one another: how decisions are made, who holds power in our organizations, what kinds of expertise and lived experience are valued and promoted, what we expect from one another, and how transparent those expectations are. Let’s create new practices and traditions, define shared values, and create new feedback systems that promote equity, inclusion, respect and power-sharing.

4 Reinvigorate professional learning.
Organizations facing a financial crunch when reopening may have a natural reflex to reduce professional learning time to maximize the time spent delivering programs. We recommend going slow to go fast. Double down on professional learning and the reflection time that it provides to rethink the quality, purpose and priorities of your work. In addition to safety protocols, program logistics, and inspiring new natural history content, make sure that your new team has plenty of time to get to know each other, to build rapport and a common vision, to define values, and to create a brave space for challenging conversations together. Ensure that professional learning includes time to: increase understanding of the history of racism in our field (and the U.S. more broadly), reflect on unconscious bias, build awareness of and strategies for confronting microaggressions, and focus teaching and learning on cultural relevance, multiple ways of knowing, and, as Paulo Friere says, “using education as a practice for freedom (Friere, 2018).” Take some time to learn directly from the communities that you will be inviting to your programs. While your whole team should have opportunities to attend conferences and workshops, it is important to prioritize the participation of professionals who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in these opportunities. For many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color on a mostly white staff, their only opportunity to find affinity spaces, empathy, mentors of Color, and relief from being a “minority” is to attend professional learning experiences outside your organization. Professional learning and networking that includes opportunities to engage in affinity spaces can provide for those with marginalized identities an antidote and healing to counteract the effects of isolation and oppression, and, for those with dominant identities, provides a learning space that does not rely on the emotional labor of the oppressed.

5 Redesign hiring practices.
When we’re open and begin to rebuild the capacity of the EE field, we can reconsider what expertise we want at every level of leadership in our organizations. We must prioritize experience and expertise advocating for and communicating about equity, lived experience in and with the communities we’re striving to reach, and models of leadership beyond those rooted in white supremacy culture and characteristics. Redesigning hiring practices includes redesigning job announcements and job descriptions, qualifications, hiring criteria, interview questions, performance evaluations, and where we recruit. These reimagined components will ring true if they mirror comparable revisions to our organizational mission, vision, values, goals and priorities. Changes to the racial and gender diversity of our directors, middle managers and instructors that six months ago could only happen gradually over years, could now be a stunning and welcome example of punctuated equilibrium. Our newly comprised teams will be uniquely suited to establish partnerships and design authentically culturally relevant programming with and for marginalized communities that we aim to serve first. Note to HR directors and hiring committees: you shouldn’t have any trouble finding qualified Professionals of Color to apply; they were among the first to be laid off at the outset of the pandemic!
6 Rebuild partnerships.
Establish authentic and mutually beneficial relationships with a broad range of environment-rich organizations across sectors including environmental justice, youth development, health and wellness, food justice, nutrition, transportation, clean water, clean air, and more. These organizations may not self-identify as being in the environmental education sector. Meet, read up, listen carefully, find the intersection of the goals of your programs with the needs and priorities of your partners. In addition, establish partnerships with school districts, county offices of education, and other mainstream education systems that can provide access to environmental education experiences for a broader range of learners. When we envision mutually beneficial relationships, rather than audiences or customers we can serve, we can dismantle a deeply rooted sense of saviorism that positions those with resources as benevolent bringers of outdoor experiences. Partnerships with community-based organizations and school systems can help us to identify vulnerable populations, and help us to understand what societal conditions have led to their vulnerability. If these genuine partnerships are established at the same time that we have redesigned hiring practices and reimagined our workplace, we can have the resources, expertise and lived experience within our organizations to build trust and expedite the efficacy of our work together.
7 Redefine the field.
With broader partnerships, inclusive workplace cultures, more equitable hiring practices, and a clear focus on equity at all levels of our work, we can redefine the field of environmental education — which has roots in the oppression and marginalization of People of Color — into a field that works towards ensuring that every person is able to access the healing benefits of spending time outdoors and connecting to nature. Environmental education can be a field that recognizes and honors that “environmental literacy” is comprised of the knowledge, skills, know-how, attitudes, values, and beliefs that are held by communities in unique and powerful ways.
Centering equity cannot be the work of one person or even one organization–individuals must work together to change policies, pedagogy, curriculum, culture, and systems. All of these steps are part of a systemic approach to centering equity and, in particular, racial equity. Prioritizing racial equity will enhance the environmental education field for us all. As BridgeSpan articulates, “deliberately prioritizing racial equity will further benefit the rest of society through the ‘curb-cut effect,’ which has shown that laws and programs designed for vulnerable groups have positive impacts on others (Cardichon, 2020).” Naming racism, creating antidotes to white supremacy, valuing many kinds of experience and expertise, and building strong partnerships will improve our relationships to each other and to nature, and make the environmental education field stronger, more resilient, and vastly more relevant.
None of these actions are new. Each of these ideas has been articulated, described in-depth, and called for by social justice and environmental justice leaders of Color in the environmental education field and beyond, for decades, often in ways that are under-recognized and under-supported. Their messages have been largely ignored or unseen by white-led and predominantly white organizations. There is nothing good about this pandemic: the loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of cherished organizations is staggering and hard to comprehend. Since there is no going back, let’s figure out how to use this moment, by establishing an environmental education field that is truly centered in racial equity and inclusion.

Brune, M. (2020). Pulling down our monuments. Retrieved from https://www.sierraclub.org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club
Cardichon, J. (2020). Using federal stimulus funds to advance equity and opportunity. Learning Policy Institute, Washington, DC. Retrieved from https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/blog/using-federal-stimulus-funds-advance-equity-opportunity
Cloud, N. (2020). Your silence is a knee on my neck. Retrieved from https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/natasha-cloud-your-silence-is-a-knee-on-my-neck-george-floyd
Collins, M. A., Dorph, R., Foreman, J., Pande, A., Strang, C., & Young, A. (2020). A field at risk: The impact of COVID-19 on environmental and outdoor science education: Policy brief. Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley; California. Retrieved at https://www.lawrencehallofscience.org/sites/default/files/EE_A_Field_at_Risk_Policy_Brief.pdf.
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA. (First published in Brazil in 1968).
Okun, T. (n.d.) white supremacy culture. Retrieved from https://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/White_Supremacy_Culture_Okun.pdf
Patel, S. M., Smith, A. H., & Martin, H. (2020). Racial equity implications of the covid-19 pandemic: Opportunities for philanthropic response. The Bridgespan Group. Retrieved at https://www.bridgespan.org/insights/library/philanthropy/racial-equity-implications-covid-19-philanthropy
Romero, V., Foreman, J., Strang, C., Rodriguez, L., Payan, R., & Moore Bailey, K. (2019). Examining equitable and inclusive work environments in environmental education: Perspectives from the field and implications for organizations. Berkeley, CA. Retrieved at http://beetlesproject.org/resources/equitable-and-inclusive-work-environments/

Jedda Foreman is Director of Environmental Literacy programs at the Lawrence Hall of Science. She is a passionate educator deeply invested in place-based and experiential education.

Rena Payan is the Senior Program Manager at Justice Outside, where she is tasked with working toward equity and representation in the outdoor field by supporting young adults from diverse backgrounds through training that will develop them into outdoor leaders, stronger community advocates, and more confident stewards of the Earth.

Laura Rodriguez is Chief Program Office at Justice Outside. Her passion for the outdoors is matched by her desire to effect change within the outdoor field; and to this end, she approaches the work of racial equity, inclusion, and cultural relevancy with resolve, authenticity, and empathy.

Craig Strang is Associate Director of the Hall and the Director of BaySci (The Bay Area Partnership for Science Education) and MARE (Marine Activities, Resources, and Education). He is also the BEETLES Principal Investigator.

Special Issue: Justice, Equity and Diversity in Environmental Education

Special Issue: Justice, Equity and Diversity in Environmental Education

Guest Editor: R. Justin Hougham, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Special Advisor: Derek Hoshiko, Community Organizer and Educator on Climate Change and Environmental Equity

e are excited to bring our readers this special edition of CLEARING Magazine. This issue focuses on Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) in the environmental education field. For the last several years in general, and especially last year, we have seen a rising consciousness and call to action towards justice and equity initiatives throughout education and accordingly within environmental education as this publication and special issue reflects. This conversation and sharing of resources continues to evolve through both a raised awareness of equity and anti-racism issues, and through action towards environmental justice. This issue reflects practitioner insight from a wide array of venues, geographies, and pedagogies. It features contributions from Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Ontario, and California.

For readers in leadership roles or for those looking to influence organizational decision making during and beyond the COVID-19 era, seven salient and actionable suggestions are presented in “Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education: Re-Establishing the Field with Intention” (pg. 9). “Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice” (pg. 12) presents a call to action and solidarity in the ‘intergenerational fight for socio-environmental justice.’ Derek Hoshiko provides a case study of pushing for equity work by centering student voices and confronting far right pushback in “Promoting Equity and Justice at the School and Community Level” (pg. 16). Towards a landscape-wide narrative perspective with tribal youth, writers from Idaho explore these concepts through “River Newe: Creating New Narratives on Historic Landscapes” (pg. 20), inspired by time on the Salmon River. For readers interested in instruction in the collegiate context, Juan Miguel Arias and Howard Drossman explore the context and themes of power and equity in the Colorado College TREE semester (pg. 24). As always, CLEARING Magazine presents additional connections and resources that can broaden and directly apply to JEDI work and initiatives across the education community.

Environmental education reaches millions of students and community members a year in a vast array of venues, so consider that these are millions of opportunities to connect learners to core environmental science concepts, while also showing a wider look at environmental justice in the local and global issues that we face today and into the future. We look at the work in this issue to inspire the courage to be better, to do the work. JEDI is not a privilege granted to us—while it is true that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, justice is not achieved through unchecked privilege, rather through hard work, self-examination, collaboration, accountability, and making the most of every opportunity to lift each other up.

Everywhere we look outside of ourselves to find hope in a culture dominated by systems of oppression, we see inaction and injustice. We see this in the failed COP26 conference, and we see it in communities dominated by money and ‘power over.’ At COP26, we were supposed to see increased ambition over the Paris climate accord. Everywhere we take responsibility, we are able to become response-able, and with courage, face the triple pandemic of racism, COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate emergency.

Our hope that you will enjoy this issue lies in knowing that, while much work lies ahead, there is inspiration in the work in the field of environmental education as told in the stories herein, and in the work that our readers do on a daily basis.

In gratitude,
R. Justin Hougham, Ph.D.
and Derek Hoshiko

Using Stations to Increase Student Independence: Overview and Lesson Plan

Using Stations to Increase Student Independence: Overview and Lesson Plan

by Allison Breeze

s an educator, I believe that learning happens when students are applying their knowledge in practice. To this end, I am always looking for activities that engage students in hands-on ways with whatever topic they are learning about. Exploration and experience can provide immensely beneficial learning opportunities for students that give them context to process information. For this to work effectively, students must be positioned in such a way that allows them to take action, and the instructor must be willing to take a step back from holding control over the learning. One effective method for structuring such an environment is stations.

In stations-based activities, students are asked to complete a task in a certain location, and then repeatedly move to a new location to complete a different task, until they have visited all the locations, or within a specific timeframe. Oftentimes, there will be a rotation to allow for multiple students to experience different stations simultaneously. Stations offer the structure of spatial and task-based boundaries to keep students safe, while providing the opportunity for them to have agency and independence in completing the assigned task. Additionally, stations can be done individually or in small groups, to either allow students some independent processing time, or as a way to foster collaboration.

Instructors can often set up the stations ahead of time so that they don’t have to give as many directions to introduce an activity. This way, students are spending most of their time actually engaged in the learning, as opposed to waiting for it to begin. This also means that instructors can feel less rushed and give students the space they need to be successful.

Stations often set students up to be more independent than teacher-led instruction. For some students, this agency is very natural to their preferred structure for learning and helps them express themselves more easily. For other students, this independence requires them to engage in productive struggle to figure out the task and collaborate with their peers rather than relying on the teacher for help. In both situations, the stations model is promoting student growth by offering another mode for learning and asking students to try something new.

Stations in Practice:
I find stations to be an effective structure in which to conduct investigations with my students. It helps data collection happen faster, it means students are less likely to be left waiting with nothing to do, and it requires students to independently make connections between their actions and the overarching inquiry that is being investigated.

One such example investigation I have done with students focuses on the different ways that decomposition occurs in compost. At IslandWood, we have three types of compost bins: an EarthFlow that uses mechanical and bacterial decomposition, a high-volume vermicompost that uses worms and other macroinvertebrates, and a garden compost that uses macroinvertebrates and special fiber mats for insulation. In the investigation, students form three groups that rotate between each compost bin and collect data about each bin — temperature, soil color, material, number and type of macroinvertebrates — to understand how natural material breaks down into nutrient-rich soil in different ways. Each compost station has a set of directions and tools available, and every student has a journal with a data table to record their observations. At the end of the data collection, all students come together to synthesize their information as a whole group and debrief what they learned during the activity.

In this activity, I find that using stations can make scientific inquiry more accessible to students, because it offers many entry points to engaging with the material. It also allows me more time as an instructor to check in with specific students. I make sure to include multiple ways of recording data, such as numerically, through written expression, verbalization, and drawing, to ensure that all students have a way of participating. I have also found that students are more willing to challenge themselves if they are engaged in peer-to-peer interactions while learning, which the stations format allows for better than lecture or instructor-modeled kinesthesis. If a student who is concerned about touching bugs sees a friend holding a worm, they might be more inclined to try touching it, because they can see that behavior being modeled with safe and comfortable consequences.

Overall, I have seen stations as a great way to help students experience more agency and collaboration within an intentional environment set up by the instructor. Using stations can be a nice break from a traditional activity format that provides a balance between flexibility and structure to prioritize student engagement.

Lesson Plan:

Students will collect data at three different compost bins to compare and contrast the ways that decomposition happens at each. They will record and synthesize the data they find and draw conclusions.

Students are in an outdoor educational setting with three compost systems. They have been introduced to the concept of producers, consumers, and decomposers in a food web. They are curious about the differences between the three compost systems.

● Students will understand the role of compost in a food web
● Students will be able to give examples of how decomposition occurs
● Students will know how to collect data in an investigation
● Students will be aware of the different kinds of compost systems

● Understanding energy transfer in a food web system
● Taking observed phenomenon and drawing conclusions
● Creating models of data to explore it further
● Exploring the process of decomposition of natural materials

● Journals with data tables (one for each student)
● Pens/pencils
● Drawing utensils
● Direction sheets for each compost bin*
● Large sheet of paper (for whole group data table)
● Thermometers
● Microscopes/magnifying lenses (optional)
*note: the direction sheets can include instructions for collecting the type of data that feels most meaningful to your students. An example has been included at the end of this lesson plan.
1. Familiarize students with each of the three compost bins – their locations, how to access the compost, and what they immediately notice about the differences of each
2. Ask students to consider the question – why do we have three different compost bins?
3. Explain that the students will be scientists conducting an investigation on each of the compost systems to learn about decomposition

1. Break students into three groups, one for each compost bin station
2. Send each group of students to a different station, with a direction sheet, thermometer, and magnifying tool (optional)
3. Students should record their data in their journal data table according to the direction sheet for their station
4. Signal to the groups to rotate to the next compost station, and collect data there
5. Once all groups have collected data at all stations, have the group come together as a whole and write in their data on the large sheet data table

Debrief (students sharing with someone from a different group):
1. Ask students what the differences and similarities between the three compost stations were
2. Ask students what evidence of decomposition they saw at each station
3. Have students come up with a representation — visual, physical, written, artistic — of what happens to natural waste (food scraps, dead plants, etc)
4. Revisit the initial question: Why do we have three compost bins?
5. Connect their answers to the larger food web of IslandWood

*Direction Sheet Example:
Earth Flow
1. Take a compost sample and rub it in the box labeled “earth flow” on page 11 of your journal
2. Stick the thermometer deep into the compost. Wait until the indicator stops moving, then record the temperature
3. Count the number of macroinvertebrates (bugs!) you see, and record
4. Draw the largest piece of material you see in the compost
5. Draw the different macroinvertebrates you see
6. Match the macros with those listed on page 18 of your journal

Allison Breeze is an elementary educator in the Puget Sound, currently working and learning as a graduate student at IslandWood.

Resources for further information:
Aydogmus, M., & Senturk, C. (2019). The effects of learning stations technique on academic achievement: A Meta-analytic study. Research in Pedagogy, 9(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.17810/2015.87
Chawla, L., & Cushing, D. F. (2007). Education for strategic environmental behavior. Environmental Education Research, 13 (4), 437-452. DOI: 10.1080/13504620701581539.
Gerçek, C., & Özcan, Ö. (2016). Determining the students’ views towards the learning stations developed for the environmental education. Problems of Education in the 21st Century, 69, 29. DOI: 10.33225/pec/16.69.29.

Maybe the problem wasn’t WHAT we were learning but WHERE we were learning?

Maybe the problem wasn’t WHAT we were learning but WHERE we were learning?

At-risk students are exposed to their local environment to gain an appreciation for their community, developing environmental awareness built on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors applied through actions.


Lindsay Casper and Brant G. Miller
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

Photos by Jessie Farr

n the last day of class, I walked with my students along a local river trail shaded by cottonwood trees and surrounded by diverse plants and animals. The shaded areas provided spots for us to stop, where students assessed the condition of the local river system and the surrounding environment. The class had spent the previous week by the river’s mouth, and the students had grown a connection to the local environment and to each other. This was evident in their sense of ownership of the environment and their lasting relationships, which were expressed as the students discussed what they had learned during the class.

A month earlier, the class began differently. The students were focused on themselves and their own needs. They stood alone and unwilling to participate. Many expressed feelings of annoyance by being outside, forced to walk and unsure about what to expect in the class. My students were disengaged in their community, education, and the environment. Most had spent little time outside and lacked environmental knowledge and displayed an uncaring attitude toward their local community.

The class included a group of Youth-in-Custody (YIC) students, those who were in the custody of the State (the Division of Child and Family Services, DCFS; and the Division of Juvenile Justice, DJJS), as well as students who are “at-risk” for educational failure, meaning they have not succeeded in other school programs.
Most of my students came from challenging circumstances, with little support for formal educational opportunities, and live in urban areas below the poverty level. Students below the poverty level have fewer opportunities to access nature reserves safely (Larson et al., 2010), and children who live in neighborhoods where they do not feel safe are less likely to readily apply environmental knowledge and awareness to their community (Fisman, 2005).

Despite these setbacks, I wanted to expose my students to their local environment and help them gain an appreciation for their community. I wanted to increase their environmental awareness, built on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors applied through actions.

The summer education program approached the environmental curriculum via an action-oriented strategy, which takes learning to a level where the class and the outside world integrate with actual practices and address environmental problems (Mongar et al., 2023). The students began to show an understanding of how knowledge can affect their environment and exhibited purpose behind their action. The steps in an action-oriented approach involves students identifying public policy problems, then selecting a problem for study, followed by researching the problem, and developing an explanation, and then finally communicating their findings to others (Fisman, 2005).

Students explored science content, studied sustainable issues, read relevant scientific literature, developed and carried out research, and analyzed data. This multi-step program enabled students to stay active and engaged in environmental science practices and processes, increased their environmental awareness, encouraged them to implement these practices in a real-world environment, and allowed them to immerse in the learning experience. The program developed a connection with environmental restoration, crossed cultural borders and demographic diversity, created a sense of ownership and attachment, and developed a sense of belonging.

Week 1: Invasive Species in Mount Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area

The first week, students monitored a local problem of invasive plants by conducting a field project on vegetation sampling at a wildlife management area. Students researched the area and the issues with the invasive species of cheatgrass. They examined the characteristics that make cheatgrass invasive and used skills to identify local native plants and introduced species in the wilderness. Students determined the problem and used a transect line and percent canopy cover to determine the area’s overall percent cover of cheatgrass. Students used the results of the survey to evaluate the cheatgrass invasion in the area. They compiled their research and presented the issue to local community members to educate and inform them about the possible environmental problems in the area.

Students working in the national forest studying the role of trees in carbon cycling.

Week 2: Carbon Cycling in Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

During week two, the program evaluated forest carbon cycling within a wilderness area, part of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. The students’ projects involved carbon cycling models and forest carbon sinks to build a comprehensive summary of all the structures and processes involved in trees to help reduce the impact of human activity on the climate. Students identified problems in their local forests by researching the role of forests in carbon sequestration and evaluating climate change. They then selected a problem for the class to study involving the effects of deforestation. Additional research included students discovering how trees sequester carbon and researching how much carbon trees and forests can hold over a given time. Students used their results and data collection to determine how effective trees are for carbon sequestration, compiled their research, and presented the issue to local community members to educate and inform them of the possible environmental problems in deforestation and the need for forested area protection.

Week 3: Jordan River Watershed Management

Week three focused on watershed management, during which students investigated a local river and evaluated its watershed and continued pollution. Students identified problems in their community by reading articles and examining data concerning a local river’s environmental issues, proposed solutions, as well as the progress that has been achieved. Students then made qualitative statements about the river’s current condition based on abiotic and biotic measurements. Students used the information gathered and discussed issues concerning the current quality of the river and discussed why water quality is essential. Students researched the issue by conducting river water quality experiments using flow rate measurements and collected macroinvertebrates. Based on their experimental results, students developed a portfolio with a problem explanation, alternative policies, and a public statement concerning the current Jordan River water quality. Students then presented their findings to community members to help inform and educate them about the river contamination and improvements.

Student collecting water samples.

Week 4: Provo River Delta Restoration Project

During the last week, students examined a river delta restoration project for its effectiveness in restoring a wetland and recovering an endangered fish species. Students investigated the role and importance of river systems and wetland areas, monitored the status of the wetlands, and evaluated the current project’s future effectiveness. Students identified problems in their community by reading articles and examining historical data concerning the lakes environmental issues and made qualitative statements about the lake’s current condition. Students used the information gathered and discussed matters concerning the delta project to protect the local endangered species of June Sucker (Chasmistes liorus). In addition, students toured the construction site and participated in a stewardship activity planting new trees and helping to disperse cottonwood seeds around the area. Based on their stewardship project, a site tour, and experimental results, students developed a portfolio with a problem explanation, alternative policies, and a public statement concerning the current delta restoration project. Students presented their findings to others with the intent to inform and educate them about the project.

Student Impact

This program placed students as critical participants in sustainability and gave them ownership of their education, and knowledge of local environmental issues to give students a deeper appreciation and increased environmental awareness. This curriculum could be adapted for various populations although it is especially essential for those with disadvantaged backgrounds and those underrepresented in science. Creating an opportunity for my students to access nature and build environmental knowledge is important for them to build awareness and an increased ownership of their community. After completing the course, students wrote a reflection on their experience and a summary of what they learned concerning environmental awareness and feelings regarding their connection to nature.

“At first, I hated being outside, but it grew on me, and I had a lot of fun learning about the different invasive species and how they negatively affect the land.”

“I really enjoyed being outside for school. I liked the shaded and natural environments. It was enjoyable and easier to understand because I was learning about everything I could feel and touch.”

“I liked seeing the things we were learning about. It was easier to focus outside.”

Student working on writing assignments during the last day of class.

“I have had a lot of issues with school my whole life. I have never felt like what I was learning was useful. I felt like I was repeating work from former years over and over again and never getting anything out of it. After this experience, I began thinking that maybe the problem wasn’t what we were learning but where we were learning it. It was enjoyable being outside and seeing how what we were learning applied to the world around us. I got to see what we were being taught in action. We did tests with the world and not in a classroom. For the first time, I was really interested in what was being taught, and I realized that the problem wasn’t me.”

The importance of connecting at-risk youth to the outdoors is evident in their reflections. Their reflections indicate an appreciation for being outdoors, a more remarkable ability to focus their attention, and an advantage of learning in the world instead of the classroom. Students’ perception of environmental issues impacts their ability to make educated decisions. The increase in students place identity resulted in a deeper connection to the environment. Their knowledge, attitudes, and actions had changed.


On the last day of class, walking along the river trail with my students, I listened to their conversations, questioned their learning, and gathered their insights. I recognized how the connections made in class developed over time by building relationships, collaboration, trust, and teamwork. My students developed empathy for each other and their environment. As a class, we visited four distinct settings in our local area. My students could grasp the larger perspective by recognizing the cumulative effect of those areas as a whole. They identified the invasive species of cheatgrass studied in week one had made its way downriver and recognized the importance of carbon cycling studied during week two in the cottonwood trees flanking the banks of the river in addition to the value in wetlands studies in week three shown in the progress made on the restoration project. The sequence of each week was purposely built on the following week with a cumulative effort at the river delta restoration project, put in place to help solve many of the environmental issues identified in the previous week’s lessons. This program focuses on increasing student connection and ownership of the environment and identifying how isolated environmental concerns significantly impact the whole ecosystem. Additionally, I wanted my students to notice how environmental restoration and protection alleviate some of these issues. These connections came naturally to the students after the time spent outdoors and investigating environmental issues. Exposing them to new areas and increasing their knowledge and skills affects their awareness.

The environmental science program provided environmental concepts, fostering a deeper appreciation for nature and the outdoors. It engaged all senses, made learning more interactive and memorable, and encouraged more profound connections with the natural world, building ownership of the local area. This program initiated an attachment of students to the local area. It engaged students in environmental issues through science by participating in experiential outdoor education. It kept students engaged with relevant current topics, formed a connection to the natural world, and involved them in direct, focused experiences to increase knowledge, skills, and values.

Lindsay Casper is a graduate student in Environmental Science at the University of Idaho, in Moscow Idaho and teaches Environmental Science to at-risk youth at Summit High School in Utah.




Brant G. Miller, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Idaho. His research interests include Adventure Learning, culturally responsive approaches to STEM education, science teacher education, and technology integration within educational contexts.