Royal Roads University
hile there are many tasks on the plate of any educator, there are two that, to me at least, really seem essential and that are often overlooked; these tasks are for the educator to both reveal things that might be hidden to the student while being always open to revelation ones’ self, and to provide the student with tools for seeing hidden things.
A domain that seems to be hidden from environmental educators is that of environmental violence: the term ‘’violence’ never appears in the titles or abstracts of our major conferences, and virtually never appears in our published literature. Yet I would argue that environmental education, from its outset, grew out of a concern for the results of the violence our society inflicts on the natural world, a violence that both diminishes the ability of humans to fully function within society and diminishes the ability of the natural world to regenerate itself and thrive.
Thinking about violence
There are many definitions of violence; for example, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that violence is
the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.
An important part of this definition, though, is the idea of intent; the implication is that if there is no intent, there is no violence. The peace scholar Johan Galtung offers another definition that avoids the necessity of an actor’s intent:
I see violence as any avoidable insult to basic human needs, and, more generally, to sentient life of any kind, defined as that which is capable of suffering pain and can enjoy well-being, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible. (Galtung & Fischer, 2013, p. 35, emphasis added)
Both of these definitions offer a set of lenses through which we can understand human violence, which always involve harm to someone or something, and that that harm reduces the ability of an individual to satisfy their needs.
While the world faces many violent settings and contexts, environmental violence in the 21st century puts not only humans, but a great deal of life on earth, at risk. Humans have long had powerful influences on environments, but these influences were primarily local or at the most regional. The historical record is replete with the local destruction of environments which result in societal collapse (Tainter, 1988), and some scholars tells us to not be sanguine about the potential of the future (e.g., Turner, 2012). Violence against the environment in this context is not a natural phenomenon, not something that happens as a natural process. Environmental violence is a direct outcome of human activity, with intent or not, that results in a diminishing of the potential for flourishing of both humans and all the other creatures that inhabit a particular environment.
Forms of violence
For Galtung, the simplest and most obvious form of violence is direct violence, the violence that we do, the intentional violence that we can see and we can directly inflict, violence that can be promulgated through words, knives, handguns, stealth missiles, pesticides and carbon dioxide. Environmental educators can easily imagine direct violence against nature: our textbooks and presentations, to say nothing about the Internet, are full of images of direct violence. In a western Canadian context, the expansion of the Alberta tar sands are an extraordinary form of direct violence causing landscape-level harms, biodiversity-level harms and human harms, both social and health-related (Finkel, 2018). Although our individual acts of direct violence (we would like to believe) may be few and small, it’s hard to get through the day in our contemporary world without some form of direct environmental violence.
But violence is not always done with a knife or gun; “neglect, inaction, gross inequality and unjust structures of society, including from lack of freedom and democracy” (Fischer, 2013, p. 12) can also be forms violence. Beyond direct violence, there is the structure of society, and not simply the words or actions of a particular person, that enact violence on people and planet. This is violence that seemingly just happens, with nobody particularly responsible for it. Galtung calls this structural violence. “There are two reasons for this: it is structural in the sense that no specific actors are indicated, and also in the sense that for the concrete actors that happen to be performing roles in the structure in question no specific motivation is necessary” (Galtung, 1980, p. 183). And not only are no specific actors involved nor does anyone have a particular desire to create environmental harm, any outcome (like a day’s worth of CO2 from driving to and from work) that results from either one’s direct or structural violence is not particularly large; the impacts of all of us that drove to work today cannot individually be detected in the carbon budget of the atmosphere, or be directly related to the reduction of global biodiversity. This is akin to what Kahn (1966) talked about when he spoke of the tyranny of small decisions:
It is an inherent characteristic of a consumer-sovereign, market economy that big changes occur as an accretion of moderate-sized steps, each of them the consequence of ‘small’ purchase decisions- small in their individual size, time perspective, and in relation to their total, combined, ultimate effect. (pp. 44-45)
Structural violence can create many victims without any obvious perpetrators and since the victims are often not seen or even noticed (e.g., people in distant lands, organisms in distant habitats), the violence can seem to be invisible or at least, ignorable. Structural violence is subtle, harder to see than direct violence; we need new lenses that allow us to more-readily see these structural causes that are now obscured by both our worldviews, and by various societal screens and curtains, from our everyday vision. Structural violence can be the necessary outcome of the way a society is structured and these structures, for most citizens, are just the way things are. Structural violence hides in the background, directing our attention away from it and towards examples of direct violence which then grabs our concern and outrage.
We as teachers should be able to examine structural violence with our students as it is the one which leaves us feeling that nothing can be done and that no one is, themselves, actually doing anything particularly damaging. This is the kind of violence that was described by Hannah Arendt (1970, p. 38) when she spoke of the work of a bureaucracy as “an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the next, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody”. The system and institutions whose structures are causing havoc in the world weren’t intended to create havoc, and we can imagine that no one who actually is responsible for those systems wants such havoc to be occurring. Nonetheless, the unintended outcomes of many small yet significant decisions have led to a world structure that is in fact creating significant and long-lasting problems.
Galtung continued his study by revealing a final category, cultural violence:
The study of cultural violence highlights the way in which the act of direct violence and the fact of structural violence are legitimized and thus rendered acceptable in society. One way cultural violence works is to change the moral color of an act to green/right or at least to yellow/acceptable from red/wrong; an example being killing in the name of the country as right, in the name of oneself as wrong. Another way is by making reality opaque, permitting us not to see the act or the fact, or at least not as violent. (Galtung, 1990, p. 292)
While structural violence normalizes violence as being inescapable given the very construction of a particular society, cultural violence offers us the salve of justification, absolving us of responsibility for the violence. Justifying violence through cultural norms, we can avoid any sense of guilt that might result from the violent actions we engage or are complicit in.
How does it all come together? We drive fossil fuel-burning cars (direct violence) because there is no way to get from our suburban homes to work (structural violence) and since everyone does it, it’s really not too bad (cultural violence). Given these realities, we need to mine tar/oil sands, create tailings, build pipelines and ship product. And some citizens get angry when they can’t engage in economic activity that results in environmental violence, and then elect governments that promise that they will help shield our consciousness from the implications of our actions. “Voltaire put it well when he said, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’” (Bandura, 2007, p. 193).
Environmental violence and environmental education
I have three approaches that educators can take with their students to confront the reality of environmental violence in all its forms: direct, structural and cultural.
We can confront environmental violence with environmental non-violence; in the domains we live, with the tools at our disposal, we can work to reduce our engagement in direct environmentally-violent actions. While we might not be able to completely “do no harm”, we all have the opportunity to do what we can and, both individually and collectively, develop a descent strategy to reduce our direct harms. My 30 km bike ride to and from work is a small act of environmental non-violence.
In our educational institutions, we can work to first identify and then reduce direct environmental violence. For example, since the transportation sector produces 24% of all GHG emissions in Canada (just behind the 26% produced by that oil and gas sector) (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2017, p. 8), schools can look at ways to encourage low-carbon transportation. Walking, biking, skiing, skating, car-pooling, school bus and public transit are all ways of reducing the direct environmental violence of transportation associated with schooling (http://ontarioactiveschooltravel.ca/active-transportation-strategy-for-canada/) . Providing large parking lots at secondary schools for students and staff gives the wrong message if we are trying to reduce direct environmental violence; we should not be encouraging single-occupancy vehicle transportation.
Buildings and electricity combined account for nearly the same GHG emissions (23%) as transportation, so energy retrofits and building conservation efforts can help to reduce the direct violence in those schools that especially use heating oil or natural gas. For example, Destination Conservation (http://www.dcplanet.ca/index.html) is a long-running program that focuses on schools, helping them make significant reductions in their energy and water usage; DC is an exemplar in reducing the direct violence of school building operations.
When environmental educators deal with environmental issues in our schools and classrooms, we tend to focus on the outcomes of the visible forms of direct violence, and can respond with non-violent alternatives.
But at least as important, in terms of our practice, is finding ways to help reveal the cloak of invisibility that hides the structural environmental violence from our purview. Revelatory tools aren’t necessarily easy to find, and we are likely going to have to make some up ourselves. But there are some means at our disposal that can help us and our students come to a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are.
The roots of environmental violence can’t be looked for in the simple surface features of littering and pollution, but rather in the systems and structures that produce as a necessary outcome of their existence the environmental problems we are confronting. As environmental educators, we all need to gain skill and experience in systems analysis (Meadows, 2002, 2008). But it isn’t enough to simply do analysis of the structures in our institutions that result in environmental violence, we need to also look for ways of changing the structure (Meadows, 1999) of the system.
Changing structures involves politics, and this kind of pro-environmental activity is what I’ve come to call environmental anti-violence; the work we do to alter those structural features of our institutions or society that facilitate, or at least fail to stop, direct environmental violence. Students and teachers can work together to change structures, whether they are school board policies, or the actions of various levels of government. Analytical and political anti-violence work of students and teachers can involve things like working to mandate pro-environmental changes of school operations, making pro-environmental presentations to municipal governments, learning how to run for elected office, organizing boycotts and engaging in protests or civil disobedience. As the noted social psychologist Kurt Lewin said, “you cannot understand a system until you try to change it” (Schein, 1996, p. 6). Try to change a system and it reveals itself, and anti-violence work is about getting clarity as to the nature of the system.
But for many of us, students, teachers and parents alike, because of the structures of our systems, we can only do so much to reduce our direct environmental violence. And it might be difficult for us to engage in political action to change those structures creating violence. However, there is always something that we can do, and those things that we can do to try and reverse or even partially-undo our destructive acts are what I have called environmental contra-violence, actions that work to undo the actions that we are all complicit in and responsible for.
In some ways, this is the easiest and most approachable form of action in the face of environmental violence that any of us can take. Actions like recycling, cleaning up local pollution and litter, picking up refuse washed up on our beaches and shorelines, healing habitat loss, alteration and destruction through replanting and re-naturalizing, are all things that we can do. The field of ecological restoration (van Wieren, 2008) is, I feel, the work of contra-violence as its practitioners endeavour to make amends, doing in whatever small and seemingly insignificant ways they can, to undo even a tiny part of the damage are all complicit in as members of our society.
Contra-violence is the kind of work that we can and should do with our students in our communities, working to reduce our wastes (and even trying to not see them as wastes, but as resources), cleaning beaches (in what is truly a Sisyphsian task as each tide can deliver its own load of garbage!), restoring wetlands, bringing butterfly gardens into cities, creating rain gardens, anything and everything that can be contra/against the environmental violence that surrounds us all. Broadly speaking, the work of ecological restoration is a moral act and for some a spiritual act, a form of repentance, of apology, of stepping gently in and assisting natural processes in healing from our damaging actions.
We cannot put an enormous burden on the children to engage in actions that they may be unable to execute; they cannot be responsible for saving the rainforests, or protecting species in habitats far away. But perhaps most important is that as educators, we help to bring the pieces of the problem together, discerning along with our students the linkages between direct, structural and cultural violence. This process of revealing what is hidden, no matter the contexts we find ourselves in is, as I noted at the outset, one of the most important skills that we can offer. And with that revelation, we can work together and can support students and teachers working from their realities, to reduce violence through non-violent, anti- and contra-violent actions.
Rick Kool is founder of the MA in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. He has published on the walking speed of dinosaurs, Northwest coast native whaling, museum exhibit design, ciliated protozoan development and the sex life of marine invertebrates. His current work relates to environmental education and how it confronts hope and despair, the potential role and place of religion in environmental education, and conceptions of change in environmental education and communication. Kool is active within the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society and is a past president. He also plays the string bass.
Arendt, H. (1970). On Violence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
Bandura, A. (2007). Impeding ecological sustainability through selective moral disengagement. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 2(1), 8-35.
Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2017). Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Retrieved from Gatineau, QC: https://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/default.asp?lang=En&n=FBF8455E-1.
Finkel, M. L. (2018). The impact of oil sands on the environment and health. Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health, 3, 52-55. doi:10.1016/j.coesh.2018.05.002
Fischer, D. (2013). Johan Galtung, the Father of Peace Studies. In J. Galtung & D. Fischer (Eds.), Johan Galtung: Pioneer of Peace Research (Vol. 5). New York: Springer.
Galtung, J. (1980). A Structural Theory of Imperialism: Ten Years Later. Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 9(3).
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291-305. Retrieved from http://www2.kobe-u.ac.jp/~alexroni/IPD%202014%20readings/IPD%202014_2/Cultural%20Violence%20(Galtung).pdf
Galtung, J., & Fischer, D. (Eds.). (2013). Johan Galtung: Pioneer of Peace Research (Vol. 5). New York: Springer.
Kahn, A. E. (1966). The tyranny of small decisions: Market failures, imperfections, and the limits of economics. Kyklos, 19(1), 23–47.
Meadows, D. H. (1999). Leverage points: Places to intervene in a system. Retrieved from Hartland, VT: http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/
Meadows, D. H. (2002). Dancing With Systems. Retrieved from http://www.sustainabilityinstitute.org/pubs/Dancing.html
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.
Schein, E. H. (1996). Kurt Lewin’s change theory in the field and in the classroom: Notes toward a model of managed learning. Reflections, 1(1), 59-74. Retrieved from http://forteza.sis.ucm.es/apto/alum0203/scheinlewin.pdf
Tainter, J. A. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, G. M. (2012). On the cusp of global collapse? Updated comparison of The Limits to Growth with historical data. GAiA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 21(2), 116-124.
van Wieren, G. (2008). Ecological restoration as public spiritual practice. Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion, 12(2/3), 237-254.
A Chance to Make a Difference: Tackling Climate Change in a Middle School Classroom
by Angela Duke
Northwest Expedition Academy
n the days of selfies and social media mania, it is often a difficult job getting middle schoolers to look up instead of down. When I first introduced the topic of climate change to my students, the reactions were mixed. But most importantly, several heads looked up.
Climate change in the classroom has gained great momentum and for good reason. What more real of a problem than the state of our planet? And what better a subject to let our young people tackle? The environment of the future will be theirs to live in after all. How powerful is it to empower students to solve problems that may have always seemed out of reach or “too big?” Facilitating science-based research on real world problems empowers students not only through the skills they acquire from this type of work but from the subject knowledge gained. Climate change curriculum in the classroom also allows students to see how much of a difference they can make not only on their school campus but in their larger community as well. That makes the work important. Investigating climate change, understanding human activities that contribute to climate change and formulating strategies to slow climate change down also cultivates environmental-literacy.
At first, I was intimidated. Climate change is such a huge topic with so many different avenues and tangents to get lost in. Then I happened upon Green Ninja – the climate-action superhero. This discovery immediately took me back to my own childhood, watching episodes of Captain Planet, an environmental superhero in his own time. I was instantly intrigued. Green Ninja (www.greenninja.org) is a middle school curriculum that focuses on helping students design a more sustainable world. Each grade level (grade six through eight) consists of six units. Each unit is centered around a series of phenomena and central storyline that seamlessly blends topics together in ways that make sense. The units use elements of project-based learning to bring the content to students in engaging and entertaining ways. For example, embedded in the curriculum is access to animation and live-action videos that introduce and reinforce topics of study. My students also enjoyed playing the environmentally-themed video game which is used to hook students and get them to interact with a serious topic, the effects of human-released carbon ithen our atmosphere, in a low-stress setting. And all the while they are learning. Everybody loves a hero, as the saying goes, and Green Ninja is no exception. Green Ninja gives students access to points of change in a way that is not overwhelming. His appearance is familiar and friendly, which allows students to focus on what is being said and the main lesson to be learned from each video.
When it came to prior knowledge, my students all knew the “what” of climate change: what to do, what not to do, what was better and what was worse. The three “Rs” of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” came up a lot. What stopped them in their tracks is when I asked, “Why should we take action? Why should we reduce, recycle, and reuse? Why do people think solar is better? Why do people think it’s better to buy a hybrid or full electric vehicle?” There were lots of shoulder shrugs. Then came the answer I’m sure we’ve all heard, “because they said it was better.” The all-encompassing “they.” “They” are usually the source of most misconceptions. The majority of my students’ misconceptions revolved around the difference between weather and climate. I knew there was a whole unit in Green Ninja on that topic so when we got there, we dug in. I made sure students had time to access prior knowledge and allowed them time to journal I before each subtopic. I also frequently built in time for them to look back through and reflect on any changes in their thinking that happened. I wanted their understanding and interpretation to be natural and their own discovery.
If I had to choose one series of lessons that I believe made the strongest impact on my students, it would have to be those surrounding our carbon footprint. There are several websites, such as Green Ninja, that give free access to videos that can be used as a starting point to a unit or subtopic. In one instance, I used the Green Ninja video entitled, “Footprint Renovation.” You can see it here: greenninja.org/Green_Ninja_Show/31. In this video, an average homeowner awakens to find that his feet are swelling in size. The viewer is shown several areas in the house that could use some eco-friendly renovation. For example, the window is open and the heat is on. All of the homeowner’s electronics have been left on. There is no recycling or compost bin and the garbage is overflowing. Our superhero, Green Ninja, arrives to save the day (well, in this case, the night) and there is a direct visual correlation between the renovations being made and the decrease of swelling in the homeowner’s feet. I used this as an entry event to a new unit and followed the video with partner talk around a simple open-ended question, “What was that all about?” I remember the room bursting into conversation. Each table of students talking about what they saw, what they liked and what it could possibly mean. I had them hooked.
Later on, in that same unit, my students collected energy-use data from their own homes over one four-week period. Then they designed an energy reduction plan for their household. After they worked with their family to implement the plan, they collected data again over another four-week collection period to measure their reduction in energy use. But I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted my students to continue climbing the environmental literacy ladder and move from awareness to knowledge to attitude to skills to collective action. I combined portions from a few different lessons from the TeachEngineering website (https://www.teachengineering.org/) to put together a research assignment where students collaboratively collected current data on factors that influence our carbon footprint, such as transportation choices, appliance choices, and food choices. I wanted to grow students’ environmental literacy and know it starts on an individual level, so I asked each student to decide on a factor that was of the most interest to them. Students were then given time to research this factor and gather as much data as they could. While they conducted their research, I used this time as a benchmark of learning and formative assessment and checked in with them, “Can you explain why you chose the factor you did? Do you understand the assignment? Do you know where to search for the data you need?”
Once our research block was over, I asked them to put themselves together into groups of four with those with the same factor. Another component of environmental literacy is to make educated decisions as a group. So here, students worked collaboratively to synthesize their individual research into one combined and complete presentation. This presentation was their first graded assessment.
I could have stopped there. But another important component of environmental literacy is to share knowledge with others. To satisfy this, each group was asked to present their new knowledge and findings to two different audiences. Their first audience were third graders who were also learning about making good environmental choices. I used these presentations as a benchmark, and formative assessment, of their learning. Groups had to know their content well since, because of the audience’s age, my students could not just read lines of data or pages of facts. Some groups made posters and others brought in props. Still other groups wrote fictional stories with the new information embedded.
The students’ second audience was adults. Their presentation to adults had to not only contain research data and facts but also real, logical, feasible solutions to lowering carbon footprints. They were given choice as to how they would present; posters, Google slideshows, speeches with artifacts or even Powtoons (a platform to make your own digital video or presentation). This presentation was their second and final graded assessment. To ensure students knew what to expect and what they’d be graded on, I borrowed from rubrics from Buck Institute for Education (bie.org). They specialize in project-based learning. The rubrics can be daunting if you’ve never used them before but it’s easy enough to adapt them to your students and your projects.
Tackling climate change in the classroom was new to me. It was not easy. But one of my biggest tips to other educators is to remember it’s okay to try something new and not know it one hundred percent. Just as we give our students time to improve on their skills, we also need to give ourselves time to improve our skills. Sometimes that means jumping in with both feet and taking on problems as they come. Not everything is going to go right, but that’s O.K. What a learning experience it will be!
At the end of the year, we reflected on what we had accomplished. I had my students reflect individually in their science notebooks about their contributions to the project and how they felt it went overall. With their project groups, they reflected on their performance as a team, how it went and improvements they would make next time. Finally, as a whole class, we debriefed the entire experience and what was enjoyable and what was not.
Did I feel my students had an engaging experience? Absolutely! Heck, I had an engaging experience! Did my students feel they had an engaging experience? Definitely. In the end, out of the ninety students I taught that year, about twenty students demonstrated they were committed to continuing to take action to lower their carbon footprints. And while I would be lying if I didn’t say I hoped to get through to many more, I remembered to practice what I preach and take the advice I often give students, “If we each do something small, together we can do something big.” So this year it was twenty students, but next time around it might be thirty. Knowledge is contagious. Even a small number of students changing their actions and leading by example still equals a big win for the planet!
Resources (alphabetized) mentioned in the article:
Buck Institute for Education (www.bie.org): A nonprofit and leader in project-based learning. Several free resources that include collaborative work rubrics and project-planning tools can be found on their website. They also offer professional development for teachers.
Cool Climate Network, U.C. Berkeley (coolclimate.berkeley.edu/calculator): There is a carbon footprint calculator here. You can also google carbon footprint calculator and find several options. Some are more student-friendly than others.
Green Ninja (www.greenninja.org): NGSS middle school science provider and creator of many great, free videos. With Green Ninja, each unit of instruction includes phenomena, hands-on activities and projects that allow students to use science and engineering to create their own environmental solutions.
PowToon (www.powtoon.com): A digital animated presentation tool that can be used by students to create Public Service Announcements, 100-word presentations, animated cartoons and educational presentations. Great for teachers to use to flip instruction too.
National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF): References to environmental literacy based on NEEF’s “Environmental Literacy Report 2015”: www.neefusa.org/resource/environmental-literacy-report-2015
Teaching Engineering (www.teachingengineering.org): Great collections of supplementary lessons focused on how to use engineering in the classroom.
About the author: Angela Duke is a fifth-grade teacher at Northwest Expedition Academy in Hayden, Idaho. She previously taught sixth grade Language Arts and Science for seven years in San Jose, California. She enjoys participating in as many outdoor activities as she can with her husband and three children. She is passionate about project-based learning and strives to give her students as many hands-on experiences as possible. Her goal every year is to develop her class’ growth mindset and take the away stigma of science being “too hard”. She enjoys developing new fun and engaging curriculum and sharing her experiences with others.
More about Green Ninja: The goal of Green Ninja is to create environmental solutions through education. The project grew out of an NSF grant funding academic research at San Jose State University that identified key elements to support student engagement and success in science.
Green Ninja is now using this knowledge to create materials that help schools improve how they teach science, while also inspiring student agency around environmental topics. Their middle school curriculum is aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards and builds on Green Ninja videos to help inspire student engagement and success. If you are interested in learning more, go to www.greenninja.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a sunny fall day in Oregon students are outdoors learning about the new citizen science observation site in their schoolyard. With a mix of 4th and 5th grade exuberance and the seriousness of adults they are taking on the mission of gathering basic data for a section of their school yard scientific study and research area. These students are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H classroom program that is regularly getting them outdoors for real world science. As the teacher explains, this is the first of many data gathering sessions as part of their yearlong commitment to the program. This real world data will support researchers to gain a better understanding of climate change across Oregon.
regon Season Tracker (OST) 4-H classrooms are a companion to the Oregon State University Extension Oregon Season Tracker adult citizen science program http://oregonseasontracker.forestry.oregonstate.edu/ . In the adult program, volunteers are gathering and reporting their observations of precipitation and plant seasonal changes in a statewide effort. Started in 2013 and targeting adults, it quickly became evident to everyone involved that the program had clear applications to outdoor hands-on “experiential” science learning for students.
The foundation of the OST program is based on a partnership between OSU Extension and HJ Andrews Experimental Forest located in Blue River, near the midpoint of the Cascade Mountain range https://andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu/ . The Andrews is a leading center for long term research, and a member of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program. The 16,000 acre research forest in the McKenzie river watershed in the Cascade Mountains was established in 1948, with paired watershed studies and several long-term monitoring programs initiated soon after. Today, it is jointly managed by the US Forest Service and OSU for research into forest and stream ecosystems, and the interactions among ecological dynamics, physical processes, and forest governance.
Part of the success of the Oregon Season Tracker program is that we have also collaborated with national programs, Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) https://www.cocorahs.org/ and National Phenology Network (NPN) Nature’s Notebook https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook, as well as our local partner. A key role of our national partners is their ability to collect, manage and store the data, making it available both to professional and citizen scientists. This national connection makes sure the data is available long-term and easily accessible locally as well as nationally and beyond. Both of our national partners have easy to use web based visualization tools that allow volunteers and students to easily look at and interpret data. In the classroom this means not only are students helping ongoing professional research, they can also investigate or research their own science questions using the data of others. Partnering with these national database sites also allows OST to stretch our resources further, spending our time and energy supporting the volunteers and classrooms in our program.
Zero is important data when reading the rain gauge!
Back at the school, it is 8:30 am and a student team is checking and recording the level of precipitation for the last 24 hours. The rain gauge station is set up outside the school entrance and is clearly marked with a sign explaining what the students are doing. Parents and visitors can clearly see they are part of the Oregon Season Tracker 4-H program collecting precipitation and plant phenology data as citizen scientists. The sign calls attention to their efforts and gives the students a sense of pride in what they are doing.
Students use a program approved manual rain gauge that is standardized nationally. They become comfortable reading the gauge marked out in hundreds of an inch and how to conform to set data protocols. They learn not to round measurements for accuracy, to read using the bottom of the meniscus, and how to deal with an overflow event. All skills that have math applications for what they are doing. Depending on the grade of the students these skills are new or a refresher of what they already know, but important none the less.
Students learned the rain gauge skills at the beginning of the year in outdoor relay races using Super Soakers to simulate rainfall in their gauge. Teams vie to see who can get the most “rainfall” into their gauge. The casual observer might mistake this activity for recess, but they are having fun learning the needed math skills. By learning to read the manual gauge to .01 of an inch they are following the protocols set out by our national partner CoCoRaHS.
The daily precipitation observations are establishing a piece of the scientific process. As part of the team approach, the observations readings are verified before dumping out the day’s accumulation. Students begin to get a feel for what an inch of precipitation looks like, both as it falls from the sky and what it looks like in the gauge. The data collected is then passed on to another student team that hovers over the classroom computer, entering it in the national CoCoRaHS website. Data entered by 9:00 am is shared on an interactive map, for any visitor to the website to view.
The data submitted to the CoCoRaHS website is accessed and used by meteorologists, hydrologists, water managers, and researchers. It is also captured daily by the PRISM Climate Group, one of our local OSU partners. PRISM gathers climate observations from a wide range of monitoring networks (including CoCoRaHS), to develop short and long term weather models that are in turn used by still more groups and agencies reporting on and studying weather and climate. This is an important thing for all our adult and student observers to realize: their data is real, it is important, and it gets used.
So for those students that are worried that their data will just get lost in the mountains of reports submitted every day, I’d like to share this experience. This past year, I worked with a teacher that received an urgent email from the National Weather Service within a short time after the Monday morning rainfall report was entered in the database. The Weather Service continuously monitors for extreme weather, and were checking on the accuracy of the morning report of over 2 inches of rain. Quick sleuthing found the students had made an error in submitting their data. Instead of making a multiday report for the weekend they had made a single day report. This was an eye opening experience for the students, not only to realize their data is being used but also that scientists are depending on them to be accurate.
Monitoring a rain gauge is an easy lesson to expand or extend into other topics. Students can be challenged to look for weather patterns by comparing their own station with others across your county, state, and even the nation. Alternatively, by graphing daily data or comparing the rainfall data against topographic maps. These types of observations can challenge students to see patterns and make connections. This leads to investigating essential questions such as: how do these weather and climate patterns play out across the state and how does this effect what and who lives in these locations?
Observing fruiting on a common snowberry shrub.
OST students are also tracking plant phenology or growth phases over the year. They will be reporting on leaf out, flowering, fruiting, and leaf drop. By pairing these plant change observations with the precipitation readings, researchers have a powerful tool in the study of climate and the role it plays in plant responses. The OST program has identified eight priority native plant species that we encourage using if possible. These priority plants 1) mirror plants studied at the Andrews Forest, 2) have a large footprint across the state, and 3) are easy to identify. By targeting this small group of priority plants, we add density to the data collected making it more useful for our research partners. Our research partners at the Andrew’s Forest have many long-term studies looking at phenology and climate. They not only look at plant phenology but intensively study the ecosystem connections with watersheds, insects and birds. OST phenology data collected by students and volunteers allow the researchers to apply their findings and connections on a larger statewide scale.
Back at school, we now shadow a High School class. Students in an Urban Farm manage and work in a small farm on the school grounds, growing market vegetables and managing a small flock of egg laying hens. As part of their Urban Farm, they have planted a native pollinator buffer strip surrounding their large market garden. In this pollinator garden, they have planted vine maple, snowberry and Pacific ninebark, several of the OST priority plants, which they are observing weekly. They started their strip by studying the needs of the plants looking at soils, sunlight, and water needs. They then matched appropriate plants with their site, found a source and planted their buffer strip. Adding native plants to their buffer helps to attract and sustain the native pollinators in their garden. These students carry a field journal out to the garden and collect phenology data weekly as one of the garden jobs.
Just like precipitation data, observing and reporting on plant phenology has a set of protocols that need to be followed to standardize the data, and ensure accuracy. OST and Nature’s Notebook (our national partner with the National Phenology Network) are looking for the timing of some distinct phenophases or plant lifecycle stages. The students concentrate on looking for leaf bud break, emerging leaves, flowers and buds, fruiting or seeds, and leaf drop. Nature’s Notebook has defined criteria for reporting each one of these stages.
We have found students as young as 3rd graders can be accurate and serious phenology scientists with a progression of training and understanding. It all starts with being a good observer, one of those important science skills. We have found one of the best tools to teach observation is to consistently use a field journal (e.g., field notebook, science journal, nature journal) when working outdoors. A field journal is a tool that helps to focus students and keep them on track, and to differentiate their outdoor learning time from free time or recess. A simple composition book works well, is inexpensive, and is sturdy enough to last through the seasons.
Start with a consistent expectation of what a field journal entry will include and help students to set this up before they go out in the field. Page prompts will help younger students focus on the task. At a minimum, all field journal entries should include the date, time, weather, and location. Depending on the focus of the day, have students include sketches, labels, and notes on colors. Have students include at least one “I wonder” question they would like to investigate and learn more about. Use the field journals as a tool to help students focus in on the plant they are observing for OST, but also encourage them to observe everything around them. This broader look is what leads students to make those ecological connections that just may spark their interest in science and lead to a lifelong study.
Phenology photo cards help with recording data.
As students get comfortable using a field journal we introduce phenology. Phenology is the study of nature’s seasonal changes, and a scientist who studies phenology is looking at the timing of those seasonal changes and the relationship to climate. Although OST focuses on plant phenology, the observational skills can apply to wildlife and insects, for example reproduction and migration. Phenology is an easy observable phenomena that can lead your science study and help meet Next Generation Science Standards http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources/phenomena .
We use a fun activity to introduce phenology and help students focus on what is happening outdoors in the natural world. Start by having students brainstorm in their field journal a list of all the things they can remember occurring outside during their birthday month. They can use plant cues, animal migrations, weather and light. For example,, “the earliest bud break has already happened, daffodils are blooming, the daylight hours become equal to the night hours, and the early bird migrants have arrived” (March). Once they have their list, pair them up with someone who does not already know their birthday. Then have them trade clues to see if they can guess each other’s birthday month. For younger students you may decide to help them with a class brainstorm and write the different nature clues on the board under headings for each month.
Once the student have a good understanding of the concept of phenology we go outside to start observing. OST has developed some handy plant phase field cards that have pictures and definitions for students to refer to and compare as we learn the phenophases in the field. Nature’s Notebook has printable data sheets that students can take out in the field to record their data. We have found that by copying these data sheets at the reduced size of 87%, they fit into the composition book field journal and can be glued in to create a long term record of data at the site.
Using technology to create an informational video.
Technology also plays a key role when doing citizen science with your students. Both Nature’s Notebook and CoCoRaHS have developed easy to use free apps. The versions work with both Apple and Android devices, so you could use them on phones and tablets as well as entering data online with classroom computers. We take it one-step further and use the tablets to document the student learning. Each student team works on creating an informational video of the project over the school year. We give them the option of creating a video to train other students or make a video to communicate their work back to our partner researchers at the Andrews Forest. This video becomes an assessment tool for teachers and is something that the students enjoy. We limit the videos to no more than a three minutes, which means they need to plan it out well. They spend some of the slower winter months creating a storyboard, writing scripts, filming and editing. A 5th grade teacher at Muddy Creek School said, “The iPads engaged my most distractible students. Also, everyone was vested in this project because of the fun the iPads bring to the table. Basically, iPads were a great motivation to learn the science.” For Apple products, you can download a free version of iMovie for creating and editing your final product. There are also free editing apps that can be used on Android devices. Here is one of our early attempts using a movie trailer format https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KdNPZp-1Fs
In exchange, “Researcher Mark” (Schulze) from the Andrews Forest is in a video we created for the students. Walking through the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest we visit one of the many phenology plots at the forest. Mark explains how the phenology plots are scattered across a gradient of elevations at the Andrews. This allows them to look at plant responses to weather and climate as well as delving much deeper, making connections to insects, birds, soils, drought and much, much more. Mark explains that he is gathering data on some of the very same species as the students, and looking for the same phenophases. He takes them on tour of one of the many meteorological stations at the Andrews to see the many different climate instrumentation and variables that they are studying. In the end, Mark shares how valuable their citizen science data is to the future study of climate.
So, what does the Andrews research community hope to get out of collaborating with OST citizen scientists? With the wealth of information they are amassing, they are also interested in seeing if the trends and patterns they are documenting on the Andrews hold true across the varied landscape of Oregon. There is no stream of funding that could finance this kind of massive scientific study except through tapping into the interest and help of volunteer citizen scientist including teachers and classrooms across Oregon. In this circular process of interactions between researchers and volunteers we hope to extend the conversations about climate science, and document the landscape level changes for the future.
It is easy to see how the students benefit, both by applying “real science” outdoors on a regular basis, and their career exploration as scientists. Teacher’s surveys report taking their students outdoors to work on science an additional 8 – 12 times per year because of this program. One Middle School science teacher says, “A great opportunity to get students collecting ‘real’ or authentic data. Given that the work is from a national source it also helped students take ownership of their project and feel its importance.” Students also learn and practice many of the NGSS standards and science practices working on and experiencing real world problems, not just reading about it in a text book.
Climate change is a real and sometimes overwhelming problem for many students, leaving them with a sense of helplessness. What impresses me the most with the students in the program is that they come away with a mindset of how they can have a positive impact in the field of climate science. When asked what they liked best about this program student surveys stressed that positive connection, “Helping scientists felt good.” “That I can make a difference.” “By helping researcher Mark, it was not just for fun it was real.” A good step in building the ecological thinkers and problem solvers we need for our future.
Jody Einerson is the OSU Extension 4-H Benton County and Oregon Season Tracker statewide coordinator.
Climate Change Education: A Student’s Perspective
by Eliot Brody
At my recent high school graduation, I found myself reflecting on the 12 years I spent in Oregon’s largest school district, Portland Public Schools. While I sat through the speeches in my oversized, wrinkly gown, I thought about all that I had learned in those 12 years. And all that I hadn’t.
As I sifted through the many topics that had been covered in my schooling, my thoughts lingered on the conspicuous absence of climate change education—I had known nothing about the greenhouse effect until a guest speaker came into my science class in eighth grade. As a few members of Franklin High School’s graduating class crossed the stage wearing their beaded “wood-cookie” necklaces, my mind conjured vivid images of the place they got those keepsakes; a week in sixth grade that we all spent learning environmental science in the woods near Mt. Hood. Again, though, my nostalgia turned negative as I recalled that we were the last group of students to have the full six-day Outdoor School experience; the following year, Multnomah Education Service District shortened the program to three days. My reflections left me with the conviction that the school system as I knew it could not be counted on to teach climate science.
Reversing the consequences of climate change grows increasingly difficult each day. With this is in mind, we must find ways to teach our youngest students about climate change as early as possible, because they will be the ones most affected by it.
Big Ideas in a Shrunken School
Two months before graduation officially concluded my Portland Public Schools journey, I paid a special visit to the place where it all began, Glencoe Elementary School. I walked through what felt like shrunken hallways in the familiar building, dodging elementary schoolers as they hurried back to class from lunch. Only seven years before, I had been in their position, but I was there now to be their guest teacher. I was accompanied by a classmate and friend, Mabel Miller, and together we had prepared an hour-long presentation on climate change for the school’s fourth graders.
Glencoe has four fourth grade classes, each with around 30 students. Miller and I planned to teach lessons in two of the classes that day, before presenting to the other two classes the following day. As we prepared our Google Slides presentation in our first class, there was an audible hubbub among the fourth graders about the two unfamiliar teenagers standing awkwardly at the front of their classroom. One brave student even called out to us, “Who are you?” Before we could say anything, Ms. Clark, the teacher, hushed her class and reminded them who we were by pointing to the day’s schedule on a chalkboard. Scrawled in white chalk was, “Franklin High School visitors,” next to, “12:00 p.m.”
I glanced out at the large group of antsy nine and ten year-olds, then over at Miller. Her face displayed my own worries: how will we keep the attention of these kids? I silently thanked her for preparing an interactive, climate change-themed activity to do with the students when they got restless. Ms. Clark turned to us with a smile and informed us that we could start whenever we were ready. I leaned over to turn on the projector, and we introduced ourselves and began.
First, we gauged the fourth graders’ prior knowledge on the subject. We asked what the phrase “climate change” made the students think about and how it made them feel. We got a variety of responses, from “it makes me sad” to detailed accounts of the polar ice caps melting. Then, we showed slides explaining:
- The distinction between “climate” and “weather,” and how climate change is different from seasonal fluctuations in temperature and weather.
- The atmosphere, how it can vary in size, and what that means for average temperatures on the Earth. We displayed a series of diagrams showing atmospheres of varying sizes, and how much heat could escape in each scenario. We also used plenty of analogies:
- “It’s like your blanket at night. You don’t want one that’s too heavy, or else you’ll be too hot.”
- “It’s like sitting in a hot car in the summer. The windows let the warmth from the sunlight in, and then that heat gets trapped in the car.”
- Fossil fuels and how humans use them.
- Greenhouse gases and how they cause the greenhouse effect. We specifically highlighted and explained carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor.
- The many effects of climate change. We made the tougher ideas as relatable for the students as possible, including talking about what coral bleaching means for the livelihood of the aquatic characters in the popular Disney movies Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.
- Small and big things that the students could do to fight climate change.
As soon as we got into the material, it was apparent that the kids were interested—far more interested than we had anticipated. We had expected our presentation to take the first 40 minutes, leaving 20 minutes for the activity, but the students’ many questions and comments stretched our slideshow to take up the whole hour. Instead of being bored or disinterested, the students wanted to learn more about each detail and share their own stories and experiences. We received a chorus of genuine-sounding “thank you’s” from the students as we left.
In the next class, our presentation ran even more smoothly. I was consistently surprised by how much the students wanted to participate and ask questions, and again we finished the presentation without having to use the activity to fill time or focus the students. At the end, a number of students came up to personally thank us, and one girl gave me a bookmark emblazoned with the words, “save the earth.”
The classes we presented to the following day were just as welcoming and curious. The experience we had gained from the previous day gave us more confidence as we taught. By the end of the second day, we had given a crash course on climate change’s underlying science and effects to well over 100 students. More importantly, we had showed what they could individually do to help. It had only taken four hours of our time, and the teachers had happily extended their rooms, students, and class time to our cause. The four teachers, all of whom had been around when Miller and I attended Glencoe, even gave us a thank-you card.
Education, the Best Form of Activism
So, how did Miller and I end up back in our elementary school two months before graduation?
At Franklin, we had both taken a class called Environmental Justice and Sustainability. The format of the elective was to have each student work on year-long projects related to sustainability. The class was only two years old, having been started in the 2015-16 school year, but it had already made big strides and inspired the adoption of a similar class by the same name at another PPS school, Lincoln High School. Miller, as president of Franklin’s Earth Club, had used the class to increase the club’s size and presence in the school community (this year, over 60 students were in the club). Students had also created and run a bottles-and-cans recycling system and started a vegetable garden, among other endeavors. The class had even been able to improve Franklin’s resource conservation strategies enough for the school to earn recognition as a Merit-Level Oregon Green School.
My project was to coordinate outreach from our “green team” to other nearby communities, including the rest of the PPS high schools. Earlier in the year, I had focused on high school outreach by helping form a coalition of students called High School Environmental Leadership Project (HELP). HELP brings together high school students every other week to work on environmental activism and make each PPS high school more sustainable. One long-term HELP goal is to write a city ordinance that would bind Portland lawmakers to reducing emissions. The project is called YouCAN (Youth Climate Action Now) and is based on a model that has been used in four other Oregon cities: Eugene, Bend, Corvallis, and Ashland. One tactic that was used in Eugene was to have students testify in front of the city council in favor of adopting the ordinance. YouCAN organizers in Eugene described the importance of having youth of all ages testify, so HELP decided that elementary school outreach would be an important step in furthering this goal. At the end of our elementary school presentation, we told students that one of the big ways they could contribute to the cause is by attending a HELP summer camp or even testifying in front of city council at some point. Many students seemed interested in this, and we told the teachers that we would keep them posted as the project developed. HELP’s climate justice action camp will be held on August 24th and 25th this summer for rising third graders, fourth graders, and fifth graders.
Miller and I had a number of reasons for teaching at Glencoe. It furthered our work with HELP and allowed us to reach out as Franklin green team members to elementary school students in the Franklin neighborhood. Most importantly, though, it allowed us to teach about climate change to the generation that will be most affected by it. It is extremely important that students are taught at a young age to trust the scientists on this issue and not the corporate propaganda.
Get High Schoolers Teaching Climate Science
After the successful lessons at Glencoe, I wanted to continue to teach elementary schoolers about climate change. I emailed a 4th grade teacher at Atkinson Elementary, another school in the Franklin neighborhood. The teacher, Amy Nunn, seemed enthusiastic about the lessons, and about a week after the Glencoe lessons, Miller and I headed into Atkinson to teach Nunn’s class. The experience was slightly different, as I hadn’t gone to school at Atkinson. Even so, I felt more comfortable teaching this time. For the first time, Miller and I were able to fit the climate change activity into the presentation. For the activity, we gave the students “before and after” pictures of glaciers. Half of the pictures dated back to the early 20th century, and half were modern pictures of the same glaciers. They looked very different, which made the matching process difficult for the students, and also showed them the effects of climate change.
Once again, it felt wonderful to be able to teach younger students about such an important topic. Nunn also saw another benefit to the lessons. “In fourth grade, students learn and practice the speaking skills needed to effectively convey a message to an audience,” she said. “Having high school students model exemplary speaking skills provided the younger students with a real life example of how to effectively educate an audience.”
PPS and other school systems have shown that they don’t see climate education as a priority. I wish that I could have been taught much earlier about the causes and effects of climate change; I could have started my activism at a younger age if that had been the case. Sometimes, though, you have to make your own solution to problems like these. There are few roadblocks preventing high schoolers from emailing their elementary school teachers and asking to borrow some class time to teach about climate change.
Nunn added, “As a professional educator, I would gladly welcome back future high school students to share their scientific understanding of how the local decisions we make directly impact our Earth at a global level and how we can live more responsibly to prevent further, negative changes to the Earth’s climate.”
Eliot Brody is a recent graduate of Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon. He has been accepted to continue his studies in climate change education at Occidental College in Los Angeles. We hope that Eliot will be willing to contribute future articles as he learns more about climate change education.