Digital Environmental Literacy: Student Generated Data and Inquiry

Digital Environmental Literacy: Student Generated Data and Inquiry

How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students?

by R. Justin Hougham,
Marc Nutter,
Megan Gilbertson,
Quinn Bukouricz
University of Wisconsin – Extension

Technology in education (ed tech) is constantly changing and growing in impact in classrooms across the globe. While ed tech holds great promise for closing achievement gaps in sectors of the education community, it remains yet to be seen how this will truly live up to its potential (“Brain Gains”, 2017, July 22). Ed tech is anticipated to grow to a $120 billion market by 2019, which will largely be spent in software and web services. How might we hope to see this show up in out-of-classroom field experiences?

Unaddressed in these articles and what we explore here are the specific impacts that the conversation of technology in environmental education brings as well as a case study that shares strategies we have found to be effective when an education considers the merging of hardware (inquiry tools), technology application in professional development, and web-based collaboration tools. Important questions for environmental education ask include How does this scale for education for the environment? What considerations need to be taken to ensure that investment works? How would we know if it does? How do we train educators to successfully interface technologies with the outdoor experiences that they provide their students? In an article published here in Clearing in 2012, we explored the instructional framework for merging field based science education with mobile pedagogies in the framework entitled Adventure Learning @ (Hougham, Eitel, and Miller, 2012). In the years since, this model has informed a collection of hardware kits that supports the concepts in AL@ as well as an examination of the questions outline above, these hardware kits are called Digital Observation Technology Skills (DOTS) kits.

In the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho you’ll see Steelhead, rushing rapids and hot springs that all tell the story of the landscape. Similarly, along the Wisconsin River, you will see towns, forests and fields that have a link to the industries that have shaped the state over the last 150 years. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you can find inquisitive young people and bright yellow cases filled with gadgets taking data points and crafting Scientific Stories about the watersheds in their state. Regardless of whether it is a wild river or a small tributary outside a schoolyard- scientific stories wait to be told in these places and technology that is appropriately considered helps unlock and share these experiences.

A naturalist assists youth with a water quality test while on a canoe trip. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

In a world where technology is almighty, wielding digital literacy is practically a requirement in our understanding of just about everything. The students of today are able to navigate through web pages and apps with ease, information at their fingertips like never before. Here, we can find ourselves removed from that information, disconnected from those data sources and collections, stifling our desire to wonder and inquire more. By investing in digital tools that can enhance inquiry of the natural world, educators can bridge this divide of both information and the ability to be a primary data collector. In equipping students with touchscreens and interfaces familiar to youth of today, they are able to partake in not only real world application of scientific observation, but also experimental design and efforts moving toward the future.

Young people in Wisconsin have been contributing to the development of this idea of digital data collection and inquiry, through DOTS. The DOTS program has been developing in Wisconsin since 2014, engaging both youth and adult demographics in digital literacies, and connecting the dots from data collection to inquiry and analysis.   By involving youth in the visualization and comparison of their data collections, they are able to begin to accomplish higher order learning such as developing their own hypotheses and synthesize the meaning of their findings.   DOTS has been developed for students in 4th through 8th grades but has been modified for audiences in 2nd through high school, including adult learners, continuing education, and professional development.

Case studies of this application vary widely in scale, location and content. Currently DOTS kits are used in Idaho and in Wisconsin by youth to examine water quality. A full-scale implementation is underway currently in Wisconsin to connect youth from many different watersheds. Held this past August, the Wisconsin Water Youth Stories Summit brought together students from across the state of Wisconsin who are interested in not only environment and ecosystems, but also water quality and sharing their “water stories”. Supported by an EPA grant, this Summit was a culminating experience for many of the youth, getting to collect and share their findings over their 3 day period at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (Grant Number: EPA-00E02045). This two year grant has trained and equipped educators with DOTS tool with an emphasis on water quality monitoring. Throughout the year, youth from around Wisconsin collect data and share their findings with others in real time on the web. At the Water Stories Summit, each group brought their DOTS kit to explore the environment and compare collected data sets. This experience not only brought together young scientists with a vested interest in the future of water, but also allowed students to share stories of local water quality that affects their own communities around the state.

A student uses a water quality test to find the amount of phosphorus at a Wisconsin River location. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

Many shared stories about urban run-off pollution, such as lawn fertilizers and road salt, E. coli contamination, and they discussed the ways in which humans alter natural waterways. At the end of their experience one student said they learned that, “science is being precise and unbiased about nature and numbers.” Another student said of a different Upham experience, “We went to Blackhawk Island for our project. The tools helped us take photos of what was under the rock. The tools help to see what animals were living there. We came up with a lot of new questions after we did our research and we can’t wait to find out things like, if the temperature affects what animals we will find living under a rock, and what animals live at different depths.” Through these collaborations of student generated data, participants were able to make connections between each other and drive further inquiry questions such as how to improve water use and consumption, and how the water affects all other life.

While the kits themselves are certainly an enhancement to a variety of curriculum, the training that accompanies the deployment is just as important as the tools themselves. Educators that partner on DOTS projects are supported with (1) Equipment, (2) Training and (3) a Web platform for collaboration. It is the interrelationship between the inquiry tools, inquiry methods and inquiry artifacts that provide the support for transformative outdoor science experiences.

A DOTS kit consists of a select set of digital tools to equip youth and educators with everything they need to take a basic data set of an ecosystem and microclimate. Contained in a water-proof, heavy-duty case, the tools selected are chosen for their utility, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. Any suite of tools can be selected for an individual’s classroom purposes, this is first and foremost, a framework to scaffold inquiry and observational skills. DOTS users gain field experience with hand held weather stations, thermal imagers, digital field microscopes, GPS units, and cameras to contribute to local citizen science monitoring (Hougham and Kerlin, 2016). A DOTS program training is facilitated by program staff and has evolved over time to include these six goals. While these are used in DOTS, nearly any technology implementation would benefit from these goals being outlined.

  1. Establish functional and technical familiarity with DOTS Kit hardware
  2. Orientation to DOTS Kit web interface, data uploading, and site visualizations
  3. Examination of mobile, digital pedagogies in historical as well as applied contexts
  4. Advance instructional capacities in application of observation and inquiry facilitation applicable to experiences outside the classroom
  5. Production of digital artifacts that contribute to Scientific Storytelling
  6.   Facilitation of initial curricular design considerations for integrating kits into existing programs

After the training, educators have access to a suite of tools that can be lent out for deeper science connections in outdoor spaces. Further, trained educators can use grab-and-go lessons from the project website to launch the concepts with their students and watch videos produced and hosted on the site that provide further instruction on applications of the tools.

Lastly, a web-based collaboration platform is hosted to support the development of additional inquiry. To continue this mission of enhancing student inquiry and promoting collaboration, data sets can be uploaded to an online public access platform. As users enter their data online, the map displays in real time the coordinates and information of each data point. Viewers can easily navigate a Google map with their and other’s data points for comparison and post-experience observation. This immediate viewership not only falls in line with today’s student’s understanding of a fast-paced, immediately available world, but also allows no stagnation in the learning process as inquiry can continue instantaneously. Through engagement by use of digital tools collecting data in the field, reflection on process and methods through data entry into the web-based model, and through analysis and refinement of hypothesis for further inquiry, students take ownership of their data and have a voice in sharing their discoveries with others. These inquiries have been qualified in the DOTS programming through use of a “scientific story”.

The scientific story helps to build connection between qualitative and quantitative data and their respective ways of understanding. As humans we have told stories for millennia to entertain, educate, and remember. Combining these elements of storytelling with the scientific method of developing hypotheses and data collection, a story is created to share. These stories are generally 3-5 sentences and include photos taken by camera and tools such as the handheld microscope and thermal imager. In taking a closer look with digital tools, a deeper appreciation is gained and honed in on through these scientific stories and it is through these words that we can harness stories in what they do best: share. They can be digitized and easily shared across social media platforms, creating interest in the environment and science in family and community members.

This story written while at Upham woods during the aforementioned Water Stories Summit, and describes the location and inquires the youth had.

We investigated two different locations as a part of the water study blitz at Upham Woods. The first location was the Fishing shore on the Wisconsin River, and the second location was a stagnant inlet only 100 feet away. We noticed several differences between the two locations. We wanted to know more about the animal life in both locations. What kind of animals live in these habitats that we couldn’t see during the blitz? What would we find if we studied the location where the Fishing Shore and Inlet connect?

This story highlights the questions students wanted to investigate further and spurred their desire to continue comparing locations in the context of animal life. Another story from the Water Stories Summit illustrates a group of high school students making connections between ideas and places.

When doing the data blitz at camp, we tested water for all kinds of factors (pH, Conductivity, Salinity and others). The cool thing we noticed was the differences in PH levels of the water that equaled a 9.49 level that makes water a base. This reminded us of what would happen if water had a unbalanced and non neutral PH level, that was out of control… One example of this is a sulphur pit, like in Yellowstone national park. The pH of this water is as low as 1.2, which is almost equivalent to battery acid.

By encouraging students to develop their own scientific story, they create a deeper connection with that place and nature in general. This connection evolves to a jumping off point for further inquiry and hypothesis development which can be fleshed out into full empirical science studies or harnessed into environmental service projects. Additionally, as data sets can be shared, these students in Wisconsin can use the data collected in Idaho to further their hypotheses and promote scientific collaboration.

A naturalist teaches an Escuela Verde student how to take a water quality reading. Photo credit: DOTS participant.

Throughout the use of this approach research suggests that digital tools should be adopted in environmental education whenever possible (Hougham et al., 2016). To assess participant perspectives, DOTS uses a modified Common Measures instrument (National 4-H Council, 2017) to examine student attitudes towards technology and towards nature. In a 2015 study conducted by the DOTS project research team (Hougham et al., 2016), students where engaged in two iterations of an environmental studies curriculum- one was with traditional analogue toolsets and one was with digital toolsets. In an analysis of pre/post-test evaluation responses (n= 135), students showed statistically significant and positive shifts in attitudes towards technology, the use of technology outdoors, and towards investigating nature. In a review of the data from DOTS users for both profession development and youth workshops (n=71), it was found that 97% of participants of all ages agreed or strongly agreed that they “better understand how science, technology, or engineering can solve problems after using the DOTS tools”, and 89% said they agreed or strongly agreed that they “liked learning about this subject”.

This survey data provides insight on scaffolding and curiosity building techniques. In this way, it was found that lessons on observation were most useful when they began with broad scale observations and students were invited to make more focused observations. This system allows for students to explore a part of the world that they find interesting, making them more invested in a narrative authentic to them. The practice of up close observation is nothing new in environmental education, notably Adventures with a Hand Lens was published in 1962, advancing outdoor science instruction to engage the learner in their own investigations of the world up close. Today, this observation scaffolds easily onto data collection, with students studying parts of the ecosystem that they find interesting with encouragement to find how these seemingly individual pieces coalesce into a larger system.

In moving environmental education into the digital age, educators should look to empower youth with the tools and responsibility to examine their surroundings, and in encouraging youth to take and use technology outside, educators can capitalize on students collecting their own data sets to develop deeper, more meaningful inquiry questions. And when they can begin developing their own questions that they want to answer rather than following a worksheet or handout, the exploration becomes that much more desirable and satiating. Those young people wielding handheld weather stations and thermal imagers on the Salmon River or on the Wisconsin may appear to be kids collecting some information for science project, but don’t be fooled, the next generation of scientists and scientific thinkers is out there, already developing their inquiries into the natural world.




  1. Brain Gains. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from
  2. Headstrom, R.. (1962). Adventures with a Hand Lens.
  3. Hougham, R. J., Eitel, K. B., & Miller, B. G. (2013). AL@: Combining the strengths of adventure learning and place based education. 2012 CLEARING Compendium (pp 38-41).
  4. Hougham, J. and Kerlin, S. (2017). To Unplug or Plug In. Green Teacher. Available at:
  5. Hougham, R., Nutter, M., Nussbaum, A., Riedl, T. and Burgess, S. (2016). Engaging at-risk populations outdoors, digitally: researching youth attitudes, confidence, and interest in technology and the outdoors. Presented at the 44th Annual International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Minneapolis, MN.
  6. National 4-H Council. (2017). Common Measures 2.0.
  7. Technology is transforming what happens when a child goes to school. (2017, July 22). The Economist. Retrieved from

Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Extension where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education for sustainability.

Marc Nutter manages the facility of Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center located in Wisconsin Dells, WI which serves over 11,000 youth and adults annually. With the research naturalist team at Upham Woods, Marc implements local, state, and federal grants around Wisconsin aimed to get youth connected to their local surroundings with the aid of technology that enhances observation.

Megan Gilbertson is currently a school psychology graduate student at Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville. While working at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center, she collaborated on grant funded projects to create and curate online data platforms for educational groups and facilitate programs for both youth and adults on the integration of technology with observation and inquiry in environmental education.

Quinn Bukouricz is a research naturalist involved with technology-integrated programming statewide, funded on grants and program revenues. He is also responsible the creation and care of programmatic equipment which includes the “Digital Observation Technology Skills” kits, and the implementation of grants.

Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t Give Up Hope

Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t Give Up Hope

Photo by Jim Martin

Why Environmental Educators Shouldn’t
Give Up Hope

by Jacob Rodenburg

I’m trying hard not to get discouraged. Being an environmental educator in today’s world feels like you are asked to stop a rushing river armed only with a teaspoon.

There are so many issues to be worried about—from climate change to habitat destruction, from oceans of plastic to endangered species, from the loss of biodiversity to melting glaciers. And the list goes on. The field itself has become ever more siloed and compartmentalized over time, leaving schools, parents, and outdoor programs with little unified guidance. How do we teach kids—in a hopeful and empowering way—about today’s formidable challenges? And how do we translate this increase in knowledge about environmental issues into action?

Today’s Challenge
Children today are given few opportunities to be outside. In a school system rife with worry about liability, it is simply easier to stay indoors. Insurance rates are cheaper if kids are contained, accounted for, and “safe” inside.

Yet the safety argument needs to be turned on its head: It is unsafe NOT to take children outside, not to provide them with rich immersion time in the living world. Leaving kids indoors cuts them off from the knowledge and understanding of what it means to be a living being that shares a world with other living beings. Children have a right to experience the joy of discovering the richness, complexity, and diversity of life.

Children’s disconnect from their surroundings and their environment does not stem from a lack of desire. As an outdoor educator, I have spent many happy hours with school children tramping through wetlands, lifting up rotten logs, and canoeing through still waters hearing comments like “Wow! This is cool!” To fulfill children’s need to connect, the field must develop a coordinated and developmentally appropriate approach—one that is rooted in what kids are ready to learn at each age.

Building Age-appropriate Environmental Education
Children learn about the natural world in vastly different ways as they grow up. Environmentalists are keen to teach children about global warming, pollution, species depletion, and a whole range of admittedly important issues, but they forget that younger children aren’t cognitively, perhaps even psychically, ready for this.

Young children are, however, always ready to love the natural world. Connecting with nature is about establishing a relationship and building intimacy. What is the story of the land near where a child lives? How did that oak get that large hole in it? Who lives under this decomposing log? If we think about tending to and nurturing relationships, then we’ll remember to take kids to the same places over and over again. We’ll help them find their magic places, their stories of that place and, more importantly, their place within that place. We will teach them the power and possibility of restoring nature in their school yards, their backyards, and in nearby parks.

Kids connect best to places through stories and faces. A teacher once shared a story with me about a mystery bird that had built a nest in a parking lot. After doing a bit of research, the children found out that this bird was called a killdeer. They watched the bird as she did her broken wing trick (to lead predators away from the nest). Over the days, they watched her scoop out her nest and sit upon it. They cordoned off an area with yellow emergency tape to protect her from cars. They watched her raise her young. This was their killdeer, and they would have done anything to protect her. The students became involved in her unfolding story, and the killdeer suddenly had a face. In a way, she revealed herself to them.

Another teaching tip: young children love micro environments. A friend of mine told me about a time when he took his children, 4 and 5 years old, up to an incredible view of a valley. He asked, “Isn’t this beautiful?” and watched in amazement as his kids hunkered down and stared at the ants scurrying at their feet instead.

Finally, young children adore discovery. It is the art of an educator to know what to say and what to refrain from saying. If I had a job description, it would be simply this: to help reveal wonder and cultivate awe. I take my students to a place called Salamander Alley and say, “I wonder what’s under that log?” If they find a salamander, there is a palpable feeling of joy in the discovery. Had I said, “Let’s go find some salamanders. They’re probably under this log,” the effect would have been completely different. When a child finds something, I let them own that discovery. I honor and celebrate it. The power of this kind of learning can never be undervalued.

Neil Everenden writes that we do not end at our finger tips. Instead, we radiate out into the landscape. We are inextricably bound up in the processes of life. With every breath in and out we are part of the natural systems that surround us. Our role today is to guide our children, in ways that resonate with their interests and development, to realize this connection.

Where to Go From Here
We can create nature-rich communities where kids feel a deep and abiding love for the living systems that we all are immersed in. Eventually, children will learn even to go beyond sustaining and to engage in acts of regeneration. That is where true hope resides.
Here’s hoping we can all coordinate our efforts throughout every age and stage of a child’s development. We need to work collaboratively with schools, parents, community groups, faith groups, governments, and non-governmental agencies to help future generations love, learn about, care for, protect, and enhance the environment. Indeed the future of the planet depends upon it.

Jacob Rodenburg is Executive Director of Camp Kawartha and The Camp Kawartha Outdoor Education Centre, located in Ontario, Canada. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

EE Questions and Actions

Critical Questions
1. What kinds of support are available in your school, district and community for supporting environmental educational activities?
2. In what ways can environmental education activities enhance learning?
3. What are the most effective strategies for integrating environmental education across all content areas?
4. In what ways do students, teachers and communities benefit from classrooms engaged in environmental educational projects?
5. What are compelling environmental issues that can be explored through environmental educational projects?

Possible Actions
1. Become well informed about the characteristics of environmental education, effective models and strategies for integrating across subject areas taught in school.
2. Share this information with your colleagues, friends, and others interested in integrating environmental education into their classrooms or conducting environmental action projects in their communities.
3. Know your national, state, and local school standards. You will find them on the Internet. Consider ways in which environmental education activities can achieve many of the standards across various content areas.
4. Learn effective strategies for guiding students in conducting comprehensive and sophisticated research about environmental issues, solving specific local environmental problems, and acting on their solutions.
5. Encouraged by recent brain research, many educators recognize the value of hands-on, project- and problem-based learning methods, and integrated-interdisciplinary approaches. Use the natural environment and local community as the framework, and integrate environmental education into your everyday teaching.

-from New Horizons for Learning

What is Good Environmental Education?

What is Good Environmental Education?


What is Good Environmental Education?

Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global.

by Peter Hayes

The choice to become an educator brings with it a career-long sentence to the blessing and curse of endlessly deciding what our students need to learn and how we will best help them learn it. At a recent conference, I was confronted with the honorable misfortune of joining a panel of speakers charged with provocatively stirring thoughts and feelings on the question of “what is good environmental education?”. I found the adventure to be both difficult and easy. It was difficult because the terms environment, environmental education, or environmentalist make no sense to me. They are words and concepts that have meaning only in a culture which clings to the illusion that human well-being does not depend on the health of the nature we are part of.
Because I believe that deep-seated confusion over these words and ideas is a major barrier to building a positive future, I choose to be an educator, community member, and citizen instead of accepting the destructive labels of environmental educator and environmentalist.

It was easier for me to form and share the answers that follow to the question of what makes for good education about how nature works and how humans fit into it. A simple, clear, and accessible yardstick for assessing the success of student learning is always available to us: how well do we help students become ready to do what they need to be ready? Ability – a fabric woven from the strands of knowledge, skill, and attitude – is important but not adequate; ability must be combined with motivation to create readiness.
To illustrate my belief that clues to our educational responsibilities are everpresent, and to ground these comments in the realities of my daily responsibilities, two simple, true stories – shared on the installment plan – seem helpful.

Story 1 – Part A:
It’s mid-February and Seattle’s rains are pouring down on a confused-looking ninth-grade student standing knee deep in the muddy waters of Thornton Creek. In the final hours of a weeklong study of this urban creek and its watershed, she stands in a forested wetland slated to be developed as a driving range for the adjacent golf course.

She describes her confusion over whether the best use for the land is for it to continue as a wild wetland or to be developed as a driving range: “I’m so confused – I don’t know what the right thing to do is; I began this week believing that the world was much simpler than I now see it is – that there were good guys and bad guys – and that I was a good guy – now I see that choices are more complicated, that in many ways my choices make me part of the problem. I’m no longer sure what is the right thing to do.”

Story Two – Part A:

The early morning calm at our house is punctuated by the scuffing sound of a small person’s feet on the stairs. A three foot, sleepy eyed apparition settles in at the breakfast table – tousled brown hair, fuzzy, pink, one piece pajamas “with feet” – the kind that sweat. Slurping the last of her cereal – the kind where eating the box provides more nutriment than eating the cereal – she looks across the table. Her presence asks a single, clear, unspoken question to me: “you aren’t going to let us down are you? You are responsible for helping us grow up to be ready to successfully meet the challenges ahead; will you do it?”..

If we accept that readiness is the goal, then the next question is: Ready for what? What needs doing?. Given our understandable human self absorption, we know that our students need to be ready to provide for their own needs, that is their own “self-wealth”. Because self-wealth depends on a web of relationships with fellow humans and other species, our students also must be ready to understand, maintain, and build “common wealth”. The wealth that we share in common is the blend of such diverse treasures as the love of a neighbor who brings dinner over on the eve of our first child’s birth and the lifegiving qualities of the swirling atmosphere and oceans. Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global. They need to be ready to do what no preceding generation has done before: satisfy their needs and wants in ways that don’t compromise Earth’s ability to support life.

The best way to narrow this challenge from the immense and vague toward something that we can get to work on in class tomorrow, we can ask and answer the questions of where and why are we failing, or have we failed, to maintain our common wealth? Though there are remarkable cases of success in maintaining our common wealth, I will focus here on examples from each of five concentric rings of community where we have lost, or are currently losing, common wealth – situations where humans were challenged to do the right thing in relationship to the rest of nature, and failed. What would need to be different for these to be on the list of successes instead?

The cases are:

– Global: Current efforts to reach cooperative agreements about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases which are causing warming of the atmosphere.

– Continental: The failure of cooperation in water use leading to the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the race to pump from the rapidly dropping waters of the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains in the central United States.

– Regional: The current struggle to reverse the trend of Pacific Salmon’s descent toward extinction, with hopes of not replicating the crash of North Atlantic fisheries.

– Local: The choice at the school where I teach not to match our actions as world-class consumers to our stated commitment to conservation contributes to the invisible but real erosion of common wealth around the planet.

– Next Door: Our neighbor seeks to tranform two acres of forested wetlands at the headwaters of a salmon supporting creek into five lawn- and driveway-surrounded homes, while arguing that there is no connection between his choices and the future of salmon struggling to retain their home in the creek downstream.

What do these five cases of loss of common wealth share? Why do they happen?
Decision makers failed to understand, value, and tell the story of the common wealth. Decisions were based on oversimplifications of the complex and interdependent systems of nature. Too much emphasis was placed on guaranteeing self wealth and too little on preserving common wealth. Diverse individuals and cultures failed to achieve cooperation necessary to understand and solve problems – often despite honest and major effort. Decision makers lacked integrity as defined as the agreement between actions and stated values. Participants had insufficient determined, enduring hope to solve the problem. And finally, participants believed our culturally ingrained myths of the separateness of humans from nature, of super abundance, of control, and of wilderness.

Mainstream analysis commonly describes such cases as economic, political, or environmental problems, but looked at in total, the root causes of each of these cases is our failure to understand and value community and citizenship and, taken one step further, the failure of our educational systems to help graduates be ready to do what they need to be ready to do. They are the consequence of educational systems which are more effective at equipping youth to be self-wealth pursuing predators through domination of nature than investing in education which maintains and builds our common wealth. These and other failures of community highlight where we as educators most need to concentrate our efforts. Transposing the seven common “failures” from above into positives, our students need to be ready to know and love our common wealth, recognize and be humbled by complexity; learn to balance their investment in self wealth with necessary investment in common wealth (and to see them not as a zero sum), use diversity as an asset not an impediment; have, demand, and value integrity; have an enduring sense of hope, and replace the four myths with reality. Education is now a major contributor to unworkable relationships between humans and the rest of nature; it is our challenge and opportunity to make it become a major component of the solution.

If our reasoning leads us to conclude that these outcomes are what the SATs, APs, and GREs of the future should test for, then the final step is to move from describing the desired outcomes to learning what educational experiences most effectively and consistently lead to successful student learning in these areas. The combination of personal experience and study of past and current educational practice make this task more straightforward than it would appear. While specific approaches must be adapted to match the unique needs of students and settings, education with the following characteristics appears to take us in the right direction:

1) Involving students in the real work of being active, informed citizens of the concentric, geocentric rings of community to which they belong. The smaller the unit, the sooner students learn through experience that the choice to care can lead to real change.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold

“There is an uncanny resemblance between our behaviour toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. …It is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.”
– Wendell Berry

“The watershed is the first and last nation, whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable and the life that flourishes within it constitutes the first kind of community.” – Gary Snyder

2) The thread of understanding of the balance between self-wealth and common wealth runs throughout the curriculum and life of the school.
Daily school life provides an excellent learning lab for this topic, and the study of history and current events provides endless cases of the tension between self wealth and common wealth.

3) The curriculum is driven by asking, understanding, answering, and acting on real questions. Constructing knowledge and meaning from the rising sea of information and building wisdom from studying the relationship between intent, action, and consequences are central.

4) Teachers aspire to the impossible goal of non-advocacy through teaching the important skills of asking and answering questions instead of preaching personal answers.

5) Schools with clear missions are solidly connected to their surrounding community, and student generated new knowledge travels across well worn bridges of cooperation to be used by receptive members of the governmental, businesses, and general communities.

6) Educational goals are reached through the real work of building “way things work” understandings of community health.

7) Integrity – the matching of actions and beliefs – is modeled and highly valued.

“Many people want to change the world, but few want to change themselves.” – Tolstoy

8) Students develop an enduring sense of hope through experience in turning positive ideas into tangible success.

“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the source of real hope” – Lennox

9) All ways of knowing – mathematical, artistic, scientific, historical – are blended, and real experience stirs student’s hearts as much or more than their minds.

10) Education is “story” based with students learning to be critically aware of both why we tell the stories we tell and what stories we need to tell and pay attention to in order to successfully track the health of our communities. All explanations of phenomena, even the most rule-bound science, are a form of “story”. The ability to “read”, understand, and describe the health of a landscape is given as much emphasis as the ability to read and understand written words. Cause and effect lessons from history provide necessary basis for belief that individual action can shape a positive future.

11) Materials that perpetuate the four deep seated myths of separateness of human well-being from the well-being of nature, of superabundance, of control, and of wilderness are replaced by materials that communicate the assumptions of interdependence, limits, incomplete knowledge of nature, and the reality that both human influence and wildness are found everywhere.

“To treat wilderness as a holy shrine and Kansas and East Saint Louis as a terrain of an altogether different sort is a form of schizophrenia. Either all of the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot deserves our respect or none does.” – Wes Jackson

12) Students develop a sense of awe and reverence for nature through consistant, patient practice of the skills of observation and communication (see past CLEARING articles by Saul Weisberg, Bob Pyle, and Tony Angell “Artist as Advocate for Nature”)

13) The success of students‚ learning and teachers‚ teaching is assessed through tangible results that are of real value to others. Eg. Students demonstrate mastery in research, mathematical, and writing skills through developing a report on trends in the health of the local neighborhood instead of through academic, standardized tests.

14) The language of “environment” is quietly replaced by language which more accurately communicates our beliefs and supports student learning.
The organizing concept of community, with humans as one part of larger living systems, replaces our current common use of the distinct and deceptively inaccurate concepts of “environment”, “economy”, and “culture”.

I share these approaches as ones which appear to work for me and the schools and projects with which I am involved in, not as a prescription for others. Though there are many working examples of how the approach described above is succeeding, there is much need for improvement and continued innovation. Since results, not talk, are what ultimately matter, the completion of our two opening stories will bring us back to the realities of the current students, and students yet to come, who are counting on us.

Story 1 – Part B:
The student climbed out of the creek, dried off and acted on the passion that she had discovered. Her remaining high school years were filled with mastering and adding to the knowledge of the creek and watershed, conceiving of and successfully leading a “Creek Keepers” summer camp for middle schoolers, and contributing to the recent decision to rename the golf course after the creek (instead of turning the creek into a golf course.). On graduating she reflected “It [the watershed] is a living system that I have connected with. ..[My work with it] makes me feel part of something bigger than myself”.
These comments stand out in contrast to the bluntly honest – and depressing – comments that we regularly hear from students studying the current human relationship to nature: “Like I might care if I thought I could make a difference.” (“I choose not to care about anything other than self-wealth because experience hasn’t taught me to believe that I can make a difference”). The student in the creek has gone on to apply her citizenship skills to new places and might be considered a model for American Dream 2 where success is seen in lives where investment in self wealth and common wealth merge as one.

Story 2 – Part B:
Breakfast is finished, lunch made, hair brushed, and we wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus. The unstated question is still there. What our children need to thrive and survive is a deep connection to a living system – their home community – where the questions of whether salmon will return to spawn in our river and whether any children will come to school hungry are seen accurately as one question, not two. They need to learn from experience that this place needs them and that they need it. They need to know and love where their breakfast and shoe leather comes from as much as the alpine meadow in the Glacier Peak Wilderness or the most magical rapid in the depths of the Green River Gorge.
The bus arrives. She climbs through the open doors and up the steps to settle into a seat beside a lunch box clutching friend. Waves are exchanged as the heads grow smaller in a cloud of diesel smoke. I have an enduring hope that we won’t let her down – that family and school will help our children be ready to do what they need to do – but I don’t sleep easily, knowing that there is much to be done and that we live in a world that doesn’t wait.

Peter Hayes, after 20 years of indoor and out of doors teaching and principaling in public and independent schools, as well as serving as Environmental Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle, and as Co-coordinator of the Thornton Creek Project, now runs a family woodlot in the Coast Range of Oregon.

Human/Natural Systems Interactions

Human/Natural Systems Interactions


Human/Natural Systems Interactions:
A Framework

A critical thinking tool for developing ecological literacy throughout the curriculum compares cultures and their relationship to the natural world.

by Barbara Jackson

I-bluen this era of relentless consumption of non-renewable resources, there is a tremendous need for the teaching of ecological concepts, in as many ways and places as possible. Society is at risk from these future consumers and decision makers who have little direct experience with the natural world and who often lack opportunities to make direct connections between their studies and their impact on ecosystems. Without creating accurate yet gloomy scenarios on the state of planetary health that often engender a feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness in the individual, it is possible to provide information that helps fill in the missing pieces. Hopefully, those little pieces can help build a larger picture that looks at the interrelationships between man and planetary systems.

JacksonOutline102In formal educational settings, ecology and ecological literacy, if taught at all, are generally the domain of the science teacher. In such places, there is a need to provide more opportunities for kids to be exposed to what was once common knowledge of the living world. Infusion of small pieces is a valuable approach when one considers that the process of becoming ecologically literate is much more than a unit in science class. Ecological literacy is a way of seeing the world and the interactions between people and the living systems as interconnected. It comes from developing a body of basic knowledge from first hand experience and from reflection upon useful information gained through exposure to varied media.

There is the risk of offering small, disconnected pieces, yet in fact such an approach provides the opportunity to scatter many small seeds of connectedness into the still open mind of the adolescent. By planting seeds, the kids are being given information that hopefully they will find useful in the future as they look deeper at the world around them.
The Human/Natural Systems Interactions matrix below was most recently used as a wrap-up exercise after reading two books in class, The Giver, a tale of a future time in a society devoid of memory by Lois Lowry and Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, which is a tale of survival of two elderly Aleut women, abandoned by their band in a time of starvation during a hard winter. For the student, the focus of the exercise is to make a comparison between the future society as found in The Giver , the indigenous culture in Two Old Women and the life they live as typical North Americans. The matrix also lends itself to a comparison between a historic time period, the present and the future time and also can be used to compare what is known about different cultures and their world views.

The matrix exercise evolved from two complementary musings. In The Co-Evolution Quarterly in a 1981-82 article on bio-regionalism and watersheds, the editors asked:

1. What soil series are you standing on?
2. When was the last time a fire burned your area?
3. Name five native edible plants in your region and their seasons of availability.
4. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
5. Where does your garbage go?
6. How long is the growing season where you live?
7. Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
8. Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
9. What species have become extinct in your area?
10. What are the major plant associations in your region?

When first exposed to those questions, I was intrigued, But, after answering the questions to my own satisfaction, I forgot about them until I saw them again in the David Orr’s book Ecological Literacy.

At the time I was reading Ecological Literacy, my daughter’s 7th grade social studies teacher used “Cultural Universals” for the class study of ancient civilizations. Cultural Universals is an outline format to help students look at the commonalities underlying cultures, in the areas such as art, religion, trade, and government. The Cultural Universals outline helps students recognize that while we may look different and speak different languages and call our gods different names, there are common activities to all cultures. With this frame of reference, attempts at understanding humanity throughout the ages can become more than a recitation of facts.

Furthermore, outlining cultural universals is a great way to practice going from the general to the specific as the skills of outlining are developed.


The Human-Natural Systems Interaction matrix evolved as an extension of the Co-Evolution questions and the Cultural Universals outline. As a matrix it can be used to look at how human nature has both changed and stayed the same for many generations.
The matrix is a critical thinking tool to help students develop a frame of reference for making comparisons between cultures. It also helps students delve deeper into the author’s message, rather than simply asking them to prepare a rehash of the storyline and a list the characters. The matrix provides the opportunity to reflect upon what we know of the natural world and our relationship to that world.


Co-Evolution Quarterly, 32 (Winter 1981-2).

Lipetzky, Jerry, Dig 2, Interaction Publishers, Lakeside, CA, 1982.

Orr, David W. Ecological Literacy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1992.

When this article was published, Barbara Jackson was an 8th grade teacher at Anacortes Middle School in Anacortes, Washington.