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

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

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

 

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

Photos by Jessie Farr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1: Invasive Species in Mount Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area

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

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

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

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

Week 3: Jordan River Watershed Management

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

Student collecting water samples.

Week 4: Provo River Delta Restoration Project

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

Student Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

ADHD in the Outdoors

ADHD in the Outdoors

Five 5th-grade students sit or stand facing a sunny pond surrounded by lush greenery, working on a writing task or exploring quietly. Photographed by Greyson Lee

Background Music and Birdsong: ADHD in the Outdoors

by Greyson Lee

After several hours of watching my dad bounce around his home auto shop, channeling restless energy into relentless productivity, he finally pauses to look up car parts long enough for me to catch a conversation with him.

I know by this point that my brother, diagnosed with ADHD before either of us can remember, was not the only one in the family with it. My dad hadn’t said the words before then, but when I bring up my own recent diagnosis, he seems to connect the dots to his own vague learning disability diagnosis from before the language was as common as it is today.

He reflects on a story I’d heard before: he’d been failing a math class in high school, so he and his mom fought for, and won, permission to snake earbuds through his hoodie. He could listen to music in one ear while the teacher lectured, and with this background stimulation humming below the teacher’s lectures, he suddenly felt like he could focus on and understand the content of the class.

Even today, my dad always has music on when he’s doing anything: I hear it in the morning when he’s getting ready for work, it’s always on in his car, it’s on when he gets home from work until he goes to bed, and he keeps it playing over the speakers at his station during his entire work day as well. For him, the background noise seems to be an essential tool in allowing him to function day-to-day with ADHD.

The one place my dad doesn’t seem to need his music, however, is outdoors.

It seems that any time students with ADHD come up in outdoor education, there’s a common refrain: “they do much better here”, and even, “you wouldn’t know they had ADHD if nobody told you”. Struggles in the classroom melt away in the outdoors. Some even note that their students with ADHD tend to thrive in an outdoor learning environment, often finding it even easier to engage than their peers do.

What is it about the outdoors that allows people with ADHD to focus so much better? And how can educators- formal and informal- lean into this phenomena?

Tired of Paying Attention

Environmental Psychologist Stephen Kaplan has proposed the theory of “directed attention”: the kind of attention we have to pay in certain situations, like listening to a lecture, in order to consciously control our focus. Directed attention is a choice and a skill, and it might look like tuning out distracting noises, or ignoring the impulse to check social media. The implication is that this conscious effort will eventually cause “attention fatigue”, making it more and more difficult to continue controlling one’s focus. (Clay, 2001)

In a 2004 study, survey results indicated that time spent outdoors led to reduced ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Their results suggest that green spaces are rich in fascination, the other side of Kaplan’s “attention fatigue” coin: a more natural and undirected form of attention that allows the mind to rest.

“Just-Right” Stimulation

In an article for ADDitude Magazine, Dr. Ellen Littman dives into the complex battle between too much and too little stimulation that is often taking place in ADHD brains. Littman explains that in order for brains to be “alert, receptive, and ready to attend and learn”, they need to be stimulated just the right amount; a balance that most brains tend to be able to figure out on their own. (Littman, 2022)

ADHD brains, on the other hand, lack the “reliable coordination of neurotransmitters” that would otherwise allow them to control their own focus. Too little stimulation leads to a kind of boredom often described as “painful” by people with ADHD, and an intense motivation to find some kind of stimulation- often a spike in dopamine- to compensate. Too much stimulation, on the other hand, results in “over-arousal”: feeling overwhelmed, often suddenly, and reacting with irritability, restlessness, or even aggression until able to get away from the commotion and recuperate. (Littman, 2022)

ADHD brains are left either overreacting or under-reacting to stimuli, rarely anywhere in a more “moderate” area that might allow for some control over one’s ability to focus, be receptive, or to engage in learning.

Five 5th-grade students perched on small rocks lean over to watch their classmate pick a shore crab out of the water. Photographed by Greyson Lee

 

“Chill Lo-Fi Beats”: Regulating Input

A few years ago, a series of YouTube playlists and livestreams by the “Lofi Girl” channel garnered widespread popularity; I remember a few professors using them to fill the silence in the classroom while we worked on some assignment or project.

The appeal is similar to that of white noise machines, water features, and the fan you might leave on in your bedroom at night, even if it’s not too hot: silence can be just as distracting as too much noise. In a casual survey conducted by ADDitude Magazine, one respondent shared that background music helps them maintain focus on a particular thing; “when my environment is quiet,” they said, “my mind wanders to various things and not on what I need to be doing.” (ADDitude Editors, 2022)

Background noise can also be a way of drowning out too much stimulation; another respondent shared that soft, familiar background music “helps [them] focus by removing any background noise (dishwasher, washing machine, people outside or around [them]).”  (ADDitude Editors, 2022) Other respondents reported that their need for background noise could vary depending on their task and situation; activities that require high focus might be better paired with silence or very soft music, and “tedious” activities that require less mental focus might be easier with something that distracts the brain.

Of course, everyone’s “ideal” balance of stimulation looks different- but background noise can be a helpful tool in finding it.

A student cradles a rough skinned newt in their hand, and several others reach toward the newt in shared fascination. Photographed by Greyson Lee

Zoning In

It isn’t revolutionary to note the lack of stimulation present in classrooms; in fact, this is openly a design goal. The idea is to lower distractions so students can focus on the only source of stimulation in the room: their teacher.

As a student with ADHD, I had few ways to regulate my balance of stimulation in the classroom. If I needed more stimulation, I could fidget or draw; if I needed less, I could try to go to the bathroom for a break. Oftentimes I just found myself staring glassy-eyed at a wall, my thoughts racing in directions I had no control over, while my teacher droned on pointlessly in the background.

Students are not “cured” of their ADHD when they walk outside, and I still find that certain students need longer transition times, more breaks, more responsive planning, or something to fidget with in order to engage as much as other students can.

But I rarely see those glassy-eyed stares when teaching outdoors, and why would I? There’s so much to look at outdoors, and hardly any walls to zone out onto. Students often fidget, wander, and move their bodies in ways I wouldn’t see in a classroom, but when I finish giving instructions and turn them loose, it’s clear they heard everything they needed to. And I hardly ever see a student need a break from our setting– there are no long bathroom breaks, walking laps elsewhere, or sitting in a hallway to soak in a bit of silence.

There are so many more opportunities for self-regulation outdoors, and the impact on students with ADHD is noticeable. How would their learning experiences be different, and their “academic success” impacted, if their teachers leaned into that?

 

 

 

References

  • ADDitude Editors. (2022, May 20). Background Noise vs. Silence: ADHD Adults on Music & Focus. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/background-noise-sensitivity-adhd-music/
  • Clay, R. A. (2001, April). Green is good for you. American Psychological Association, 32(4), 40. https://www.apa.org/monitor/apr01/greengood
  • Kuo, F. E., & Taylor, A. F. (2004, September). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Am J Public Health, 94(9), 1580-1586. https://doi.org/10.2105%2Fajph.94.9.1580
  • Littman, E. (2022, May 18). Brain Stimulation and ADHD / ADD: Cravings and Regulation. ADDitude. Retrieved May 6, 2023, from https://www.additudemag.com/brain-stimulation-and-adhd-cravings-dependency-and-regulation/

 

Credit

Greyson Lee is an art and outdoor educator finishing his M.Ed at the University of Washington.

River Newe: Creating New Narratives

River Newe: Creating New Narratives

River Newe: Creating
New Narratives On Historic Landscapes

In this article we present our work that directly addresses Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) for our tribal youth of the Shoshone-Bannock people. We have reimagined what JEDI means for us through environmental education activities as they relate to our efforts to reinhabit the traditional homelands where our people lived, gathered, hunted, and thrived since time immemorial.

by Jessica Matsaw, M.Ed,
Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D,
and Brant G. Miller, Ph.D

The landscapes of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River watershed and other usual and accustomed places of the Shoshone-Bannock are imbued with meaning and wisdom that we are actively seeking to connect our tribal youth with. The corridor is the heart of the largest wilderness segment in the lower 48 states with intact cultural sites and vast untouched lands with no cell service. The perfect place to disconnect youth and get them into a sense of what our ancestors knew about living without modern technologies and at the same time sharing in a true sense of unfragmented and connected riverscapes. The experience has been one where the students begin by wanting to go home to the final days of not wanting to leave and have real connection to place. We cannot stress how important this has been to our youth and tribal members.

To begin, we share a vignette that begins to capture the intentional and oftentimes dynamic approach we are taking to engage our Tribal youth deeply and meaningfully with experiences that give them grounding in the present, hope for the future, and a foundation for explorations using Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Western scientific methods to inquire about their curiosities.

Shoshone-Bannock young ladies, Abrianna (7) and River (15), gathering wild berries, and enjoying one another’s company in the homelands of their ancestors. Photo by Popp Photography 2021.

“We wake from many stressful days of preparation to get here. We arrived at Dagger Falls campground the evening before. Yesterday was so much work finalizing all the things, loading ice, food, and organizing the coolers and dry boxes by meals, days, and how to access them the best. The trailer is mostly organized to get out things we need for a short breakfast and some coffee. Not sure what we forgot but at this point we will just make do. Coming from the Rez, our lives are mostly about making do, so we’re good at it. No worries, as we enjoy coffee and visiting with new and old friends and family. The kids and some of the adults are checking out the falls, picking raspberries, journaling, taking in the scenes of a river carved valley. Taking down the tents, stuffing sleeping bags, some hair braiding, and another cup of coffee. It’s starting to feel like we should move over to the boat launch – ‘Alright, let’s load up and head on over!’

“After mounting the frames, we begin rigging the rafts with heavy coolers, dry boxes, groover and tanks, camp chairs, tables, and dry bags filled with our hygiene kits, tents, sleeping bags, and dry clothes. We leave space for future dreams and incoming memories made with new faces and ones we haven’t seen in a bit.

“As each raft gets fully rigged you can hear, ‘Hey everyone, can we get a hand over here?’ It takes a team to load our rafts onto the boat launch ramp and walking it down together.

“At the same time our youth were creating prayer bundles to mount on the front of our rafts made up of tobacco ties, sage, and lots of good thoughts and laughter.

“Before we begin our journey down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, our women will ask the river for permission to travel with her. Once we make our offerings and give to the river a gift of our first foods and prayer, we can then open the circle. We acknowledge the land, water, rafts, and guides who will be working tirelessly to keep their hands on their oars, ears to their neighbors, and reading the water. She will tell us how to get down the river.

“The first two days will be rough as they are supposed to be. We are getting reacquainted with her again and she has lessons to teach us all. Mostly what is on our minds is the running of rapids like Sulfur Slide, and the big one for the day is Velvet Falls. We will arrive at our usual camp and enjoy a soak for the weary, just to relax, and some play for the young and old alike.”

The vignette above is a window into how we are approaching our ideas about place, homelands, and resituating Shoshone-Bannock culture into the 21st century, and reconnecting our youth with our memory traces left by our ancestors. We have a long history in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River watershed and to hear and see our young people couple Traditional Ecological knowledge with science, technology, engineering and mathematics through their own research, journaling, and artistic ways of capturing not only what they’re learning in mind, but also in heart and spirit, is to begin to see the future, and what is possible in this new, envisioned future. Each season and our planned activities can be thought of in this manner: traditional teachings, customs and protocols, tools, places across spatiotemporal distributions by elevation, weather, and climate, etc.

Intergenerational traumas such as the boarding school era interact with living in desperate times of survival between two entirely different cultures through the onslaught of threats to our literal and cultural existence. In a contemporary setting we are still orally in our collective thought about how our knowledge already knew the recent findings in Western science, that we have unwritten theoretical frameworks. Indigenous storytelling is a rich metaphor for the bold and creative space of curious Indigenous minds, hearts, and souls for the betterment of our Sogope Bia (Mother Earth) and to support our nation-building. Our connection in thought, verb-based languages, and action is complex and adheres to the so-called messiness of ecology, and the nature of science. The broader issue affecting our communities’ reflexive abilities are daily conflicts from a racialized society upholding asymmetrical forms of reasoning and assumptions about human entitlement to, and extractions from, the natural world, that continues to separate humans from nature (i.e., the nature-culture divide, Bang & Marin, 2015). A more localized related problem begins at K-12 schools where we are losing our children to the norms of the education system, that continues into college and in the workplace where our voices are dead before arrival (Matsaw et al. 2020). As professionals, the expectation is exceptional fluency in scientific comprehension and writing, coding, statistical analysis, and Western scientific theory, principles, methodology, and methods. The social and environmental justice of our times is to rise above racist microaggressions to on-the-fly cultural competency affording cultural relevancy so that we can broker space, and time for sustainable pedagogies and methodologies to the benefit of our Indigenous Knowledge. Sadly, we are outnumbered, and our children are being left behind, the gap in between is continually ever widening, so our loss deepens and the attainability for our youth to replace us in the workforce is further out of reach.

Prayer ties created by our youth in respect of elements, directions, sky and earth, and medicines we use to keep us safe and healthy for attaching to our rafts. Photo by Popp Photography 2021.

To combat these issues, we are using traditional ecological-thinking through a Shoshone-Bannock seasonal round in our homelands doing STEM learning activities. Activities through protocols of consent asking our land and waterways permission to test the ideas of our frameworks with tools of Western science such as river trips down the Middle Fork Salmon River; hunting/gathering of our wild foods; interacting with places of the stories/knowledge/theories of our ancestors. Along the way we will collect data, observation, journaling, using tools from our digging sticks to iPads, spear poles to DNA and otolith (ear bone) collections from salmon. These activities will be used to evaluate pedagogies and methodologies rooted in Shoshone-Bannock Traditional Knowledge by building theories, study plans, experimental designs, methods, and technologies as a way of creating new/old pedagogies. Our old pedagogies have been interrupted by colonialism and now we are adapting using state standards to quantify our learning and transfer of knowledge in the form of new pedagogies so that our knowledge persists. Concurrently, working to vacate racist structures in our tribal institutions, situating our own tribal organization and leadership to support making effective and meaningful changes in policy and reframing thoughts of becoming teachers and STEM professionals that cross with traumas associated with boarding schools and objects of research.

The doorway we are intentionally and mindfully creating is one for our youth to begin to envision a renewed path through an ecosystem of opportunities that will lead to their own success. In many ways we are just beginning to reimagine how to rebuild our presence of the Shoshone-Bannock people back into the cultural riverscapes of our ancestors and how we still see the land, as our Sogope Bia. Our river trips along ancestral homelands are to facilitate observations of where we once lived, how the landscape once appeared, and how our people interacted, honored, and were sustainable co-inhabitants with our more-than human relatives.

Back to the river…we stop at cultural sites where there are pit house depressions, and/or pictographs. We exercise our imaginations of what we know today with how it must have been then. For instance, looking at the villages and how they are arranged and imagining the proximity of families amongst the larger community. We can imagine this because our community back home on the reservation still reflects a similar state, preserved by our natural, innate need to arrange as we always have. Families in family areas closer to relatives of similar clans, bands and where we were when we came to the reservation life. Each site is not a far-off imaginary. To open the imagination of our youth is to then see the STEM, the Indigenous Ecosystem builders we always have been and still are today.

We are also wanting to be respectful of those who inherited the wrongful displacement of our Tukadeka relatives over a century ago. We believe they are there in the most loving way they can be, and we want to reciprocate the relationship they have with our home. In that we are wanting to share with them how this place is not only special, but also largely intact from the way our ancestors left it when they were forcibly removed. For the most part what we have gathered is that the guides on the river are happy to see us back.

Jessica Matsaw, M. Ed., is the Art, Civics & Tribal Government Teacher at the Shoshone-Bannock Jr/Sr High School. She combats educational systems of exclusion and cultural erasures by focusing culturally centered, equitable learning spaces of engagement to celebrate Indigenous ingenuity, intellect and inquiry.

 

 

Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D., is a grandfather, father, husband & extended family member amongst the Shoshone-Bannock and Oglala Lakota with a PhD in Water Resources. As co-founders, he and his wife are creating an intercultural STEAM pedagogy more agreeable with Indigenous peoples through a non-profit called River Newe.

 

 

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

 

 

Mind the Gap: How Environmental Education Can Step Forward to Address the STEM Achievement Gap

Mind the Gap: How Environmental Education Can Step Forward to Address the STEM Achievement Gap

Environmental Education is a broad field encompassing nature centers, school forests, outdoor education facilities, state and national parks among others. This diversity of organization type allows for wide engagement by the public and holds great potential for addressing achievement gaps in the formal education system.

by Robert Justin Hougham, Ph.D,
Isabelle Herde,
Tempestt Morgan,
Joey Zocher, Ph.D.,
and Sarah Olsen, Ph.D

Environmental Education organizations have more power than they realize to affect change. For example, in Wisconsin, Environmental Education organizations employ over 3,100 educators, serve 1.1 million user days of education in the field, and represent over $40 million in direct economic activity. The collective impact of this industry is significant. We advocate for other states and regions to take a similar approach to quantifying the field in order to leverage support and ultimately, affect change. Part of addressing the STEM achievement gap will lay in making the environment an integral part of the approach, while yet another part of addressing this gap will be advanced by focusing the collective impact organizations to build capacity. The work we will go on to describe here has proven valuable and eye opening- we also will lay out some of the steps to replicate this in other states. Doing so is a matter of environmental justice, a call to which many environmental organizations are responding.

Environmental Education to address STEM achievement gaps
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education does not have equal outcomes among different demographic groups. Racial disparity in science education is an issue nationwide. The 2015 NAEP science assessment noted statistically significant gaps in achievement for U.S. students that identified as black and Hispanic compared to those who identified as white (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As an example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin has the greatest STEM achievement gap in the country (Richards, 2016). Nationwide, schools that serve predominantly black and Hispanic students are less likely to offer higher-level science courses (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2016). All of these facts demonstrate an educational system that fails students of color in STEM.

The pedagogical practices of environmental education have proven to be an accessible approach to science learning for youth of different backgrounds and is thus uniquely poised to address the STEM achievement gap. The field of environmental education encourages students to observe and connect with a place in order to learn. Dominant strategies for teaching include place-based education and an inquiry approach. Place-based education allows students to forge meaningful connections between STEM content, students’ daily experiences and to observe the environment around them (Land & Zimmerman, 2015; Greenwood & Hougham, 2015). These field and inquiry-based approaches in STEM have better educational outcomes for low achieving youth (Blythe et al., 2015). Field experiences have also shown to increase confidence for underserved student populations (Hougham et al., 2018).

However, the field faces its own gaps of knowledge and historical bias. For the environmental education industry to effectively address the nation’s STEM achievement gap, environmental education organizations must understand their position and progress in addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This includes, but is not limited to, the increase of positive representation of minorities and other underrepresented groups, as well as teaching in a more culturally conscious and responsive manner. This paper will focus on Wisconsin, which faces some of the largest STEM education gaps, and how the lessons learned from a status and needs assessment and the work currently underway to address those findings could be applied to the nation.

Methodology
In the winter of 2015-16, a digital survey was distributed to environmental education organization leaders around the state of Wisconsin. Our goal was to investigate the statewide status surrounding relevant topics within environmental education such as land management, professional development, visitation trends, budgets, diversity, equity and inclusion and identify organizational needs in these focus areas. In 2019, we updated and re-ran the survey, intending to update and improve our understanding of the status and needs of environmental education in Wisconsin. This article is focused on the enhanced component of the survey questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. Here, we present the set of questions from our 2019 DEI section of the survey to lay out our approach, and also to encourage the use of similar question sets in other states and regions.

The following questions were developed to address diversity, equity and inclusion in our field, defined in consultation with August Ball, Founder/CEO of Cream City Conservation & Consulting LLC. We understand the definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion and its meaning can take different forms. For the purpose of this survey we asked that respondents consider the following definition in their answers:

Diversity: Differences that make a difference.
Equity: A process of ensuring everyone has access to what they need to thrive.
Inclusion: Celebrating, welcoming and valuing differences.

  1. Please estimate the percentage of groups that visit your site or programs that include at least one person with a known disability.
  2. Please check all areas of training provided to your environmental education instructional/ program staff on working with persons with disabilities. How to adapt activities for participants with:
  3. Do you consider your facility to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
  4. Do you consider your programs to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
  5. Have you conducted a physical accessibility survey of your site?
  6. Does your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners of varying abilities?
  7. Do your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners from different cultures or backgrounds?
  8. What level of priority does your organization place on increasing program and facility accessibility at your site?
  9. What level of priority does your organization place on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at your site?
  10. What is the estimated demographic distribution of your staff?
  11. Select the answer that best fits your organization.
    11a. This organization is committed to diversity.
  12. Please read the sentences and select the answer that best fits your organization. These questions were taken from the Diversity Survey (2014) by the Society for Human Resource Management.
    12a. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people a job candidate will meet/see on their first visit to the organization.
    12b. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people represented in our organization’s marketing materials
    12c. Employees from different backgrounds are encouraged to apply for higher positions.
  13. Do you have resources and content available in other languages?
  14. Does your organization provide trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Past iterations of this survey have had positive impacts for Wisconsin environmental education organizations. Solid data is needed to inform decision – making and programming. The closer the data reflect the local context of the industry, the more effectively educators, administrators and our supporters can respond to current trends. However, collecting this data is only one step towards changing the status of the work on the ground.

 

 

Results
193 EE leaders representing 173 EE organizations completed the survey. We asked these leaders to describe their organization in a number of ways. For example, whether the organization correlates school program to academic standards (75.3% – Yes), if they considered their location an outdoor tourist destination (44.0% – Yes) and if they regularly partner with other regional or statewide EE organizations (59.5% – Yes).
Of the 93.1% of respondents who considered their organization’s facilities to be accessible or somewhat accessible to visitors with disabilities, half (50.5%) have never conducted an accessibility survey of their site. The most common accessibility-related training that staff receive focus on physical disabilities (65.1%) and ways to encourage communication and interaction among all participants (50%).

 

Survey participants were asked which subject areas and organizational skills their staff would most benefit from additional training. Shown below are the most common responses:
Top EE Subjects Areas staff need
1. Using STEM as a context for EE (E-STEM)
2. Technology use in outdoor education
3. Understanding school initiatives, speaking school language
4. Community action/service learning
5. ‘Sustainable design/green technologies or buildings’ and ‘Community-based learning’

Top Organizational Skills staff need
1. Diversity, equity and inclusion
2. Grant writing
3. Fundraising
4. Digital presence/website/Facebook/etc.
5. Volunteer management
Analysis: Perception vs Reality: the bubble around inclusion and environmental education

Solutions
The reported commitment by environmental organizations to DEI does not match the reported actions or steps they have taken towards DEI. For example, respondents from 56% of environmental organizations in the United States reported that trainings focused on diversity should be done (Taylor, 2014). In the Wisconsin status and needs assessment, only 50% of respondents reported actually conducting trainings related to diversity, equity and inclusion (Hougham et al., 2019). Even then, “The small body of empirical research that does exist about diversity trainings suggests that current practices are largely ineffective over the long-term. Therefore, it is imperative to conduct needs assessments to determine what content should be done” (Beasley, 2017, p. 5). Spending time planning, executing and evaluating DEI trainings will be essential in moving this body of research forward and improving the professional development opportunities available to educators in the field.

At Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in Wisconsin, seasonal staff training includes a session on DEI. The session lasts approximately 5 hours and is spread out over 2 days. All levels of leadership were present – from the executive director to seasonal teaching naturalists – for a total of thirteen participants. Different levels of participation were encouraged; staff were given the opportunity to reflect individually and to participate in both small and large group discussions. The training used multiple forms of media including pictures, text, and videos in order to cite experts and incite discussion. Environmental justice framed the training so that our team could understand the larger picture and the role that environmental education could have on its participants. Environmental educators should empower learners to exercise their agency in creating better communities, which includes the environment in which those communities exist. More environmental organizations are embracing the focus on environmental justice in efforts to engage more diverse communities. For example, Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) in Portland, Oregon focuses programs on “grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color. ” (Brown, 2019, p. 8). We looked at case studies that explore how environmental justice and environmental education intersect.

The training covered multiple topics such as the elements that make a space diverse, equity versus equality and how to respond to microaggressions as a bystander and as someone who experiences them directly. We talked about agency and how promoting others to exercise their agency creates more inclusive spaces. The training went beyond providing definitions and introductions to vocabulary words. Our staff discussed privilege and the role it has in addressing equity. We spent time talking about how access only approaches to broadening participation fails to hold dominant cultures accountable for the culturally exclusionary language that may exist within the programs they are providing access to (Bevan et ak., 2018). Participants then went through Upham’s lesson plans and identified areas for improvement including how the lesson was framed and a critique of the content. This information was collected and will be used to improve our lessons.

We asked for feedback at the end of the training to help us develop additional modules and activities for staff related to DEI during their contract. While staff training is an integral step towards inclusion, it cannot be the only time an organization supports discussions and activities focused on DEI. The goal of inclusivity needs to be reflected in an organization’s policies, processes, paperwork and infrastructure. Continuous and intentional reflection of staff practices needs to become part of office culture. To create sustainable change we must confront a system that supports the oppression of certain communities and discontinue privileging privilege and focus on supporting those communities that have been historically neglected or oppressed.

For environmental educators, from a pedagogical standpoint, we must not only change what we teach, but be willing to change the ontological underpinnings in the transmission of knowledge. We must shift our role from experts sharing wisdom to members of a learning community with the Earth. This is particularly true for white educators working with marginalized populations, as the dominant culture needs to listen and empower rather than tell and control. Without doing this groundwork in DEI training, we fall into the trap of treating empowerment as giving a voice to the voiceless, rather than listening to those who haven’t been heard. We must shift the notion of DEI as a need to that of an asset, and be willing to use this knowledge to help others create the change we cannot imagine.

Freire (1970) supported the notion that we are moving regardless, and we are either moving to keep the dominant paradigm or to transform it. What better catalyst for change than our urban youth, who are already fueled by being marginalized? Emdin’s (2009) research found, “These students eagerly await opportunities to exercise this power in the creation of a foreseeable new future that is different from an oppressive present” (p. 242). The first question we must ask ourselves is whether our organizations simply want to share what we are doing with diverse audiences or are we eager to embrace this new future as well?

Citations
Beyond Diversity: A Roadmap to Building an Inclusive Organization. Green 2.0.
Bevan, B., Calabrese Barton A., & Garibay, C.. (2018). Broadening Perspectives on Broadening Participation in STEM. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.
Blythe, J. M., Dibenedetto, C. A., & Meyers, B. E. (2015). Inquiry-based instruction: Perceptions of national agriscience teacher ambassadors. Journal of Agricultural Education, 56(2), 110-121. doi:10.5032/jae.2015.02110
Brown. S. (2019). Reclaiming Spaces. Clearing: Resources for community-based environmental literacy education, pp 8-10
Emdin, C. (2010). Affiliation and alienation: hip-hop, rap, and urban science education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 42(1), 1-25.
Freire, P. (1970/2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum
Greenwood, D. A., & Hougham, R. J. (2015). Mitigation and adaptation: Critical perspectives toward digital technologies in place-conscious environmental education. Policy Futures in Education 13(1), 1-20.
Hougham, J., Morgan, T., Olsen, S., & Herde, I. (2019). 2019 Status and Need report of Wisconsin Environmental Education related Organizations. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Madison Extension
Hougham, R. J., Nutter, M., & Graham, C. (2018b). Bridging natural and digital domains: Attitudes, confidence, and interest in using technology to learn outdoors. Journal of Experiential Education, 41(2), 154-169. doi:10.1177/1053825917751203
Land, S.M. & Zimmerman, H.T. (2015). Socio-technical Dimensions of an Outdoor Mobile Learning Environment: A three-phase design-based research investigation. Education Technology Research Development, 63(2), 229-255. Doi:10.1007/s11423-015-9369-6.
Richards, E. (2016). Wisconsin No. 1 for black-white science achievement gap. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/education/2016/10/27/wisconsin-no-1-black-white- science-achievement-gap/92722730/
Taylor, D. (2014). The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Green 2.o. Retrieved from: https://www.diversegreen.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FullReport_Green2.0_FINAL.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). National Assessment of Educational Progress: Results of the 2015 science assessment. Retrieved from: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/science_2015
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/listocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf

Acknowledgement
Project funding was supported by the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education.

About the Authors
Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Madison 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 or sustainability.

Isabelle Herde is the Program Director at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center

Tempestt Morgan is the Expanding Access Program Coordinator at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center.

Dr. Joey Zochar is an Advisor at Escuela Verde in Milwaukee, WI.

Dr. Sarah Olsen is a curriculum and evaluation specialist for Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (no photo)

Justice and Equity in Environmental Education – Special Issue Winter 2022

Justice and Equity in Environmental Education – Special Issue Winter 2022

CLEARING Special Focus Issue:
Justice, Equity and Diversity in Environmental Education

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

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

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

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

Everywhere we look outside of ourselves to find hope in a culture dominated by systems of oppression, we see inaction and injustice. We see this in the failed COP26 conference, and we see it in communities dominated by money and ‘power over.’ At COP26, we were supposed to see increased ambition over the Paris climate accord. Everywhere we take responsibility, we are able to become response-able, and with courage, face the triple pandemic of racism, COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate emergency.
Our hope that you will enjoy this issue lies in knowing that, while much work lies ahead, there is inspiration in the work in the field of environmental education as told in the stories herein, and in the work that our readers do on a daily basis.

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

To see the entire issue in FLIP PAGE format, click here.
(Note: This link takes you out of the CLEARING website.)

Table of Contents 

Racial Equity in Outdoor Science and Environmental Education: Re-Establishing the Field with Intention (.PDF)
by Jedda Foreman, Rena Payan,
Laura Rodriguez, and Craig Strang

Equity in a Time of Socio-Environmental Justice (.PDF)
by Max Jimenez, University of California

Promoting Equity and Justice at the
School and Community Level (.PDF)
by Derek Hoshiko
with Anti-Racism Resources for Outdoor Families
& Environmental Educators (sidebar)

A New Tool: Land Acknowledgment Resource Cards (.PDF)
by Grace Crowley-Thomas, IslandWood
(see full article here)

River Newe: Creating New Narratives On Historic Landscapes (.PDF)
by Sammy Matsaw, Ph.D, Jessica Matsaw, M.Ed, and
Brant G. Miller, Ph.D, University of Idaho

Power and equity in undergraduate environmental education: “Loving Critique” at the Colorado College TREE Semester
by Juan Miguel Arias & Howard Drossman
Colorado College Education Department

Reclaiming the Promise of Place: An Interview with
David Greenwood by Roberta Altman
from Bankstreet Occasional Papers