Perspectives: Educating as if Survival Matters

Perspectives: Educating as if Survival Matters

Educating as if Survival Matters

Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326,

22 March 2018

ver the past 40 years, environmental educators through­out the world have been aiming to motivate and empower students to work toward a sustainable future, but we are far from having achieved this goal. Urgency is evident in the warning issued by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries: “to prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual… Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home” (Ripple et al. 2017).

In this tumultuous era of eco­catastrophes, we need every child to grow up caring deeply about how to live sustainably on our planet. We need some to become leaders and all to become environmentally minded citizens and informed voters. Going beyond buying greener products and aiming for energy efficiency, we must find ways to balance human well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental quality. These three overlapping goals form the “triple bottom line,” aiming to protect the natural environment while ensuring economic vitality and the health of human communities. This is the basis for sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). Strong economies of course are vital, but they cannot endure at the expense of vibrant human societies and a healthy environment.

Within the formal K–12 setting, a primary hurdle in teaching for sustainability is the need to meaningfully address environmental issues within the constraints of established courses and curricular mandates. In the United States, for example, the Next Generation Science Standards designate science learning outcomes for grades K–12 (NGSS 2013). These standards misrepresent sustainability challenges by portraying them as affecting all humans equally, overlooking the substantial environmental justice issues evident within the United States and throughout the world. Another oversight is that these standards portray environmental issues as solvable through the application of science and technology, neglecting the potential roles of other sources of knowledge (Feinstein and Kirchgasler 2015).

One might argue that K–12 students are too young to tackle looming environmental issues. However, they are proving up to the challenge, such as through project-based learning in which they explore issues and pose potential solutions. This may involve designing and conducting scientific investigations, with the possibility of participating in citizen science. Case-study research into teen involvement in community-based citizen science both in and out of school settings revealed that the participants developed various degrees of environmental science agency. Reaching beyond understanding of environmental science and inquiry practices, this term’s definition also includes confidence in one’s ability to take positive stewardship actions (Ballard et al. 2017). The study concluded that the development of environmental science agency depended on involving teens in projects that included these three factors: investigating complex social–ecological systems with human dimensions, ensuring rigorous data collection, and disseminating scientific findings to authentic external audiences. Educators interested in undertaking such endeavors can make use of free resources, including an ever-growing compendium of lesson plans for use with citizen-science projects (SciStarter 2018) and a downloadable curriculum that leads students through the processes of designing and conducting their own investigations, especially those inspired by outdoor observations and participation in citizen science (Fee 2015).

We need to provide opportunities for students to investigate environmental issues, collect and analyze data, and understand the role of science in making informed decisions. But sustainability challenges will not be resolved through scientific approaches alone. Students also need opportunities to connect deeply with people from drastically different cultures and think deeply about their own lifestyles, goals, and assumptions. As faculty members of the Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest, we have had the privilege of accompanying groups of US teachers through 10-day expeditions in the Peruvian Amazon. Last summer, we asked Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, leader of a small indigenous group living deep in the rainforest, for his view of sustainability. Sebastián responded that he and his community are one with the forest—it is their mother, providing life and wholeness. Reflecting on the changes occurring at an accelerating rate even in remote rainforest communities, Sebastián went on to state that his greatest wish is for his descendants to forever have the opportunity to continue living at one with their natural surroundings (Sebastián Ríos Ochoa, Maijuna Community Leader, Sucusari, Peru, personal communication, 18 July 2017). After decades of struggle during which their rainforest resources were devastated by outside loggers and hunters (Gilmore 2010), this indigenous group has regained control over their ancestral lands and the power to enact community-based conservation practices. Their efforts provide compelling examples of how people (no matter how few in number and how marginalized) can effect positive change.

In collaboration with leaders of Sebastián’s remote Peruvian community and a nongovernmental organization with a long history of working in the area, US educators are creating educational resources designed to instill this same sense of responsibility in children growing up without such direct connections to nature. Rather than developing a sense of entitlement to ecologically unsustainable ways of life, we need children to build close relationships with the natural world, empathy for people with different ways of life, and a sense of responsibility to build a better tomorrow. Although the Amazon rainforest is a common topic in K–12 and undergraduate curricula, typically it is addressed through textbook readings. Instead, we are working to engage students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. This is accomplished through exploration of questions such as the following: (a) How do indigenous cultures view, interact with, and perceive their role in the natural world, and what can we learn from them? (b) How do our lives influence the sustainability of the rainforest and the livelihoods of the people who live there? (c) Why is the Amazon important to us, no matter where we live? (d) How does this relate to the triple-bottom-line goal of balancing social well-being, economic prosperity, and environmental protection?

Investigating the Amazon’s impacts on global weather patterns, water cycling, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity leads students to see that the triple bottom line transcends cultures and speaks to our global need for a sustainable future for humans and the environment throughout the world. Tracing the origin of popular products such as cocoa and palm oil, they investigate ways to participate in conservation initiatives aiming for ecological sustainability both at home and in the Amazon.

Another way to address global issues is to have students calculate the ecological footprint attributable to their lifestyles, leading into consideration of humankind vastly overshooting Earth’s ability to regenerate the resources and services on which our lives depend. In 2017, August 2 was determined to be the date on which humanity had overshot Earth’s regenerative capacity for the year because of unsustainable levels of fishing, deforestation, and carbon dioxide emissions (Earth Overshoot Day 2017). The fact that this occurs earlier each year is a stark reminder of our ever-diminishing ability to sustain current lifestyles. And as is continually illustrated in news of climate disasters, human societies with small ecological footprints can be tragically vulnerable to such calamities (e.g., Kristof 2018).

Engaged in such activities, students in affluent settings may end up deriving solutions that shake the very tenet of the neoliberal capitalistic societies in which they live. To what extent should students be encouraged to challenge the injustices and entitlements on which world economies currently are based, such as by seeking ways to transform the incentive structures under which business and government decisions currently are made? Should they be asked to envision ways of overturning the unsustainable ways in which modern societies deplete resources, emit carbon dioxide, and destroy the habitats needed to support diverse forms of life on Earth?

Anyone who gives serious consideration to the environmental degradation and social-injustice issues in today’s world faces the risk of sinking into depression at the thought of a hopeless future. What can we possibly accomplish that will not simply be too little, too late? Reflecting on this inherent tension, Jon Foley (2016) stated, “If you’re awake and alive in the twenty-first century, with even an ounce of empathy, your heart and mind are going to be torn asunder. I’m sorry about that, but it’s unavoidable — unless you simply shut down and turn your back on the world. For me, the only solution is found in the space between awe and anguish, and between joy and despair. There, in the tension between two worlds, lies the place we just might find ourselves and our life’s work.”

Education for sustainability must build on this creative tension, capturing students’ attention while inspiring them to become forces for positive change.


Collaboration with the Maijuna is made possible through work of the OnePlanet nonprofit organization ( and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (

Funding statement

Nancy Trautmann was supported through a fellowship with the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany, to develop curricular resources that highlight the Maijuna to inspire U.S. youth to care about conservation issues at home and abroad.

References cited

Ballard HL, Dixon CGH, Harris EM. 2017.

Youth-focused citizen science: Examining the role of environmental science learning and agency for conservation. Biological Conservation 208: 65–75.


Earth Overshoot Day. 2017. Earth Overshoot Day 2017 fell on August 2. Earth Overshoot Day. (1 December 2017;


FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018;


FeinsteinNW, KirchgaslerKL. 2015.

Sustainability in science education? How the Next Generation Science Standards approach sustainability, and why it matters. Science Education 99: 121–144.


Foley J.2016. The space between two worlds. Macroscope . (28 October 2016;


Gilmore MP. 2010. The Maijuna: Past, present, and future . 226–233 in Gilmore MP, Vriesendorp C,Alverson WS, del CampoÁ, von MayR, WongCL, OchoaSR, eds. Perú: Maijuna. The Field Museum.


KristofN.2018. Swallowed by the sea. New York Times. (23 January 2018 ;


[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017;


Ripple WJ et al.  2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience

67: 1026–1028.


SciStarter. 2018. SciStarter for Educators. SciStarter . (12 February 2018;


[WCED] World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future . Oxford University Press.


© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (, which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For commercial re-use, please contact


Lessons from IslandWood

Lessons from IslandWood

These students are checking out Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island, WA with sight, touch, hearing, and smell. Photo credit: Glassy, 2018

Adventure Hike to a Harbor:

Creating a space for all to engage with marine science

By Julia Glassy

I am currently a graduate student of University of Washington over on Bainbridge Island, WA at IslandWood, a non-profit outdoor education center. I am passionate about adventuring outdoors and marine science education. Interacting with the marine ecosystem allows people of all ages to explore a new ecosystem and grow an appreciation for all that ecosystem provides to the plants and animals who live there and for us, as humans.

What exactly is an adventure hike?

To some it may be walking somewhere with style or awe inspiring activities on the way to a location. While for others it may be getting in a car and driving to a location to check it out and explore. Lastly, an adventure hike could be riding a bus to go out and explore an outdoor space. To me, it is all of the above!

What might one do on adventure hike?

This all depends on the mode of transportation to a waterfront or shoreline and the age of the members going. Games you can play include wind storm (everyone needs to find a tree to hold onto or someone else if they are connected to a tree). Also flash flood (where everyone has to be on higher ground then the caller of the flood). Another game is “I-Spy” where you say “I spy with my little eye something that is blank” and you can fill in the blank. Talking as a group work too!

If in a car, then look out the window and take in the nature outside. Play a couple rounds of “I Spy” with all members in the car.

If on a bus, do what Ms. Frizzle does and make the adventure unique and exciting. Ms. Frizzle is a fictional charismatic 4th grade science teacher who takes her students on unique out-of-this-world field trips via her magic school bus.

Public transportation is an eco-friendly option to get to places that are a little farther away where walking is not an option. Also buses bring people together from all backgrounds, ages, cultures, and economic statuses. Taking a bus might not always be the most direct option, but it sure is the most fun as seen by Ms. Frizzle. It is okay to let the inner child out during these adventure hikes and explore in a new way. Aim for getting to the point of being comfortable with saying “We are on another one of Ms. Frizzle’s crazy class trips!” (Cole, 1995, p. 18). Take ownership over the adventure and be like Ms. Frizzle or like her students.

If visiting a shoreline is not feasible

Visiting your local aquarium:

They will have marine organisms that you can check out up close or hands-on. This hands-on experience is important for children of all ages in order to learn and understand similarities and differences among a variety of ecosystems.

Even if you do not have access locally to a marine or fresh water ecosystem that is okay! Books and films are good resources for learning more about an unfamiliar ecosystem. Reference books and documentaries can be purchased online or in store, but many of them can be checked out at your local library.

Getting more out of a visit to the shoreline

Get familiar with shore and ocean creatures and be a part of an investigation with children or adults you take to the harbor as an adventure hike or school field trip. Investigations do not follow the strict procedure of experiments, but instead are informal ways of wondering and discovering something. An investigation can be done in multiple ways, by taking in observations through sight, hearing, touch, or smell, and making guesses, and asking questions. Taking in observations through the different senses allows someone to become familiar with and gain a sense of place. With this new information, you can gain an appreciation for the place or item that was investigated.

Some books to refer to while familiarizing oneself with shore or ocean habitat depending on age are:


On the Beach (Smith and Howell, 2003)

Young Readers and Explorers:

In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails, and Salty Tails (Fredericks, 2002)
Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor (Cole, 1995)
Ocean (MacQuitty, 2000)
Seashore (Parker, 2000)
Shoreline (Taylor, 1993)

All Ages-Reference:

Beachcombers Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest (Sept, 1999)

Activities to do at a Harbor, Shoreline, or Beach

Free Exploration:

Free explorations are where someone takes a few minutes or longer of unstructured time to wander or explore a new space or ecosystem. This unstructured time can reduce all aged students’ distraction level and setup for other activities by allowing students to self-direct their investigations and learning. This is important because it allows students, children, and adults to build confidence, independence, and a greater understanding about the world around them.

Students at IslandWood’s School Overnight Program searching for crabs at Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island WA. Photo credit: Glassy, 2018


Crab-itats are a fun, hands-on way to explore and learn the important components that crabs need to survive and thrive. One way to make a crab-itat is to use natural materials from the beach you are on to make a habitat for the crabs found there (IslandWood Education Wiki, 2018). The logistics of this project are up to the person making the habitat, and the habitat could take many forms, and be made with several different natural items. Young students and adults can try to add abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) items to their habitat and then think and describe their reasoning behind the items they chose.

This process of thinking and then explaining the habitat they created allows for the connection to the survival needs of crabs. You can then relate this learning to any animal or plant in other ecosystems. Another important take away from this activity is for someone to gain a sense of place and appreciation for the beach environment. With this new appreciation the person will feel more inclined to take small steps or community action to help take care of the ecosystem so others can enjoy it too!



Step 1: Pick three different locations on the shoreline (ex: sand, rocks, and water’s edge).

Step 2: Make a table similar to this one:




# of crabs found
Trial 1 Trail 2 Trial 3 Average
Water’s Edge

(Cunningham, 2017)

Step 3: Count the number of crabs at each location. The number of trials is up to you.

Step 4: Calculate average of each location, if you have more than one trial. The average will give an area that crabs are more likely to be, providing evidence for a potential claim. Through this investigation, you can gain knowledge of the preferred habitat of the crabs in your area, make observations, form claims with evidence, and be like a scientist. Investigations are important because you can make them relatable or personal to you and then gain skills that you can use at school, work, or other aspects of your life. You can also look for and investigate sea stars, sea anemones, or snails depending on your personal interests and the beach location near you.

Finding something new to learn more about:

This is similar to free exploration, but instead each person or pair can find something they are interested in and use different tools to explore and learn about it. This includes using a Lummi Loupe (a domed magnifier), small containers, magnifying glasses, and/or reference books. For example, a group of fifth graders I was teaching were excited to go to Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island so I brought some small clear containers and some Lummi Loupes to the harbor. Some students were excited about barnacles so we picked up a rock with living, but closed up barnacles on it and put it in one of the containers with saltwater. While still at the beach we observed the barnacles in the container. Also the students used the Lummi Loupes to look at the barnacles up close. We then returned the rock to where we found it and put the saltwater back in Puget Sound. Using the different tools to learn something about the organisms through the use of the four senses (sight, smell, hear, and touch) and then referring to a guide to find out the name of the plant or animal allows for more comprehensive learning and understanding.

Common Animals and Plants Found At the Shoreline

Crabs: Shield-Backed Kelp Crab, Purple Shore Crab, many types of Hermit Crabs (Sept, 1999)
Sea Star: Leather Star, Pacific Blood Star, Purple Star, and many others (Sept, 1999)
Sea Anemones: Giant Green Anemone, Plumose Sea Anemone (Sept, 1999)
Barnacles: Thatched Barnacle, Acorn Barnacle, Goose Barnacle (Sept 1999)
Limpets: Rough Keyhole Limpet, Ribbed Limpet, and more (Sept, 1999)
Chitons: Gumboot Chiton, Woody Chiton, Cooper’s Chiton, and more (Sept, 1999)
Plants On or Near the Shore: Common Sea Lettuce, Bull Kelp, Iridescent Seaweed (Sept, 1999), and Pickleweed

Guidelines for Exploring At the Beach

  • Gently roll a rock over to see what is underneath and then return to original state. The rock should be no bigger than the size of your head.
  • Be cautious of picking up animals higher than your knee (that is a long way to fall)
  • Have a blast exploring the beach and enjoy discovering and learning about something new


Julia Glassy is a current graduate student of University of Washington over on Bainbridge Island, WA at IslandWood. In addition to taking classes, she teaches 3rd through 6th graders who come over to IslandWood from their schools in the greater Seattle and Bainbridge Island area for four days as a part of the School Overnight Program.




Cole, J. (1995). The Magic School Bus On the Ocean Floor. Littleton, MA: Sundance.
Cunningham, Jenny. (Ed.). (2017). IslandWood Field Journal. Bainbridge Island, WA: IslandWood.
Ecosystem in a Box. (n.d.). Retrieved December 6, 2018, from
Glassy, Julia. (Photograph). (2018). Blakely Harbor, Bainbridge Island. Bainbridge Island, WA: IslandWood.
Fredericks, A. D. (2002). In One Tidepool: Crabs, Snails, and Salty Tails. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications.
MacQuitty, M., Dr. (2000). Ocean. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Parker, S. (2000). Seashore. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
Sept, J. D. (1999). The Beachcombers Guide to Seashore Life in the Pacific Northwest. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Pub.
Smith, A., & Howell, L. (2003). On the Beach. Tulsa, OK: EDC Publishing.
Taylor, B. (1993). Shoreline. London: Dorling Kindersley.


Understanding Ecosystems

Understanding Ecosystems

Understanding Ecosystems is a Real Need:

Will we help today’s kids learn what they ought to know about ecosystems?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Writer and Contributor

kids in school today, and their children, need to understand ecosystems, and their own place within them. And teachers need to possess the capacity to ensure this can be accomplished. A recent study published in Science, (Vol. 351, Issue 6274, 12 February 2016, pp. 664-665) indicates that US teachers are not adequately prepared to teach about global warming in any detail; nor, for many, with confidence that it is even happening, or is caused by human activities. And, how many know with confidence how local ecosystems will respond to global warming? This is, I submit, knowledge and understanding that our students need. As important as technical and engineering knowledge and understanding, which receives far more attention in our society than ecosystems.

martin-quote1This is a poor state of affairs. Ecosystems aren’t simple; nor is global warming. How many teachers, or citizens for that matter, know that the Earth’s current orbital position and ‘wobble’ about its axis indicate that we should be in a long cooling, not a warming, period? How many know the length of these periods during Earth’s journey around the Sun? Or their effect on ecosystems; ecosystems which support all life on Earth. Not to mention the human population explosion, which is the driver of much of this warming process. How many teachers spend quality time each year on these topics? How many feel free to do so? They need help. And help is what we can offer them.

How can our teachers bring themselves up to date on the complexities and importance of global warming? What resources do they have available? If you were to check the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site, you might be surprised. I just checked the Oregon Department of Education’s web site, and found nothing in the teacher resources section that could be used to support student learnings about ecosystems, global warming, or the human population explosion. The NGSS web site has the same paucity of resources for teachers, although they do note that some resources will be forthcoming. NGSS and the National Science Teachers Association web sites offer resources like worksheets and ties to the standards for the content the worksheets cover, but there is nothing I can find that offers teachers without strong backgrounds in science an opportunity for in-service training which will prepare them to teach ecosystems so that they are understandable. The same is true for the in-service support teachers need to attain the conceptual understandings which underlie competent teaching. We, the people who teach, or have taught, in our classrooms are the ones who will have to do this work. We need to start.

I submit that this state of affairs means the NGSS (and CCSS) need to become more expressive; to become useful, descriptive, aids that teachers can rely on to support their efforts in teaching a complex environmental curriculum. We can’t ask the federal or state education organizations to do this, but we can do it ourselves. Taking it one step at a time. Environmental educators know their sites and the science and math involved in understanding them. They may not currently discover and use the curricula which is embedded within their sites. This is where those teachers who, together, have this experience can help. Environmental educators and teachers, working together to exploit curricula which is embedded in natural environments. To learn about ecosystems. What if a few teachers and environmental educators got together to talk about how they could work together to use a study of ecosystems as a vehicle to drive curriculum in other content areas? A conversation in which they cover broad topics students would need to work with in order to learn about ecosystems, coupled with conversation about particulars of other content areas that could be integrated into the study of ecosystems.

martin-quote2For instance, while studying a forest ecosystem, students at any grade level could count the number of each species of tree they find. Then, depending on their math capacity, they could draw a representative of each of the tree species, with the size of each kind based on its population count. They can add the numbers counted to get the total trees counted. They could subtract the number of the first species from the total; then the second, and on to the last. What is left? They can develop fractions and do the division built into a fraction’s structure, to calculate the decimal fraction which says the same thing. They could multiply each divided fraction by one hundred to calculate the percent that kind of tree is of the whole. They could use the counted numbers of trees, their total and the number of each species, in an equation to calculate species diversity. That’s just a smattering of the math curricula embedded in one activity in a natural area. And the concomitant standards embedded there along with them. How do teachers take these pieces of math to a larger mosaic which enables students to attain the conceptual understandings which prepare them to deal with global warming and ecosystems? What can you imagine for all of the other content areas taught in your schools? What we teach is in and of the real world, that place outside the classroom. Can we use it to learn?

Would you be interested in engaging a substantive conversation about how environmental educators and teachers can work together to do a better job of teaching mandated curricula while building students’ knowledge and understandings of ecosystems? If you’d like to contribute to a conversation on this theme, you might write an article for Clearing, write a comment in the space below, start a conversation where you are, or decide to try this yourself. If teachers know environmental educators, or environmental educators know teachers, you can present the concept at environmental education and teacher annual conferences. For myself, I’ll continue to write on this theme. And contact my regional environmental and teacher organizations to suggest it. We all need to do something. The kids need that.

Jim and Dryas Martin 604 E. 28th St. Vancouver, WA 98663

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”


Activity: Imagine That!

By John Miller and Michelle Smith

(reprinted from BugNet, the newsletter of the Montana EE Association)


The traditional method for teaching students about ecosystems has consisted of lab specimens, worksheets, films, and lecture by the instructor. Absent from this approach are process-oriented, critical-thinking challenges along with meaningful field experience. This activity is used throughout the year as a means to introduce new concepts and to increase student motivation along with practical and critical-thinking skills. This activity facilitates the application of these skills and knowledge to solving current problems in our society. (more…)