by Megan McGinty
North Cascades Institute
Last year we began a service-learning summer program for high school students focusing on climate change. The Climate Challenge program consisted of a summer residency in the North Cascades followed by a service project in which elementary-school students were taught by the returning high-school students back in their home communities that fall. We planned a challenging field itinerary for the summer portion – studying glaciers, interviewing scientists and exploring hydrological systems. The student team made both geographic and intellectual discoveries and practiced presentation skills in order to bring their stories to their hometowns. We anticipated that they would struggle to master new skills, become proficient communicators, and hoped that they would become passionate teachers.
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What we did not anticipate was the strength of the reaction from the adult audiences that the students encountered. The first clue was a rant posted online in response to an article in the local newspaper that briefly mentioned the then-pending program. (From the reference to “enviro-nazi youth,” I can only assume the comment was made by an adult.) Other reactions were far more favorable. People consistently commented upon how inspiring the students were, mentioning the word ‘hope’ again and again. The rangers and resource mangers that showed the students their daily work thanked us for the opportunity to interact with the students. The most striking meeting happened over dinner at our environmental learning center one evening when the students gave a brief impromptu presentation as a way to introduce themselves to a group of adults attending a naturalist class. When the students sat down, a woman across the room stood up and turned towards them. “I want to thank you all. We have done such a poor job of taking care of the Earth and now my generation has left you such a mess. I am so grateful to you and want you to know you are our only hope.” By this time, tears were running down her face, the dining hall was still and a few other adults also had red eyes. As she sat down, I looked over at the students, who were gape-mouthed. I had been nervous about them confronting the enormity of the task before them and wondered if the woman’s address would discourage them.
Over the course of the rest of the program, the students referred to that night as the point when they began to take the program more seriously, realizing that people were relying on them in earnest to address climate change. At times the amount and intensity of the expectations being put forth seemed a bit overwhelming and unrealistic for the students. As staff, we were often asked how to teach kids about climate change without getting depressed or depressing them.
Amid all this, the students never struck me as burdened. Yet neither did they seem uninformed. If anything, they were saturated with information and were quick and adept at adopting new ideas and applying scientific concepts. Flux seems to be a natural state of affairs for them.
The youth who are growing up now, with climate change as a primary concern, are facing a far different threat than any confronted by previous generations. Since the founding of the United States of America, people have faced civil war, wars in Europe, unrest over race, wars in Asia and the possibility of annihilation by nuclear war. While variations of all these threats still exist (and may always be present to some extent), they are all generated by humans.
In these cases we are both the victims and the agents. Meeting these challenges is a matter of appealing to the humanity that lies within the enemy, an enemy that is biologically identical to us and therefore subject to all the great strengths and debilitating weaknesses that we ourselves are capable of. Hope is rooted in our vision of ourselves not just as a nation or race, but as a species.
The problem with casting climate change as a foe is that we can barely define it or its effects in concrete terms. At best it is a poorly understood process, driven by forces that we struggle to comprehend, let alone grasp well enough to manipulate. We may know enough about the gross concepts behind the carbon cycle, meteorology and hydrology to understand that our climate is changing, but these topics become exceedingly challenging and intricate when combined with the physics of aerosols and clouds, quantum mechanics and paleoclimatology. In addition, climate change occurs on a scale far greater than most of us can easily fathom. We know what tens of thousands of years is, but how many of us can honestly say we have an actual operating sense of even a hundred years? In terms of both the mechanisms involved and magnitude of change, climate change is a great unknown. The level of uncertainty posed by climate change is far greater than that posed by war.
This is probably where the generational hinge folds. Students today see climate change as a static fact, a reality that looms in the form of species loss, desertification, and wars about water. They consider themselves optimistic yet realistic. They expect to see changes in the climate, but they also expect to adapt, to develop technologies for a different planet and to live under laws that strictly regulate the use of resources. They anticipate losing habitats, biodiversity, and undeveloped landscapes. I’ve asked students what they think the difference between older people’s views of climate change are compared to theirs. Upon hearing their answers, it occurs to me that the fear surrounding climate change is ours, not theirs. Climate change is a great unknown, but this is true of so many other factors in these students’ lives- whether they will go to college, fall in love, have children, what career they will choose, whether they will encounter fortune, illness or wealth. To them, the issues resulting from climate change are among a host of many other big questions. These students still embrace uncertainty, and right now, that fact is to their advantage.
This past fall, the same students that addressed the group in the dining hall were presenting their views on youth, climate change and involvement before a panel of federal officials. One young woman stood up and related a pivotal moment that occurred for her during the summer. As she spoke about standing on top of a mountain and realizing that the land as far as she in every direction was public land, her voice cracked and tears ran down her face. She took a deep breath and continued. “I realized that this land was my responsibility and that I want to do everything I can to protect it into the future.” While some of us may see a reason for despair, there are others who hear a call to arms.
When these students learn about pressing issues, their response is a desire to inform others about it. They intend to catalyze the change they believe their communities need. One student said “It’s easier for us because people who grew up earlier kept seeing things get better and all we’ve seen is things go downhill.” They consider themselves naïve, but are looking forward to making and seeing change. They realize that not all the changes will be good, just as they realize that they will not be successful in all they undertake. They also understand that climate change has winners and losers, but they see no reason why they, and we, can’t adjust.
Perhaps as these students age, and go on to both succeed and fail at the challenges that occur in the course of their life journeys they will become jaded, tired and lose hope. Their expectations don’t seem as high as those of students 10 or 20 years ago, but they also seem to be more accepting of the situation. I am confident that as they go out into world they will find some assumptions that they are working under to be far more challenging than they imagined, but also suspect that their lack of pre-set notions about what should be will serve them well as they innovate and adapt their way onward.
By Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh
Portland State University, Center for Learning and Teaching West (NSF)
If students were asked to define “environment” and “community” what would they come up with? What would it look like if students designed their own methods for investigating community environmental issues? What would it mean if the teacher encouraged students to make connections between what they know about their neighborhood and scientific concepts such as diesel particulate pollution and carcinogens?
These are the central questions guiding a collaborative research and teaching project between an eighth-grade science teacher in a Northeast Portland middle school and myself, a long-time environmental educator turned doctoral student.
Our goal is to empower students to make connections between personal knowledge and environmental learning in ways that promote participation and learning in science class. To be responsive to the students’ interests and to facilitate our own continual learning, we use the model of action research – a spiral process of planning, implementation, evaluation and re-planning. The general approach of our plan-as-we-go curriculum is to get students involved in learning about and acting on community environmental issues of their choosing.
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Community-based or place-based programs share our emphasis on the local context but few programs that we have read or heard about turn power in the classroom over to the students. In my first years of teaching environmental education I spent a lot of energy trying to get the students to understand and adopt my (enlightened) environmental perspective and absorb my (considerable) scientific expertise. Historically much of the environmental education curriculum and research does the same: it focuses on either 1) carefully planned and tested activities designed to encourage the adoption of environmentally friendly behaviors that are pre-determined by the teachers and researchers, or 2) packaged units on environmental knowledge designed to be easily fed to the cooperative (but passive) student.
It was working with Native American, poor European American and African American students that helped me to shift towards student-centered learning. Approaching urban and minority students with my standard nature-as-wilderness bag of tricks was simply not working. Slowly, I began to do more listening than talking and to adapt my teaching to the particular needs and interests of the students and their communities. Now I know that to make environmental and scientific fields more diverse and to teach effectively to underserved populations I have to drop my agenda and listen to theirs. Particularly for populations such as urban, low-income African American and Latino students, who historically have not had a voice in scientific and environmental fields, honoring student knowledge and empowering student decision-making in the curriculum is crucial.
The Community Environmental Health Project at Columbia Middle School
In our work with low-income African American, Latino, Asian and European American middle school students, the collaborating teacher and I have worked hard to put the students’ perspectives at the center of the classroom. For example, when we began this fall by asking students about environmental issues in their community we got a lot of confused looks and blank stares. We decided we needed to take a few steps back and have the students define the concepts we were using. We decided to start using the words like “neighborhood”, “community” and “health”, rather than just “environment”, because we found that those words made sense to the students.
The discussion on “What is Community to You” was one of several that delved into students’ intense curiosity about race and poverty. Why is it as one student, Devon, observed “On this block we got Mexicans, on this block white, on this block white.” Why is the majority of industry located in minority neighborhoods? These were some of the liveliest conversations we have had in class this year. Few off-the-shelf environmental education curricula, even community-based programs, address race or class. Yet we found that culture, race and class are central to the students’ experience of community issues and are, of course, central elements in the field of environmental justice.
As a way of generating excitement on an issue close to the student’s experience, we read an article on the building that housed our school just four years ago. Many students in the class had older brothers and sisters, cousins or even parents who had attended school in the old building. The article describes how the building was contaminated with high levels of radon and toxic mold for many years. However, most shocking were three facts in the article: 1) radon exposure causes severe headaches and a lowering of cognitive abilities, 2) students at this school had the lowest test scores and among the lowest attendance rates in the entire state, and 3) some school officials knew for many years about the radon contamination and did nothing, despite repeated complaints by students, parents and teachers.
Many of the students were shocked and some, angry. One student, Sara, wrote in response to the article “If they knew about it for so long, how come they didn’t tell nobody or do anything?” The article showed students that there are important environmental issues affecting their community, introduced the concept of environmental justice, and in the words of the teacher, “got them riled up!”
After helping students to find their homes on city maps, we decided to engage in some neighborhood investigations at a scale that makes sense to the students: three block surrounding their house, apartment or trailer. From their observations, and from surveys the students designed and conducted in their neighborhoods, we generated a list of community issues. Homelessness, violence and graffiti were frequently raised together with more traditional environmental justice issues such as air pollution and asthma. Each class of students voted on an issue to investigate further and to take action on. Three classes chose air pollution and asthma and one class chose homelessness. Although homelessness and graffiti do not appear in scientific accounts of environmental problems, nor are they topics usually studied in science class, we decided to include them on the “community issues ballot” because they reflect student and community interest. If we want a science and environmental education that reflects the full diversity of our society, than we must expand the boundaries of “science” and “the environment.”
Other activities we have done as part of the community environmental health project include: writing a scientific autobiography, conducting community surveys, dialoguing with guest speakers, taking field trips, watching a video on pollution issues in a San Francisco neighborhood made by middle school students, conducting a lichen (as air quality indicators) survey, and making presentations to 6th and 2nd graders.
Accomodating the time demands of this way of teaching and learning is not easy. Since the students design their own assignments and choose projects to work on, the teacher and I cannot plan the curriculum in advance. Additionally, our community investigations involve lots of reading and group work that demand lots of class time and need to be balanced with other 8th grade science units. Moving from teaching as telling to teaching as finding out requires a huge shift in thinking that posed a challenge to both the teacher and myself. This shift involves letting go of control and expertise and leaving room for mistakes and uncertainty. From my experience in environmental and science education, it is the path that all of us, whether college professors, nature center naturalists, or middle school teachers need to take.
A Little of What Have We Learned
Although we are still deep in data analysis, evaluation and reflection, a few patterns and lessons have emerged from the last year.
The Community Environmental Health Project is seen by some students as exciting and “real” compared to the usual school work of “sit and listen”, “facts” and “books”.
Many students who were typically unmotivated by science class emerged as energetic and vocal participants in the community environmental health project.
Many students were able to make personal connections to science through observations they made in their daily lives, conversations with neighbors and family, concerns about justice, and feelings of compassion for those suffering from asthma, cancer, lead poisoning, or homelessness.
Students showed understanding of concepts such as: the health effects of environmental toxins, using lichen as air quality indicators, environmental justice, mapping, community activist resources, and the effects of personal choices on environmental health.
Students’ comments and participation in extracurricular activities related to the project (producing a youth radio show for local community radio) demonstrate the empowerment many students feel being part of the project.
When a normally shy student proclaims “I want to know what it is like to be a homeless person,” and another confides to me that she likes studying air pollution because “my friend has asthma and I can cure her,” and a third tells me “So now that I see these things around me, all this air pollution, I know what to name it cause before I didn’t really pay attention to it,” we feel good about the work we have done.
(Names of the school and students have been changed)