Educating as if Survival Matters
Nancy M Trautmann Michael P Gilmore
BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 5, 1 May 2018, Pages 324–326, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biy026
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 (https://www.oneplanet-ngo.org) and Amazon Rainforest Workshops (http://amazonworkshops.com).
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.
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; www.overshootday.org)
FeeJM. 2015. BirdSleuth: Investigating Evidence. Cornell Lab of Ornithology . (15 January 2018; http://www.birdsleuth.org/investigation/)
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; https://themacroscope.org/the-space-between-two-worlds-bc75ecc8af57)
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 ; www.nytimes.com/2018/01/19/opinion/sunday/climate-change-bangladesh.html)
[NGSS] Next Generation Science Standards. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. NGSS. (10 October 2017; www.nextgenscience.org)
Ripple WJ et al. 2017. World scientists’ warning to humanity: A second notice. BioScience
SciStarter. 2018. SciStarter for Educators. SciStarter . (12 February 2018; https://scistarter.com/educators)
[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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/), 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Denton, Ph.D.
Keynote Address – EECOM Conference 2016, International Peace Gardens
peaking here today is kind of like preaching to the choir. It is great to have a friendly crowd who does not think a polar icecap is the name of some new cold drink at Tim Horton’s or need to be convinced that these icecaps are melting.
As environmentalists, we are unfortunately used to a rather more hostile or puzzled reception. But while it is energizing to be with like-minded people, we all have to head back out into that social and cultural wilderness when a conference like this one is over. It is what we do – who we are. That local environmental choir to which we each belong has to become a global chorus to make changes that need to be made for all of us to have a sustainable future.
But it’s not just enough to sing, is it? I imagine some of you are old enough to remember the Coca Cola jingle, “I want to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” That hasn’t worked out too well since it was first aired in 1971 and then turned into a hit song, minus the Coke.
As a society, we seem to oscillate between two poles, between denial and despair — and as environmentalists, it can be even worse for us, because we know both poles are melting faster by the year.
So this afternoon I am going to try and do the impossible. I am not going to preach to the choir and tell you things you already know.
Instead, I am going to try and make you think about the sustainability nexus in a different light, to reframe it in ways that are both hopeful and practical.
At the risk of giving away my punch line at the start, as environmentalists, we are not providers of information. Nor are we harbingers of doom. We are messengers of hope. I’m going spend the rest of our time together unpacking what this means and why it is the punch line, but I want first to go back to that idea of a global chorus.
A couple of years ago, Rocky Mountain Books published a book called Global Chorus: 365 Voices on the Future of the Planet. It was edited by a young musician from Prince Edward Island, Todd MacLean, who just had a thought one day in the shower about how neat it would be to put together something that spoke about the hope people had for the future.
He had never done anything of the sort before, never written a book or edited anything, but he tried, anyway.
He asked people all over the world, from many walks of life, these questions: “Do you think humanity can find a way past the current global and environmental crises? Will we be able to create conditions necessary for our own survival, as well as that of other species on the planet? What would these conditions look like? In summary, then and in the plainest of terms, do we have hope, and can we do it?”
He got amazing responses from people whom you might think never look at random emails out of the blue, and compiled the book. I was asked to fill in a hole at the end, and so wrote for February 9th – a good day for a Manitoban to write up something about hope, on what is usually one of the coldest days of any winter.
My entry began like this:
“Hope is a creative act. It is creative because it generates something new out of the daily chaos of our lives. It is an act because through hope the possibility of a different future is created. We can work and dream toward what is possible but only if hope leads the way.”
While I think we need to work on our public image, environmentalists are the most hopeful people I know. They not only hope for a better future, they spend their lives working toward it, often without much in the way of the tangible rewards that other
people get for their efforts.
Perhaps the only profession just as hopeful as environmentalists would be teachers!
Anyway, to start, I need to set out three guiding principles that underpin what I want to say today about reframing the sustainability nexus.
First, sustainability is primarily a social and cultural problem, not a scientific or technological one. We know what needs to be done and have the tools we need to do it – we just don’t.
Second, all ecology is social ecology. Environmental sustainability is inextricably interwoven with social sustainability – we cannot separate environmental sustainability from sustainable development. Ecological justice embraces all of us, everywhere.
Third, a sustainable future will be the result of the choices we all make, together, every day. On a round planet, there is no place to hide. We can’t escape the consequences of what people have done, but we can make better choices today than we did yesterday,
right where we live.
I’ve written three books in Rocky Mountain Books’ Manifesto series to outline these themes: Gift Ecology: Reimagining a Sustainable World (2012); Technology and Sustainability (2014); and Live Close to Home (released in October 2016), so here I am just going to flag them and move on.
This trilogy is not intended to provide information, but to nurture hope, but we can’t skip straight to hope this afternoon without talking about information.
As environmental educators, we all know the importance of information, of just how little too many people seem to understand about natural systems or about their interrelationships with the way people live.
Recently I cringed when I heard a local municipal councilor, who led an unsuccessful mission to torpedo a city-wide organic composting initiative, admit he did not realize that rotting organics produced a greenhouse gas.
He had the rare courage to admit his ignorance and I hope he learned something from the encounter, but it is still frightening that people who are responsible for decisions that affect all of us know so little about what is actually going on.
While I am sure we all know more about greenhouse gases than that councilor did, we still have a tendency to inhabit environmental siloes. Calling them “cylinders of excellence” does not diminish the problem.
We all have information that someone else needs, but rarely share it. Too often we spend much time and energy reinventing the wheel, and so diminish and fracture our efforts toward a better future as a result.
For example, how many people here know what UNEP stands for? (The United Nations Environment Programme.)
How many people here know that after Rio+20 in June 2012 UNEP was given responsibility over all of the environmental efforts of the United Nations?
Or that the Second World Parliament of the Environment, UNEA 2, was just held in May 2016 in Nairobi at UNEP’s global headquarters?
In part, I have to take some of the blame for this result: I am currently one of the two civil society representatives for North America to UNEP, elected at meetings in Washington in 2013.
Despite all our advantages, even our region lacks any significant reporting structure or means of engaging people doing environmental work in some collective fashion.
This also likely means you have not heard about GEO 6 – Global Environmental Outlook 6 – UNEP’s flagship product, which was just released at UNEA 2. The global version will not be out for a couple of years, but the regional assessments for the six global regions are complete.
This is the most comprehensive effort to date to provide a snapshot of the planet’s health, and while it is based on the most recent data, that is still several years old. The intention is to tie it to an interactive, real time data stream, through a site called UNEP Live.
These are both amazing resources that must be used for environmental education and for policy development, but they have an Achilles heel. We desperately need more and better information if we are going to base policy decisions on good evidence.
I was privileged to be part of the writing team for the North American Regional Assessment. It was unnerving how little we actually know about what is going on around us, even here at home.
For example, the most recent national statistics on municipal wastes and waste diversion in Canada consist of a one page summary note in 2010 from Statistics Canada. There is no national data collection, and most provinces don’t have good numbers themselves.
This is just laziness. We have to do better.
One of the interesting features of GEO 6 was the intentional effort to promote and include citizen science, along with so-called “grey literature” and indigenous local knowledge, or ILK. When it comes to measuring climate conditions, school children can be enlisted to upload data, just as the rest of us could do it ourselves with cell phones. Around the world, indigenous peoples are finally starting to be treated with respect for what they know about the places where they live.
There are other ways to figure out what is going on and to pool that information, by thinking creatively and working, literally, from the ground up, listening to the elders or just to ordinary people. We just have to do it.
While information is necessary, however, the need for more information cannot delay the decisions that we must make. I have witnessed a kind of informational paralysis, or datalock, when scientists and policy makers get together.
There is either too much information, or not enough of the right kind, or people can’t agree on what it means, so decisions are deferred until some future time. Too much information can swamp common sense.
So while both formal and informal kinds of public education are crucial, we know that providing information is not enough.
Sustainability is a problem not because people don’t know the facts, but because they refuse to admit the obvious. Nor will they easily accept responsibility for the choices that have created the situations they try so hard not to see.
There is a world of difference between information and knowledge, after all. Knowledge is information in context, interpreted, framed, explained and owned. Our responsibility as environmental educators is not just to provide information, but to provide context, to transform what can be gleaned from any Google search into knowledge that people understand, including policy makers.
Much of what we are exchanging here are the lessons we have learned about how to take information and transform it into knowledge that our audience, of whatever age or ability, can understand.
This is incredibly important. Information-dependent policy development will simply take too long, if it ever gets started at all.
We need evidence-based policies, but that information needs to be framed in a way that it becomes useful knowledge, knowledge that can be directed to a purpose.
It needs to be interpolated, not simply collated. A quantitative system can only be predicted if all the parameters of the system are understood. It’s kind of like predicting the weather – ever notice that even on the prairies our weather specialists can barely manage to predict what the weather will be six hours out?
So specific predictions about climatic events are never going to be accurate, no matter how much information we gather. Instead, we have to make qualitative assessments, finding new ways to understand all of the human and ecological systems within which we live. We have to adapt to the changing conditions of dynamic systems.
Knowledge is information in context – but what kinds of contexts are possible? And what can we do to change those things that are blocking our way forward into a sustainable future?
It’s all about changing our perspective. Let me demonstrate. You are all arranged in a
particular way in this room. I can’t change any of you or where you are. All I can change is my own perspective on this room and everything in it. Let me demonstrate by walking around the room and showing how new perspectives emerge when we change position in some situation that otherwise seems gridlocked.
Consider how this works for issues in sustainability, which as you recall, I described as a social and cultural problem. People feel trapped because they think there is nothing they can do to change the arrangement of the forces in the world that threaten their future.
They slide into denial or despair because there seems no other option. They feel powerless and so they are.
Take the information they have and change the context, change their perspective, and it is amazing how new possibilities emerge. Hope emerges out of those possibilities, if we allow it to – then and transform it into action.
Todd realized this with Global Chorus. He said: “I guess I am now a guy who has learned, in my own little way, what can be done when you choose not to follow what you think and instead follow what you believe.”
In part, this is the result of living in this wired world of ours. We all can do more than we think.
I have had this same experience. In late January 2012, fueled by the frustration of teaching the same round of things over and over, I started writing a blog. Two weeks and 25,000 words later, I emailed a publisher out of the blue and said I wanted to turn it into a book for the fall. Two weeks after that, he agreed – but wanted the manuscript for Gift Ecology in six weeks to fill a hole in their fall lineup.
One year to the day after I got that email, I was having a private meeting in Nairobi with the president of UNEP, who that year was the Environment Minister from Sudan, talking to him about my book, the role of civil society in changing the world, and Muslim- Christian relations. That was only the beginning. It would be a long conversation to tell you the rest of the story and I still have no idea what is coming next.
For example, in April, I went to Tehran for the Earth Day weekend with a couple of dozen people from around the world for the Second International Seminar on Environment, Religion and Culture. In June, after UNEA 2, I drove across the Great Rift Valley en route to the Loita Hills and the Maasai community with whom I have been working since that first trip in 2013.
This is a long way from home for a kid from St. Andrews, Manitoba, whose previous exposure to anything exotic was walking through the zoo in Winnipeg!
I haven’t changed who I am or what I believe – I just found a bigger audience, full of possibilities that I couldn’t see from where I stood before, an audience who also saw more possibilities in what I could do than when I stayed in my classroom, thinking that
was all I could do to change the world.
From the moment we wake up, we are bombarded with the message that we are just one person, that society is run by elites and by masses, not by people like you and me. You might roll out of bed determined to change the world, but by the second cup of coffee, you are back in the rut, frustrated and powerless.
But that, too, is a choice. It’s not the way things have to be – nor is it the way things have always been.
No event for good or ill in the history of humanity was ever the result of the actions of a group. It always began with one person, making a choice. Others saw that choice and made their own choices in support, so we lose sight of that original decision.
One person can change the world. In fact, that is the only way it ever changes. That change starts with our own choices as individuals. We make choices, every day, each one of us, all the time.
I would begin my ethics and sustainability classes by asking this question: “How many of you have made an ethical choice so far today?” Most of the time I just got puzzled looks and silence in response.
But we all make hundreds of ethical choices in a day – we just don’t stop and think about what they are. For a sustainable future, we need to make better choices today than we did yesterday – not great ones, just better ones.
This is where the power of one choice by one person gets multiplied. The planet is in the shape it is in because of the poor choices people have made, one at a time, right where they live.
Our only hope for a better future than the one that will surely arrive is to do the same in reverse, to make better choices right where we live, and watch the tide grow.
As Todd wrote at the beginning of Global Chorus, “So please, embrace this notion: if you do have any idea that can help your household, your workplace, your community, your city, your region, your country to be more environmentally sustainable and/or socially harmonious, do not hesitate. Do it.
“Because the reality is that these kind of helpful ideas come to us for a reason: to help us evolve. But a helpful idea is wasted if it is not borne by action into this help-hungry world.”
This afternoon, I want to take us one step further, in closing. If there is a world of difference between information and knowledge, there is even more between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom lies in understanding our choices, what to do with what we know.
We began our day discussing aboriginal attitudes toward the environment, unfolding what it means to consider all our relations, and I want to suggest that indigenous traditions world-wide offer a glimpse into the wisdom humans have always embedded in their choices, day-to-day.
We have just lost sight of that wisdom, those choices, in the development and global extension of the western industrial society which we have inherited and which, without significant changes to the choices we make, we will perpetuate, with disastrous consequences for our children and for the future of the Earth.
We have both the power and the responsibility to choose – but where and how? How do we express our hope in tangible and practical ways?
The three books I wrote are all independent, though the themes are woven together. The third one, Live Close to Home, focuses on where we need to make those better choices.
We live in an unsustainable global culture because we focus our primary attention on other places than where we actually live. We need to live close to home, to realize what we mean by home in all its dimensions.
We need to realize we live in a universe of relations, not an environment of connections, and embrace the story of all those relations, a story in which we are both authors of our own parts, and characters in the lives of other people.
As North Americans, we have an additional burden to carry, however. We not only have to mind our own homes – we need to support and encourage people in other countries to do the same.
With more time, I wanted to discuss the 2030 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, to which the UN has committed – goals that acknowledge the planetary interrelationships between society and ecology, toward social and ecological justice. Please look them up – and find ways to embed them in what you do at home and for other people.
Finally, educate yourselves about what environmentalists elsewhere face in their daily struggles to make a difference where they live. It is an increasingly dangerous profession for our colleagues in other places, who are constantly under threat – with someone murdered or assassinated every other week.
One day at lunch in Nairobi during UNEA, a gentleman joined me at my table in a crowded cafeteria just as a colleague left. I spent most of the next hour having a very interesting conversation with the Environment Minister from Somalia, Buri Hamza, who turned out to be a Somali-Canadian who had returned to his home country after many years away, leaving his family behind in Toronto.
We talked a lot about technology and the environment, so I gave him a copy of Technology and Sustainability and we promised to continue our conversation, as he pondered ways to bring me to Mogadishu to give some lectures. At the session in the afternoon, he was a speaker…but in a seat with the label “Special Guest” instead of his name – the only time I had ever seen this done at UNEA. I thought it odd, but wondered if there might be security reasons for it.
Three weeks after our lunch together, he was killed when the terrorist group al-Shabaab sent a suicide bomber and others to attack the hotel back home where he was living. He was crushed by the debris when his part of the hotel was demolished, the only real target there that day.
Somewhere in the rubble of his room would have been that copy of my book.
Hope is not cheap. Those creative acts that hope inspires come at a cost. Hope is powerful enough, however, to change the world, because it emerges from the same Earth story in which we all live out the roles we have been given or which we claim for ourselves.
To close with what I wrote at the end of my Global Chorus entry:
“Hope is just as resilient in the human heart as the impulse to survive is resilient in living systems. That resilience does not excuse us from doing things that deny hope any more than it excuses us from actions that destroy life. When the spirit that is in us aligns with the spirit found deep within the Earth, green will no longer be just a colour.”
One Earth. All we have. All there is.
Thank you. Miigwich.
Peter Denton is an activist, writer, speaker and educator. He blogs at http://peterdenton.ca and tweets @green_ethics.
It Takes a Community to Raise a Scientist:
A Case for Community-Inspired Research and Science Education in an Alaskan Native Community
By Nievita Bueno Watts and Wendy F. Smythe
The quote, “lt takes a village to raise a child,” is attributed to African tradition and carries over to Alaskan Native communities as well (Hall, 2000). Without the support of their community and outside resources, Alaska Native children have a difficult time entering the world of science. Yet increasing the awareness of science, as a tool to help a tribal community monitor and maintain the health of their environment, introduces conflicts and misconceptions in context of traditional cultural practices. Rural communities depend upon traditional food harvested from the environment such as fish, wild game, roots, and berries. In many Native Alaskan villages the health of the environment equals the health of the people (Garza, 2001) . Integrating science with culture in pre-college education is a challenge that requires sensitivity and persistence.
The Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) is a multi-institutional, National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Center that takes an interdisciplinary approach to studying the region where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Two of CMOP’s focus areas are biogeochemical changes affecting the health of the coastal margin ecosystem, and socio-economic changes that might affect the lives of people who harvest and consume fish and shellfish.
The Columbia River waters touch the lives and livelihoods of many people, among them a large number of Pacific Northwest lndian tribes. These people depend on the natural and economic resources provided by the Columbia River. Native peoples from California through Alaska also depend on resources from their local rivers, and, currently, many tribes are developing-a workforce trained with scientific skills to manage their own natural resources in a way that is consistent with their traditional way of life. The relationship between Traditional Knowledge (TK) and practices, which are informed by centuries of observation, experimentation and carefully preserved oral records, and Western Science, which is deeply rooted in the philosophies and institutions of Europe, is often an uneasy one.
National progress is being made to open pathways for individuals from Native communities to Western Science higher education programs and back to the communities, where tribal members are empowered to evaluate and monitor the health of their environment. CMOP is part of this national movement. CMOP science is developing tools and techniques to observe and predict changes in the river to ocean system. CMOP education, an essential element of CMOB supports American lndian/Alaska Native students in pursuing academic and career pathways focusing on coastal margin sciences (Creen et al., 2013). One of CMOP’s initiatives is the CMOP- School Collaboratories (CSC) program.
The CMOP-school Collaboratories (CSC) program is based on the idea that Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) pathway development requires an intensive and sustained effort to build relationships among science educators, students, school personnel, and the tribal community. The over-arching goal is to broaden participation in STEM disciplines. CMOP educators developed the CSC model that includes integration strategies for a community, development of appropriate lessons and field experiences and student action projects that connect local and traditional knowledge with science. Educational experiences are place- based, multi-disciplinary and culturally relevant. The objective is to open students’ minds to the reality of the need for scientists with many different world views and skill sets working together to address our planet’s pressing problems in a holistic manner. CMOP seeks to encourage these students to be part of that solution using both Traditional Knowledge and STEM disciplines.
The program encourages STEM education and promotes college preparatory awareness. This CSC program has three unique characteristics: it introduces coastal margin science as a relevant and viable field of employment; it integrates STEM learning with Traditional Knowledge; and, it invites family and community members to share science experiences. The example presented in this article describes a four-year program implemented in a small village in Southeast Alaska, 200 miles from the capital city of Juneau.
Figure 1: Students, scientists, a cultural expert. and a teacher with scientific equipment used to collect data from the river.
ALASKA NATIVE VILLAGE CASE STUDY
Wendy Smythe, a CMOP doctoral candidate and principal investigator for an NSF Enhancing Diversity in the Geosciences (OEDC) award, is an Alaska Native Haida. As she advanced in her own education, she wanted to share what she had learned with the youth of her tribal community, striving to do so with the blessing of the tribal Elders, and in a way that respected the Traditional Knowledge of the Elders. Dr Bueno Watts is a mentor and expert on broadening participation. She acts in an advisory capacity on this project.
The village school consists of l5 staff members and 50 K-l2 students, with the school experiencing high administration turnover rates. ln the first two years of the program we recruited non-native graduate students to participate in the CSC program. This effort provided them experience working in Native communities. ln the last two years we recruited Native American undergraduate interns to teach lessons, assist with field activities and provide students with the opportunity to become familiar with Native scientists [Figure 1]. lnterns formed part of the science team.
STEPS TO GAIN ENTREE TO A VILLAGE
The community must support the concept to integrate science education with traditional practices. Even for this Alaska Native (Smythe), the process of building consensus from the tribe and gaining approval from the Elders and school district for the program was a lengthy one. The first step required letters of support from school district and tribal leaders. The difference in geographical locations proved difficult until Smythe was able to secure an advocate in the tribe who spoke for her at tribal meetings. Face-to-face communications were more successful than distance communications. Persistence proved to be the key to achieving success at getting the consensus of community leaders and school officials’ support. This was the top lesson of l0 learned from this project (Table l).
Traveling to the school to set up the program is no small feat and requires extensive coordination of transportation and supplies. A typical trip requires a day-long plane ride, overnight stay in a nearby town to prepare and gather supplies, a three-hour ferry ride, acquisition of a rental truck and a one-hour drive. Accommodations must be made to board with community members.
The development of appropriate lessons for the curriculum engaged discussions with tribal Elders and community Ieaders on an individual basis. Elders agreed to provide videoed interviews and were given honoraria as a thank you for their participation. Smythe asked the Elders what scientists could do to help the community, what stories can be used, where students and educators could work in the community to avoid intruding on sacred sites, and what information should not be made public. Once Elders agreed to provide interviews and share stories, other community members began to speak about their lives and concerns. This included influence of boarding schools, Iife as it was in the past, and changes they would like to see within the community. This was a significant breakthrough.
Table l . Lessons Learned: ten things to consider when developing a science program with Native communities
1. Persistence is key.
2. Face to-face communication is vital and Lakes time.
3. A community advocate with influence and respect in the community is critical.
4. Consult with the Elders first. They have their finger on the pulse of the community and are the center “of the communication network. Nothing happens without their approval. Find out what it is okay to talk about and where your boundaries are and abide by them. lnclude funds for honorariums in your proposal. Elders’ time and knowledge is valuable and they should be compensated as experts.
5. Partner with individuals or groups, such as the Department of Natural Resources.
6. Find a relevant topic. Be flexible with your curriculum choice. It must reflect the needs and interests of the community and the abilities of the teacher you are working with.
7 . Be prepared, bring supplies with you. Ship items in advance if going to a remote location
8. Have the ability to provide individual instruction for students who need it to prepare projects and practice giving presentations.
9. lnvolve the community. Hold events in a community center to encourage everyone to attend.
10. View your involvement as a long-term investment in a committed community relationship.
ln addition to the Elders, support was needed from a natural resources representative who functioned as a liaison between our group and the community members. This person’s role is found in most villages and could be the head of the Department of Natural Resources or a similar tribal agency that oversees fish, wildlife, and natural resources. This person provides a critical link between the natural environment and the community. The next step is to go in the field with the natural resources representative, science teachers, EIders, and interested students to identify a meaningful focus for the community. lnitially we focused the project with a scientist’s view of teaching microbiology and geology of mineral deposition in a river ecosystem. However, the team found community interest low and no enthusiasm for this project.
Upon our return to the village, the team and CMOP educators found the focus, almost by accident. We were intrigued by “boil water” notices posted both at the home in which we were staying and on the drinking fountains at the school: The students were all talking about water, as were the Elders. It was clear that the community cared about their water quality. The resulting community-inspired research educational plan was based on using aquatic invertebrate bioindicators as predictors of water quality (Adams, Vaughan & Hoffman Black, 2003). This student project combined science with community needs (Bueno Watts, 2011).
The first classroom lessons addressed water cycle and watershed concepts (Wolftree, 2OO4), which were followed by a field lesson on aquatic invertebrates. Students sampled different locations in an effort to determine biodiversity and quantity of macroinvertebrates. While students were sitting at the river’s edge, the site was described in the students’ Alaska Native tongue by a cultural expert, and then an English translation was provided. This introduced the combination of culture and language into the science lesson.
Figure 2: Students use data loggers to collect data on temperature, pH, and location.
The village water supply comes from a river that runs through the heart of the community. Thus, this river was our primary field site from which students collected water for chemical sampling and aquatic invertebrates using D-loop nets. Physical and chemical parameters of the river were collected using Vernier LabQuest hand-held data loggers. Students recorded data on turbidity, flow rate, temperature, pH, and pinpointed locations using CPS coordinates (Figure 2].
Aquatic invertebrate samples were sorted, classified, counted, recorded, and examined through stereoscopes back in the classroom. Water chemistry was determined by kits that measured concentrations of alkalinity, dissolved oxygen, iron, nitrate/nitrite, dissolved carbon dioxide, and phosphate.
Microbiology assessments were conducted in an effort to detect fecal coliform (using m_FC Agar plates). Students tested water from an estuary, river, drinking fountain, and toilet. Results from estuarine waters showed a high number of fecal coliform, indicating that a more thorough investigation was warranted While fecal coliform are non-disease causing microorganisms, they originate in the intestinal tract, the same place as disease causing bacteria, and so their presence is a bioindicator of the presence of human or animal wastes (Figure 3).
Students learned that the “dirty water” they observed in the river was actually the result of a natural process of acidic muskeg fluids dissolving iron minerals in the bedrock, no health danger. The real health threat was in the estuarine shellfish waters. Students shared all of their results with their families, after which community members began to approach the CMOP science team with questions about the quality of their drinking water. The community was relieved to find that the combined results of aquatic invertebrate counts and water chemistry indicated that the water flowing through their town was healthy. However they were concerned about the potential contamination as indicated by fecal coliform counts in the local estuary where shellfish were traditionally harvested.
ln the second year, a curriculum on oceanography developed by another STC, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE) was introduced (Bruno, Wiener, Kimura & Kimura, 2011). Oceanography lessons focused on water density as a function of salinity and temperature, ocean currents, phytoplankton, and ocean acidification, all areas of research at CMOP. Additional lessons used local shipworms, a burrowing mollusk known to the community, as a marine bioindicator (CMOP Education, 2013). Students continued to conduct bioassessments of local rivers and coastal marine waters.
Figure 3: Students sort and count aquatic invertebrates as a bioindicator of river health.
Students used teleconferencing technology to participate in scanning electron microscope (SEM) session with a scientist in Oregon who had their samples of aquatic invertebrates. Students showcased their experiments during parent day. Five students (l0%) had parents and/or siblings who attended the event.
As a reward for participation in the science program, two students were chosen to attend the American lndian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) 2009 conference in Oregon. Travel expenses were shared between the school, CSC program, and the tribe. ln the following three years an additional ten students attended the AISES conference and presented seven science research posters in New Mexico. Minnesota and Alaska. ln 2012, one student won 3rd place for her shipworm poster presentation (Figure 5). These conference presentations enabled some students to take their first trip out of Alaska.
ln May 20ll the first Science Symposium for grades K-12 allowed students to share their science projects with parents, Elders, and tribal community members. Both students and teachers were prepared on how to do a science fair project. Work with students had to be accomplished on a one-on-one basis, and members of the team were paired with students to assist with completing projects and polishing presentations. Students were not accustomed to speaking publicly, so this practice was a critical step.
The event was held at the local community center, which encouraged Elders and other community members to attend.
Elders requested a public education opportunity to teach the community about watersheds and the effects of logging. Our team incorporated this request into the science symposium. Students led this project by constructing a 5D model of the watershed for display. People could simulate rainfall, see how land use affects runoff and make runoff to river estuary connections. Scientists conducted hands-on demonstrations related to shipworms, local geology, ocean acidification and deepsea research. Language and culture booths were also included. During the symposium, a video of one of the interviews we had conducted with an Elder was shown as a memorial to his passing. The symposium was considered a huge success and was attended by 35 students and 50 community members.
The CSC program garnered results that could not have been predicted at the outset. For example, the tribe requested our input when deciding which students should attend a tribal leadership conference and summer camp. Three student interns participated in a collaborative project with the tribe to conduct bio-assessment studies of local rivers and a key sockeye breeding lake. lnterns operated a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) for data collection, resulting in video documentation of the salmon habitat. ln addition to the bio-assessment, the interns conducted interviews with Elders about the rivers in the monitoring project. The results of this study were used to stop logging around sockeye spawning habitat and to ban the harvest of shellfish from contaminated parts of the estuary. Now the tribe is monitoring rivers on its own. ln the near future CMOP plans to install a sensor that can be monitored remotely, and to train people to read and interpret the data.
Community-inspired research often produces a ripple effect of unforeseen results. ln this case, inclusion of Elders in the design and implementation of the project produced large scale buy-in from community members at all age levels. Consequently, in a village where traditionally students did not think about education beyond high school, we have had two students attend college, two students attend trade school, five students receive scholarships, and eight Native interns conducting science or science education in the community. And, given the low numbers of Alaska Natives pursuing careers in science, we find those numbers to be remarkable.
Adams, J., Vaughan, M., & Hoffman Black, S. (200i). Stream Bugs as Biomonitors: A Guide to Pacific Northwest Macroinvertebrate Monitoring and Identification. The Xerces Society. Available from: http://www.xerces.org/identification-guides/#
Bruno, B. C., Wiener, C., Kimura, A., & Kimura, R. (2011). Ocean FEST: Families exploring science together. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59, 132.1.
Bueno Watts, N. (20,1 1). Broadening the participation of Native Americans in Earth Science. (Doctoral dissertation).
Retrieved from Pro-Quest. UMI Number: 3466860. URL http ://repository.asu.edu/items / 9 438
Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction. QO13). Shipworm lesson URL http://www.stccmop”org/ education/k1 2/geoscience/shipworms
Carza, D. (200.l). Alaska Natives assessing the health of their environment. lnt J Circumpolar Health. 6O@):a79-g6.
Creen, V., Bueno Watts, N., Wegner, K., Thompson, M., Johnson, A., Peterson, T., & Baptista, A. (201i). Coastal Margin Science and Education in the Era of Collaboratories. Current: The Journal of Marine Education. 28(3).
Hall, M. (2000). Facilitating a Natural Way: The Native American Approach to Education. Creating o Community of Learners: Using the Teacher os Facilitator Model. National Dropout Prevention Center. URL http://www. n iylp.org/articles/Facilitating-a-Natural-Way.pdf
Wolftree, lnc. (200a). Ecology Field Cuide: A Cuide to Wolftree’s Watershed Science Education Program, 5th Edition. Beavercreek, OR: Wolftree, lnc. URL http://www. beoutside.org/PUBLICATIONS/EFCEnglish.pdf
The educational resources of CMOP are available on their website : U R L http ://www. stccm o p. o rg / education / kl 2
CMOP is funded by NSF through cooperative agreement OCE- 0424602. Smythe was also supported by NSF grant CEO-I034611. We would like to thank Dr. Margo Haygood, Carolyn Sheehan, and Meghan Betcher for their assistance and guidance with the shipworm project. We would like to thank the Elders and HCA for their guidance, advice and encouragement throughout this program
Nievita Bueno Watts, Pn.D. is a geologist, science educator, and Director of Academic programs at the NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction (CMOP). She conducts research on broadening the participation of underrepresented minorities in the sciences and serves on the Board of Directors of the Geoscience Alliance, a national organization dedicated to building pathways for Native American participation in the Earth Sciences.
Wendy F. Smythe is an Alaska Native from the Haida tribe and a Ph.D. candidate at the NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction. She runs a geoscience education program within her tribal community in Southeast Alaska focused on the incorporation of Traditional Knowledge into STEM disciplines.