Teaching Environmental Literacy

Teaching Environmental Literacy


Clinton Huey enables students to gain command of environmental science.

California has launched a movement to help students understand climate change and human impacts on water and ecological systems.

In Clinton Huey’s sixth-grade science class at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro, his students have made their own carbon dioxide, measured the acid content of car exhaust, created greenhouse gas models from plastic bottles, charted sea-level rise since 700 A.D., and built wind generators—all in a quest to understand climate change.

“To me, this is the single biggest issue facing humanity,” Huey said, referring to climate change. “We have to talk to

our kids about it. We have to learn about it.  . . . We need to educate our students to become citizens of the world, which is important if we care about what our future world will be.”

Huey’s class, and others like it around California, reflect an ongoing effort by California educators to integrate environmental education into the school curriculum—an effort that appears to be gathering momentum.

Environmental education in California got another big push last year when the State Board of Education approved integrating five key environmental principles into the new science frameworks. The frameworks provide a blueprint for introducing the Next Generation Science Standards, which the state adopted in 2013, and are gradually being introduced in schools across the state.

The standards represent a comprehensive approach to teaching K-12 science focused on hands-on experiments, critical thinking, and multidisciplinary concepts and patterns.

The state board also voted in 2016 to include environmental principles in the framework for the history-social science curriculum, which means students would learn about topics such as how humans have attempted to shape their environment throughout history, from Paleolithic times to the present, or how a healthy environment is crucial for human survival.

Thus, as schools move forward with implementation of the standards, educators are hoping that a range of topics related to the environment will be routinely taught in science as well as history and social studies classes, and will cover everything from habitats to water systems and the impact of deforestation.

The efforts to formally introduce environmental education into California classrooms began years ago. In 2003, legislation authored by then-Assemblymember Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, mandated an environmental education curriculum, which the State Board of Education adopted in 2010 after a laborious process involving numerous state agencies, such as CalEPA, and private organizations like the National Geographic Society.

The purpose of the undertaking, known as the California Education and the Environment Initiative, was “to ensure all California K-12 students are environmentally literate and can help shape a prosperous and sustainable world,” according to the creators, including CalRecycle, the state agency that coordinates state recycling programs and waste management programs, and an environmental education nonprofit called Ten Strands.

The implementation of the curriculum was delayed a few years due to funding uncertainties related to the recession and other obstacles. But in 2015, the state attempted to jump-start the process with the release of the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, a detailed, 44-page document drawn up by an Environmental Literacy Task Force appointed by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

As the task force itself noted, “Existing state law contains multiple requirements for environmental literacy, which for years, have been unfunded, underfunded, or unenforced.”

“Now is the moment to elevate environmental literacy as an essential element of a 21st-century education in California, and to establish the leadership, collaboration, strategic partnerships, and necessary funding to ensure environmental literacy for all California students,” the task force asserted.

The blueprint described an environmentally literate person as someone who “has the capacity to act individually and with others to support ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable communities for present and future generations.”

“We are on the forefront of environmental education,” said Gerald Lieberman, a consultant who worked on developing the environmental principles and concepts and is director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable. “But it’s not just about the environment. When people say, ‘environmental ed,’ they think of birds and butterflies. This is about how people live and work in the natural systems around them. It’s a gigantic shift.”

For 5-year-olds, for example, that means a science lesson may include learning where water in the faucet comes from: a system of reservoirs, pipes, and pumps that might be bringing your glass of water from hundreds of miles away. For fourth-graders, it means incorporating analysis of the ecological impacts of agriculture, gold extraction, and new cities while studying the Gold Rush and California missions in a history lesson.

And in 12th grade, students in a science class would study the effects of large-scale water engineering projects or how asthma is linked to agriculture and pollution in the Central Valley as part of a unit on public health.

“Why is this important?

Because ultimately our survival depends on it,” Lieberman said. “Students need to have a strong basis of scientific and historical knowledge not only because of decisions they’ll have to make in the future, but because of how the environment affects their daily life.”

The curriculum dovetails with Gov. Jerry Brown’s broader push to put California on the forefront of fighting climate change, said Bryan Ehlers, director of education for CalRecycle.

“If we have a more environmentally literate citizenry who more thoroughly understand the essential relationship between humans and natural systems, we’re in a better position to make sustainable choices—as individuals and as a society,” Ehlers said.

The environmental standards have triggered very little opposition, either in California or nationwide, officials said.

Most states that have adopted the new science standards have kept intact the portions about climate change and humans’ impact on the environment, said Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

West Virginia briefly inserted a few words about how global temperatures can fall, as well as rise, and that climate models might not be accurate, but after an outcry from scientists the changes were deleted.

“It was an attempt to throw some shade on this area of science. But even in these very conservative states, the scientific community has been good at pushing back,” she said, noting that hundreds of scientists, educators, and members of the public have collaborated on creating the standards and boards are loath to accept last-minute changes.

In San Mateo County, the new environmental standards have been easy for teachers to implement, said Rebecca Vyduna, director of science, technology, engineering, and math for the San Mateo County Office of Education. San Mateo County schools provide some of the state’s most comprehensive environmental ed programs, including regular field trips to parks and science museums and an award-winning outdoor education program.

At the elementary level, teachers blend environmental education into nearly every other subject, and get plenty of help from local nonprofits and agencies, such as San Mateo Parks, Pie Ranch, and the Marine Science Institute, she said.

“Most teachers want to inspire their students, and environmental education is an easy way to do that. As a former kindergarten teacher, I can tell you, you can’t lose with animals,” she said. “But I think kids are also naturally very interested in the environment. Where does trash go? What is a drought? We try to look at these subjects in a way that goes way beyond field trips.”

At Bancroft Middle School, Huey’s sixth-graders learn about heat transference as they prepare to study hurricanes and other extreme weather. How heat interacts with moisture and air is a key component of weather and climate change.

Against a backdrop of national park posters on the classroom walls, the students pour hot water into cups wrapped variously with paper towels, cotton balls, bubble wrap, and wash cloths, and time how fast the water cools.

Huey said environmental education has been popular with his students, but he also hopes it will contribute to students and their families making lifestyle changes and decisions that benefit the environment. He gives his students surveys about how consistently their families recycle, save water, turn out lights when not in use, and take other simple steps to help the environment.

“My hope with all this is that ultimately we can slow climate change,” he said. “I was so happy to see the new curriculum reflect humans’ impact on the environment and climate change, especially at the elementary school level. I’m hopeful we can really make a difference.”


Carolyn Jones is a reporter for EdSource, an Oakland-based journalism nonprofit that focuses on educational issues. This report was reprinted with EdSource’s permission.