Credit: Carolyn Jones/EdSource
Clinton Huey, 6th-grade science teacher at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro, demonstrates heat transference for a class science experiment.

In Clinton Huey’s 6th-grade science class at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro just south of Oakland, 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 November when the State Board of Education approved integrating five key environmental principles into the new science frameworks last November. 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 last year 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 environmental 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 former Assemblywoman 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.”

 

Students at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro learn about heat transference by wrapping cups of hot water in different materials.

Carolyn Jones/EdSource

Students at Bancroft Middle School in San Leandro learn about heat transference by wrapping cups of hot water in different materials.

“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 4th-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.

6th graders in Clinton Huey's class at Bancroft Middle School demonstrate how carbon dioxide leads to global warming.

Carolyn Jones/EdSource

Sixth-graders in Clinton Huey’s class at Bancroft Middle School demonstrate how carbon dioxide leads to global warming.

“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 last week, Huey’s 6th-graders were learning about heat transference as they prepared to study hurricanes and other extreme weather in the coming weeks. 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 poured hot water into cups wrapped variously with paper towels, cotton balls, bubble wrap and wash cloths, and timed how fast the water cooled.

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.”

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  1. Kottie Christie-Blick 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Kudos to Mr. Huey! We need more master teachers like him, teaching children to understand how the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere impact each other (NGSS: ESS). And yes, it's essential for children, from an early age, to begin to understand the impacts people are making on the environment. The science is clear: Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. People are the cause, by creating increasing amounts of air pollution. Teachers are in … Read More

    Kudos to Mr. Huey! We need more master teachers like him, teaching children to understand how the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere impact each other (NGSS: ESS). And yes, it’s essential for children, from an early age, to begin to understand the impacts people are making on the environment. The science is clear: Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate. People are the cause, by creating increasing amounts of air pollution. Teachers are in a position to empower children by helping them understand the world around them, and giving them a voice to spread the word that we all need to work together to help slow down climate change. There’s so much kids can do to help! See: https://kidsagainstclimatechange.com/ . Last year, my students and I met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the United Nations to discuss climate change. As 11-year-old Brian told him, “We may be small, but there are a lot of us! We can make a difference!”

  2. Jo Wideman 1 month ago1 month ago

    How can we also get carrying capacity covered in the environmental curriculum?? We have lots of science-based research to share.

  3. Jonathan Raymond 1 month ago1 month ago

    Yes it's important to integrate this into what students are learning and even better to get students actively engaged in being part of the solution beginning first in their schools and neighborhoods. Sacramento City's Project Green can serve as a model where students along with parents and staff formed Green Teams in their schools, preformed audits of their schools, and then developed plans on how to "Green" their campuses. Presentations were made during … Read More

    Yes it’s important to integrate this into what students are learning and even better to get students actively engaged in being part of the solution beginning first in their schools and neighborhoods. Sacramento City’s Project Green can serve as a model where students along with parents and staff formed Green Teams in their schools, preformed audits of their schools, and then developed plans on how to “Green” their campuses. Presentations were made during a science fair and judged by a panel of experts from the community. Winning projects could receive up to $500,000 to implement their plans from everything to high efficiency solar tubes and windows to replacing bathroom fixtures – all in an effort to make schools and classrooms energy efficient, environmentally safe, and good places to work and learn. Giving students this kind of voice is powerful and makes learning and community building real.

  4. Tom 1 month ago1 month ago

    I'm a scientist, and quixotic on this, but I look at data and statistics all the time, and find it very disheartening that so many people are peddling this man-made climate change disaster narrative. It was something like 20 years ago that Al Gore told us that the climate models showed there would be no polar ice caps and no polar bears by now so obviously he was wrong. More recently, it … Read More

    I’m a scientist, and quixotic on this, but I look at data and statistics all the time, and find it very disheartening that so many people are peddling this man-made climate change disaster narrative. It was something like 20 years ago that Al Gore told us that the climate models showed there would be no polar ice caps and no polar bears by now so obviously he was wrong. More recently, it was widely reported that 2016 was the hottest year on record, but the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the amount of supposed warming was 1/4 of the margin of error of the data! That means that the supposed increase in temperatures are not supported by the data and one should not be making a warming conclusion much less a man-made connection to warming. Same thing from 2015 data, and I could go on. This was buried in the reports issued by NOAA and NASA, but to point that out would not fit the political narrative. Hopefully teachers like Clinton Huey get this information from somewhere, someday, and teach kids that the science is not settled and for good, scientific reasons. Hopefully Governor Brown gets the same information and backs off his expensive green agenda before our utility bills go even higher, taxes to support electric car incentives, cap and trade costs to industry, etc. etc.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 1 month ago1 month ago

      Tom: In 2016, the Society for Science and the Public did an objective analysis of the claims in Al Gore's 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. What the movie said was that in 50 to 70 years, the Arctic could see its first ice-free summers. That particular prediction appears spot-on. The full analysis makes interesting reading. Some of the other projections may be somewhat off – or inconclusive – but on balance, Gore was – … Read More

      Tom: In 2016, the Society for Science and the Public did an objective analysis of the claims in Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. What the movie said was that in 50 to 70 years, the Arctic could see its first ice-free summers. That particular prediction appears spot-on. The full analysis makes interesting reading. Some of the other projections may be somewhat off – or inconclusive – but on balance, Gore was – and now Gov. Brown is – right to sound the alarm.

      • tom 1 month ago1 month ago

        John, You are referring to a 2006 movie, but big Al was saying things well in advance of that. Also, as you point out the 2006 movie made predications 50-70 out, and now it is only 11 years from 2006, we just finished an El Nino warming, so a stretch for you to say the predictions are spot on. California is a small area and would argue anything we do will … Read More

        John, You are referring to a 2006 movie, but big Al was saying things well in advance of that. Also, as you point out the 2006 movie made predications 50-70 out, and now it is only 11 years from 2006, we just finished an El Nino warming, so a stretch for you to say the predictions are spot on. California is a small area and would argue anything we do will have no affect on global temperatures, none. China is still building coal fired power plants, volcanoes are still erupting. It is a nice thought we can change things, but it comes at a big price. Check out the economic price that France and Germany have experienced in their quest to reduce CO2 output. On a similar note, there is a piece today (2/15/2017) in the WSJ today (Europe’s Error of Emissions) regarding cap and trade and the diesel fuel initiatives and the results. Did you know Paris sometimes has worse smog than Beijing? Silly government mettling is the reason, and Brown is good at doing just that.

  5. ann 1 month ago1 month ago

    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.

    Really? Is that appropriate?