Building Bridges for Environmental Stewardship

Posted By on Feb 16, 2014

It is my firm belief that in order to promote positive environmental change, one must provide today’s youth with opportunities to actively engage in environmental issues of concern to them. When students are introduced to a habitat, such as wetlands (which was the focus of my dissertation), and actively participate in the co-construction of knowledge and skills with others in order to answer a question, solve a problem, or raise awareness on a particular issue, a community of inquirers develops.
This community of inquirers becomes an active unit not only for learning scientific content, language, and inquiry, but also for developing critical thinking skills and social practices, such as negotiation, collaboration, and active participation. However, many students today are so distracted with technological gadgets and social networks that it appears as if they are living within their own microcosms. Thus, it is essential for students to actively participate in learning environments which build awareness on environmental and social justice issues within their own communities. Students can become active stewards if they are provided with experiences that instill a sense of wonder, curiosity, respect, and care for nature, and most importantly- confidence to evoke positive environmental change.

For example, when students experience environmental stewardship, it shifts their myopic perspective to a “broader social view” (Dewey, 1915, p. 5-6). In order for this to successfully occur, students need multiple levels of support, i.e., from their peers, parents, teachers, science educators, scientists, and local community members. They also need to see the goal or task they are trying to achieve from an interdisciplinary perspective, i.e., understanding the biological, social, historical, and economic impacts of, for example, agricultural run-off on wetlands. When learning is approached in this way, an interested, informed, and active stewardship develops. When this occurs, opportunities for building social awareness on critical environmental issues ensue and an informed citizenry evolves. This approach to learning has been my vision and practice for fifteen years as an educator in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District and even before I started teaching. In fact, the beginning formulations actually started through numerous internships and volunteer experiences.

Before pursuing a career as an educator, I participated in many internships and volunteer experiences that etched the outline for the learning and teaching paradigm I practice from today. I will share one experience here. During the summer of 1997, I participated in an internship at Lime-Kiln State Park in the San Juan Islands, Washington State. I led a team of interns in the design and development of curriculum for educational presentations to park visitors. We collaborated with graduate students, scientists, park rangers, fishermen, and even local businesses- such as whale watching tourist companies, in order to gain multiple perspectives of orcas and other marine life. As an interpreter for the park, I felt it was our responsibility to situate the heated and controversial debates concerning orcas into a broader context.
One of the issues at the time was whether the noise and proximity of boats had a negative impact on the orcas. As you can imagine, the points of view from each concerned group, i.e., scientists, fishermen, local businesses, etc., were distinctly different. During our daily park presentations, we discussed each perspective. In fact, visitors could see for themselves (at the cliff’s edge of the park in Haro Strait) just how close the boats approached the orcas in addition to how the whales responded. This generated interactive and thought provoking discussions from multiple angles. Interestingly enough, the visitors surmised for themselves that all boats- whether whale watching, private, or fishing- should not crowd or impede the path of the whales as they passed through the strait.

In addition, I organized an educational platform where the interns and I shared our research-project results with park visitors. For example, I participated in an acoustics project where the scientists and I compared the vocalizations of the orcas with and without boats. We compiled data on the number of boats, their proximity to the orcas, and the frequency and type of vocalizations. Although the project was in its early stages, the preliminary results suggested that when there were many boats surrounding the orcas, it was difficult to hear their vocalizations. However, we did notice more breaching, tail lobbing, and fin slapping with an increase in the number of boats. When I shared these initial findings with the public, they appeared very intrigued and tested the hypothesis for themselves by making their own observations. We welcomed this and encouraged them to take notes and e-mail them to us.

This internship experience, which was one of many, set the stage for not only how I learn about environmental issues, but also for my approach to teaching, i.e., creating learning environments where information is sought and gathered from multiple interdisciplinary perspectives and knowledge is co-constructed with many participants. More importantly, when learning and teaching are situated within this frame during the early elementary school years, it fosters personal, intellectual, and social growth that not only improves students’ lives, but also cultivates a fertile foundation from which students can grow and develop into informed and productive citizens of society.
With the many critical environmental issues our global world is faced with today, this pedagogical approach is needed now more than ever. In fact, scientists, such as the well-known undersea explorer Sylvia Earle, and the world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, have stated that the next two decades are more important for determining the fate of this planet than any other time in history. Thus, it is a fundamental necessity that today’s youth actively engage in environmental issues of concern to them by seeking answers, solving problems, raising social awareness, and evoking action for positive change.

As I have stated, many students today appear disconnected from nature and environmental issues. Perhaps another reason why, other than technological gadgets and social networks, is the lack of exposure to these issues in school, particularly schools with a high concentration of English Language Learners (ELL). Sadly, their learning environment is predominately decontextualized, sterile, and devoid of any real, experiential learning. We are living in the 21st century. A time when creative, innovative, and critical thinking skills are needed now more than ever, yet many schools today resemble a factory model of “mechanical massing of children, its uniformity of curriculum and method, and its passivity of attitude” (Dewey, 1915, p. 23).

Now is the time for schools to redesign their learning environments in such a way that students have an opportunity to engage and collaborate with others in creating solutions for real life problems. For example, (1) proposing creative and innovative ways to reduce the amount of plastic that winds up in our nations landfills and oceans, or (2) discussing how we as global citizens can decrease our carbon footprint within our own local communities, (3) inventing new products which are more energy and cost efficient, and (4) understanding how particular restoration techniques can save an endangered species. The possibilities for real, relevant, meaningful, motivating, and purposeful learning for today’s youth are endless. This is the purpose of education. The following quote by Dewey expresses the profound implications on students’ lives when learning is situated within real life contexts:

    “The purpose of school education is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth. The inclination to learn from life itself and to make the conditions of life such that all will learn in the process of living is the finest product of schooling” (Dewey, 1916, p. 51).

Thus, as an educator in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, I decided to work for The Extended Learning After-School Program rather than in the traditional classroom because it provided more open-ended opportunities to explore subject domains that were not addressed in depth during the regular school day, such as science and social studies. For example, the students and I delved into topics of interest to them, usually centered on a particular habitat. We learned about the animals, their adaptations, and the social influences which impact habitats, animals, and indigenous people; such as the effects of clear cutting thousands of acres of rainforest. We also brainstormed potential solutions, i.e., using sustainable resources for building homes and designing solar powered cookers and lanterns as alternative means for fuel and electricity.

From this learning experience, students became so engrossed with the collaborative discussions and interactive activities that they wanted to share what they had learned with others and raise awareness on the issue. As a result, we collectively decided to write letters to the Brazilian government urging them not to allow logging companies to destroy the rainforests. We also organized a fundraiser, i.e., by making and selling popcorn (using a solar cooker) to members in the after-school program in order to contribute money for environmental organizations to buy land for conservational purposes.

This type of action learning based on students’ interests and concerns is the finest kind of learning because: (1) it is situated in their interests and concerns, thus evoking action, (2) it provides students with memorable experiences of active, environmental stewardship, and (3) it is interdisciplinary, in that students learn from many subject domains, such as science, mathematics, social science, economics, language (both oral and written), and human rights issues in a relevant and meaningful way. Through this experience, students are learning how to become informed, proactive educators themselves, thus developing into active agents for positive change.

After engaging in this kind of educational approach with elementary students for many years, I began to think of how I could flesh out my learning and teaching paradigm further in order to create a continuum of learning, i.e., from elementary, middle school, high school, and college. It was important for me to not only stimulate the minds and lives of young students, which I believe is the most critical stage, but also to extend the paradigm on a trajectory which would impact their entire educational lives.

Thus, I decided to pursue a Ph. D. in Science Education to actualize this vision. My goal with my dissertation was to provide ELL students with learning opportunities which would foster real life experiences within their local environment by working with their peers, parents, teachers, science educators, scientists, and community members on an environmental problem or issue of interest to them. As I have stated, this is the finest kind of learning, yet it is lacking in many schools, particularly schools with a high percentage of ELL.

The community in which I live and work has a very large percentage of ELL. We are also within proximity to 800 acres of one of the largest remaining wetlands along the Central Coast of California, yet many schools are not providing students with in-depth opportunities to explore this unique habitat that is literally within a stone’s throw away from students’ backyards. The Watsonville wetlands are a perfect place to put the learning and teaching paradigm I have discussed in this essay into practice. Furthermore, the participants in my dissertation were former students I had taught in the after-school program when they were in elementary school. During my dissertation years, they were in middle school, thus an opportunity to provide continuance in learning about the wetlands on a deeper conceptual level in addition to developing scientific literacy and inquiry skills.

When the study began, students chose a plant and/or animal of interest to them to research in the Watsonville slough. They used a research report to scaffold their investigation of information and an ecosystem template wetland book to guide their writing and illustrations. Having completed their research and wetland books, students developed deep conceptual knowledge and were ready to pose a testable research question to investigate for their inquiry projects. They used a scientific inquiry template book to guide them through the inquiry process. Students also consulted with high school interns (who completed an internship with the Watsonville Wetland Watch Program), science educators at The Nature Center in Ramsey park, and scientists (Kenton Parker at the Elkhorn Slough) about their inquiry projects, i.e., obtaining information and sharing their learning experiences. Toward the end of the study, students presented their inquiry projects to their peers, parents, and local community members using their scientific inquiry books to scaffold their presentations. They received constructive feedback and praise for their work. Their assessments also revealed development of scientific language, an understanding of scientific concepts, and confidence in how to engage in the scientific inquiry process.

As for the future, I am interested in: (1) establishing a learning-network community where students and teachers from multiple grade levels, scientists from many disciplines, and local businesses all work together to solve an environmental issue of concern to them, and (2) creating a continuum of learning experiences which effect positive environmental change at every educational level using an apprenticeship model, i.e., college students learning and teaching the paradigm to high school students, high school students learning and teaching the paradigm to middle school students, and middle school students learning and teaching the paradigm to elementary school students.

These educational scaffolds have the potential to support the continuance of conceptual knowledge and the cultivation of active stewardship for multiple age groups. With today’s complex environmental issues, this pedagogical approach is critical for building an informed and proactive citizenry. It is my firm belief that in order to accomplish this goal, we must educate today’s youth for the future of tomorrow.