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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Yim

Environmental Education - A Foundation to the Youth-led Climate Movement

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

This guest piece was written by DJ Alejandro, a member of the Hines lab and 4th cohort of the RIPTIDES program. A Bay area native, DJ is studying how microplastics pose a potential risk to ocean food webs. DJ is exceptionally enthusiastic as a scientist, teacher, and student. You can expect that DJ will bring his passion for the ocean and environment to whatever work he does.

A student from New Delhi participating in a school strike to protest climate change. (Taken by Laurène Becquart, AFP)

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the global climate strike, it is becoming widely recognized that the youth of this generation are now taking matters into their own hands. Is it stories like Greta Thunberg, the now 17 year-old phenom from Sweden, who started this so-called “eco-revolution”? Although she has become what Time Magazine describes as “the face of a global youth-led movement,” she correspondingly describes herself as simply “one of many faces.” Well before Greta’s strike in front of the Swedish Parliament, youth climate activists around the world were already in long- standing battles against environmental injustices in their local communities. From Jamie Margolin, founder of the Seattle-based climate activist group Zero Hour, to Adriana Salazar, activist from the Aymara indigenous community in the Bolivian Andes, the climate crisis had already transcended national borders and impacted communities on a global scale. The convergent development of this worldview was a mystery to me. How are young people unanimously able to make such an informed and unified stance on the state of the planet?

My journey to find the answer started with the 2019 Climate Strike. What has become an annual event recognizing our ongoing fight against a rapidly changing climate, I believe the 2019 Climate Strike can be considered the first fruit to ripen from a set of ideals which were planted more than a half-century ago. In 1969, a professor (Dr. William B. Stapp) from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources published The Concept of Environmental Education, the first journal that defined “environmental education” and urged for the inclusion of the subject in youth education. A few months later, Earth Day, the first international gathering that beamed a spotlight on environmental conservation, was assembled by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson on April 22, 1970. Discussions of conservation emerged as early as 1960; however, these events further highlighted those philosophies so much so that they likely influenced the passing of the National Environmental Education Act that same year. The humble beginning of the Environmental Protection Agency was also instituted that year and, thanks to the Nixon Administration, officially brought environmentalism into the political conversation.

Throughout the 70s and into the new millennia, schools, particularly in the K-12 grade band, slowly began to see the inclusion of environmental education in the classroom. It was only after some research that I realized that with the support of specialized government sectors and the sprouting of environmental non-profits around the country, cities in America and around the globe were eager to ingrain their youth with a little green thumb. To further my initial hypothesis, I sat down (via Zoom, of course!) with three Bay Area educators from different economic sectors and asked them to share their thoughts on the importance of environmental studies in youth education. Here are their responses:

Contra Costa Water District (CCWD)

Students touring the Randall-Bold Water Treatment Plant, CCWD (taken by Justin Favela)

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is the primary source of usable water for all of Contra Costa county, even extending its influence to Central and Southern California communities by way of the California Aqueduct. Water resource management, in the context of water for human consumption, is handled mostly by the CCWD, which services over 500,000 residents in the Contra Costa area. I interviewed CCWD’s Education Coordinator and Public Information Officer, Justin Favela, who leads the watershed education programs offered by the government-funded agency. He goes on to describe the intent of their curriculum package:

“Kids get to go out there and see with their eyes and with their own two hands how many different industries, people, and animals that rely on the Delta. There’s an indelibleness that people think that it’s indestructible, but it’s not.” – J. Favela

The watershed educational programs are intended for grades 3-5, continuing to build students’ knowledge of their local watershed with each subsequent year. Field trips include a Delta research voyage, a visit to the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, and a tour of a local water treatment facility. Coupled with a slew of classroom presentations, kids are educated on topics that include: (1) Where their water comes from; (2) Where their waste water goes; (3) Proper disposal of waste items; (4) The importance of conservation in the Delta region.

“It’s so powerful when you catch a kid at the end of 5th grade and they really understand. These kids understand so much more about their source water and that’s awesome! Even if they don’t get into water, they at least know the worth of water.” – J. Favela

While there are no specific performance indicators for the program’s success, Justin goes on to describe how a few students who’ve been through the water program have gone on to high school and are now thinking of pursuing higher levels of education in civil or environmental engineering. If that isn’t an indication of success in and of itself, then I don’t know what is.

The Marine Science Institute (MSI)

The Redwood City non-profit, founded in 1970, was created “on the idea that putting students in direct physical contact with their local bay environment will help cultivate their natural sense of curiosity, enrich their understanding of science, and foster a responsibility to protect the environment.” Now entering their 50th anniversary, the institute has a notable track record, and after completing their 2019 fiscal year, their team had educated over 60,000 students at over 600 different schools around the Bay Area.

When asked about their flagship program, the Discovery Voyage, Executive Director Marilou Seiff comments that “we created a program that would take [kids] out onto the San Francisco Bay to do fish trawls, benthic grabs, plankton tows, and water samples.” She goes on to add that she’s “run across people, decades later, that don’t remember the particulars of the day, but still remember the experience of going out on the ship.”

Once instructor, now educational program manager, Jodi Stewart reminisces on an early memory in her career on the R.V. Robert G. Brownlee:

“Another memory I have is when we caught a ghost shrimp and a Dungeness crab in the same net. We turned around and came back and…the shrimp was no more! This tied right into our food web theme that we were talking about that day, but it was definitely unexpected!” – J. Stewart

Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, the veteran non-profit still looks to continue educating local children about the ecology of the San Francisco Bay through a fleet of socially distant in-person and online programs. You can find their newly launched programs here.

Gateway High School, Environmental Science & Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science

Although only in her second year with Gateway High School, current environmental science teacher, Alix Spivack, is well acquainted with the subject, carrying 10+ years in environmental consulting and the title of Executive Director of the Bay Model Association in partnership with the San Francisco Bay Model Visitor Center. After having obtained her teaching credential, she was ecstatic to enter the classroom as a full-time environmental science teacher and to share her wealth of knowledge in the field of environmental education.

Recognizing the limitation of in-person interactions this fall semester, Ms. Spivak put together the “ES-9 Corner” Guest Speaker Series where invited scientists of varying disciplines come into her classroom’s virtual meeting space for a short presentation and Q&A. I had the wonderful opportunity of connecting with her students where I presented a short introductory talk on the San Francisco Estuary. The inception of the virtual speaker series was an attempt to:

“…think of creative ways to bring that excitement for the sciences into the home of the students. It’s exposing students to the field sciences, issues of environmental justice, providing them with career path exposure, and a nice model of if ‘he or she can do it, then so can I.’” – A. Spivack

At the conclusion of our conversation, I asked for her opinion on the importance of environmental education for young people.

“What environmental education provides is a beautiful context for delivering the sciences, mathematics, language arts, and arts through an interdisciplinary study of real-world problems. To be out in the field to discover the wonders of the natural world.” – A. Spivack

The guidance of environmental educators like them and others around the world is creating a foundation for our future generation to become the conservationists our planet so desperately needs. Without the introduction of environmental education in the classroom, would icons like Thunberg exist? You don’t need to sail across the Atlantic to make a difference. With the intent to inspire, continuing to educate our youth towards becoming environmental ambassadors for the future may be an essential component at extending our stay here on this planet.

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