Voices in Education

Exploring the Environment with Standards-Based Lessons
The following article originally appeared in The Harvard Education Letter (volume 29, number 6). Copyright 2013 President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Throughout most of human history, people have lived in direct contact with nature, growing their own food, raising or killing animals to eat, using trees and stones to build homes, and using water for irrigation, household purposes, and transportation. Since the beginning of time, and long before the existence of formal systems of education, the most important thing humans taught their children was how to survive by exploiting nature’s resources. Not until about 150 years ago, when more people began to live in cities than in the country, and education became more formally organized around the three Rs, did the environment become something optional when it came to education.

Over the past two decades, teaching about the environment has decreased as schools have had to focus increasingly on helping students master the skills and content represented in state standards and show their mastery each year on high-stakes tests that cover only two subjects: math and English language arts. In large part, the decrease in learning about the environment resulted from the fact that states—with the exception of Pennsylvania and California—did not develop standards related to instruction about the environment or environmental issues. As a result of the shift in focus to standards-based instruction and associated budgetary changes, teaching and learning about the environment and environmental issues and how they affect humans and the natural world have decreased dramatically.

Today, appreciating and understanding how humans and natural systems interact—and can be sustained in the future—are so absent from the modern classroom that, despite the growing litany of concerns around climate change, population growth, and environmental destruction that will affect future generations, few states, districts, or schools have any kind of environmental education built into their curricula. The once-common school field trips to parks, forests, ponds, beaches, or even farms and zoos, which for many urban dwellers represented their only contact with the natural world, have been eliminated from many school districts as a result of changes in instructional priorities and budget cuts. Due to recent political shifts, many people and organizations now perceive environmental education as part of a political agenda rather than as “integrated into the whole system of formal education at all levels to provide the necessary knowledge, understanding, values, and skills needed . . . [as] a prerequisite for resolving serious environmental problems at the global level,” as was defined at the 1977 UNESCO-sponsored Tbilisi Conference.

What Educators Can Do
In 1995, concerned about these recent trends, representatives from education departments in 12 states, with the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts, joined together with the intention of constructing strategies to strengthen student achievement in academic content standards by using high-quality environmental education as a centerpiece for classroom instruction. In a major study, this group, called the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER), was able to document that students in schools that use the environment to teach lessons aligned with state and district standards not only do better on standardized measures of academic achievement but exhibit fewer discipline problems than similar students not receiving this type of instruction.

Since this finding, SEER has consulted with more than 700 schools, districts, and the state of California to create a new form of environmental education called EBE, or environment-based education—which focuses on students learning about the interactions between natural and human social systems. Most recently, this type of instruction has been endorsed by the Next Generation Science Standards, which, as early as kindergarten, call for educators to prepare students to “communicate solutions that will reduce the impact of humans on the land, water, air, and/or other living things in the local environment” and, at the high school level, to “construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.”

Educators today need to know that standards-based instruction and learning about the environment need not be mutually exclusive. By connecting instruction to a school’s local environment, teachers can engage students with authentic lessons that directly support students to become proficient in academic content standards. When interwoven with academic content, environmental study becomes not simply another add-on to academic studies but an engaging, integrating medium for multiple subjects. Furthermore, EBE educators report many other benefits, including increased opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking, participate in internships, and perform service-learning projects to benefit their communities.

How It Works
In many ways, creating and implementing an EBE program in a school or district is a community event. Partnerships with local organizations and outreach to stakeholders, including school board members and parents, are integral to the process as administrators and teachers cocreate the curriculum. Beginning with a clear vision and mission statement and goals for their program, educators work with students to map the human and natural systems and the interactions in their community and to construct investigations and other projects designed to teach standards-based lessons.

The fifth-grade “Water Works” unit, developed by teachers Erica Peters and Dennis Silverio at Jackson Elementary School in Altadena, Calif., provides a useful example of EBE in action. Since many fifth-grade state science standards were related to the sources and use of water, the water cycle, and decreasing water use, the teachers decided that they wanted to work with their students to develop an EBE unit focused on water in their local community, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that “students will recognize the positive effects that they can make on the environment by becoming more aware of water as a resource, their water usage, and the need for water conservation.”

The development of the unit got under way with students and teachers walking around the campus and the school’s neighborhood, finding satellite photos on the Internet, and locating maps of the area, with a special emphasis on gathering information about water use and availability in the school, on the campus, and in the neighborhood. After creating a community map of all the natural and human systems and their interactions, students conducted water studies on campus to understand the origin of the water used in their local community and to identify ways to decrease water use through both conservation and recycling.

The teachers then used the students’ research as the basis for reading and discussing how geography and climate influence water distribution. They connected this content, outlined in history/social science standards, through additional readings and discussions about how people in different nations adjust their behaviors and the locations of their villages according to available sources of water. Students learned math content by measuring the volume of water used in different locations and computing basic statistics and making estimates related to the data they collected about campus water usage.

As one of the culminating assessments, teachers had the students apply what they had learned to an investigation of plantings and gardens around the campus. Students demonstrated their proficiency with solving real-world math problems, for example, by identifying where water was used on the campus and how much water was used in different areas and then comparing the volumes of water used in those areas. To assess students’ English language arts skills, teachers had students create brochures and make presentations to the PTA in which they explained the results of their study and described their proposal for the school to begin to use “water-wise” plants to save water. The teachers assessed students’ scientific and environmental knowledge by analyzing the content of their brochures and presentations.

“This hands-on experience engaged our students in active learning and helped them see how what they are studying in school relates to their everyday lives,” said Peters. “Analyzing their own data about water use at the school and then writing and speaking about their investigations is right on target with the goals of the Common Core standards. Giving the students opportunities to collect and analyze real-world data is going to fit right in as we start to implement the new science standards.”

Shifting Landscape
Ultimately, students’ success—job prospects and ability to participate in a civil society and contribute solutions necessary for maintaining a healthy environment—depends not only on their knowledge of academic content but on their ability to identify, analyze, and balance the multitude of factors that can affect the environment. For students to succeed in life and be able to resolve the environmental challenges of the 21st century, they must be able to function effectively in society’s decision-making processes and not just “know” about the environment per se. They need to learn how human social systems (economics, laws, culture, politics, etc.) function and how these systems interact with natural systems in the environment.

Students in EBE programs have applied their learning by contributing to solutions to environmental challenges in many communities, like the sixth-graders in Huntingdon, Pa., who brought the results of their study of a nearby creek to their local borough council, resulting in a $250,000 grant to the community to fix a cracked sewer line. And the third-graders in Emmaus, Pa., who identified damage to the creek next to their school, engaging their parents and the community in a project to restore habitat in the riparian zone along the creek to prevent erosion, replace native plants, and enhance local wildlife. Across the country, through environmental service-learning projects like these, students have assisted local, state, and federal government officials in collecting data on everything from energy use and campus waste to land use and air and water quality.

Over the next decade, standards-based education will be undergoing substantial changes in the wake of the development and widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. The instructional changes that will come with this shifting landscape of standards will oblige states and school districts to undertake a major reworking of everything from textbooks to professional development for teachers—in-service as well as for those just entering the field. This massive shift in K–12 education, when considered in light of the public’s rapidly growing awareness of and concerns about the environment, makes it the ideal time to consider using the environment as a context for standards-based learning and for developing critical thinking and other skills. While EBE is not a magic bullet that will solve all of the world’s problems, the benefits that it offers are worth considering at this important time.

About the Author: Gerald A. Lieberman, a curriculum expert and founding director of the State Education and Environment Round­table, is the author of Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts (Harvard Education Press, 2013).