The Capitol Corridor, Keystone, and NGSS

By Will Parish|February 25, 2014

Riding the Capitol Corridor train on my most recent trip to Sacramento, I was struck by just how much I miss teaching. While it was hard to leave the high school classroom, I am happy to be involved with contributing input on the revision of the Science Framework for California Public Schools.

The reason for my train trip was to speak in front of the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee. I wanted to join the chorus of teachers and others who are in support of California’s Education and the Environment Initiative EP&Cs becoming an integral part of the Science Framework, in furtherance of legislation passed back in 2003.

Thinking about new standards coming into play and my former classroom, students and high school, I enjoyed the familiar rhythm of the train of steel. I pondered how I would have woven a lesson plan around the teachable moment that existed in the days following President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. I would’ve applauded the President for opening his speech with a nod to the importance of great teaching, in fact, in the first 22 seconds! I would’ve pointed out that this President acknowledges that climate change is a fact and not merely an opinion. After some discussion, and asking whether the students thought the speech overlooked some important themes, I would’ve applauded those who noticed that the President didn’t mention the Keystone XL pipeline decision that the State Department just published, and that he only used the word “environment” once.

Why didn’t the President address the most complex environmental decision of his Presidency? That question would’ve been my WUP, a two-minute “warm up” for the brain. Then I would have asked who knew about the Keystone XL pipeline and the State Department report.

I would have used the State Department’s Environmental Impact Report as the basis of a lesson plan. The report found that the XL Pipeline would have little to no impact on climate change, because even if the US weren’t involved in building it someone else would get it built, so a “no go” decision by the US wouldn’t actually prevent any CO2 emissions. On what grounds was this decision based would have been my critical thinking question for my students. I would have focused my teaching methodology around the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The NGSS Framework identifies seven crosscutting concepts that bridge disciplinary boundaries, uniting core ideas throughout the fields of science and engineering. Their purpose is to help students deepen their understanding of the disciplinary core ideas and develop a coherent and scientifically based view of the world. I would have chosen these two in my lesson planning:

  • 4. Systems and system models: Defining the system under study—specifying its boundaries and making explicit a model of that system—provides tools for understanding and testing ideas that are applicable throughout science and engineering. And
  • 5. Energy and matter: Flows, cycles, and conservation. Tracking fluxes of energy and matter into, out of, and within systems helps one understand the systems’ possibilities and limitations.

I would have directed the students’ attention to some specific findings of the State Department report and asked whether they could identify methods similar to those that the Framework puts forward as important for reaching sound decisions. I would have also had them read some recent reports in the media. For example, a recent Washington Times article:

The State Department concluded in its final environmental assessment issued Friday that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would be unlikely to alter global greenhouse gas emissions, but officials cautioned that they are still weighing whether the project would meet the test of President Obama’s broader climate strategy.

Though the report acknowledged that tapping the Canadian oil sands for the pipeline would produce more greenhouse gases, the assessment also said that blocking the project would not prevent development of those resources.

Additionally, State Department official Kerri-Ann Jones states that the ‘study relied on assumptions about pipeline capacity, oil prices and transportation and development costs that were ‘uncertain and changeable.’”

Pulling into the Sacramento station, I looked forward to my 20-minute walk to the California Department of Education building where the session would be held. I wondered if I’d get my daily 10,000 steps that teachers frequently walk during a day. Walking, I couldn’t help but think about how teachers might be inspired to create inquiry-based lesson plans around environmental topics such as the Keystone Pipeline decision, and how mutually supportive the NGSS crosscutting concepts and EP&Cs are to one and other. That reflection really brought me full circle, in that while I miss the daily interaction with students as they look through the lens of science to gather information and consider possibilities, it is that excitement which compelled me to form Ten Strands.

As a teacher I understand the importance of quality resources and materials to engage and educate students, and the need for the same in environmental science. While still active in the classroom I served on the Curriculum Commission, and became aware of the EEI law and associated curriculum. Conscious that this was an incredibly important achievement and opportunity, I decided that with enough effort perhaps I could contribute to something that would reach students beyond what the four walls of my classroom could hold and made the decision to form an organization dedicated to doing so.

At the focus group meeting I gave my statement as Ten Strands Executive Director, but also as a former teacher, parent, and citizen who believes in the importance of an educated and eco-literate population. I am thankful for the time and experiences I had in the classroom, and likewise am excited to move forward in joining with others who seek to enable our schools and environment to be the best they can be through providing quality resources, supporting teachers and students, and encouraging effective, innovative pathways to learning.

Will Parish
This article was written by Will Parish

Will Parish is a credentialed public high school science educator with a 30-year record of innovative accomplishments in the environmental and educational fields. He taught Environmental Science at Gateway High School in San Francisco, and now serves on the board. He served on the California State Board of Education’s Curriculum Commission and then founded Ten Strands as a nonprofit organization to support California’s efforts to bring environmental literacy to all K–12 students in the state.