Science is central to how we understand and make sense of the world around us.
Could it be that the best way to teach science might be to turn that idea on its head?
The natural world is central to how we understand and make sense of science. Across California, where schools are implementing new science standards, many teachers are embracing an environment-based approach. Immersion in the natural world, and an understanding of how humans impact it (as exemplified in California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts aka EP&Cs), demands that we observe closely and seek to answer questions about environmental phenomena.
It is a path that leads us into direct, personal engagement in science—combining aspects of biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering as well as natural history, civics, math, language, and critical thinking—and it can empower and prepare students to solve real-world problems.
Asking students to go beyond the classroom requires teachers to reach outside as well. A high school teacher recently shared an example of moving beyond the classroom walls: He and his teaching colleagues are developing a Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-aligned unit that also takes into account the EP&Cs around a creek near campus emphasizing the impact humans have on the natural world. The unit asks students to use the driving question is the creek healthy? “We’ve thought for years that this is an under-utilized resource for our science teaching and are excited to get going!” he explained, and then he asked me if I knew of any resources that could help them with the unit.
Conducting field studies, connecting with real-world issues, and partnering with the community outside school—these experiences offer exciting pathways to engage students in science. But this example, with its request for help, also shines light on a common and significant challenge: the isolation of the classroom. Most teachers are eager to build bridges between school and the “real” world, but it takes time to build meaningful collaborations—time teachers usually don’t have outside their many existing responsibilities.
Imagine teachers could be given a special tool designed to save time and advance this important and inspiring work. Guess what? That tool exists! It is the California Regional Environmental Education Community, better known to many as the CREEC Network.
The CREEC Network
The CREEC Network is a powerful resource for accessing information to meet the needs of teachers and schools interested in using the environment to drive learning across traditional subject areas. The California Department of Education administers the network to help teachers anywhere in the state to find local environmental education resources connected to instructional goals. CREEC provides a network of resource professionals ready to help districts, schools, and teachers connect classroom instruction with unique field experiences, grants, local experts, citizen science projects, and more. Every region of California offers unique environmental education resources—State and National Parks programs, marine sanctuaries, outdoor science schools, open-space preserves, natural history museums, and many others. California has hundreds of organizations providing thousands of environmental education programs and resources across the state—often free and designed to support educational standards.
However, many of these resources are underutilized. Valuable environmental resources and programs may surround schools, but many teachers still face imposing barriers to taking advantage of them: time to find what resources are available and align them with instructional goals and new standards, and funding for transportation and program fees.
Schools need environmental education resources now more than ever before, especially as schools begin to implement the NGSS, and CREEC is set up to help teachers access them. NGSS, California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, and an increasing emphasis on STEM and career readiness require an increase in teaching of environmental topics. Students need to understand natural resources management, environmental systems, engineering, and science-based decision-making processes to face future challenges. CREEC maintains an online hub for environmental education throughout California. This enables teachers to find grants, sign up for professional development opportunities, and quickly find local resources and programs for their students to build strong connections to the environment, apply science practices, and advance them along the path to environmental literacy.
The Network also provides a CREEC Coordinator (an expert advisor) in each region. The CREEC Coordinator in each of California’s 11 administrative regions serves as a conduit for information flowing between the school system and the nonformal environmental education sector. They alert teachers and administrators to opportunities for teacher professional development and grant funding. Coordinators help schools find programs that fit the needs of teachers and students. And they work closely with environmental education program providers to communicate the priorities of the schools so that environmental education organizations can design and offer programs that are accessible and support classroom instruction.
A (Brief!) History of the CREEC Network and its Relevance Today
“Imagine submitting a one-page proposal to form a statewide communication network connecting all of California’s teachers with a vast array of state and community-based environmental education resources, and receiving a handwritten note from the then State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Delaine Eastin, saying ‘I applaud the concept!’ That actually happened to me in 1997!” recalls Bill Andrews, Executive Director of the California Environmental Education Foundation and member of the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee. He was describing the birth of the CREEC Network 20 years ago. Grants were competitively awarded from funds generated by the sale of personalized vehicle license plates (yes, those environmental license plates make a difference!). Thanks to a phenomenal groundswell of interest and matching support across the state, California educators have received personalized access to a wide array of carefully vetted environmental education resources ever since.
In the two decades that followed, the California Department of Education forged successful partnerships with multiple agencies and vital regional partnerships in each of the 11 Superintendent’s Education Service Regions. These partnerships supported key projects to increase the capacity of the network and provide online tools, including a Network Calendar and searchable Resource Directory. CREEC also began distributing quarterly newsletters for both statewide and regional audiences to efficiently share environmental education opportunities with partners, teachers, school administrators, and providers. With the advent of social media, CREEC established a Facebook page to share timely news and regional events.
These essential enhancements and social media outlets helped magnify the impact beyond what could be provided by the roughly 18 CREEC Coordinators, who serve all of California’s 58 counties on a part-time basis, spending one to two days per week during the school year increasing access to environmental education resources. Bringing expertise from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from current and former credentialed classroom teachers to county office of education employees and nonformal educators, CREEC Coordinators sit in a unique position.
Our education system has been going through sweeping changes, and many educators are struggling to adapt and keep up. As teachers transition to NGSS and other new standards, environmental topics provide meaningful opportunities for weaving together scientific and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas as well as for testing integrated science models in real-world, relevant contexts, and engaging students.
Equity of access to environment-based learning for all students is critical. As highlighted in the Blueprint, “K–12 students in California do not currently have consistent access to adequately funded, high-quality learning experiences, in and out of the classroom, that build environmental literacy. While some students regularly participate in systematic, ongoing environmental literacy experiences, many more receive only a limited introduction to environmental content and some have no access at all.” CREEC can help to ensure all California students have access to the vast network of resources available in the state, but it will require new growth.
Increasing Environmental Literacy with a Strengthened CREEC Network
Natural resource management, agriculture, conservation; the environment has always had an extremely high profile in California. And now, under the guidance of State Superintendent Tom Torlakson (a former science teacher himself), California’s public school system has a Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and a public-private partnership providing support to implement the Blueprint’s six key strategies; one of which focuses on strengthening the CREEC Network.
The Blueprint calls for re-envisioning the CREEC Network by developing and implementing a strategic plan that revitalizes, strengthens, funds, and expands the services rendered by the regional offices. The Superintendent’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee is actively seeking paths to fund full-time CREEC Coordinators in every region to support development of environmental literacy plans in every district in order to reach the 300,000 public school teachers and 6.2 million K–12 students in California.
Additionally, the Blueprint recommends redesigning and enhancing the CREEC Resource Directory to link it with existing and emerging digital resource portals. The overall goal is to help formal and nonformal educators and community-based providers work more closely together to integrate environmental literacy into mainstream instruction, while providing culturally relevant, high-quality learning experiences in the outdoors, on school grounds, and in communities in order to serve all of California’s K–12 students.
Environmental Literacy for All Students Provides Benefits Beyond School
What of the teacher with dreams of using the creek by his school as a centerpiece of science instruction? After reaching out to his CREEC Coordinator, the teacher received a list of relevant, vetted, local, resources—most of them free. His students will be working with the Coastal Watershed Council to learn how to conduct water quality tests to use as indicators of stream health. In surveying wildlife, the Bird School Project will connect his students with University of California Santa Cruz environmental studies undergraduate mentors to learn the skills of field scientists as they identify birds in the study area. Along the way, they will learn to look through the same lens as scientists, natural resource managers, naturalists, educators, and other expert community partners.
These students will take away much more than knowledge from these experiences. According to a recent Stanford University analysis, the benefits of environmental education have “been shown to develop academic skills, such as critical thinking, decision making, and synthesizing complex information. Environmental education has helped produce effective problem-solvers, lifelong learners, and thoughtful community leaders and participants.” Dr. Nicole Ardoin, of Stanford University Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the Environment, notes that, “There is a mountain of evidence that suggests environmental education is a powerful way to teach students. Over 100 studies found that it provides transformative learning opportunities. There is no doubt that environmental education is one of the most effective ways to instill a passion for learning among students.”
Another Stanford-led study found quantifiable evidence that time in natural settings is beneficial for mental health and wellbeing. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban settings, and that is forecast to rise to 70 percent within a few decades. As urbanization and disconnection from nature have grown, so have mental disorders such as depression. The study found that city-dwellers have a 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40% higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia. This is highly significant, especially for Californians because according to the US Census Bureau:
- Of the 50 states, California was the most urban, with nearly 95 percent of its population residing within urban areas
- Of the 10 most densely populated urbanized areas in the US, seven are in California
- The nation’s most densely populated urbanized area is Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim
- The San Francisco-Oakland area is the second most densely populated area in the US, followed by San Jose and Delano
It seems environmental education for all students has the power to transform not only the future of education, but also the future of our environment, and the health and wellness of our citizens and society.