Why I Joined the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative: A Cohesive Standards-based Climate Change Unit for Eighth Grade

By Susan Hansen|April 24, 2019

As a science teacher it is a challenge to offer approachable yet enriching curriculum for all students, especially because I strive to create rich curriculum for every student in every one of my classes. The middle school students I teach reflect the diversity of California, and include students with a wide range of experiences, abilities, and learning styles. This span includes students who are challenged in mastering science standards, students who are learning and working to master an entirely new language, and students who are currently performing beyond the eighth grade science standards.

Despite such a wide spread in mastery levels, I believe that all students deserve the opportunity to learn science at a level that is accessible. I make sure that I teach students how to read nonfiction science text, how to take good notes, and how to write solid claim, evidence, and reasoning (CER) statements. With these basic skills, approaching science material is more formulaic and more manageable. I start each unit, and most lessons, with phenomena and personal reflection, and move on to team thinking. I offer a challenging and enriching curriculum to extend scientific understanding and thought.

I hoped that my participation in the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative (SMELC) would give me the opportunity to work with the SMELC community to access and develop a more environmentally focused, well-articulated, standards-based unit for my students using the framework from this workshop, material from community-based partners, other workshops, and my existing science lessons into a solid and coherent standards-based unit on climate change, with a focus that was uniquely targeted on the eighth grade Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

The San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative

When I first arrived at the San Mateo County Office of Education, I was impressed by the obvious cohesiveness of the facilitator team and the well organized fair-like atmosphere of the workshop. Not only was there responsibly sourced breakfast and lunch, the expertise of the presenters and the amount of pre-work that was done to ensure that the workshop ran smoothly was evident throughout the four-day session. Initially I was going to be working individually on my own unit since my district colleagues were not available for the summer session, but the SMELC facilitators were prepared in this area too, and I was seated with other middle school singletons.

I was able to form a group with three congenial middle school educators from two neighboring school districts. One was from a San Mateo County school, who had experience working with the SMELC system and showed me how to access the resources and set up the first part of my unit. The other two shared my interest in putting together a unit on climate change. Together we learned the SMELC process and NGSS tools. We posed essential questions, discussed essential understandings, and built a blueprint for a unit on climate change using chemistry as a lens. The activity was invaluable: setting up trial lessons with the SMELC team and community partners allowed me to pull together new lessons, existing lessons, and material from the workshop to design a cohesive NGSS unit in a manageable and simple step-by-step way. But my unit from the SMELC workshop was not complete enough to use in class.

I wasn’t happy with the chemistry part of the unit because it seemed that launching a unit on climate change at the beginning of the year should frame the science that we would learn all year—not cause us to jump into a topic that we don’t clearly understand and would be more suitably taught later in the year. To search for more appropriate lessons, I travelled to the Office of Education & the Environment in Sacramento to meet with my community partner and review their units related to climate change. Lucy Christensen, environmental education specialist at CalRecycle, sat with me for the day while I reviewed every middle school Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum unit linked to climate change. To fit the scope of my unit, we determined that I needed to use lessons from several units, rather than teach entire EEI units.

Next, the unit had to be refocused and tuned using the SMELC tools and process. I wanted to co-teach the unit, so I solicited the help of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable teacher to join me in creating the newly focused unit. Krithika Paulvannan and I spent several days discussing and fitting all of the pieces of the unit together. We rewrote the unit to mesh with the beginning-of-the-year units (scientific process and the nature of science standards) as our lens for understanding climate change.

In this new unit, many of the beginning activities from our existing “Nature of Science Unit” were replaced with more suitable labs and lessons based on the climate change unit. For example, when we learn to read and make scientific charts and graphs, understanding is based on actual graphs created using measures of climate change. When writing CER statements, we practice framing our work with existing statements from climate scientists. When we do our climate change-focused labs, we learn about how to measure scientific data. We learn about data integrity and some of the sources for, and causes of, the climate change debate. In the end we had a beautiful product that started with establishing an understanding of community; learning about weather and climate; energy and climate change; greenhouse gasses; the greenhouse effect; impacts, adaptation, and mitigation of climate change; and science consensus and the climate change debate.

Student project: How a Share Table can reduce food waste.

Students collaborated on a climate change mitigation plan for their formal assessment. It was important to leave students with a sense of hope and a call to action for measures that they can take to mitigate climate change. In collaboration with our language arts colleague, the culminating project was a service-learning project (also known as passion project) that was completed in each student’s language arts class. Students had choices in choosing their community-based passion project. While most of their projects directly addressed climate change mitigation actions, some students chose projects that fit better under a sustainability umbrella. All in all, there were 131 service-learning projects that addressed community and sustainability issues. The breadth, depth, and quality of the projects was astonishing as students chose projects that were focused on areas of personal concern.

Student project: Raffle to encourage walking, biking, and carpooling.

The projects gave students the insight and power to see that they could make their community a better place. The best parts of teaching this unit were seeing my students show interest and care for the environment and the unsolicited positive feedback I received about the unit from students. I received so many notes from students who thanked me for teaching this unit and implored me to continue teaching this unit.

I recently received an email from a student who had moved away from our school. She wrote, “I really liked the climate change unit, it made me interested in how the climate is changing and the effects of it.” Earlier this year a different student said, “I loved your climate change unit. Through my research for your class, I was able to educate myself and others around me, such as my family, on the activities polluting our precious planet.”

All in all, teaching this unit has been greatly rewarding. I hope that the skills and knowledge my students gain enables them to pursue the knowledge they need to capture their dreams. My personal dream for each and every student is that they learn to love and appreciate science. I hope that they develop the capacity to become scientists, or the ability to work in fields that require good problem-solving skills that promote scientific thinking. Because of my love for learning and my desire to create as many scientists as possible, my move to teaching has been an interesting challenge and adventure.

Teaching is an entirely different animal from working in private industry. In engineering, everyone looks to you to solve problems and create solutions, while in teaching many give unsolicited advice for solutions and propose better ways for me to do my work. Because everyone has been in school, most think that going to class is the same as teaching class. As educators we understand the fallacy of this thinking, and we understand that sometimes creating wonderful curriculum and lessons is a huge challenge. That is why I applied to join the SMELC cohort. Through SMELC we created a comprehensive, expansive, solid, NGSS-based, Common Core-framed, Environmental Principles and Concepts-centered unit to challenge and empower students, and address climate change.

Susan Hansen
This article was written by Susan Hansen

Susan Hansen has taught middle school for 17 years in Cupertino Union School District. She is a native of the Santa Clara Valley who graduated from University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor of science in chemical engineering, then later obtained her master of science in electrical engineering from Santa Clara University. After 20 years in technology, she decided to try her hand at growing new scientists, so she made a career change to teaching. Susan has a multiple subject teaching credential with authorizations in math, science, and chemistry. In her free time, she likes to play outside, create and fix things, and listen to good music.