Last week at the 16th floor penthouse of the Holiday Inn Sacramento, something great was going on. But it wasn’t the swanky party you might expect. Instead, a party of dedicated Education and the Environment (EEI) Curriculum Teacher Ambassadors and environmental experts gathered to evaluate the state of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) implementation and environmental literacy in our California schools, and to move forward the goal of science education and environmental literacy for all California students. There is much to celebrate and still much work to be done. Based on our experience in the field, a need expressed by classroom teachers and school administrators centers around the work of designing NGSS units of study that incorporate California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs), engineering design, systems thinking, and environmental service learning. This was not a party with loud music and dancing. It was a festive gathering of passionate, dedicated educators and education advocates visualizing and creating the future of science education in California. I was lucky enough to be invited to this penthouse party, and it was just the kind I like!
At the Front Line of Innovation
This work is some of the first of its kind in the state. At this point in California’s NGSS rollout process, many districts are just barely beginning to envision the landscape of NGSS integration in the classroom, and few districts have an in-depth understanding of how to pair NGSS with our unique-to-California EP&Cs. This puts the EEI Curriculum at the front line of innovative, environment-based NGSS curriculum development.
This vision for science education in California will change the trajectory of what it means to teach and learn science. By connecting California’s EP&Cs to California’s NGSS, the State Board of Education and the California Science Framework Committee have demonstrated that they see environmental literacy as integral to scientific literacy for our state’s youth. An adaptation of the original logo, with the addition of a branch, represents a vision of how the EP&Cs can support scientific, engineering, and environmental literacy for California’s youth.
Then the Party got Messy
To lead the EEI Teacher Ambassadors and CalRecycle’s Environmental Education Specialists in this work, State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) director, Dr. Jerry Lieberman stepped in. The esteemed Dr. Lieberman and his remarkably talented wife Grace led the group through the process of planning environment-based Units of Study. This is where the party got messy! Such a task involved poring over a broad collection of EEI curriculum to harvest just the right resources to support a selected NGSS standard. We identified local environmental phenomena as the basis for the Units of Study and then identified connections between Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), and Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
Appendix 2: California Gold
This work would not have been possible if it weren’t for the amazing California Science Framework Appendix 2! When the California Science Framework Committee had its public hearings, I was honored to have a chance to speak in support of including the State Board-approved EP&Cs in our California version of the NGSS. And they did include them! They listened. In fact, they called for an explicit focus on the EP&Cs. This meant that in order to support districts and teachers in implementing this explicit focus in the classroom, some explicit direction would be necessary. Huge thanks to the California State Board of Education and its Instructional Quality Commission for recognizing this need and including Appendix 2 in the newly adopted California Science Framework. This appendix is California gold. It strategically lays out which EP&Cs align to each Performance Expectation, and then calls out grade level-appropriate EEI Units that contain informational text, lesson plans, graphics, and maps to support the selected NGSS standard. Even better, these EEI curricular resources are readily available online for free. At that penthouse party in Sacramento, I was quietly celebrating CA-NGSS Appendix 2 in my unassuming, nerd-like way. With the connections in place, we began the work of looking for local phenomena around which to build the unit.
Phenomena are what drive the work of both the scientist and the engineer. Phenomena are everywhere. Environmental phenomena can be right outside your classroom door. Jerry Lieberman suggests that “learning to explain phenomena and solve problems is central to students engaging in the three dimensions of the NGSS.” It is in the process of explaining phenomena that students must develop and apply the DCIs, CCCs, and SEPs, as well as increase their environmental literacy by expanding their understanding of the EP&Cs. Thus, the phenomena must be the unifying context of the NGSS Unit of Study.
An environmental phenomenon might center around a local site, such as this iconic spot along the Sacramento River. Why are there differences in the biodiversity at different spots along the river? How can we measure this? What is causing these differences and what could be done to protect, preserve, and enjoy this riparian habitat? Now we have a context. We have a reason for students to find out what biodiversity means, and to investigate methods to measure it. We have reasons for students to interview local experts, and we have opportunities for students to do real science.
Figure 1 Sacramento Riparian Habitat, Stephne Barnes, 2017
Environmental Service Learning
This phenomenal context rolls students right into environmental service learning. Indeed, environmental service learning should swell up from the students. It should be student-initiated and developed, with teachers and community members acting as the guides on the side and not as project directors. This service learning project needs to apply academic knowledge and skills to a real issue in the community. Ideally this issue will have been identified as students grapple with understanding the selected phenomena.
Jim Bentley in his article, “How to Use the Environment to Design Project Based Learning Experiences,” suggests: “Our roles as teachers require more than simply teaching content to students. It’s preparing them to be critical thinkers, citizen scientists, and advocates for problems that may not even exist yet—and to do that will take an understanding of the nuanced interconnections that exist between ourselves and our environment.”
Making Science Relevant
The California Science Framework Overview and Instructional Strategies chapters identify outdoor and environmental learning experiences as “powerful tools for implementing key instructional shifts required by the CA NGSS and California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs).” CA NGSS instruction is intended to be “relevant to local communities and student interests.” This kind of integration will have a strong impact on cultural dynamics, teaching students to care and take action to improve their local communities and the environment. This empowerment can lead to a cultural shift toward thoughtful, decision-based action.
In order to provide California’s K–12 students with the context and learning experiences necessary to prepare them to be the critical thinkers, problem solvers, and advocates that Jim Bentley suggests, we will need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We will need to design Units of Study that address connections between Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCIs), Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs), Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs), Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and our unique Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). We will need to design Units of Study around environmental phenomena and allow the students to direct the environmental service learning projects to suit the needs of their community. This work will not be easy, but it doesn’t have to be done alone. Collaboration is key. There are fantastic programs like the California EEI Curriculum from CalRecycle, and organizations like Ten Strands and SEER who will fill in the gap to help teachers develop Units of Study that are standards based, relevant, and meaningful. This work will be messy, but it’s work that must be done in support of environmental literacy for all California students.