The CREEC Network Turns 20: Marking A New Chapter for Environmental Literacy for California’s 6.2 Million Students

By Mary Walls|July 26, 2017

As a new-ish CREEC Coordinator, I experienced a combination of awe, humility, and a call to activism at this June’s first conference for the California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) Network in nearly a decade. I became a CREEC coordinator in Region 10 (Riverside, Inyo, Mono, and San Bernardino counties) about a year ago and attended the twentieth-anniversary conference at San Luis Obispo’s Rancho El Chorro Conference & Retreat Center. Apparent even to a newcomer was a new vision and trajectory for CREEC, and a renewed hope in what we can do for all students in California. No small task certainly, but there are many talented individuals ready to do the work, and, thanks to support from the state and nonprofit organizations, financial backing to support us. 

The Awe

The first day of the conference began with a region-by-region glimpse into the CREEC Network through a series of lightning talks. These regional presentations highlighted the quality work being done all over the state, including, among others: Region 7 developing strong partnerships with the agricultural sector, Region 2 rebuilding new paths entirely, and Region 3 supporting educators’ transition to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Every region shared similar stories of exciting work being done in its part of California.

As the conference continued, we learned the history of CREEC, founded twenty years ago by Bill Andrews (here is a great summary and history of CREEC in a blog post by Amity Sandage), which was put into today’s context through sessions led by influential leaders in this work including Karen Cowe and Will Parish of Ten Strands, Shannon Gordon from the California Department of Education, and Jerry Lieberman from the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER). All of these leaders, propelled by a love of the people they serve, not by ego, are able to see in big-picture contexts. They all have the “Yes, and…” mentality over the obstacle-creating “Yeah, but…” mindset. It is the vision of these collective individuals (and many others for sure) that will develop a systems approach that will have the capacity to reach all learners in our state, not just the chosen and privileged few.

Much of the conference involved sinking our teeth into the work that has been done to get the Environmental Principles & Concepts, EP&Cs, into new California content frameworks. Led by Jerry Lieberman, we deepened our understanding of the five EP&Cs and how they add richness to science, engineering, and history–social science instruction. These principles progress towards the understanding that we are part of a complex system that we can influence. The following driving questions, shared by Jerry, can be used in any content context to guide this thinking:

  1. How do we depend on healthy natural systems?
  2. How do humans influence natural systems?
  3. How do natural systems and humans depend on natural cycles and how do human activities influence these cycles?
  4. How does matter that moves between natural and human systems affect both?
  5. How and why do decisions affecting natural systems involve many factors and complexities?

The Humility

So much awe-inspiring work has already been done to further environmental literacy in our state that I quite honestly felt out of place among all the established members of the CREEC Network. What can I do to further the work that is twenty years in the making? It turns out there is a tremendous amount of work still needed to reach all 6.2 million K–12 students in California. Luckily, there are many resources and tools already out there to help, as well as projects, movements, frameworks, and individuals from which to learn. We do not need to feel alone in our work ahead, nor is it necessary that we as individuals have it all figured out; we can support each other and build on each other’s talents. Here are a handful of the available resources that we explored:

  • A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy: A great road map to guide the work towards high quality environmental education for ALL students in California.
  • CA Science Framework: Although the EP&Cs are interwoven throughout, look at Chapter 11 for outdoor and environmental learning experiences as recommended instructional strategies, and Appendix 2 for NGSS and EP&Cs connections.
  • CA History–Social Science Framework: Connections to the environment are a part of human history. Within this framework, there are explicit connections to the environment in Key Theme 6: Science, Technology, and the Environment, as well as detailed descriptions of the EP&Cs in Appendix F.
  • Youth Outside: This organization is dedicated to helping programs become more culturally relevant to California’s diverse population, and accessible in their efforts toward building equity.
  • BEETLES: Great resources for both formal and informal educators. Take a look at the “Exploration Routines.” These are great structures that can help all students connect to their innate curiosity about the world.
  • CREEC Network Website: A great resource to see what opportunities are in each region and to sign up for newsletters that keep you in the loop.

Halfway through the conference we went through a deeply moving experience facilitated by Laura Rodriguez from Youth Outside and Nate Ivy from CREEC Region 4. In their carefully crafted activity, we explored the painful history of our nation’s inequitable treatment, exploitation, and exclusion of populations from 1492 to the present. We were then encouraged to reflect on our own privilege and power. On the final day, Craig Strang from the BEETLES Project out of the Lawrence Hall of Science introduced us all to deceptively simple but profound routines and lessons to help students develop scientific practices and engage their curiosity.

The Activism

The CREEC Network conference this summer was not only a celebration of twenty years of building and growing, it was also an event to mark a renewed push toward environmental literacy in our schools. All in attendance had a chance to more deeply understand the need in our state to truly make environmental literacy accessible and equitable for our 6.2 million California students. Our next steps are to leverage the privilege and power we have and to use the tools at our disposal to influence our school systems to make the work ahead a reality.

The Work Ahead

The twentieth anniversary conference in San Luis Obispo was filled with passionate, dedicated, and talented people who put themselves completely into the work of expanding environmental literacy for all students in California. This was my first opportunity to meet not only the founder of CREEC, Bill Andrews, but also the coordinators who have been a part of the Network from the very beginning, including especially the amazingly dedicated Celeste Royer. These individuals have laid a strong foundation from which the CREEC Network can grow and become a system to connect students, their schools, entire districts, and informal providers and partners to build meaningful environmental education in California. We are at a special time in our state’s history. We have the opportunity and political will to model the types of systems that can make meaningful impact and progress towards meeting the goals outlined in the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy. We are a part of a complex, interconnected system that we have the opportunity to influence for the good of all in our state. Let’s get ready for the work ahead!

Mary Walls
This article was written by Mary Walls

Mary Walls is currently a CREEC Network Coordinator for Region 10 (Riverside, Inyo, Mono, & San Bernardino counties). She has been in education for fifteen years. She has taught World Language & English Language Arts, she has been an Instructional Coach, a Director for a CaMSP (California Math Science Partnership) grant, BTSA mentor, International Baccalaureate PYP Coordinator, and Professional Developer. In addition to these roles, she creates educational programming for The Incredible Edible Community Garden. Her passions include Action-driven Inquiry, PBL, NGSS, STEM, STEAM, Environmental Literacy, and creative school culture. She has conducted school and district trainings and workshops in Northern and Southern California. At home, she wrangles three daughters and a filmmaker husband.