Reflections on the 2018 CA STEAM Symposium

In October, the CA STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math) Symposium was held in Long Beach, CA. Leaders from two school districts and one county office of education presented on behalf of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative. Their session entitled “Advancing Equity and Cultural Relevance in Science Education: Developing Environmental Literacy to Increase Student Engagement, Academic Success, and Participation in Community Life” explored how three different communities in California have built culturally relevant science programs for their teachers and students which intentionally connect science learning to their local environment and community. Their reflections on the conference presentation are below.

Juanita Chan, Rialto Unified School District

This past month, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Rob Hoffman and Rob Wade at the CA STEAM Symposium and, while our work is complimentary, it also struck me just how different our models are—and left me with the question “why?” Why are our models so different? After our presentation, I was asked why we (our teacher team) decided to focus on environmental justice instead of just environmentalism, and I hadn’t thought about it. If I’m being honest, I finished my part of the presentation feeling like I was working in the “badlands.” Our nature was not beautiful or supported by informal providers, and as a result our opportunities for learning looked different. In my community, I’m not sure if we chose environmental justice or if these issues just were the only way for us to talk about the environment. Meanwhile, while all of us were talking about diversity, we weren’t explicitly talking about race and in that moment I had an epiphany. Environmental education is not like many other education topics in K–12 education. This topic is intensely personal to each community.  

I learned so much from my co-presenters. Here are a couple of takeaways that I had about the presentation as a whole:

(1) Equitable environmental literacy that is culturally relevant is the beginning of a larger revolution where schools become a foundational part of the community. In spite of the personal ethnicity of a “Science Learning Leader,” passionate environmental educators participate in developing the culture of the students they serve by means of sharing ideas, concerns, and a physical location. Teachers who see themselves as a vital part of neighborhood culture rally around preparing students for the challenges that address their students’ unique community life.

(2) Nurturing a child’s relationship with the land and to learning means nurturing teachers’ relationship to the same land, and investing in time to learn about it. Teachers have a lot of discretion when it comes to formulating opportunities for students to engage in science procedurally, conceptually, and in relevant ways. How they use these opportunities can help students foster an identity that confirms that they are a part of, and can influence, the world directly around them in the way Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) writers intended. This personal learning journey is one that environmental educators must continue to wade through, because it’s the journey that leads to understanding.  

(3) Nature cultivates curiosity and wonder, and these concepts converge when a community finds where inquiry meets stewardship.

Rob Wade, Plumas County Office of Education

Being an ambassador for environmental literacy for Ten Strands at the 2018 CA STEAM Symposium was an honor, and representing the rural California perspective helped to get me out of the mountains and down to Long Beach just in time for the final two games of the World Series in Los Angeles. Baseball aside, it was an exciting few days and teaming up with Rob H. and Juanita to bring in the southern and coastal California perspectives made for a rich contrast with many parallel lines.

For my part, I shared how the rural context provides a tremendous outdoor backdrop, but one that does not necessarily reach many students in meaningful ways. Equity in environmental literacy for Plumas County is about creating educational programming that gets every student outside—every week of every year of their public school education. If we can live up to that promise then we will have 468 outdoor experiences exploring local places, investigating local phenomena, studying local issues, and solving local problems by the time kids graduate. If that quantity has equal quality then we will be graduating environmentally literate young adults. Outdoor Core in every school in our county is critical to achieve rural equity of access and experience. So, in Latino-strong Portola we have the same program of support that we have in Maidu-strong Greenville as well as in our more caucasian-centric communities of Quincy and Chester. Every student goes through these Mountain Kid rites of passage until they graduate. They know who they are, where they have grown up, and whether they stay or move on, they know that they can really know and care for a place.

With the help of local and regional partners we have grown amazing programs for the past two decades that are part of our commitment to the long journey. The best part of presenting with Juanita and Rob H. for me was seeing their parallel work at different latitudes and longitudes. Their unique and innovative programs and tools gave me new ideas and insights that allow me to return home to my own hearth to share Pajaro and Rialto stories and grow my own Plumas work.

Rob Hoffman, Pajaro Valley Unified School District

In Pajaro Valley Unified School District we have just started, in the past two years, our endeavor in integrating environmental literacy into our NGSS plan and rollout. With a robust network of environmental educator (EE) providers in the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz counties, we started collaborating more countywide with our California Regional Environmental Education Community Network Coordinator in bringing teachers and EE providers together. Time and guidance was also provided to EE providers to help them understand NGSS, the shifts, and how their programs align to the new standards. With this groundwork done, we then launched our Science Learning Leaders teacher professional learning, where we brought together willing and interested K–5 teachers and partnered them with EE providers to learn more about NGSS and environmental literacy alongside each other. We then tasked these collaborative grade-level groups to apply what they learned, and to co-construct a lesson sequence that included part of the EE providers’ program to make the out-of-classroom experience more connected and meaningful to what students are learning in the classroom.

There were two significant things I learned and took away from presenting with Rob Wade and Juanita Chan. First, we have to start with our assets. Our districts and county office of education started from different places; one had access to outdoors, one was desert and needed to build in EE curriculum and experiences, and the third had access to a variety of EE providers. Identifying your area’s strengths and starting there to build out your environmental literacy plan is a great place to start.

The second takeaway is that I can’t wait until there is a perfect plan. I tend to wait until I have all the parts “figured out” before sharing out to the world. Seeing the accomplishments of my colleagues and the work they have done is very inspiring. As I reflect on where we are, and as I continue to lead these efforts, my goal will be to not wait until I think all aspects of an initiative or plan are worked out, but to share the plans I have and to include others in this process.  

Juanita Chan, Rob Hoffman, and Rob Wade
This article was written by Juanita Chan, Rob Hoffman, and Rob Wade

Juanita Chan has been serving the community of Rialto, California for 13 years, and currently works as the Science Lead at the Rialto Unified School District. She is passionate about inspiring a love and excitement for science. As the project director of Rialto’s California Mathematics and Science Partnership grant, she has worked vigorously to infuse environmental education into all levels of K–12 curriculum. Rob Hoffman is the Science & Career Technical Education Coordinator for Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz County. Rob leads science programs and trains K–12 teachers in the implementation of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and is currently developing an environmental literacy program in collaboration with local environmental educators and partners. Rob Wade is Outdoor Education & NGSS Coordinator and Trainer at the Plumas County Office of Education. Rob also serves as Learning Landscapes Coordinator with the Feather River Land Trust, and K–12 Water Education Coordinator with the Plumas Corporation.

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