The theme of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) conference held in Spokane, Washington was, “Environmental Education: A Force for the Future.” The community that was built during the conference of over 1,300 formal educators, professors, environmental educators, students, government officials, speakers, and organizers showcased the passion and dedication we all have to that future. Between the keynote presentations, roundtables, bright spots, and workshop themes of how to successfully build and sustain informal-formal education partnerships, the impact of scientific storytelling, and the importance of supporting students in developing agency emerged. It is through this community building, communication, and valuing of student voice that we can place hope for our citizenship and planet for the future. As a teacher professional development provider and curriculum developer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I was excited to share our story and learn more about the larger environmental education landscape from the other attendees at the conference.
I was a panelist for Environmental Literacy for All: California’s Path Towards Systemic Change, part of the conference strand, Building Leadership for Environmental Literacy. The panel presenting also included Craig Strang and Jedda Foreman of the Lawrence Hall of Science, Amity Sandage from the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and Jessica Brown of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD). In this session, we shared an informal-formal education partnership program as an exemplar of how we can scale environmental literacy to all students in California while building a sense of place and capacity for environment-based science teaching among both formal and informal educators. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a formal partnership with PVUSD. It is a large district, serving over 20,000 students, and is made up of students who are largely English language learners. The PVUSD administrative team has had support from the Lawrence Hall of Science and ChangeScale, a Bay Area nonprofit supporting providers and school districts to design and implement strategies for integrating new science standards and increasing access to environmental education. Lawrence Hall of Science and ChangeScale worked with PVUSD to develop a vision and framework for science education that integrated environmental literacy themes that were developmentally appropriate and place-based. This helped to work towards curriculum and professional learning that was more culturally relevant to the students it would serve. Craig and Jedda shared the process and framework by which the Lawrence Hall of Science and ChangeScale partner with districts to build capacity and implement a strategy to support sustainable environmental education.
To disseminate the vision of the district and build teacher capacity, the Monterey Bay Aquarium worked with a group of local environmental education providers and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education to create a teacher professional learning program called Science Learning Leaders. This program started with a three-day summer intensive supported by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where teachers and environmental education providers co-created lesson sequences that tie students’ field experiences to classroom instruction. The district continued to support teachers in their implementation of the environmental science education lesson sequences through five follow-up workshops and in-class support as teachers took their students into the field and then implemented their lesson sequences. Based on feedback and our evaluation, this model showed a lot of promise. We continue to learn from the Science Learning Leaders program and its sister program that the Santa Cruz County Office of Education is beginning to replicate and scale at the county level. While it started at the elementary level in PVUSD, the district is planning to expand it to the middle school level in the coming year. And with the additional work of the county office of education, there will be two teachers from every school site in the county who have become science learning leaders using this program model, creating a county science collaborative of teachers leading from the classroom. The result is win-win: science education is strengthened and made more relevant to students through meaningful, local, environment-based learning, and at the same time environmental literacy is nurtured as teachers and students develop a sense of place that paves the way toward stewardship.
Throughout the symposium, attendees seemed to really resonate with this story and work. Over half of the audience was from California, but others were interested in the story of scalability and coordination. They asked questions about what it takes to build a partnership like the one the Monterey Bay Aquarium has with PVUSD. We discussed the need for both flexibility and clarity of expectations, the support of an informal institution and the openness of a formal institution, as well as the need for more collaboration between environmental educators operating in the same space and overcoming structural barriers that might impede success. Because evaluation was another topic of interest, we discussed the value of the Science Learning Leaders program and its overall impact.
We headed home from Spokane with a desire to share our story more often, not only with colleagues in the field but also within our community with the people we serve. By telling our story, sharing successes and challenges, and offering any tools we can, the movement toward environmental literacy in California grows and the future gets brighter.