Environmental Literacy in Los Angeles: NGSS Training for Environmental Education Providers

By Candice Dickens-Russell|November 6, 2017

The California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) Network is a program of the California Department of Education to support environmental literacy of California’s students by providing teachers with access to high quality environmental education (EE) resources.

In addition to being the Director of Environmental Education at TreePeople, I am also the CREEC Coordinator for Los Angeles County. We call our local CREEC network CREEC-LA, and I’ve led the 87 member EE Leadership Board for over ten years. In July, I was thrilled to host a two-day Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for EE Providers workshop at TreePeople headquarters in Coldwater Canyon Park. CREEC has been waiting for the publication of the new California Science Framework before beginning any formal training, and combined with the fact that TreePeople was chosen by the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee to lead district environmental literacy planning in Los Angeles County, the timing was right for this workshop. We have a fantastic network of environmental education organizations in LA, and 40 of us gathered to receive guidance from Dr. Gerald Lieberman on incorporating the new state standards into our programming. Before diving into the details of that meeting, I’d like to give you a glimpse into how CREEC works here in Los Angeles, and show you what an incredible network we have.

CREEC-LA has always been a provider’s network. While we serve teachers and students, the heart of our Los Angeles County-based network is the relationships between the many strong environmental education providers in the region. Four times a year I convene groups like Heal the Bay, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Natural History Museum, TreePeople, and Friends of the LA River at quarterly networking breakfasts—the idea being that one can attend the 7:30–9:30am meeting and avoid the worst of LA morning traffic! These meetings are hosted all over the county at the headquarters of our member organizations, and follow a similar format. Participants gather, have breakfast, network for awhile, and then are seated for the presentation. The meeting begins with a welcome, a review of the CREEC network mission statement, and an update on the EE statewide initiatives and programs. As a member of California’s Environmental Literacy Steering Committee, and an original Environmental Literacy Task Force member, I’ve been involved in the new environmental literacy movement that has brought so much momentum to EE in California these past few years. I give an update on these efforts, and share any new developments. Next, a speaker will present on a topic of interest to the members. Each year I conduct a short survey to learn what CREEC-LA providers are interested in learning or discussing in the new year, and identify guest speakers to lead these discussions. Past topics have included evaluation in environmental education programs, working with the Education and the Environment Initiative, and guest speakers from Los Angeles Unified School District who shared ways nonformal providers can become more involved with the district.

After the guest speaker, there is an opportunity for the host organization to share its programs with the group. All CREEC-LA meetings are hosted by a member organization that provides the space, breakfast, and parking. During the host organization’s portion of the meeting, it may choose to give a presentation about a program or campaign, or give a tour of its facility. The meeting ends with provider announcements. I always say that this is everyone’s favorite part, since they get to talk about themselves! Providers take turns sharing upcoming events, workshops, and programs their organizations are working on. CREEC-LA is one of the only regions to host meetings like this with providers. This works well in Los Angeles, since our teacher numbers are so high and direct teacher outreach though CREEC is less realistic than in some regions. The beauty of California’s CREEC Network is that each CREEC coordinator has the autonomy to decide how best to serve her or his region.

The July meeting followed a slightly different format, and took place over two full days. Presented by Dr. Lieberman, the environmental educators from organizations across Los Angeles gathered for a deep dive into the NGSS. Instead of starting with the three dimensions and explanations of the standards, Dr. Lieberman encouraged participants to find how their organization best fits with NGSS. Using the NGSS Appendix 2, participants examined their own program resources and looked for natural connections. Regardless of each participant’s familiarity with the components of NGSS, each person was able to find where her or his organization’s program supports NGSS, and how she or he can explain those connections to teachers. The day included discussion, activities, and group collaboration, all with the goal of each organization finding where it already supports NGSS and where it can make adjustments to its programs to better serve teachers. Every participant returned for day two, energized and ready to continue the work. The feedback from the workshop participants has been incredible. We were all excited to learn that we already have NGSS-supportive programming, and discovered ways to grow and expand to be even more so.

I think the best part of the two-day workshop was the discussion around the role that nonformal education organizations can realistically expect to play in NGSS. As a complex set of standards, it is impossible for almost any nonformal education organization to offer teachers everything needed for NGSS. For example, focusing on the Performance Expectations as a destination for a one-day program is unrealistic. We discussed the nature of NGSS and how we, as nonformal educators, can best support teachers in their instruction. Nonformal educators must understand that our jobs are not to claim that we can help teachers “meet” the expectations and then decide that our organizations’ programs are “aligned” to NGSS. Instead, we would do better to focus our attention on the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) and Cross Cutting Concepts (CCC), identifying what aspects of our programs already illustrate things like asking questions and defining problems, or engaging in argument from evidence (SEP) or patterns, or cause and effect (CCC). Teachers need to know where they can turn for hands-on EE experiences that bring these concepts to life for their students. This gives nonformal educators an opportunity to do what we do best—engage students in real world science experiences.

On November 2, 2017 we built upon this training by inviting organizations back for a workshop, where Dr. Lieberman was on hand to answer questions and help providers work on their NGSS connections. Kurt Holland kicked off the day with an NGSS 101 presentation for providers who wanted a level one overview, or NGSS refresher.

As environmental education organizations become more familiar with NGSS and how they can support teachers, there’s hope that teachers will begin to turn to these hands-on field experiences to add depth to their lessons. This partnership between teachers and environmental education organizations represents the very best model of formal and nonformal partnership. Our partners and CREEC-LA member organizations offer a rich world of immersive science experiences that can add value to a classroom lesson. We don’t need to claim to be all things NGSS–we simply need to tell the stories of our programs in the language of science.

Candice Dickens-Russell
This article was written by Candice Dickens-Russell

Candice Dickens-Russell is Director of Environmental Education at TreePeople and a California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) Regional Coordinator for Los Angeles County. She develops and manages high quality environmental education programs for Los Angeles area students and teachers. She chairs the 87 member CREEC-LA Environmental Education Leadership Board, and the Los Angeles Watershed Education Collaborative. Candice is a member of the Los Angeles Area Women’s Environmental Coalition, and serves on the Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair steering committee. She majored in Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University, with an emphasis in Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice.