Environmental Education Behind the Redwood Curtain

By Olivia Kernen|March 31, 2021

Greetings from Humboldt County! We are located 300 miles north of San Francisco and serve nearly 18,000 students across 4,000 square miles of beautiful redwoods, isolated beaches, and the Northern Coast Ranges. Our isolated rural county is a land of scenic beauty that encompasses many unique cultural and geographic communities. The Humboldt County Office of Education (HCOE) supports 31 school districts sprinkled throughout the region. Each district has some degree of environmental education programming, advocacy, and stewardship and all are invited to participate in HCOE’s environmental education programs. 

The 2020–2021 school year was transformative for HCOE’s environmental education and literacy programming. For the first time, the Advanced Learning Landscape (ALL) Project, Humboldt County Guide to Environmental Education, Steelhead in the Classroom program, and the Redwood Environmental Education Fair came under the guidance of a single coordinator. By uniting these strong programs, we have increased the visibility of offerings and diversified the target audiences of students and educators, bringing the core principles of environmental education into classrooms they might not have been in before. 

Classroom with art decorations featuring steelhead fish.
Art inspired by the Steelhead in the Classroom program

Reimagining what environmental education looked like in a pandemic led to the opportunity for our teams to examine our programmatic goals. Place-based learning, citizen science, data and analytics, and accessibility to resources were prioritized. The hope was to make curriculum and resources accessible and easy to use while exploring ways to continually improve program inclusivity.

Here is what we have been up to this year behind the Redwood Curtain:

Advancing Learning Landscapes (ALL) Project

In 2017 HCOE received a California Environmental Literacy Project three-year grant from the California Department of Education’s Environmental Education/Literacy Program. HCOE named this grant-funded project the Advancing Learning Landscape (ALL) project. Over the past three years, the ALL project has built a strong foundation by connecting school sites to place-based, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)-aligned, and Common Core State Standards (CCSS)-aligned activities that promote the California Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs). ALL has connected campuses, teachers, administrators, and a broad range of community partners to environmental literacy experiences in the learning landscapes of school campuses and the community while also striving to connect our rural educators to the work being done statewide. Each year a team of four environmental literacy coaches has worked with a cohort of classroom K–8 teachers across the county to build their capacity to connect students with the outdoors. 

In response to the shift to distance learning, our team reevaluated the environmental literacy offerings for our third and final year of the project. We needed a way to enrich the monthly coaching support and to nurture the learning community without our traditional face-to-face connections. After consulting with participating teachers, the ALL team began offering monthly webinars in a series named Deepening Sense of Place, beginning in October 2020. The Deepening Sense of Place webinar topics included climate, the watershed, the first people and first stewards of this land, plants, animals, and decomposers. Highlights were shared from the region, including curated lessons and resources to make environmental literacy an engaging part of the participating educator’s curriculum.

Environmental Education Guide

The ALL grant team was excited to launch the Humboldt County Guide to Environmental Education at the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year. The goal was to provide a comprehensive online resource bank for educators in Humboldt County who are looking for environmental programming to supplement, expand, or enrich their curriculum. The guide includes resources for field trips, in-class presentations, annual and seasonal events, outdoor schools, and other environmental topics. The guide strives to address social, cultural, and environmental relevance for the Humboldt area, and where applicable, outlines how programming aligns with NGSS. This resource will connect community environmental education providers and classroom teachers in a meaningful way that supports the shared goals of environmental literacy.

The ALL program has created professional development opportunities for educators and mentorship with K–8 teachers to increase their confidence and capabilities for integrating environmental literacy into the classroom. Though funding for this project will end this year, we are proud of the educational resources created that will live on, and we look forward to exploring new ways of funding similar work.

Small lizard being cradled within student's open hands.
Field trip fun provided by the ALL grant

Classroom Aquarium Education Program: Steelhead in the Classroom

Humboldt County has had a rich history with the Classroom Aquarium Education Program, aka Steelhead in the Classroom. Over 30 years ago, California’s first classroom aquarium education program was created by a group of local educators and passionate anglers and fish biologists. Since then the program has consistently provided local K–12 students with a unique, hands-on opportunity to study aquatic habitats, ecosystems, and salmonid life cycles. HCOE staff work with teachers to set up and operate a chilled aquarium in their classroom, replicating the cold-water ecosystem of our local Mad River watershed. Classrooms receive eyed-eggs from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Mad River Hatchery to hatch and raise steelhead fry for eight weeks in the spring. The unique learning experience culminates with each classroom of students attending a field trip to the Mad River Hatchery, where the fry they have raised are released into their native Mad River watershed. Approximately 1,000 Humboldt students participate in this program yearly.

This year our team has had the opportunity to partner with the Pathmakers Program, funded by the Blue Lake Rancheria, to create culturally and linguistically responsive programming for Native and non-Native youth related to our local steelhead and waterways. 

Though COVID-19 brought on many challenges to the program this year, it also brought about some special opportunities. Initially, when schools first pivoted to online and hybrid learning, we were unsure of teacher capacity for committing to fish tank maintenance in the classroom. To remove barriers for them we were able to fully fund all tanks, tank accessories, and webcams. This increased our participation in the program by over 10 percent! 

With the addition of new teachers, our team needed to find a way to provide curriculum virtually, so a teacher-resource webpage was created to provide 10 weeks of California Department of Fish and Wildlife curriculum as well as 10 weeks of Pathmakers curriculum, all tailored to the Steelhead in the Classroom experiences. Additionally, this webpage has a booking feature to book either a Pathmaker or fish specialist speaker to present in participating teachers’ classrooms. To provide a continual feedback loop for teachers, tri-weekly surveys are sent out through a data tracking system that collects data on water quality and feeding, which are then compiled into a live updating data dashboard. This data dashboard combines the citizen science data, allowing comparison to other classrooms and to the program as a whole. 

Steelhead in the Classroom has proven to be a great way to get students who are not typically in environmental literacy programs to become involved in environmental education in a meaningful way. We hope through our expanded offerings that our program can continue to grow and continue to promote a deeper understanding of local watersheds and aquatic ecosystems. 

Steelhead fish swimming in a classroom fish tank with rocks.
An elementary class’s first steelhead alevin (young fish)

Redwood Environmental Education Fair

The Redwood Environmental Education Fair (REEF) is an annual student event that invites upper-elementary teachers and their students to attend interactive workshops, lectures, video presentations, and games that encompass a wide variety of environmental topics. In lieu of an in-person event this year, an informative video of environmental education projects and locally-developed lessons will be compiled and posted on the REEF website in mid-April in honor of Earth Day. Our team looks forward to hosting REEF in person next year.

Looking to the Future

Collaboration is key to our success. Our programs are continually seeking meaningful ways to partner and collaborate with environmental educators and agencies that align with our goals. If you would like to hear more about what we are up to or are interested in collaborating, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Olivia Kernen
This article was written by Olivia Kernen

Olivia Kernen is a program and event coordinator for Humboldt County Office of Education. Olivia joyfully coordinates multiple environmental education programs, including Steelhead in the Classroom, the Advancing Learning Landscapes Project, and the Redwood Environmental Education Fair. Olivia recently completed her master’s in business administration with an emphasis in strategic sustainability, and is passionate about integrating sustainability best practices into Humboldt County Office of Education’s environmental education programs. When she isn’t performing those duties, you might find her spending time with family and friends, going on hikes with her dogs, or gardening.