Addressing Real-World, Local, Environmental Problems: San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative

By Antonia Smith|August 13, 2018

The unit that we are making and the units other teams are making are so rich. I love that they address real-world, local, environmental problems, and that they include elements of project-based learning. It makes me happy to think about children engaging in these lessons and addressing these issues.

During the last week of June, 50 teachers convened at the San Mateo County Office of Education (SMCOE) to participate in the fourth annual iteration of the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative (SMELC). As in previous years, the goal of the collaborative is to support teachers as they create and implement engaging units of study focused on the environment as context, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs), and project-based learning (PBL).

Leading the teachers in the creation of their units were San Mateo County Office of Education STEM Director Rebecca Vyduna, STEM Coordinator Doron Markus, Environmental Literacy Coordinator Andra Yeghoian, and Jerry and Grace Lieberman from the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER). Karen Cowe, from Ten Strands, also assisted in the planning and facilitation of the institute.

On day one of the four-day institute teachers assumed the role of students, observing and learning as SMCOE staff demonstrated the instruction of a unit about water. As part of the lesson, teachers walked outside to the nearby Redwood Shores Lagoon to observe and record notes about the lagoon and surrounding environment. With guidance from staff representing provider partner Marine Science Institute, teachers used meters to test the water’s potability. (Their discovery: The water was definitely not for drinking!) Following the trip to the lagoon, Andra and Rebecca discussed water sourcing and Doron presented a historical case study of water contamination and the connection of clean water to human health. Following this, teachers worked in groups collaborating on a hands-on activity constructing craft models for their own water filtration systems.

I really liked seeing a whole unit start to finish as a student. I’ve been teaching project-based learning for two years and have had a lot of training, but today alone with the six segments was the most clear.

On the second day of the institute, Andra, Rebecca, Doron, Jerry, and Grace explained how to structure lessons to include a focus on environmental phenomena, the EP&Cs, One Planet Principles, and NGSS. Teachers learned how to construct NGSS performance expectations for their students, formulate questions that engage students’ natural curiosity, and identify ways to encourage students to ask their own questions. The teachers also created maps of their schools and surrounding community, and identified local environmental phenomena.

I am excited about getting my students outside so they can notice their environment, and start to wonder and ask questions about it.

Throughout the institute, representatives from seven community-based environmental education organizations (Marine Science Institute, Hidden Villa, San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, Pie Ranch, The HEAL Project, Project Learning Tree, and Project WET) were present to contribute their expertise and assist the teachers. Beginning on day two, each partner gave a presentation about its programs and possible ways to collaborate. Karen and Grace presented about the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) Curriculum, and demonstrated how teachers might incorporate EEI content and associated materials into their lessons.

It was very helpful to get time to talk with the community partners and have them help us with developing our units. As of now, we are planning on working with Hidden Villa, [the San Mateo County] Office of Sustainability, and possibly Marine Science Institute.

By day three of the institute teachers were fully immersed in the language of NGSS, and were ready to get started on creating their units. Teachers used poster boards and sticky notes to map their units, and were incredibly thoughtful and diligent in their inclusion of core NGSS elements within their plans. They organized their unit maps around two questions: “What is the enduring understanding (EU) that is most compelling to you and your students?” and “What essential question (EQ) will engage and interest students and lead to the enduring understanding you’ve crafted?”

On the fourth and final day of the institute, teachers split into different groups to present their units to each another. The presentations were richly varied, and included topics such as walking and biking as healthy commuting alternatives; the effect of weather on plants, animals, and environment; reducing garbage for landfills; and composting. Examples of EQs included, “How does weather affect plants, animals, and environment?” and “What effect does food waste have on the environment?” Examples of EUs included, “Weather has an effect locally and globally” and “The choices we make around food waste can have a positive effect on the environment.”

Responses to a feedback survey given to SMELC participants at the end of the week point to the benefit of the training and overall success of the institute’s goals. When asked about pre- and post-institute comfort levels around using the outdoors as an educational tool, NGSS, PBL, and the EP&Cs, teachers reported increased levels of comfort in every category. Teachers also reported high levels of satisfaction about the amount of time for collaboration with other participants, and the amount of planning time. In addition, teachers reported that they were extremely satisfied about being able to access and ask questions of the institute’s facilitators and community partners.

This was such an amazing and useful, relevant and inspiring PD! Thank you so much!

Congratulations to San Mateo County Office of Education for a job well done, and many thanks to the State Education and Environment Roundtable, California’s Office of Education and the Environment, and all the fantastic community partners who are participating in this ongoing project. And special thanks to the Sand Hill Foundation, the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, and First Republic Bank for funding the institute.

Best of luck SMELC 4.0 teachers as you implement your units this fall! We look forward to hearing at the capstone event in January 2019 how your students engage, learn, and grow as a result of your commitment to bringing environment-based education into your classrooms!

*All quotes are from teachers at the San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative 4.0.

Antonia Smith
This article was written by Antonia Smith

Antonia Smith worked for Ten Strands in development and communications from 2018–2021, where she loved building support for initiatives encouraging the environmental literacy of California's young people. Prior to joining Ten Strands, Antonia worked as a tutor and mentor for K–12 students in San Francisco, as well as for a public relations firm and start-ups in New York City and Washington, DC. Antonia Smith has a BA in cultural anthropology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, where she also studied environmental science and policy.