Planting the Seeds of Environmental Literacy with School Districts Through a Science Leadership Network

By Mary Walls|May 10, 2018

Region 10 of the California Regional Environmental Education Community (CREEC) Network is massive. It encompasses all of what is affectionately called RIMS: Riverside, Inyo, Mono, and San Bernardino counties, almost a quarter of the state’s geographic area. Expanding the work of environmental literacy in this region is made more difficult by the region’s far-flung boundaries, which extend from the urban communities of the Inland Empire east to the Colorado River and Nevada border, north across mountains and deserts, skirting along the eastern edge of the Sierras almost to Lake Tahoe. The only way to begin, then, is to just dive in, which Yamileth Shimojyo and Greg Nicholas (Riverside County Office of Education), and Linda Braatz-Brown (San Bernardino County Office of Education) have done through the District Science Leadership Network (DSLN) meetings jointly held four times a year.

DSLN has gone through many iterations. It originated with a joint network meeting led by Rick Hall in San Bernardino County and Mike Horton in Riverside County at least twenty years ago. The networking and sharing of practices in science education have impacted both teachers and administrators throughout the region. As the needs of the RIMS region grew, it became vital to explore ways to bring the four counties together. Beginning in the late fall of 2017, remote locations were able to access the meetings through two-way video conferencing. Support through the statewide Science Community of Practice has made this expanded access possible. Funding is supported by a collaboration among the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA), the California Department of Education (CDE), the State Board of Education, and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

County office hosts determined the content organization of the meetings, with the aim of deepening district-level understanding of the CA Science Framework and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), providing a venue for networking and cross-pollination of ideas. Representatives from up to sixty-four different districts in the four-county region participated in these meetings, sharing information on regional events and opportunities, including updates from CDE about state-level initiatives, and CREEC Region 10’s environmental literacy activities. The first of four sessions for the 2017–18 academic year focused on the CA Science Framework and its chapter on Access & Equity (Chapter 10). This served to ground access and equity issues as the connecting thread and theme for the entire year’s discussions. Subsequent sessions furthered these conversations through the perspectives of speakers such as Roger Bybee, whose workshop “All Science Standards – All Students: The Essential Role of an Instructional Model” addressed how the 5E Lesson model helps all students have access points into content, practices, and concepts. Bybee was followed by Dr. Héctor Martín (“Understanding How Students Learn Through Cognitive Sciences to Achieve Equity in the Learning Process”), who spoke about research on how students learn, and techniques to help build on all students’ prior knowledge. Dr. Helen Quinn, at the third meeting, shared ideas on “Access for Learning for ALL” with an emphasis on English language learners.

The final meeting of the year was opened by Karen Cowe, Ten Strands CEO, who described the history of environmental literacy in California and the recent work of the Environmental Literacy Steering Committee to implement California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy. Shifting to a more personal tone, Cowe described her own connection with the places in her life. As a child in Scotland, the river in her town was an integral part of her community’s everyday existence. Her mother, a water quality technician for a local paper mill, would often update her on the conditions of their beloved river. “How’s the river today?” became Karen’s regular greeting when her mother returned from work. This deep relationship with a single, unique place continued into her adult life and influenced her later work. Place, she discovered, becomes a foundation for equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance.

Following Karen’s lead, I shared stories about two districts in San Bernardino County who are on paths toward achieving environmental literacy for all of their students. Rialto Unified School District, in partnership with regional support organization Inside the Outdoors (read these blog posts by Rialto Science Lead Juanita Chan to learn more), and Yucaipa–Calimesa Joint Unified School District are on unique journeys, and provide models that participating districts can make connections to and innovate ways to approach environmental literacy in their own local contexts.

Craig Strang, Associate Director for Learning and Teaching at the Lawrence Hall of Science, (“Environmental Literacy: Boosting Equity, Inclusion, and Cultural Relevance in Science Instruction”) shared work done in collaboration with ChangeScale to develop environmental literacy plans with Bay Area school districts and the environmental education providers that serve them. Many of these districts use a “landscape analysis” process to better understand what is happening in their own communities. This process can reveal equity issues, such as one school providing field trips to outdoor schools or access to STEM labs and school gardens, while a nearby school has none of these resources.

The meeting then turned toward action. With an intention-setting activity designed by Youth Outside, an Oakland-based non profit working to ensure that the lived experience of all youth is honored as part of the outdoor experience, participants thought about what they already know about their district community and demographics, and about whether the narrative is deficit-based or asset-based. If deficit-based, participants were challenged to turn it into an asset-based narrative. With new perspectives and intentions set, Craig had districts work with environmental education providers who serve their geographic area. Together they collaborated to develop environmental literacy visions, and identify relevant themes. For example, Dr. Nic Ann Irvin, University of California Riverside, shared community and citizen science opportunities for local students to study parasitic wasps in her area.

The work throughout the meeting planted seeds and developed processes that can now be taken into districts as they continue the meaningful work towards achieving environmental literacy for all.


Mary Walls
This article was written by Mary Walls

Mary Walls is currently a CREEC Network Coordinator for Region 10 (Riverside, Inyo, Mono, & San Bernardino counties). She has been in education for fifteen years. She has taught World Language & English Language Arts, she has been an Instructional Coach, a Director for a CaMSP (California Math Science Partnership) grant, BTSA mentor, International Baccalaureate PYP Coordinator, and Professional Developer. In addition to these roles, she creates educational programming for The Incredible Edible Community Garden. Her passions include Action-driven Inquiry, PBL, NGSS, STEM, STEAM, Environmental Literacy, and creative school culture. She has conducted school and district trainings and workshops in Northern and Southern California. At home, she wrangles three daughters and a filmmaker husband.