Reflections on the Alameda Elementary Environmental Literacy Summer Institute 2017

By Betsy Mitchell, Joanna Totino|March 5, 2018

“This was a wonderful week—fun balanced with lots of things to take away and try with my kids … a much deeper appreciation of environmental literacy.”

The first of three planned Elementary Environmental Literacy Summer Institutes was presented to K–5 teachers by the Alameda Unified School District (USD) in summer 2017. The Bay Area Science Project and University of California, Berkeley Natural History Museums created a professional learning program for teachers that supports them in integrating science, language arts, and social studies learning by using an environmental lens, and helps students become stewards of their environment. This effort is supported by ChangeScale, Ten Strands, the California Subject Matter Project, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and Alameda USD. Alameda USD, with its strong commitment to environmental literacy as an engaging strategy to meet district priorities and its recently passed resolution on environmental sustainability, is a perfect partner for this effort.

After weeks of planning and scouting field sites our crew of University of California science graduate students, teacher leaders, and professional learning specialists were excited to share their enthusiasm for science and outdoor learning with the K–5 teachers who had signed on for this adventure. Our goals for the 2017 summer institute were to support the development of knowledge and skills needed to incorporate environmental literacy into teaching, and to build strong connections between students and the natural environment. Our activities built on the life science component of the California Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and we focused on the theme of habitats and ecosystems as places where organisms, including humans, live and interact.

With science as a core element, we emphasized the collection, interpretation, and communication of observations and data to study the environment. We also examined human connections using California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs), readings, and discussions. Our efforts were guided by a set of driving questions used to frame teachers’ learning and to inform planning for their students. Driving questions included:

  • What lives in a schoolyard? What is a habitat?
  • How do organisms respond to physical factors in the environment?
  • What lives here and how does the environment meet its needs?
  • How do people change the environment?
  • How is biodiversity different in different environments?
  • How do plants and animals survive in their environments?
  • How do organisms interact with each other and their environments?
  • How can we help keep our environment healthy?

Language arts were also a core element and were integrated into all activities in the form of science notebooks, readings, discussion, and/or writing. Many activities also integrated with social studies (e.g., mapping, readings, local community issues).

Experiences in natural outdoor settings are a wonderful way to engage students and to learn about habitats and ecosystems. They are also essential in helping children form a sense of place, a connection to the environment, and an understanding of the importance of taking care of the environment. We went outside every day of the institute and explored a variety of outdoor sites, starting close to home in the schoolyard mapping the physical layout of the area and then analyzing it as a habitat.  

We then expanded our observations to the local neighborhood to look at how humans modify the environment and what other organisms share its lawns, trees, and structures. A visit to the local shoreline focused on how habitats and biodiversity vary as you move inland from the edge of the water. Quadrat studies along a transect revealed striking differences in the qualities of the habitat and types of organisms living in them. In a local park, the 3rd to 5th grade teachers explored camouflage in insects with a predation simulation game, and by sampling insects to see what colors are most common in nature. A reading about how industrial pollution led to shifts in the colors of moths then started a conversation about how humans can impact natural populations. Meanwhile the Kindergarten to 2nd grade teachers explored variation in seeds, and took on an engineering challenge to learn about structure, function, and seed dispersal culminating in a discussion of the positive and negative influences of humans on plants. Our last visit was to the Arrowhead Marsh, a salt marsh in the Oakland estuary. At the marsh we explored food chains, studied the value of the marsh for migrating shorebirds, and learned about two successful restoration projects.

The teachers enjoyed working with the scientists and teacher leaders, and vice versa —the mutual respect among all participants was inspiring and productive! Teachers left with a much-improved understanding of the EP&Cs and how to teach them, plans and skills to get their students outside, and strategies for integrating science and language arts. As we prepare activities on water and climate change for our next institute this summer, our Alameda teachers are working in their classrooms using science and the EP&Cs to connect students to the outdoors, and build understanding of the importance of protecting local habitats and natural resources.

“I have been teaching Enviro Sci every Friday and it has been great. There is a lot that I could say about the program and the numerous benefits to my students and my practice, but one part of the program that really surprised me was how easy it was to keep my class on-task and engaged. As a new teacher, I was concerned that I would have to spend so much energy ‘controlling’ the behavior in an outdoor setting. However, the students are so authentically engaged in the lesson that managing student behavior is a non-issue.

Betsy Mitchell
This article was written by Betsy Mitchell

Betsy Mitchell, PhD, is the UC Berkeley Natural History Museums coordinator for Exploring California Biodiversity’s outreach program. Dr. Mitchell has 15 years of experience managing science outreach projects, developing inquiry-based and NGSS science activities for students, doing workshops for teachers, and supervising graduate students working in K–12 classrooms and field settings. She is trained as a scientist, and has taught natural science to undergraduates, teachers, and K–12 students in informal and formal settings.

Joanna Totino
This article was written by Joanna Totino

Joanna Totino is the director of the Bay Area Science Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley. Ms. Totino has led teams of faculty, scientists, graduate students, lead teachers, district staff, community partners, and researchers to ensure that projects are successfully implemented and well documented on numerous science initiatives and grants. Ms. Totino has a long history of collaborative relationships with school districts, teachers, and K–12 students.