Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of serving as the Co-Chair of the Environmental Literacy Task Force, a group of extraordinary environmental education leaders from around the state, convened by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. This effort could not have come at a more critical and propitious time.
As members of the education and scientific communities focused on sustaining life on our planet, we are trying our utmost to rapidly expand our knowledge of the biosphere and the impact that we are having on it. We are moving as rapidly as we can to discover and bring to scale technological solutions that will benefit human communities and protect the ecological health of the natural systems on which we depend. We think critically about the psychological and cultural factors that might inspire action on behalf of the environment. And most importantly, we strive to effectively convey ecological knowledge, know-how, and inspiration to the next generation.
This is not an easy task. One survey of California schools revealed that only 13% of schools have integrated environmental learning into their curricula. Of those, the vast majority spend only $5,000 or less on it.1 The bottom-line: environmental literacy for our K–12 audience is a foundational requirement for a sustainable future, and we have a long way to go.
The Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, and the new Implementation Steering Committee, represents an effort to reverse these numbers. We undertake this work at a propitious time in education. Interest in strengthening environmental science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) is exceptionally high among the public and educational communities. New and better standards for science learning infused with environmental principles and concepts have been adopted by many states, including California. Hands-on, inquiry-based learning that incorporates innovative new technologies is permeating educational settings.
The recommendations contained in the Blueprint are ambitious, but the problem we face is serious. Finding solutions requires deep and actionable environmental knowledge among the public and young people. As you will read in the Blueprint, the Task Force has made several specific recommendations to provide new resources and imaginative partnerships, all of which are rooted in key guiding principles. These include equity of access, a commitment to quality, cultural relevance, and leveraging the power of museum-based, outdoor, and classroom learning experiences. Collaborative partnerships between museums like the California Academy of Sciences, school districts, community-based organizations, and educators is needed to bring about our shared vision for environmentally literate communities and a healthy, sustainable future for our planet.
I’d like to offer my congratulations to my co-chair in this effort, Craig Strang of the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Glen Price Group for their excellent facilitation, the Superintendent and his terrific staff, including Lupita Cortez Alcalá, the many funders who supported this effort, and the extraordinarily committed and insightful Task Force members with whom I served. We all look forward to continuing to support the effort to ensure that every California student has access to high quality, transformative environmental learning experiences.
1 Chapman, Paul. (2014). Environmental Education and Sustainability in California Public Schools. Inverness Associates.
This article was written by Elizabeth Babcock, PhD
As Chief Public Engagement Officer and Roberts-Wilson Dean of Education, Elizabeth C. Babcock, Ph.D. is responsible for creating and implementing public engagement, outreach, and education programs for the California Academy of Sciences—and around the globe through digital initiatives. She seeks to ignite a lifelong curiosity and appreciation for the natural world among all of the audiences who come in contact with the institution.
The first person to fill the Academy’s newly-endowed Dean of Education role, Babcock is responsible for ensuring that the Academy's programs of education, public programs, aquarium exhibits, and planetarium productions remain fresh and engaging for approximately 1.5 million visitors of all ages each year from the Bay Area and around the world. The Academy is home to an aquarium with 38,000 live animals, a planetarium featuring award-winning shows produced by an in-house science visualization team, and compelling natural history exhibits on the evolution and sustainability of life on Earth.
Babcock's team of experience designers develop and deliver a variety of innovative programs within and beyond the museum's walls. Signature programs include the Teacher Institute on Science and Sustainability, the Careers in Science intern program, award-winning planetarium productions, and online courses reaching thousands of learners. Dozens of daily and monthly programs for museum visitors and public lectures offer the public opportunities to dive deeper into critical issues such as sustainability, conservation, and human health on a person-to-person level. Babcock also guides the development of new digital learning initiatives, which allow the Academy to reach audiences beyond the Bay Area through online courses and engage youth in creating their own science stories.