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Eco Action in Education

By: Giorgia F.

Examples of outdoor classrooms at Beavercreek High School in Ohio (BHS Creek)

Sustainability, carbon emissions, greenhouse gases: these charged terms are often thrown around classrooms in an attempt to teach students about climate change, but how often do curriculums in the United States fully educate students on the current climate crisis facing our world? In this large, diverse country, with over 100,000 K-12 schools (Digest of Education Statistics, 2019), the question of environmental education quality is daunting. In order to gain a better insight into this country’s level of climate education, I decided to look into three specific K-12 school districts in different areas of the country, North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia, comparing each’s high school level environmental education curriculum. It is important to note that these three school districts all received the Green Schools Alliance’s Sustainability Steward award, meaning that these districts demonstrated initiative in the alliance’s aim to “reduce climate and ecological impact; educate and engage community; and transform institutional culture” (Green Schools Alliance).

The high school science curriculum at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) requires students to enroll in a year long Earth/Environmental Science course. In compliance with North Carolina’s Public Education Essential Standards for Earth/Environmental Science, high school students at CHCCS must “evaluate human behaviors” in relation to how these behaviors affect the earth (North Carolina Essential Standards Earth/Environmental Science). Incorporating human impact in earth science curriculums is essential to better understand how we, as earth’s inhabitants, contribute to climate change. Requiring curriculums, such as the one implemented in CHCCS, allows students to learn valuable information that can lead to them advocating for environmental action. Oftentimes the topic of climate change can seem overwhelming because it is larger than any one individual. Many adults, let alone high schoolers, do not know where to begin when tackling this issue. Through educational programs focused on the human relationship to the climate, students will be able to see more clearly how even their everyday actions such as choosing a reusable water bottle over a plastic one can have an impact larger than them and help contribute to a more sustainable future.

In Colorado’s Douglas County School District (DCSD), many schools incorporate outdoor learning, which encourages students to take interest in the environment from a young age. Hands-on programs where students learn directly how their individual actions influence their natural surroundings are innovative ways to demonstrate that people can make small everyday life changes that, together, result in a healthier climate. Of the 47 schools participating in DCSD’s sustainability initiative, 52% of them use outdoor learning as a tool for teaching Earth/Environmental Science (Douglas County School District). While classroom discussions begin ongoing conversations about the climate, real life experiences such as outdoor learning have the potential to sufficiently illustrate how human action can have either a positive or negative impact on the earth. Learning these valuable lessons at a younger age can inspire students to lead a life where sustainability is always at the forefront of their decision making, from clothing brands to nutrition. Beyond individual action, sustainability education programs, such as outdoor learning, provoke students to demand climate action that will ensure environmental protection for generations to come. Similar to Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, Douglas County School District has specific and tailored guidelines for addressing current important environmental topics such as climate change for each grade level in their Earth and Space Science classes (DCSD Office of Sustainability – Climate Change).

Of these three school districts, Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) in Georgia is the largest, serving over 180,000 students (Gwinnett County Public Schools). The school district, in partnership with Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful, participates in the Green and Healthy Schools program which aims to “plan, teach, learn and do” in order to create “a greener and healthier natural world” (Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful). This innovative program is open for any school in the district to apply and focuses on 7 different educational areas: waste reduction and recycling, education and stewardship, water conservations and watershed protection, air quality, energy conservation, beautification and greenspace preservation, and community impact (Green and Healthy Schools Achievement Profile). By promoting more sustainable teaching and learning practices, the Green and Healthy Schools program is better able to succeed in educating the next generation of people who will decide how to tackle monumental climate issues. If climate education is mandatory and incorporated into curriculums, students will be more environmentally literate from a younger age, meaning they will have the means to evaluate how daily activities such as grocery shopping can be more sustainable.

While these three specific school districts may not be applicable to every K-12 school district in the country, they emphasize that from large student bodies to small, sustainability education is realistic and achievable. Not all three of the districts I looked into have the exact same curriculums nor do they operate on the same scale, yet all three of them did earn the Sustainability Steward Award from Green Schools Alliance, meaning their environmental education programs are contributing to slow climate change and educate students about important climate issues. Additionally, these three schools were diverse from one another in their demographics. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro School district is 50.7% White, 16.9% Hispanic, 14.2% Asian, and 11.2% African American. The Douglas County School District is 73% White, 14.5% Hispanic, 5.2% Asian, and 1.4% African American, Finally, the Gwinnett County Public School District is 31.9% African American, 31.2% Hispanic, 22% White, and 10.7% Asian (Niche). Despite the difference in size and demographic makeup, these schools collectively demonstrate that there are many ways to implement effective climate education programs. One last important note is that all three of these districts are public school districts, illustrating that a school district does not need exorbitant amounts of money to develop effective climate education.

All in all, these schools showcase effective environmental education programs that could be used as models for other school districts looking to improve or create climate education programs. Currently the world is at a crossroads in how we can combat climate change, and education is a key factor in making sure our climate is protected for thousands of years to come.

Discussion Questions:

  • For K-12 Students: How can educational curriculums similar to the ones in these three school districts be implemented in your school?

  • Beyond science curriculums how can sustainability education be incorporated into different school subjects such as history, math, and English?

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