By Carrie Strohl
At the beginning of October, ten preservice teachers and I participated in a creek cleanup to learn more about plastic pollution in the Bay Area. The students are enrolled in a one-year professional program to earn their California teaching credentials. As their science methods instructor, my role is to prepare candidates to implement science instruction at the elementary (K-5) level. Taking students outside and engaging them in environmental education has been an important part of my practice since I began teaching the course in 2015–just as the California Blueprint for Environmental Literacy was released.
One of the key recommendations of this document was for teacher preparation programs to incorporate environmental education so all students receive meaningful opportunities to learn “in, about, and for the environment.” Since then, I have regularly relied on organizations like The Watershed Project to inspire future teachers to make environmental education a core part of their curriculum.
When I initially reached out to The Watershed Project, I envisioned an opportunity to build community through service learning. I was planning to participate in Coastal Cleanup Day in September, so I suggested we plan a similar event for the students. Staff members Anne Bremer and Paula White had a better idea–one that would lead to greater environmental impact as well as increased environmental literacy. Following the Break Free From Plastic model, we completed a “brand audit” to position the students as citizen scientists. We convened at Wildcat Creek Trailhead in North Richmond where we were expertly guided to collect, count, and record the trash we picked up. We not only documented what plastics we found that day, but also identified the companies that make those plastics.
In contrast to a typical cleanup, taking a community science (an alternative name for “citizen science”) approach can make participants feel more invested in the process. As a class, we talked about some of the brands we found and discussed how and why these end up in the watershed to begin with. Participating in community science is also very well aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, which suggest engaging youth in authentic practices of science (such as collecting and analyzing data or making explanations). Students take ownership of the data in a way that can spur further action. Personally, I was motivated to submit a letter to our Congressional Representatives through The Action Network.
In my experience, trash cleanups and restoration projects can be a great way to spend time outdoors, engage with the community, and feel good about protecting the environment. But after event day I’ve often wondered, “How much impact do I really have?” This same question could be asked of any teacher thinking about how (or whether) to integrate environmental education. As another one of my students asked, “Where do I even begin to engage eight-year-olds in making sense of plastic pollution?” We had a serious conversation about individual vs. collective actions and how to instill a sense of agency in youth without putting the weight of the environmental crisis on their shoulders. I shared that when I started teaching the course, I learned that my students’ first encounter with climate change was in fifth grade! When I was in fifth grade, I had barely heard of recycling.
One field trip or lesson will not solve the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century, but offering opportunities to build community in service of the environment, introducing the idea that pollution starts when a product is made, and using science to better understand environmental problems will inspire youth to take action later in their lives. This week I will share with the preservice teachers an engineering design challenge in which a crafting project becomes a solution to the problem of single-use plastic baggies. In this lesson, youth investigate the properties of beeswax sandwich wraps and make their own sustainable product thus reducing one potential piece of trash from our watersheds. Future teachers need to instill in youth the mindset that we can have an impact, one baggie at a time.
I am so grateful to the staff of The Watershed Project, for providing a balanced approach to how teachers can incorporate environmental education into their future science classrooms. They guided my students and me through exploring an important environmental issue in a way that challenged the narrative of individual responsibility without diminishing the power of collective impact. Thanks to their leadership, my students took away valuable lessons about how to engage their future elementary students to take action against environmental degradation and plastic pollution.
**Carrie Strohl is a Lecturer in the Berkeley Educators for Equity and Excellence
Program. Find out more here.