Eco education: Curriculum for a greener future

Students water their newly-planted flowers at Seaton Elementary with the help of Nikhita Jain. 

Teaching students how to interact with their environment is more important now than ever before.

It’s a rainy afternoon in Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t stop the second graders at Seaton Elementary School from planting seeds and playing in the dirt.

“I like finding the worms,” Lily, who was named after the flower, tells me. Today, there aren’t any bugs crawling around for Lily to find, but the class is still planting flowers indoors. Her favorite, of course, are lilies, but she reaches for the marigolds instead, digs her finger down into her small cardboard planter and drops down half a dozen seeds. “These ones look so pretty,” Lily says as a smile spreads across her face.

Lily piles up the dirt on her desk and scoops it up to cover her seeds.

Lily is a student at one of the nearly 130 public schools in Washington that has access to its own school garden. Since the passage of the Healthy Schools Act in 2010, Washington’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) has worked to expand its School Gardens Program to engage a wider swath of students in environmental education with hands-on experience.

When the program first started out, only 82 schools in D.C. had their own school garden. Last year, Washington’s public schools reported that there were active school gardens on 128 campuses — or about half of the schools in the district. The 2016-2017 Healthy Schools Report highlighted that over 450 teachers taught almost 15,000 students 10 or more hours of garden-based education over the course of the 2016-2017 school year.

“There is so much potential for environmental literacy to be incorporated into all aspects of public education,” said Zoe Quint, a Food Corps service member who works with City Blossoms to revitalize school gardens in D.C. Public Schools and help teachers combine the outdoor learning space with their own lessons. But the struggle is helping teachers integrate the garden seamlessly into their own curriculum.

“I don’t want [teachers] to see it as a burden or a distraction to bring kids out into the garden,” Quint said. “I want them to feel like this is an outdoor classroom space that they can use to enrich their existing curriculum.”

The garden at Seaton has been around for years, but underwent a complete overhaul just this past fall. When Quint first saw the garden, it was overgrown with weeds. Now, the new seedlings — planted only two weeks ago — should yield the garden’s first harvest in the coming months, with edible produce like strawberries and kale for students and community members, and four new community beds designed with parents in mind.

Not only is the space now more suitable to grow produce, but also to teach students about gardening and the environment, which can be a difficult task in communities that are bogged down by funding restrictions.

“Every public school is overburdened and under-resourced as it is, and then there’s an element of, ‘Oh, you’re not tested on it, so it’s not as valuable.’” Quint said, alluding to the rigid testing standards schools often use to determine whether or not a child is “learning.”

But even as schools struggle to demonstrate any progress on standardized exams that focus more on test-taking skills than content acquisition, plenty of people still defend the more structured approach. Just two weeks ago, at the ASU + GSV Summit, George W. Bush defended No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the law he signed in 2002 that ushered in the era of accountability and high-stakes testing in public schools throughout the country.

“For the first time, in return for money, people had to show results. I view it as one of the great pieces of civil rights legislation,” Bush said about NCLB during his keynote speech. “If we spend money, damn right we want to know if it’s working.”

The law, which passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, required states to establish annual testing in reading and math, and required that every state — albeit by their own standards — brought all students to “proficiency” levels by the 2013-2014 school year, or risk losing Title I funding.

The goal of NCLB was to close the achievement gap between low-income and minority students and their more affluent, white counterparts. Though it’s debated whether or not the law had any success in doing so, NCLB did drastically reshape the curricula of public education. Under the law, which was replaced by the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015, states were required to implement math and reading assessments, which many believe encouraged schools to narrow their curriculum to exclude things that weren’t tested, like the arts and history.

Even though ESSA reduces the amount of federal oversight in public education, standardized testing has already become an ingrained part of the public education system in the United States. Schools around the country rely on exams (regardless of how outrageous they may be) to determine things like teacher pay and school funding. As schools focus in on improving performance on these standardized tests, it becomes difficult to garner support for educational programs that teach to topics outside of the “common core” guidelines.

With such an intense focus on getting students to proficiency levels on reading and math assessments, things like environmental literacy get lost in the equation.

“That will constantly be a challenge and something to be aware of moving forward,” Quint said, “but the more you make people aware of [the garden’s] value, the more support you’ll get.”

Although there isn’t extensive research on how environmental literacy interacts with educational outcomes, a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University suggests that school gardens have the potential to noticeably enhance a student’s understanding of science.

It’s often difficult for districts in lower-income and minority neighborhoods to benefit from environmental literacy programs when compared to wealthier, better-financed school districts with greater access to resources. A study focusing specifically on school gardens in the Washington, D.C., area from 2016 found that students’ tested knowledge did not increase from learning in a community garden, but still noted that students’ engagement with the content did rise.

At Seaton Elementary, where almost 90 percent of students are minorities, 38 percent are English-language learners and 100 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged, Nikhita Jain, an assistant garden educator at City Blossoms, has noticed that the space can be “healing for students.”

“The garden can be a very comforting space,” Jain said. “I’ve seen kids who sometimes have more behavioral issues, but once they’re in the garden and they focus on something it’s like, ‘Woah, this could be somewhere where you channel that energy to.’”

Gardens teach young students to develop empathy, respect and kindness, among other values, both Quint and Jain stressed. Those lessons can be disseminated across a variety of curricula, from math and science to English and the arts, while still allowing students to “take a breath from the constraints of a traditional classroom,” Quint said.

Beyond the classroom impact, young students are taught what it means to be responsible for something.

"Actually taking care of something is interesting for kids because usually they’re usually the ones being taken care of,” Jain said. “But with the garden, they get to be a part of it. And when this kind of education goes to older students, you see a lot of the same development with actual ownership and responsibility toward it.”

Prepping the future of sustainability

At Mountain Vista, a public high school in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, just south of Denver, high schools students are developing the skills Jain alluded to. A grant has allowed teachers and administrators at Mountain Vista to teach their students about the environment, agriculture and business simultaneously using a Leafy Green Machine (LGM) — or a freight farm — that allows students to grow and sell produce in the local community.

 A Leafy Green Machine is an upcycled shipping container that has been transformed into a vertical hydroponic garden that is capable of growing lettuces, herbs and other greens. Hydroponic gardens allow for produce to thrive in a condensed setting, as the plants use mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil. The eco-friendly and sustainable farm allows students at Vista to grow three types of lettuce (romaine, butterhead and red fire) and basil at a commercial level — all from inside of an old cargo container. As of now, students are only able to sell what they grow to community members, but next year they plan to contract with local grocery stores in the area. The school also plans to implement an agricultural business class so students can gain class credit for their work.

Mountain Vista's Leafy Green Machine sits in an empty area on a hill next to the back parking lots.

The money students are earning from their sales is going back to support the farm, but once things start coming together on a larger scale, students and teachers say they hope to use the money to provide “mini grants” for innovation at the school.

“I think that there's a lot of opportunity for business, agriculture, technology, engineering, sales and general customer service experience for kids,” David Larsen, the STEM coordinator at Mountain Vista, said. “Each of those areas can be developed a great deal more once the kids in the agriculture business class start to run it as a true business.”

While plenty of schools host community gardens, Mountain Vista is one of the first K-12 public schools in the nation to run an operation of this scale.

Beyond the school’s LGM, students undertake a variety of different projects that connect them with the environment and teach them about sustainability. Students have also installed solar panels on the roof of the school, implemented a recycling program, redesigned the school’s outdoor gardens with xeriscape plants and, just this year, built homes for bats working with local conservation organizations and the Jane Goodall Organization.

“Younger kids love exploring in nature and want to save the animals, the trees, the bees,” said Lori Schwendeman, an AP Environmental Science teacher at Mountain Vista, but she believes that environmental education is often stifled as soon as students start to gain the cognitive ability to understand the world around them. “One cannot make decisions about modern consumption, energy, housing, eating, without valid scientific understanding,” Schwendeman said.

Schools like Mountain Vista that are equipped with their own farms and gardens provide students an enhanced opportunity to interact with the physical world often on a day-to-day basis. This awareness is more important now than ever, as environmental degradation continues to kill as many as 150 species of plants and animals every day.

“For both their person welfare, and to make informed voting decisions, informed citizens need a fundamental understanding of biology, physiology and earth science as much as they do an understanding of civics,” Schwendeman said.

Altering a mindset

The divide on environmental awareness is generational, and young Americans seem more disinterested than their older counterparts. According to Pew Research Center, adults who were at least 65 years old are three times more likely to make an effort to protect the environment than 18- to 29-year-olds. Only a fifth of all Americans say they make an effort “all the time.”

But it isn’t just age that determines whether or not you care about the environment — it’s mostly politics, which makes it even more difficult to gain bipartisan support for education initiatives focused on the environment.

Although Pew found that about three quarters of Americans think “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment,” the answers were extremely polarized. While 90 percent of Democrats agree, only 52 percent of Republicans feel the same way. Even more conservatives (58 percent) think that environmental laws hurt the economy and cost the country jobs. That number has risen rapidly in the past decade; ten years ago, only 34 percent of Republicans thought the same way. Alternatively, the number of liberals who think environmental regulations are bad for business has shrunk from 24 percent to 17 percent in the same time frame.

The divide on environmental issues has become so politicized that, at least for conservatives, the amount of content knowledge regarding science has little impact on whether or not Americans believe that environmental degradation influences habitat loss, rising sea levels or an increase in droughts and water shortages. For example, Pew reported that while 75 percent of Democrats with “high” levels of science knowledge believe that climate change will cause rising sea levels to erode shorelines, only 27 percent of Republicans with similar amounts of knowledge felt the same way. Another question asked whether or not climate change would cause storms to be more severe; among Republicans, those with the least knowledge were more likely to say yes than those with the most (33 percent compared to 19, respectively). Seventy-four percent of Democrats with “high” levels of knowledge said the same, compared to 37 percent of Democrats with “low” levels of knowledge.

Regardless of political values, sea levels are rising, and ecosystems are undergoing massive changes as a result of human activity. Now that greenhouse gas levels have risen to the highest point in over 800,000 years, it has become increasingly obvious that our society desperately needs new minds to enter the world prepared to tackle climate change and limit our impact on the earth as much as we’re still able to.

But Republican politicians have pushed back against science not only in legislation that threatens the environment, but also in legislation that prohibits students from learning about it. This past February, Idaho — a red state where only a quarter of Republicans think climate change is a result of human activity — scrapped the state science standards to exclude information on global warming or fossil fuels. Teachers can still conduct lessons on the topic, but considering there’s no mandate to teach all students about the earth’s climate, there’s also no support for pushing students into programs that teach them to interact with the environment and promote positive change.

Schwendeman, like so many educators in the environmental science field, is right: “Students who understand environmental science will be the ones to help us engineer a future,” and if they’re provided the resources and support to do so, that future can be green.