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by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

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May 31, 2017
How to Use the Environment to Design PBL Experiences

by Jim Bentley
National Faculty

Even the most complex Gold Standard Project Based Learning unit starts with a simple question: What’s the content?

There’s no shortage of sources from which to choose: individual state frameworks and standards, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Mathematics, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), district adopted curriculum with their ancillary online and analog components.

How can we as teachers best design PBL experiences that effectively integrate content standards, activities, and textbooks? I’ve found designing projects through an “environmental literacy” lens can do that, and connect students to the communities in which they live.

According to California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, an environmentally literate person “has the capacity to act individually and with others to support ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable communities for present and future generations.” The goal for educators working with students is “developing the knowledge, skills, and understanding of environmental principles to analyze environmental issues and make informed decisions.”

This concept was launched with the passage of California Assembly Bill 1548 (Pavely) which established the California Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) curriculum. Following that, more than 100 scientists and experts created a set of Environmental Principles and Concepts. These five principles and 15 concepts will now be included in all future K-8 science as well as history-social science instructional materials adoptions in California.

So how can these Environmental Principles and Concepts coalesce content?

Projects on Environmental Principles and Concepts
When my 6th graders study the water cycle as called for in NGSS standard MS-ESS2-4, we do more than simply “Develop a model to describe the cycling of water through Earth's systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.”

We drill down into the topic with help from the EP&Cs while simultaneously integrating reading, writing, math, and civic education, with speaking and listening and even visual and performing arts standards.

When a previous class studied the water cycle using free EEI Curriculum alongside our textbook, and a Newsela text set, they learned one source of groundwater pollution came from improperly disposed of batteries. Less than 1% are properly recycled due to a lack of education on the part of consumers and a lack of revenue on the part of local integrated waste departments. As students dug deeper, they uncovered the concept of extended producer responsibility, which holds manufacturers of certain products financially and legally responsible for their planned disposal. Students identified one solution to this problem was lobbying our state legislature to enact EPR legislation on battery manufacturers.

Environmental Principle II focuses on how “ecosystems are influenced by their relationships with human societies,” something my students witnessed in their inquiry into the causes of groundwater pollution. And the concept of EPR connected students’ findings to Environmental Principle II, Concept D which explores how government policies affect the “viability of natural systems.”

Students went beyond the NGSS standards and opted to lobby our city to install battery recycling bins in elementary schools throughout our district. The proposal was not accepted due to safety concerns, but what resulted was a multi-year collaboration with our city’s integrated waste department. We now produce instructional films on the proper disposal of trash, recyclables, green waste, and most recently organic waste. You can see my students’ work on our city’s video library. We also created a documentary about the battery disposal project showcased on our YouTube Channel.

This project integrated a variety of standards, but it was the big ideas expressed in the Environmental Principles and Concepts that served as the canvas for the learning experience.

This year I’ve turned to Principle IV, which focuses on how “the exchange of matter between natural systems and human societies” affects the health of ecosystems, and Principle V, which looks at how the decisions we make regarding resource use involves a “wide range of considerations and decision-making processes.” 

Our driving question: How can we as student filmmakers educate businesses about organic waste and its impact on climate change?

Students are informing businesses in our city about mandatory organic recycling resulting from the passage of California Assembly Bill 1826. They’ve researched and read about various types of organic waste. They’ve learned as organics breakdown they generate greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Students have scripted a series of 7 films and are now shooting video or finding footage allowed for use under Creative Commons Licensing or that is in the public domain.

Exploring the Interconnections
Writing and refining driving questions in a PBL unit are essential to help students stay focused on what a project is all about. A teacher also needs a set of optics to help organize the various standards and success skills to be taught.

The Environmental Principles and Concepts developed in my home state of California have helped me look past standards. I no longer focus solely on the “what” of teaching. I now seek to explore the interconnections between content, students, our environment, and our role in it.

The recent presidential election has caused many to question whether appointees to head the Environmental Protection Agency or Departments of Energy or Interior are qualified to do so. Author Timothy Snyder recently remarked in a NPR interview that “our institutions don't defend themselves.” Their survival depends on people working “as individuals.”

That signals to me our role then as teachers is more than teaching content to students. It’s preparing them to be critical thinkers, citizen scientists, advocates for problems that may not even exist yet. And to do that will take an understanding of the nuanced interconnections that exist between ourselves and our environment.

You can follow Jim Bentley on Twitter @Curiosity_Films


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