By Katie Ginsberg, Founder & Executive Director
Pivot. Pivot is the word I have heard and repeated arguably more than any other over the past six months. No mystery there, pivoting was key to pandemic survival for businesses and organizations of all kinds, not to mention for teachers, students and parents. Response to crisis can define a future, thus I am happy to report that CELF pivoted with precision and grace, barely pausing our forward motion. In fact, CELF responded to this crisis by doing even more of what we do best – we connected with teachers all over the world, and connected them with one another; we communicated our Education for Sustainability mission virtually, offering a variety of phenomenal digital tools and programs to teachers and families alike, (The Houston CELF education team piloted a successful online place-based learning program that can be replicated anywhere); And, CELF continued our vital work of educating a new generation of civic scientists to tackle real world issues, such as air pollution and environmental racism, because, now, more than ever before, the planet needs new solutions.
Resilience requires planning ‑ as does graceful pivoting – and CELF worked with talented digital consultants enabling us to take our Summer Institutes fully online; Not your ordinary webinars, these weeklong virtual retreats were as robust and interactive as ever before, and thanks to the inclusive digital platform, teachers and presenters participated from 8 different states and 4 countries. Our education team conducted this new online orchestra with their signature energy and aplomb, and with intricate backstage tech, communications and funding support from the rest of CELF’s team. The results were profound. Inspired teachers inspire students, and those students effect change.
SO, we truly believe there is cause for hope! I’m aware that optimism may seem incompatible with our present reality. Indeed, as I write this, Denver is under a winter storm watch, two days after the city hit a high temperature of 101 degrees, and the sun was obscured by smoke from wildfires. Covid 19 continues to sicken tens of thousands in this country, killing people of color in disproportionate numbers, and overwhelming under-funded health systems. Across the country, protests against police brutality and systemic racism continue unabated. This pandemic year has exposed our societal fault lines, in all their ugliness, that is clear. But these issues, societal and environmental, are certainly not new. How we respond to these problems must be. CELF’s focus is and has always been on equipping students with tools to identify, understand and solve dilemmas, collaboratively. They are taught to employ a holistic approach to problem solving, enabling them to appreciate the complex interconnections of parts and players. CELF and the teachers we work with are preparing students to apply new thinking to old problems. Therein lies the reason for hope.
Here are two CELF specific hope-inspiring examples: the first responding to the pervasive problem of air pollution and associated environmental racism; the second an illustration of how going “virtual” didn’t constrain our programming, but rather catapulted us onto screens across the world, including in the United Arab Emirates.
(1) Numerous studies have proved that air pollution of all kinds is linked to a vast scope of health problems from low birth weight to chronic lung disease, AND that people of color live in communities far more likely to be affected by man-made air pollution. The Covid 19 pandemic has killed people of color at a proportionately much higher rate than whites. Health experts point to air pollution as one of the main contributing factors.
CELF recently expanded our CELF Civic Science: Inquiry to Action, Air Quality program by partnering with Air Champions – Social Change Scientists (powered by McMac Cx and Plume Labs) and is offering it to K-12 schools across the country. Students will work with hand-held air pollution detectors (FLOWs) in order to collect, compare and analyze data with students in other communities, all over the world. They will not only identify the “where” in terms of pollution, but also the “what” regarding its source, and the “why” as well as “who” is affected. This summer we had our first professional learning workshop based on the expanded program, and teachers are already implementing their post-institute projects. Melissa Dettbarn, a middle school teacher from a district in Buffalo, New York works in a community long-familiar with poor air quality; a nearby coke manufacturing facility operated for nearly 100 years, contaminating the air and the soil. In addition, Dettbarn’s students are daily exposed to high levels of vehicle exhaust.
“Students also walk to and from school along busy roadways, sometimes crossing a 6-lane highway,” Dettbarn says. Dettbarn’s students will examine the air quality of their walking routes and around nearby playgrounds, they will learn about local air pollution issues and impacts, and those of the larger community. Students will study the causes of the pollution and consider the various interconnected pieces of the puzzle, such as the local economy. They will collaborate with local advocacy and scientific organizations, and share results with other community environmental groups. Finally, Dettbarn’s class will develop suggestions and plans to mitigate the effects of poor air quality, if not eliminate it, and they will present their ideas to school and city authorities.
(2) CELF teaches that “global competence” is not only necessary for students entering the 21st century economy, but learning to appreciate diversity and value multiple perspectives are essential skills for effective communication across cultural boundaries. CELF has worked with teachers and schools around the globe, not only to incorporate Education for Sustainability into their own curricula, and apply actionable takeaways to their schools and communities, but to foster international communication between students and their teachers as global citizen scientists.
This past August, CELF introduced our Civic Science program to the ASPAM Indian International School, in the United Arab Emirates. Administrators, teachers, students and families all engaged in an hour-long interactive presentation on Education for Sustainability. Along with schools across the U.S., we look forward to connecting with with ASPAM IIS students to implement the project-based learning program, connecting them with students taking action for improved air and water quality in their local communities. CELF’s Civic Science: Inquiry to Action program guides students through data collection and analysis using various portable technologies and crowd-sourced data sharing platforms. Data is studies through an interdisciplinary lens, combining scientific analysis with exploration of the surrounding social and economic issues. This student-led inquiry encourages local engagement, as well as collaboration with civic scientists around the world, so they can compare and contrast both the problems they have identified as well as the solutions they have developed.