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9 Steps for Superintendents Guiding a Districtwide Digital Transition

Laying the foundation for a modern, digital learning environment can be thrilling — and terrifying.

School administrators may be excited by the prospect of students learning at their own pace on devices loaded with interactive, customized lesson plans; or envisioning teachers as facilitators in classrooms where students are empowered to lead their own learning. But the step-by-step process of transitioning to a digital curriculum can be daunting. It requires much more than simply providing devices to students. A digital transition is a multi-faceted, multi-year process that must be carefully considered, planned and communicated.

We are three superintendents with 16 years of superintendent experience and 20 years of K-12 teaching experience among us. As heads of school districts — one small, one medium and one large — we have steered the transition to digital learning. We know first-hand what works and what doesn’t. We’ve experienced setbacks and successes. Sometimes we moved too fast, other times we wished we had been bolder. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and we’ve brought our experiences together to provide helpful steps as others consider making the transition to digital.

Digital transition is the shift from physical textbooks and paper handouts to digital, interactive learning tools.

  1. START WITH THE ‘WHY?’

    In our experience, this crucial first step is the foundation for a successful digital transition. Consider how digital learning will align with standards, add value for teachers, and enhance the student learning experience. Then make sure you broadcast this message clearly and frequently. Begin by involving all stakeholders — principals, teachers, parents, students, the Board of Education, local businesses and community residents. Is the goal of digital learning to provide education for all levels of learners? Is it to prepare students for the workplaces they will encounter? Is it to engage and challenge students with inquiry-based lessons? Your answers will be tailored to your community and school.

    Why we took the digital leap:

    “We wanted to level the playing field and make sure all students have access to the technology that prepares them for the future.” — Susan Allen, superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.

    “We knew the future of our students was going to change, and we wanted to make sure we could provide our students with the best learning tools that were available.” — Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

    “In Las Vegas, teachers had a lot of learning levels in their classrooms. Technology allowed teachers to bring more differentiation into their instruction.” — Dwight Jones, former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.

  2. ASSESS YOUR DISTRICT’S READINESS FOR A DIGITAL TRANSITION

    Spend time building broad-based understanding and support through meetings with the board of education, principals, teachers, parent teacher associations, and other local stakeholders. Develop and communicate a roll-out plan that takes into account which schools in your district are most ready for digital transition as well as which schools are most in need of digital investment. Some school districts will start with a particular grade or subject, while others will begin with the teachers who are most eager to learn about and use digital learning tools.

  3. MAKE SURE YOUR DIGITAL RESOURCES ARE STANDARDS-ALIGNED

    Just like printed materials, digital materials must deliver on the standards that students are expected to know and be able to do. There are many great resources – both print and digital – that generate highly engaging classroom experiences, but have nothing to do with the curriculum. Invest in digital resources that enhance your teachers’ abilities to deliver the learning objectives they’re expected to teach.

  4. CLEARLY AND RELENTLESSLY COMMUNICATE YOUR VISION

    As you embark on a digital transition, use the communication tools you already have to provide a framework, and make answers to questions easily available to all stakeholders. There is no such thing as over-communication. Your district must be relentless in its effort to explain the importance of the digital transition you are planning. Do not expect anyone in the district, not even teachers or principals, to automatically know the value of digital tools.

    In addition to proactive communications describing the goals and benefits of the initiative, it is important to keep lines of communication open throughout the process. Be transparent about challenges, setbacks, and promises with all stakeholders. Listen to concerns, and address them as they arise. For example, a common concern about digital transition is that students will be distracted by devices in the learning environment. Anticipate this concern, acknowledge it, address it and then let stakeholders know exactly how it was addressed. An effective strategy for handling this type of concern would be to provide professional development around it for teachers, and a book study for parents, and then write a blog post about it to share what has transpired with your community.

  5. ENGAGE YOUR NAVIGATORS

    Purchasing digital content without someone who deeply understands the nuances of different providers truly is flying blind. Dedicate knowledgeable staff to guide the purchasing process, for both hardware and digital curriculum, and to help steer and encourage professional development opportunities. These navigators will become the champions to help your district move this project forward and to provide answers throughout the process. Before they begin their work, encourage them to reach out to colleagues in other school districts to learn about their experiences.

  6. TRANSITION SLOWLY — TARGET A GRADE LEVEL AND ITERATE

    Ask teachers who are enthusiastic about the transition to opt-in to the process, and allow them to pilot the transition. Those teachers can then serve as resources who can share their insights and experiences with other teachers preparing for digital learning. Honor this learning by celebrating teacher leaders who are risk-takers, leading every day by example.

  7. PROVIDE ONGOING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

    Professional development should be embedded and ongoing so that teachers and other system staff gain a real facility with utilizing technology and digital content to create self-directed student learners. Administrators must become versed in digital learning so they can observe and evaluate teachers. Much of the professional development should focus on nurturing digital learners. Provide professional development beginning the spring before roll out, and continue through the summer. Once the school year begins, bring a curriculum mentor into the classroom to work with students and teachers. Professional development can be offered in person, online and through webinars. Teachers can be pulled out of their classrooms for instruction, or instructor/mentors can provide digital learning guidance during the instructional day. Make sure teachers have access to resources throughout the school year so they always have a place to turn with questions or when seeking lesson ideas. Be prepared to provide professional development that meets teachers on all different levels. Some teachers are going to be skilled and eager digital instructors, while others will be wary of change to their established lesson plans. Full-scale professional learning should be based on the content that will be taught, not on grade levels or familiarity with the intricacies of the devices. Teachers want to know how to teach content effectively and with ease. Show them how.

  8. LEARNING > TECHNOLOGY

    Demonstrate to teachers how technology can be used to support a variety of teaching styles, including small-group collaboration, rotating through technology stations, student presentations and teacher-led instruction. The goal is to create classroom environments where students are directing their own learning and teachers are guides, not dispensers of information.

  9. EMBED LESSONS OF DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP

    Ensure students learn digital citizenship and sourcing skills. Devote classroom instruction time to teaching students how to be good digital citizens. That includes knowing how to interact online without bullying, how to advocate responsibly and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. Students also need to learn how to resist the siren call of a device. One student said a digital learning environment helped him learn how to resist distraction: “I had a choice to make. I could remain distracted and my grades could go down, or I could use this tool to get better grades.”

About the Authors:


Dr. Christine Johns —
 superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

Susan K. Allen —
 superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.
 
Dwight Jones — 
former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.
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How Schools Are Bridging the Coding Gender Gap

Turning girls onto computers and coding requires strong leadership, said Superintendent Dr. Kristine Gilmore of the D.C. Everest School District in Wisconsin.

Computer science classes have long been the domain of boys. While girls and boys are now equally represented in advanced science and math classes, girls still are not flocking to classes like Programming in JAVA or Mobile App Development. With the growing need for computer scientists in the workforce, school leaders are trying to convince girls that these classes aren’t just boys’ clubs.

As superintendent of D.C. Everest Schools in Wisconsin, Dr. Kristine Gilmore has led a vibrant campaign to conquer the gender gap in STEAM courses at her schools.

“Things don’t happen by chance,” said Gilmore. “You have to ask, ‘Do all kids have opportunities?’ As a superintendent, my job is to remove barriers for kids.”

Girls only made up about one-fifth of all AP students in computer science in 2013, according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, even though girls are equally likely to take the science and math AP exam. This gender gap continues into college. In 2015, only 18 percent of all computer science college degrees in the country went to women.

This gap puts girls at a distinct workforce disadvantage in an industry on track to explode with opportunities. According to ComputerScience.org, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth of 15-20 percent in computer science jobs between 2012 and 2022. By 2020, there will be only 400,000 students. With those real-world opportunities, it is important to open more students — both boys and girls — to the pathways that coding skills could provide.

Why Girls Don’t Feel They Belong in Coding

It is somewhat puzzling that girls are comfortable calculating derivatives in calculus classes or studying harmonic motion in physics, but tend to balk when confronted with rows of computer terminals. A variety of factors are behind the computer science gender gap, according to a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women, including the geeky-guy stereotype, which is reinforced through popular media. Teenage girls think that computer classes are filled with skinny guys with bad social skills, like the characters on the television show “The Big Bang Theory”, and don’t feel comfortable stepping into that environment.

Researchers from the University of Washington found that simply redecorating the classroom might bust through that stereotype barrier. Allison Master, Sapna Cheryan, and Andrew N. Meltzoff reported in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2015 that girls were three times more likely to say that they would sign up for a computer science class in rooms that were decorated with nature posters, lamps, and plants, rather than rooms that contained Star Trek posters and science fiction books.

“When girls felt that they belonged in the environment, they became more interested in taking the course,” according to the article.

Learning from female computer teachers, particularly during the middle school years when interest in computers peaks for many girls, may also hold the key to increasing gender equity, according to research by Accenture and Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization that runs summer immersion programs for girls across the country. Developing a positive “experience of computing in their junior high years means that girls are 18% more likely to show interest in computing throughout their high school and college years,” according to the Accenture research.

Shaping Coding Experiences for Girls

Getting girls in the classroom is a focus for several tech-forward school districts across the country. Dr. Michael Lubelfeld, the superintendent of Deerfield Public Schools in Illinois, and a member of AASA’s Digital Consortium, has acquired a reputation as a technology innovator. And this is a topic he is passionate about. Lubelfeld has successfully increased the number of girls in computer science, garnering a lot of attention for his school district.

Superintendent Dr. Mike Lubelfeld believes heightened community engagement, school board support, an more female mentors could help resolve the gender gap challenge.

He’s found that a combination of community involvement, the presence of female mentors, and support from the school board are critical to changing mindsets. He also believes that immersing both boys and girls in computer science at an early age, in all subjects, is extremely important to overcome the gender gap. His district is even discovering new ways of bringing coding into English classes.

He also pointed to the success of a lunchtime learning experience, “STEM for Girls,” which was run by mothers from the community with careers in computer science and engineering. Over 100 elementary school girls learned how to build robots, performed basic coding, and completed hands-on, creative experiments using electricity and magnetism.

Beyond pulling girls into STEM, the program also served as a catalyst for a community-funded, $1.5 million STEM program in the school district’s libraries and as a factor in the selection of an elementary and middle school named Blue Ribbon Schools in 2016.

Like Lubelfeld, Superintendent Gilmore said that her district worked to bring girls into computer science by starting young and teaching computers across the curriculum.

“We’ve tried to think about it across more than one course,” she said. “We are trying to make it embedded in what we do, rather than being a separate pull out.”

D.C. Everest’s students are exposed to coding experiences even as early as kindergarten, using programs such as Scratch, and in unique learning environments like Maker Spaces, enrichment summer school programs, and during after-school activities like Lego Robotics clubs.

She wants girls to recognize that game design doesn’t just have to be for boys. Her district isn’t putting together clubs or classes that are exclusively for girls, because they want their programs to be open to all students, including students who are English  Language learners in her district.

“Girls play video games, too. Look at the success of Minecraft and Candy Crush Saga. We don’t have to create barriers,” said Gilmore.

“I don’t want to just destigmatize computer science for girls. I want to destigmatize STEAM for all kids.”

Tina Plummer, an assistant superintendent at the Mehlville School District in St. Louis, has worked to improve the computer science gender gap. Plummer and her district partnered with Discovery Education to reach girls when they were young, advocating to form connections with the community, and provide girls with role models.

“Start young, and give them opportunity,” said Plummer.

Mehlville’s schools also reached girls by offering them a girls-only event, “Breakfast with the Experts,” to showcase their various STEM courses and to introduce them to women in the community with careers in engineering, neurobiology, and computer programming.

There are signs of progress. More girls took the AP computer science exam in 2016 than ever before. In 2015, 22 percent of all test takers were girls; in 2016, 23 percent were girls. The College Board also reported that eight states had fewer than ten girls who took the test.

Clearly, more work is needed to get girls coding. Innovations from tech-forward districts like Deerfield, D.C. Everest, and Mehlville can help guide other school districts in their efforts to shift stereotypes.

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High School Civics is Cool Again

High school graduates don’t know enough about American government.

That’s the conclusion of a Department of Education report which highlighted the fact that less than a quarter of high school seniors scored proficient on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics test. Civics learning, the department maintained, was an add-on in too many schools and was seen as a distraction from the core subjects.

“The need to revitalize and re-imagine civic education is urgent. That urgent need brings a great opportunity—the chance to improve civic education in ways that will resonate for years,” then- Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in 2011.

And the students themselves are looking to boost their knowledge of American government. The current politically charged atmosphere is drawing a record number of high school students toward current events, according to the New York Times.

Students are seeking out more information about civic engagement through social media and from their high school teachers.

To support schools as they craft their new civics classes, a wealth of online resources and curriculum content are available that present the facts and history of American government, provide an overview of the ideas and the issues that divide our nation and introduce students to the various methods for participating in American politics.

The first step in any civics or government class is to instruct students about the institutions of government. The three branches of federal government, checks and balances, the process of creating laws, federalism, the basic mechanics of elections, and the role of parties and interest groups in this country all need to be mastered. Like any good board game, students have to know the rules of government in order to play.

After students have a strong understanding of the institutions and process of government, the next step is learning about the substance of politics. Here, students learn about the issues and the values that divide our nation. They must take positions on controversial topics and state their opinions in a civil manner. They have to discuss the details of current policies, such as those related to the military, education, housing, welfare, and immigration. Research shows that students who are used to discussing current affairs are more likely to be politically active as adults.

The last step in any good civics class is to present the various ways that students can wade into politics and have their voices heard. Voting is the most basic form of participation, but citizens can also sign petitions and attend marches. They can attend local town hall meetings. Even calling an elected official to ask a question or stating your position on an issue is a way of participating. Hopefully, some students might even work on a campaign or run for office in the future, or at the very least gain an insight into and respect for the machinations of government that affect all American lives.

The following resources help teachers provide their students with deep knowledge of the institutions of government, the ability to wade into the hot buttons issues of the times, and the tools to directly participate in American politics.

Resources

  • Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook offers instruction on the structure and processes of the U.S. government through an inquiry-based learning process. It provides teachers with primary source documents, exclusive videos, and other dynamic digital content. New online-entry features check students’ understanding, allowing them to apply their learning to new situations, and contribute to classroom conversations. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook also includes interactive features in which students practice civic discourse with debates and role-playing.
  • iCivics is a set of free online educational games developed by a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Last November, the game was played roughly 3 million times, according to Education Week.
  • Newseum, a Washington-based museum about current events, provides free learning tools on media literacy and the First Amendment.
  • C-SPAN Classroom offers extensive classroom lesson plans and free videos developed by teachers and the C-SPAN staff.
  • The Center for Civic Education is an independent, nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry that is committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. It offers a variety of lesson plans related to elections on topics such as voting requirements, the power of the senior vote, and amendments. Handouts include a chart of political slogans. Did you know that Herbert Hoover’s slogan was “a chicken in every pot (and a car in every garage)”?
  • The American Bar Association has lessons plans on a variety of topics, including antitrust laws, the Second Amendment, and the environment. One lesson plan involves a discussion of the use of censorship in Ray Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451.
  • The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is an advocacy group that promotes civics education at the state and national level. Its website provides links to over 90 organizations and schools that provide teachers with free lesson plans and inspiration, including EarthForce.org and the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
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Helping Students Search for Truth in an Era of ‘Fake News’

“What is true and what is false?”

This reads like a driving question for a unit of study in social studies. But in the current political climate, many people are asking this question in their daily lives.

Fake news — the deliberate spread of misinformation or hoaxes across various media — is meant to mislead readers in order to gain financially, politically, or otherwise. The furor surrounding fake news has resulted in heightened skepticism of reports from the news media, and an escape route for those who struggle to accept the authenticity of information that does not align with their beliefs on important, divisive issues.

A recent report concluded that students may be among the most susceptible to the influx of false statements and the manipulation of facts. In a 2016 study by the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG), researchers found that youth have a hard time telling the difference between objective and sponsored online content. Young people are also susceptible to bias when politicians and organizations post messages on social media.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, author of the report and founder of SHEG. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

Searching for truth in an era of fake news needs to be a priority in education. This is not the responsibility of the social studies teacher or the English department alone. Every discipline should teach “media literacy,” defined by Heidi Hayes Jacobs as being able to “develop critical and creative capabilities to both receive and assess the quality of messages from all forms of media, and to generate and create quality media of their own.” This includes understanding that any communication has a purpose and an audience in mind.

Media literacy also addresses how people may leverage specific strategies to entertain, inform, or persuade in a variety of media.

There are specific strategies and skills educators can foster in students to ensure they develop a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the information available before forming their own opinions. Here are just a few:

1. Curate reliable feeds of information

Taking one person’s word as truth on any complex issue may lead to misinformation and misconceptions. Teachers can combat this by modeling for students how to create a reliable list of individuals and groups on social media. For example, a teacher can maintain a classroom Facebook page or Twitter account. The teacher would demonstrate how to evaluate who they might follow, discuss why they would read their posts, and ensure multiple perspectives are considered. Older students can be taught to maintain their own information feeds using digital curation tools such as Feedly and Flipboard.

2. Understand how people are persuaded

Merriam-Webster defines “fact” as “a piece of information presented as having objective reality”. This would be a good entry point for a study of what makes for effective persuasive writing. Connections with media literacy can be made by studying the techniques advertisers use. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and International Literacy Association (ILA) offer many teacher resources on this topic at ReadWriteThink.

3. Teach search strategies

Google’s revenue source comes primarily from businesses and organizations that want to have their websites on the first page for key search results. Using search engines designed for students, such as Sweet Search, will help ensure results are objective and appropriate. Students should also be taught how to use features within the advanced option for Google searches when doing research for a class project.

4. Create content for an audience

In the search for truth, everyone can have a voice with the advent of the Internet and digital applications. Students need opportunities to apply their media literacy skills in new contexts. Teachers can use creation tools, such as  learning management systems, or LMSs, provide safe online spaces for students to interact with peers.  Students can post their work and their ideas for feedback. Their finished products, which may include a mix of audio, images, and video in addition to text, can be published on a blog, website, or video channel.

Old Challenges, New Strategies

Dealing with fake news is not a new phenomenon. Mathew Ingram of Fortune Magazine points out that historical figures such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin wrestled with these very same issues. The good news, Ingram reports, is that “we arguably have much better tools to fight it than we have ever had before.” Social media and content development tools, along with the right strategies, put every student in better control of what they consume and create.

 

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3 Ways ESSA Gets Computer Science Education Right

If you’re an educator, you’re probably already familiar with The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But questions abound regarding the status of this federal renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. What education programs will or will not lose funding, and to what degree? Will more federal dollars be allocated for vouchers and school choice? How will these changes improve student outcomes?

The answers to some of these questions could take years, but some should begin emanating from Washington shortly, as federal budget deliberations proceed. However, one tenet of ESSA’s guidelines is unlikely to waver — an enhanced focus on computer science.

Since its inception in 2015, ESSA has signaled a shift in authority regarding educational programming from the federal to the state level. In addition to this increase in autonomy, there are now more consistent expectations for all U.S. students regarding computer science instruction in schools. Its instruction is no longer viewed as an elective.

Computer science was included with other core subjects, such as writing, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in ESSA’s definition of a “well-rounded education.”

Computer science instruction has become an essential part of the core curriculum for many school districts, and with the ESSA’s urging, many others will begin ramping up efforts to get students ahead of a massive projected  job shortage. This shortfall had already presented itself as of 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics:

Here are three things the ESSA gets right with its approach to computer science education:

1. Increases Access to Digital Resources

President Obama allocated $4 billion to states to increase access to computer science coursework . Called the “Computer Science for All” plan, this financial commitment supports the ESSA requirement that all students receive high-quality instruction in order to be college and career ready.

A number of partnerships between organizations have been fostered to support this initiative. For example, the National Science Foundation has collaborated with the Department of Defense to develop an effective computer science curriculum for children of military families. These students may frequently move due to one or both parents’ assignments. Having a reliable computer science curriculum will help to ensure that educators working with military families can provide high-quality instruction wherever the families may go.

2. Encourages a More Integrated Approach to Computer Science

Teaching technology in isolation can decrease the relevance of the knowledge and skills gained. Students may fail to make the connection between computer science and how it might be applied in the real world.

With ESSA, educators are expected to integrate computer science with many areas of instruction. For instance, the STEM subjects offer obvious opportunities for integration. Programming a robot to perform simple tasks can happen as early as elementary school. Older students can write code to create applications for gathering and sharing data about the environmental health of the planet. These efforts of citizen scientists make crowdsourcing through technology a necessary part of academic studies.

Integrating computer science can be just as important in the arts and humanities. As an example, graphic design is a skill regularly employed in advanced secondary courses such as journalism and business education. Most teachers, when they take a step back, will realize that computer science is already a tacit part of their curriculum and instruction. With a little forethought, entry points can be found or created to facilitate this integration at a deeper level.

3. Expects Student Learning Results with Increased Funding

The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund makes ESSA dollars available for new instructional approaches. Awarded projects are expected to foster tangible, positive outcomes in student learning. Results matter as much as the efforts.

One example involves an Arizona State University program called CompuGirls. It aims to improve computer literacy for girls living in high-needs rural and urban areas. The focus of these efforts is to improve non-cognitive skills such as self-efficacy and resilience through computer-related coursework. Resources that are allocated through competitive ESSA programs such as i3 are based on measurable outcomes. This will help ensure funds are used effectively. The findings from these projects are to be shared widely with other educators.

Like any government policy, funding and guidance are only as effective as how well they are implemented at the classroom level. Teachers and students will need the resources, training, and support from building- and district-level leadership in order to make the federal promise of computer science for all a reality.

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Modern Learning in the Great Outdoors

In Rocky Mountain National Park, middle school students from St. Vrain Valley School District are sharing a trail with a mountain lion, bear cubs, a coyote, deer, and a skunk intent on spraying the area under cover of darkness.

How do the students know all of this? They’re reviewing videos they collected the previous night taken from cameras they mounted on trees. They got some tips about field science from the park rangers, and now they’re gathering wildlife data and providing it to the park themselves. Their counterparts in high school are contributing in the field, too, working with Ocean First Education. They recently watched divers in the Pacific measuring the length of great white sharks using a device they designed and developed themselves.

Across the country, at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School in Miami, science teacher Noelle Gerstman is guiding her students as they analyze the DNA of flamingo feathers. Students are working to determine whether flamingos found in the wild are, in fact, wild or are escapees from a local race track that is home to a flock in captivity. Meanwhile, their schoolmates are collaborating with NASA on the Growing Beyond Earth project, germinating leafy greens, kale, and tomatoes to determine which vegetables are the best to grow in microgravity aboard the International Space Station.

Honing Environmental Literacy

These students are lucky, but it shouldn’t take luck to provide amazing educational opportunities like this. Environmental literacy is a critical skill that all educators should help their students develop. It requires authentic, student-driven, hands-on challenges in which every learner can pursue or discover an interest.

The North American Association for Environmental Education defines an environmentally literate person as “someone who, both individually and together with others, makes informed decisions concerning the environment; is willing to act on these decisions to improve the well being of other individuals, societies, and the global environment; and participates in civic life.” The association goes further to define four areas of competency: knowledge, disposition, skills, and behaviors. In other words, it’s not enough to understand the facts. One must care about and interact with the environment in order to be considered environmentally literate.

In a school setting, it takes a focused dedication to create relevant and rigorous opportunities for students so they can build the skills required to be informed and engaged citizens. Some of the best ways to foster engagement include presenting authentic problems in the classroom, encouraging active solution-seeking, and providing a link between the classroom and the community.

Gerstman finds that it doesn’t take much to get students involved. At BioTECH, student awareness and interest drive the inquiry.

“The changes in sea level at Miami Beach just in the last 10 years, they’re evident: they’re raising the streets in Miami Beach,” she said. “So, the evidence of environmental change is really in our face. The students like to watch the Weather Channel, and a couple of them commented, ‘There’s been no snow in Chicago.’”

For students to be able to understand an authentic challenge, they need knowledge; to create a solution, they need skills; to act, they need to care and connect. An authentic challenge offers a cycle of influence: understanding, application, action. Academicians are used to transferring knowledge and skills, but it is more challenging to teach disposition and behavior. In fact, it may be impossible to teach those concepts directly. However, students who can seize on opportunities for real collaboration and connection soon develop in these areas.

No Walls, No Limits

That’s what is happening with St. Vrain Valley School District’s students in Rocky Mountain National Park. Right alongside the students practicing field science is a group of students more interested in documentation. While one group of students affix cameras to trees and another downloads and analyzes the data, yet another group is documenting the whole endeavor on film, while still others are documenting the documentarians.

The benefits are broad: students gain experience with field science, the communication of scientific ideas, the process of documentation, and collaboration with fellow scientists.

“Learning takes on a whole different realm,” said Mike O’Toole, St. Vrain’s science coordinator. “They’re learning about film making and other 21st-century skills that have become so vital.”

The film documenting their work, “Plains to the Park,” was entirely scripted, narrated, filmed, and edited by middle school students. The final version is virtually indistinguishable from a federal park production, including voice-over narration and professional-looking clips of sweeping blue skies and babbling mountain streams.

Meanwhile in Florida, BioTECH’s high school students are listening to scientists and learning about ongoing mysteries at Zoo Miami. They’ve talked to scientists there and learned that, for some animals, reproductive rates are low. Using background knowledge they gained in the classroom about hormones, the students propose looking at the hormone levels of the animals to see if there are any imbalances that may account for the reproductive pattern. This is an opportunity to learn in the field while addressing a real, unsolved, scientific mystery and, potentially, make a valuable contribution to science at the zoo.

Environmental literacy applies across the STEM spectrum, including projects that require technology, engineering, and math skills. For instance, O’Toole has partnered with Ocean First Education to support divers studying great white sharks. The student contribution to the deep-water dive in the Pacific is a laser-based measurement tool that allows the divers to measure the sharks in motion with a high degree of accuracy. O’Toole, who supports the efforts of science teachers across his district, focuses on creating partnerships with organizations like Ocean First Education and NASA to find rich learning opportunities for students.

So, how is this possible in a district or a school that hasn’t been designed for these types of partnerships and programs? After all, they take funding, time, and intense collaboration with the scientific community.

Starting Small, Dreaming  Big

“It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant. It’s just getting students outside,” he said. “Right now, we’re really focusing on using technology to get students invested in the outdoors.”

In St. Vrain schools, teachers use their schoolyards to begin studying outside. They use a math scavenger hunt in which students are challenged to find examples of math concepts in nature. Elementary school students, each given a camera or tablet, head outside to find something in nature that’s circular or parallel. Or, a teacher might use his or her own interest, such as hiking or gardening, as a jumping-off point and contact a scientist in the community to seek a collaborative opportunity.

Gerstman agrees that you can start locally, with a university partner, for example, but she is convinced that to truly maximize environmental literacy programs, educators need a deep commitment at the federal level in the form of funding. The grant proposal for BioTECH was written by a team of teachers and scientists with the express purpose of funding this biology and botany magnet school. The school has its own analytical chemistry lab, a zoology lab, and a DNA lab and is staffed with veteran teachers, most with advanced degrees in their field.

Even if you’re starting small, with a purposeful use of technology, scientists and students can share and collaborate online. O’Toole regularly uses technology to connect students around the world. He’s invited classrooms in Colorado and Tanzania to connect through a learning expedition at Mount Kilimanjaro, and he shares the excursions online so students everywhere can follow along. During the Discovery Education Virtual Field Trip to Kilimanjaro, students all over the world sported safari gear at school and joined in virtually as the group reached the summit.  Online watch parties, chats, conferences, and social media exchanges are all good ways to expand the impact of environmental projects.

Some contests and challenges are also good for developing environmental literacy and may result in collaborations between students and scientists. Contests with authentic challenges require students to meet all four competency areas: they must learn about the problem, care about it, have or acquire skills to address it, and act.

Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge is an example of this type of challenge. Participating students propose solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, underscoring in the process that humans are affected by and can affect the environment. Finalists have the opportunity to work with scientists from 3M to participate in authentic scientific process and prototyping, including the presentation of results and proposals.

Fostering Citizen Scientists

With all the potential for partnerships and global connection, the most important ingredient in the development of environmental literacy seems to be a dedication to creating opportunities for real scientific learning and impact to occur.

Educators must provide experiences that allow students to develop knowledge and empathy in order to stretch toward a concern for the world and a sense of agency about their part in it. Only then can all the necessary components sync toward environmental literacy.

After all, environmental literacy isn’t a check mark on a mastery list for children or adults. Rather, it is an evolving competency. In our changing world, educators must continue to be involved and informed citizens, preparing the next generation to carry the torch forward.

Jeanette Edelstein is an educator dedicated to making learning more engaging for students of all ages. She has been a classroom teacher, curriculum designer, and program developer. She was a founding teacher and the gifted and talented coordinator at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts. Her curriculum projects include Hive Alive!, a collection of teaching resources about honey bees, Animal Planet Rescue, a disaster relief and educational vehicle that rescued over 1,000 animals, and CapsinSchool, an elementary curriculum based on the math and science of hockey.

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