Can EcoJustice, Citizen Science and Youth Activism Inspire New Ways of Teaching Science?

EcoJustice, Citizen Science and Youth Activism  (Library Copy) is the title of a new book edited by Michael P. Mueller, University of Alaska, and Deborah J. Tippins, University of Georgia.  It’s the first in the new Springer Book Series Environmental Discourses in Science Education in trying to bridge environmental education with science education.

ecojustice bookI received my copy of the book in the mail today, and was very happy for Mike and Deborah who have worked for several years to bring together the research and writing of science educators from various parts of the globe.  One of the aspects of their work that is represented here is their remarkable dedication to challenging traditions, especially an ideology of human domination over nature, and not the deep ecological perspectives that were signaled by Rachel Carson and Arne Naess.

In my view, their book, a cornucopia of fresh, abundant and grounded ideas based on case studies, research reports, and theoretical perspectives, offers a vital alternative to the Next Generation of Science Standards.  One of the themes that overflows in this book is a repositioning of teaching and learning into contextual situations, rather than a collection of sterile, barren, and garden variety behavioral goals or, as the NGSS puts it, “performance expectations.”

The ideas of ecoJustice, citizen science and youth activism are largely ignored in the NGSS, and as a result the ideas that are presented in this book will require activism centered on the belief that youth of all ages and all cultures are quite capable of engaging in real issues in their neighborhoods, as well as expanding their horizons to take part in challenging opportunities to collaborate with others, and seek solutions to problems that face humankind.

We need to question the purposes of teaching science, history, mathematics, and language arts beyond the content specific goals of the Common Core State Standards, as well as the science standards that I mentioned before.  Ed Johnson has said in letters and reports, if fundamental questions about the purposes of schooling are not addressed, and if we can not agree on these purposes, very little will change the system.

The so-called education reformers (corporatism neoliberal) cut learning to performances that can be easily measured on standardized tests, which now are becoming more complex, and numbing, especially after the U.S. Department of Education provided more than $300 million in funding to groups who’ve developed standardized tests that measure academic learning in math and language arts, and science in near future.

  • What do these tests tell us about student growth in areas that will have more meaning to their lives than a score on a test?  Zero.
  • What do these tests really tell us about what students know in math, language arts, and science? Not very much.
  • How does the student’s love of music, art or the humanities play a role in fostering their interest in math, language arts, and science?  It isn’t very much, and indeed these areas of student life are not really considered important to policy makers.  And that’s too bad.

In contrast to the research reported in EcoJustice, Citizen Science and Youth Activism, the current approach to education created by the CCSS is a “neoliberal ecosystem,” mapped by Morna McDermott, Professor at Towson University, and co-founder of United Opt Out National.  McDermott visualizes a web of connections among  corporations and organization and the Common Core.  The map exposes the influence peddling that shadows and casts a pall over public education.

On the other hand, the work that Mueller and Tippins have put together their book shows how education for youth can be quite different from a more traditional perspective.  In the closing chapter of the book,  Angela Calabrese Barton explains why the current purpose of teaching science which is based on a scientific literacy that focuses on knowledge and skill development is simply not enough.  She writes:

Indeed, as I noted in my introduction, many hold the view that if simply teach students “enough” science (whether it be content or practice) then they will have what it takes to engage in civic society.  However, this functional view of science literacy attends to participation in the world as it is now, without attention to what could be.  It ignores the integrated knowledge and practice that may support young people in working with and in science to bring about a more just world for individuals or communities while also, themselves, being transformed by broader and more diverse participation.

Why are ideas such as ecoJustice, citizen science, and youth activism important when we consider the curriculum of the school, and lives of our students?

In the last chapter of the book, Angela Calabrese Barton titles her chapter: Taking Action with and in Science, and in particular suggests that we need to take seriously the work of students who take civic action with and in science.

In the view of the authors’ of this book, the curriculum should be reconsidered in light of the themes of ecojustice, citizen science, and youth activism.

Very little of the curriculum enables or indeed allows students to take action of civil, cultural, social, or environmental issues.  Most of school is learning stuff that will be on the standardized tests which are used in every state to rate and rank students.  And the data from these tests is now being used to rank, rate and judge teachers, putting at risk their careers based on the unremarkable algorithm (Value Added Model).

Are the Ferguson demonstrations that taking place around the country important in the lives of students in school?  Of course they are.  But are students’ concerns or ideas explored or discussed?  What role does school play in exploring the injustices that are being protested?

When a very powerful organization like the National Football League (NFL), and its partner teams decide to build a new stadium, do they really take in consideration where they build their bigger and more monstrous stadiums, who it affects, or what small businesses are affected.  In the end, who benefits from the construction of these humongous edifices?  Are their ecological and human injustices when a team such as the Atlanta Falcons uses its reserves of green to convince historical churches to move so that they play football?  If students were engaged to consider the ramifications of such an ecological project, what would they learn?  How would they convey their findings to the community?  And would their conclusions be of value to the community?

 Higher Ground

There are 27 chapters in the EcoJustice, Citizen Science, and Youth Activism book, and each is based on projects and activities that take place in real schools around the world.  These are not wild-eyed ideas that have been dreamed up by élite groups of folks.  Instead they have designed serious projects and programs that focus on a triumvirate of trends:

  • Ecojustice–evaluating the holistic connections between cultural and natural systems, environmentalism, sustainability and Earth-friendly marketing trends.
  • Citizen Science–a pedagogy of ways to enact ecojustice, especially engaging students in monitoring locally to uncover issues and problems in their own communities.
  • Youth Activism–another approach in which youth can come together to offer a platform for the community to consider.

Although some of the authors might not agree with my assessment of the Common Core or the Next Generation Science Standards, we do agree that we need to move to “higher ground,” an idea narrated by Mike Dias and Brenden Callahan.  They ask why is it so rare that students during the school day are involved in citizen science and youth activism projects.

Disclaimer: I am author of the chapter entitled Citizen Diplomacy to Youth Activism: The Story of the Global Thinking Project.