Environmental education in Chicago can still improve, teachers say

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by Emily Little
Medill Reports

Chicago-area educators are seeing increased flooding, severe cold, and beach erosion all around their city. They see these questions as central to their teaching on climate change and better environmental learning.

Ayesha Qazi, doctoral student. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches environmental science at Advanced Placement and honors biology at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She and her students study climate change from a multitude of angles, including the scientific, political and socio-economic impact.

“Climate change for many students, families and communities is so abstract and far away,” Qazi said. “They don’t really see the connection to Chicago, or they don’t see how we’re contributing to climate change.”

As the climate and other environmental issues continue to impact our community and global society, many teachers have pushed for better environmental education. These teachers use resources and initiatives to help students understand the complex issues involved in solving the environmental challenges of today and tomorrow.

In the Qazi classroom, students engage in powerful discussions, facilitated by research papers, to explore the impact of climate change on their community and the solutions available.

What Does Environmental Education Look Like in Illinois?

The stream Illinois Education Standards, based on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), have been in force since February 2014.

Illinois identifies “Earth and Human Activity” as an excessive standard starting in kindergarten and continuing through elementary, middle and high schools. This standard covers a variety of topics, from the sustainable use of natural resources to the implementation of alternative energies.

Educators introduce the term “climate change” at the start of college. The standard deals directly with the human impact on climate change, stating that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels, are major factors in the current increase in average temperature at the Earth’s surface “.

Other neighboring states, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, also require environmental education to varying degrees. For example, Wisconsin standards teach environmental science throughout K-12 education, while Indiana teaches in some classes. Indiana Standards still refer to climate change as a “theory” to be tested rather than a fact.

Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana have similar environmental standards, but there are some important differences. Indiana only mentions climate change in college, and Wisconsin teaches environmental science at all levels. There are also differences in when the standards were updated. (Emily Little / MEDILL)

Advanced placement courses are at the discretion of board of directors, a non-profit organization that helps students succeed in their studies through AP courses and the SAT test. The AP Environmental Science course consists of nine units that cover areas ranging from biodiversity to population growth to global change. The College Board also uses the term “climate change” in its subjects.

“I would say the first time I heard of [climate change] was in elementary school, but this is the first time I’ve delved deeper into the subject, ”said Osita Achufusi, a final year student at Northside College Preparatory High School. “It didn’t really give me the knowledge I wanted to have to have these discussions that I think are so productive. “

What does an environmental science class look like in Chicago?

In addition to science, Qazi believes in teaching all aspects of climate change, including the causes, solutions, and the science that anchors the two.

“I love teaching this course because environmental science is a general topic,” she said. “You connect with everyone. It impacts everyone’s jobs.

Qazi begins its course with the Dominant Social Paradigm, or DSP, and the New Environmental Paradigm, or NEP. The DSP places man at the center of nature and above all other species, while the NEP asserts that man lives among other species and is therefore limited by the environment. Qazi uses these two concepts to explain why certain policies exist based on the predominant psychology around the environment.

From there, Qazi brings Chicago-related environmental issues, such as rising lake levels and the urban heat island effect, into the classroom. Senior student Grace Lewis said it helps her understand her own impact on her community.

“She does a lot of case studies in Chicago, which really makes it easier to understand,” Lewis said. “Once we’ve learned the concepts, it’s a lot easier to see how it’s going in our own city. “

And students learn directly from the source material. They are given research papers, articles and other reading to help them learn about what is going on. Although these research papers were not easy to understand at first, the students reported learning by doing and discussing.

“It’s almost like getting used to reading Shakespeare,” said Gigi Calcagno, senior at Northside College Prep. “It’s hard to understand, but then you get used to the terminology.”

Community solutions at the center of concerns

With the large number of environmental problems, it is important to teach workable solutions. Climate experts said it was not enough to just teach about problems.

Qazi said she believes solutions are just as important in environmental education.

“I like to try to finish each unit with a little bit of hope,” she said. “This whole class can get incredibly depressing if you don’t focus on some of the wins and some of the highs.”

It focuses not only on solutions, but also on the socio-economic impacts of climate change and environmental problems.

“I always tell my students, it’s like this triangle,” Qazi explained. “You have the ecological, social and economic impacts. “

Through the lens of solutions, Qazi introduces students to community organizations that are doing the work to rectify environmental problems in Chicago. She said she hopes the students will see what is being done in their own community and learn how they can contribute.

Qazi also uses class discussions to allow students to bring forward their own experiences and perspectives on these issues.

“It’s definitely a very open space to ask questions and hear the views of others,” Calcagno said. “I think getting these perspectives from people who grew up with all kinds of different backgrounds in all parts of town makes these discussions really valuable to us. “

What resources are available for teachers?

Qazi recognizes that his class is scarce in Chicago public schools and wishes to make his resources more widely available to promote advanced study beyond the basic standard.

“There aren’t many AP environmental science teachers at CPS,” she said. “There are really only two of us. “

As environmental education becomes a priority for teachers, they need resources for their classrooms.

Qazi and his colleague Ylanda Wilhite founded the Chicago environmental educators, a network of more than 300 teachers. They wanted this group to address the disparities in educational resources in city neighborhoods.

“Many schools on the south and west sides of town cannot afford the lab supplies or the training needed to understand how to use these resources,” said Wilhite, who works at the Field Museum. “We wanted to break down these barriers to science [and] environmental resources.

Through the network, Chicago Environmental Educators conducts virtual workshops, book club meetings, community recordings, and interviews with people in the field for its members. These programs are completely free for members, allowing teachers to have better access to resources.

The Chicago Teachers Union passed a resolution in February 2020 to promote environmental advocacy in the community and in the curriculum. CTU is also organizing a climate justice committee to educate teachers on these topics.

What more can we do?

As Illinois Learning Standards and Chicago Public School initiatives have begun work on environmental education, students and educators believe there is still room for improvement.

“I honestly think that compared to other people, I had a lot of privilege in my education,” said Penelope Shinnick, senior at Northside College Prep. “But I wouldn’t say I had a lot of formal knowledge of environmental science. “

The students said they think there should be more education in their elementary years to build an environmental knowledge base. They also believe that more emphasis should be placed on the socio-economic impacts of environmental problems such as climate change.

The Chicago Environmental Educators hopes it can reach more teachers and have a more even distribution of resources across the city, not just in wealthy areas.

“If a school on the North Side of Chicago – for example – has an environmental club, is able to send students to workshops and conferences, is able to invite scientists from leading institutions to talk about the climate change, so this school has resources, ”Wilhite said. “The next step should be how do you get this school to partner with the least funded school, to share these resources, so that more students are made aware of the environmental injustices that are driving climate change?” “

Through education, Qazi hopes to give students a holistic view of climate change and the environmental movement.

“The environmental movement is not a hierarchy,” she said. “Each person has what they experience, feel and go through [that] is equally valuable to the person right next to them. And so there is no face to climate change.

Emily Little is a health, environment and science journalist at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.



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