Ventura County STEMposium - Keynote Presentation

I often give presentations on environmental education topics, and I've turned my scripts for those into a few blog posts here. The following is a snapshot of a presentation I gave at the annual Ventura County STEMposium in June of 2018. 


Thank you so much for inviting me here today. I’m always excited to talk about environmental education and its connections to science, NGSS and STEM, and my family and friends are tired of hearing about it. Today I’m going to talk about my adventures as an outdoor education advocate, and the work that I do across all of my platforms to share the benefits of environmental literacy and education. Most importantly I'm going to try to show you how working with partners in environmental literacy like you local non-profit can greatly benefit your students and bring an element of wonder to your lessons. 

I'm the Director of Environmental Education at TreePeople. There we have a staff of 14 working with over 10,000 school children each year who visit our headquarters for eco tours, about 20,000 middle and high school students who directly participate in projects that green their schools and neighborhoods, and impact about 225,000 students each year through these campus projects.  

When I was first asked to be here today to talk about my work both at TreePeople, and the work that’s taking place around environmental literacy at the state level, I feel confident that I’d come here, share the blueprint and some of its elements and that would be that. But as the weeks went by and I worked on local environmental literacy plans, and I spoke to my colleagues, I began to wonder if this whole idea of environmental literacy was old news. Surely everyone had heard about the blueprint and the work that’s going on and how environmental education supports STEM and science education. I started to worry and think about what new concepts and ideas I would bring to this group so that I don’t bore you fine people to death. Then two things happened: I trained my staff in an intro to NGSS, and I attend a water related conference in Santa Cruz County. First the water conference. I wasn’t on the agenda for that meeting so I had no idea what was coming. When I stood to introduce myself I gave my titles including my work work the ELSC and the meeting host asked me to talk more about the blueprint. Not one person in the room had read it, and only a couple had heard about it. No one knew anything about environmental literacy planning happening in 10 school districts. It sounds like this would be a bad thing, but I was thrilled to talk about this work and watch people lean forward and raise their eyebrows and ask follow up questions and pass around my business cards. The fact is that this is the most exciting thing to happen to environmental education in over 20 years. And we’ve made more progress in strengthening the capacity of environmental literacy in he past three years than we have in that last 20. 

When I trained my staff in NGSS I saw them come alive in the same way. They get to see me running around CA screaming NGSS and grinning like a psycho and they have no idea why. I designed the training to help them see themselves in NGSS, and understand how the standards relate directly to our work as environment educators and why this is such an exciting time. I have received more thank you notes, and love letters from my team after that training than ever before. And this is usually a happy bunch. Now they’re ecstatic. 

So in just the last two weeks I’ve given two presentations about this stuff to people who are deeply invested in this work, and managed to surprise and excite them. So instead of writing a brand new presentation for this group, I’m going to share with you the things I shared with those two groups because maybe you haven’t heard all there is to know about California’s Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and thats awesome, and maybe you will also be inspired. So stop me if you’ve heard this one - actually don’t. This is all I brought. 

So before we dive into the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and EE supporting STEM and NGSS, a little side note. Kurt and Ann also asked me to talk about my real life too - not just what I do, but who I am. So here’s a little about me; My background is in youth development. I worked for Boys and Girls Clubs at the Long Beach, Oakland, San Leandro, and San Juan Capistrano clubs in college and right after. I majored in Environmental Studies at San Francisco State University with an emphasis in Sustainability and Social Justice. I then moved back to Southern California and worked in Capistrano where I taught supplemental kindergarten for a year and it nearly killed me. I met my husband the summer after our first year of college and we’ve now been together just over 20 years. And we have a six and a half (God help you if you forget that half) year old daughter. 

This is my daughter Eden Sophia. Her name means “earth wisdom” and yes, that was intentional. This is what hippies name their children. This is a photo of her from a few weeks ago dancing around the maypole at her school. She goes to a tiny Waldorf school in Long Beach where she spends about 40% of each day outside. We actually bought our house in a neighborhood where we love the schools, but... I love science. I started looking at things like how play-based the curriculum is. I started learning about the developing brain of 4 and 5 and 6 year olds and when the best time to introduce academics. And most of all, we when we started looking at how much time the students spend inside instead of outside. At Eden’s school every day is filled with nature walks, building homes for various insects, collecting leaves for her nature table at home. She loves science. She finds it exciting. We send her to this school - and make the necessary sacrifices (ask me after how to swing Waldorf tuition on two non profit salaries - my husband works for the City of Long Beach library system running the circulation department and I’m an environmental educator at a non profit - hint, non of our utilities are ever over $30) Anyway, we send her to this school because we believe that schools can be wonderful and by that I mean places filled with wonder. This year our school won nation wide recognition as a California Green Ribbon School. We were the only private school in CA to reach the national honors this year. I worked with our Dean to write the application. How many of you have ever attempted to apply for Green Ribbon status? It is a beast of an application and it’s due at some sadistic time of year like Christmas Eve or something like that. It’s tough! My job was to write tier three of the application which deals with how science is taught at the school. What that means is I had to translate Waldorf speak into CA science standards speak. My husband had lots of fun teasing me about how I was going to turn gnomes and fairy lore into real science. If you know anything about Waldorf education it’s deeply rooted in stories and fairytales. He kept telling me to make sure I tell them how fairies pollinate the garden. But the truth is that it was easier than you may think. 

This is a photo of me and our Dean and CDE Superintendent Tom Torlakson who I’ll be mentioning a lot later. There was also a letter from Betsy Devos but I chose not to share that. If you have a hankering you can see it on the school FB page. Waldorf science is experiential at its heart. Gardening class is a regular part of the week for all of the grades students. They test the soil, they observe the animals, they manage the worm bin and compost, they track their plant growth. Last year the did a unit on the economics of farming which the gardening teacher joked helped her learn why she wasn't making any money as a farmer.  And they do it all as an integrated part of the curriculum. 

This is how kids naturally like to play. This is what we call and edenvention. She’s always making things out in our yard. One morning she was playing outside (she does that a lot) and decided that she wanted to protect the monarch caterpillars climbing on our milkweed from the rain in the forecast. So she came inside where I was working at my desk (I do that a lot) and told me about the rain shelter she was going to build for the babies using one of her little bird houses. So you know how you try things that you have planned for the classroom out on your own kids? I asked her to draw me a picture of what she was planning to build. Why do you think I asked her to do that? What part of NGSS and STEM does this support? (Modeling) So she drew me a picture and it had a somewhat elaborate curved bridge on it. She started to build it and realized that a simple stick bridge and tunnel would work better. So I asked her to revise her drawing and show a simple stick bridge instead. Then she built it and I took a photo, hash tagged it edeventions and posted it on my instagram with all of the other things she comes up with. (You can follow me on instagram at greencandi if you’d like.) I deeply believe in the ability of all schools and students to do this kind of science and outdoor learning. There’s nothing going on at our school or in our yard that I haven’t seen at many public schools and know can happen at all public schools. So this is what drives me. I’ve seen what a nature based science education that I believe in can look like - I’ve shared it with the CDE and they believed it enough to award us the Green Ribbon Award. 

Science is here to stay. Our students will be assessed in the Next Generation Science Standards this coming school year. And if you got your teaching credential before yesterday, you are probably wondering how you can engage your students in student-led inquiry that supports this new way of teaching science? Two of the things I shared with my team at our NGSS training last week come from the NGSS framework itself and the instructional strategies:

Appendix 2: Science learning in community contexts may take different approaches. First, both disciplinary and informal education experts underscore the connection between science and the neighborhood that the students reside in. Effective approaches can include engaging in outdoor exploration (e.g., bird surveys, weather journals) and analyzing local natural resources (e.g., land forms in the neighborhood, soil composition).

Chapter 11 of Instructional Strategies: Engaging students in relevant issues requires connecting to students’ everyday experiences. Student-centered learning environments extend beyond the classroom to the schoolyard, the community, parks, outdoor schools, museums, zoos, aquariums, virtual platforms, and beyond. Throughout this framework, when we refer to learning environments, we are referring to student-centered learning spaces both in the classroom and in the field.

These are basically telling everyone to go outside and engage your students. And while this may be overwhelming, it's exciting too. It's exciting because this kind of hands-on, student led inquiry based science is the bread and butter of your local environmental education non-profit. They know how to do this and have been doing it for decades! When I work with non-formal educators in Los Angeles, I urge them to find their best fits in NGSS. Not what they think you or your principal want to hear, but what they can REALLY do and do well. What parts of the Science and Engineering Practices they themselves specialize in. What parts of the Crosscutting Concepts their programs and exhibits demonstrate best of all. If a non formal tells you that their program can meet all of your needs and lead you to the promised land of 100% of your Performance Expectations, run. But we can bring a small touch tank to your school, or come out and help you plant a garden, or show you have implementing a recycling program can be a perfect system model. I encourage you to look beyond your classroom and school and embrace the non-formals doing work in your neighborhood today.