We had just finished a discussion on climate change in my chemistry class. Toward the end of the unit, I asked students how their understanding of the topic has changed since the first lesson. Among all the feedback I received, one student’s response stood out:

Even though this response was more critical than I expected, it gave our team an opportunity to reflect and adapt our curriculum. Since I was fortunate enough to have a week-long spring break before school resumed, I decided to try a new approach in my lesson planning and utilize student feedback to develop a thoughtful, interactive, and critical unit on environmental justice.

Initially, I intended to show students that I could thoughtfully consider their feedback and make necessary changes to the curriculum when needed. However, the outcome was better than I could even imagine.

The Approach

As I thought about the student’s frustrations, I returned to an article by Dr. Alexis Patterson and Dr. Salina Gray titled “Teaching to Transform: (W)holistic Science Pedagogy (WSP).” In the article, Patterson and Gray outlined an approach that teachers could use to disrupt oppressive classroom hierarchies and actively address social injustices in the curriculum. For teachers, this approach requires “a commitment to an ever-developing self-awareness, to science and its practices, [and] to science as a transformative agent.”

So, during my spring break, I took the time to interrogate my identity, power, and privilege. Though I am queer, trans, neurodiverse, and Latinx, I attended two “elite”, historically white institutions and received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the process. I questioned how my relative success navigating an oppressive education system influenced my teaching practices. After reflecting, I realized I had the same frustrations as my students

When I reconvened with my teaching group, we realized that we were teaching the unit the same way we had been taught in school, perpetuating a narrative that made our students feel anxious and hopeless as they learned the curriculum. The student’s comments highlighted our hyper-focus on “academic content” and the lack of community-centered and action-oriented components in our lessons. It was now our responsibility to revamp the curriculum and create concrete and tangible information students could use to engage in this issue.

The Implementation

As I mapped out my lesson plans on environmental justice, I considered how I could utilize scientific practices to engage students, despite the limitations of distance learning. Since the WSP argues that teachers should educate students “through hands-on, inquiry- and problem-based science experiences,” I decided to center each lesson on the social injustices marginalized communities experience by looking at historical data in the San Francisco Bay Area.

First, students would look at data on redlining, rates of asthma and air pollution, access to medical services, proximity to current and former Indigenous communities, and gentrification, to name a few. This specific restructure aimed to teach students about social inequities experienced in marginalized communities of color while improving their data literacy. Also, students would be challenged to draw causal connections between these observations and support those claims with evidence.

Second, students were also asked to collect data about issues and causes that were important in their communities. Students collaborated to create survey questions and conducted individual interviews with elders in their lives. The goal of this exercise was for students to reference generational knowledge and wisdom in their community to better understand a complex issue like climate change. Students would then share these findings with the class to assess the unique needs, understandings, and awareness necessary to consider when examining environmental justice issues.

Finally, the unit would ask students to consider how science can serve as a transformative agent for environmental justice. To achieve this goal, our class examined grassroots movements that addressed inequities that contribute to climate change. Students learned about different practices, including sustainable fishing, hunting, and forest maintenance Indigenous communities have historically, and how these practices can support legislation on a larger scale. In addition, they learned about Marie Harrison, an environmental activist. She collected data on the pollution released by a local Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) powerplant in a majority Black neighborhood in San Francisco. Her work, alongside the organization Greenaction, was used in various legal cases, ultimately leading to the power plant’s shutdown.

Armed with a wealth of knowledge on the systemic injustices that influence climate change, students now have the opportunity to identify environmental causes that are important to them and use science as a tool to effectuate change.

The Impact

Following the redesign of the environmental justice unit, this lesson sequence had the highest level of student engagement of any of our units that year. Students’ feedback also revealed a growth in self-awareness and an ability to use science skills to understand and address social issues in our society. Students also appreciated the opportunity to engage with their families and larger communities about environmental justice and use them as a source of scientific knowledge.

Though I had previously discussed connections between science content and modern social issues, it was the first time I stressed science as a tool for undoing harm in marginalized and oppressed communities.

Although it involved several hours of researching and compiling resources, it was a humbling experience to incorporate student input into content design. I now lean on both practices when designing lessons and units. The science classroom proved to be the perfect place to collectively examine and challenge the complexities of environmental racism and capitalism in our communities. Because of my students, I am a better teacher for it.

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