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Learning Library Blog 3 Strategies for Integrating SEL Into Environmental Science Projects
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3 Strategies for Integrating SEL Into Environmental Science Projects

By James Fester
December 20, 2021
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Floods. Fires. Heat waves. Melting sea ice. Examples that contextualize environmental science (ES) concepts appear regularly in the news, providing opportunities for teachers to connect learning to the real world. But educators can drive deeper learning when they go beyond just connecting environmental events to content. 

At the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, world and industry leaders came together to commit to actions that would increase our chances of survival. But it was climate activist Greta Thunberg’s call to action that was perhaps the most compelling, “The COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah blah blah. But the real work continues outside these halls.” 

Thunberg’s comments point toward often missed opportunities that all teachers should consider integrating in their curricula: making connections that support student health through the integration of proven social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies. Here are three ways that ES can help you to address the emotional stress students are feeling in proactive ways.  

1. Reduce climate anxiety through action-oriented projects.

Young people across the globe are aware that not enough is being done by those in power to mitigate and avoid the most serious effects of climate change. As a result, their anxiety is increasing significantly. This is on top of the stress they already feel due to school disruption and the ongoing health crisis, so addressing it is crucial.   

There are things we as teachers can, and must, do in order to help our students reduce the mental load weighing them down. Elizabeth Haas, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s climate change committee, suggests that educators help students identify ways to take individual action, which can profoundly ease anxiety and leading to better health and deeper learning outcomes. For example, including planning tools such as the Table of Solutions from Project Drawdown can help spur action or affirm that what students are already doing has a measurable impact.   

These types of projects help address hopelessness by promoting real-world action based on the results of student-led inquiry. Additionally, projects that focus on helping students become environmental stewards connect to multiple ISTE Standards. Here are just a few examples of ways students can engage in actions that address climate change or other environmental challenges:

  • Students explore global environmental issues and work together to generate and propose solutions. (1.7c and 1.7d) 
  • Students design videos, posters or other communication products that describe complex challenges and the student-created solutions needed to address them. (1.6c) 
  • Students use investigative and design processes that help them understand the trade-offs involved in human activities, such as energy exploration, transportation and manufacturing. (1.4b)
  • Students tap sources from real-world organizations and experts to inform their solutions, which  ensures that learning is as authentic as possible. (1.3a)  

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2. Find opportunities outdoors.

In Environmental Science for Grades 6-12, the book I cowrote with SEL expert and ISTE author Jorge Valenzuela, we discuss the connection between ES and SEL, focusing on how time spent doing authentic tasks in an outdoor environment can have a positive effect on a students' emotional and physical health. Taking this one step further, we can also address student emotional health by designing projects where students can plan and execute individual actions that directly address the impact humans have on our earth's systems.

The health and wellness benefits of spending time outdoors are well documented, as are the implications for deeper learning that experiential science work offers. Since ES revolves around the ways humans interact with the natural world, getting your students outside is a no-brainer, and there are lots of opportunities to do this no matter where you might live. For example: 

  • Students can either photograph or sketch a natural area in their neighborhoods or adjacent to their schools and annotate it to show different aspects of ES like how it interacts with the other organisms in the ecosystem or its part in helping cycle things like nitrogen and carbon.
  • Students can use apps like Cornell’s eBird or iNaturalist to take part in large-scale citizen science initiatives that help report on species health through identification.   
  • Students can take water samples from nearby lakes, rivers, creeks and ponds and test them to see how clean or impaired they are, then create plans of action to address these impairments (This particular project is highlighted in our book). 

3. Projects as vehicles for promoting collective responsibility.

Taking action helps students cope with climate anxiety, but why just stop there? If students can get others in their community to also take action, they amplify their own impact.

Regardless of their age, students can take the knowledge they have and share it through projects with their community. For example, elementary students might learn what butterflies need to survive, and present their designs for a school butterfly garden to the PTA (K-ESS3-1). Others might want to determine the most common materials that end up in their school’s waste and connect with local waste management agencies to see if any of those materials can be recycled (HS-ESS3-4).

There are countless ways to engage students in environmental projects and activism so they feel like they are truly making a difference and not just learning about the negative impacts on our ailing planet. 

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James Fester, who lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, is the author of Environmental Science for Grades 6-12. He's a former educator who is passionate about project-based and experiential learning and has worked as classroom teacher, instructional coach and technology integrationist. He is a member of the PBLWorks National Faculty and is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for parks across the country. He currently works as a consultant and his writing has been featured in National Geographic, TED-Ed and KQED, and in a new book on PBL and environmental science being published by ISTE.