Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

The Other Side of the Coin: Supporting Districts to Implement Environmental Literacy at Scale

BEETLES has now been supporting outdoor science programs since 2012. Since then, we’ve:

  • Published almost 80 resources, including professional learning sessions, student activities, implementation support guides, videos, research/practice briefs, etc. And 15 more documents are currently in publication pipeline, in some form or another. 
  • Conducted 10 weeklong Leadership Institutes, working with over 200 organizations across the U.S. and internationally. Over 400 individuals have attended a BEETLES Leadership Institute.  
  • Attended and presented at a ton of conferences, like really, a ton. 
  • Worked with a bunch of additional organizations through smaller, custom contracts to do professional learning, curriculum development, organizational improvement, etc. 
  • Launched a satellite with our Youth Outside friends called, Working Toward Equitable Organizations, that helps organizations create more equitable, inclusive and welcoming work environments.
  • Taken deep-ish dives into Social and Emotional Learning and Character Education with our friends at NatureBridge and Outward Bound.

All of those activities have been in support of outdoor science and environmental education organizations, primarily non-profits and organizations that usually operate outside of, but often in support of the formal, K-12 education system. It may have been less visible, however, to outdoor science and environmental education program leaders that since 2016, Craig and Jedda, teaming with the Lawrence Hall of Science’s BaySci Project, have been working on another aspect of the equation: advocating for outdoor science as an essential, regular component of formal, K-12 education. Specifically, we’ve been supporting school districts and county offices of education to develop and implement district-wide environmental literacy plans that ensure that every student has regular and coherent access to opportunities to connect to the outdoors, understand natural systems, and engage with their community to understand and solve problems related to the environment, watersheds and the ocean, and community and social justice. 

That last part, about “…engage with their community…,” that’s where our work with districts comes full circle and brings us back to the original audience of the BEETLES Project. In order for districts to ensure environmental literacy for every student, we think they need to establish meaningful, systemic partnerships with outdoor science and environmental education organizations! If you have attended a BEETLES Leadership Institute, you may have heard us say that we (environmental education organizations) need to “up our game” in order to make good on our claim that taking kids outside is our NGSS Superpower and warrants school systems taking note and partnering with us. We say a similar thing to school district leaders, that they can’t possibly recreate the expertise that is held by community-based outdoor science and environmental education organizations, and they need to up their partnership game, as well, to attract the best in the field to work with them.

The district work has occurred in coordination with the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), that is charged with the implementation of the California Blueprint for Environmental Literacy Blueprint and aims to increase access to impactful environment-based learning for all of California’s K–12 students. You can watch a short (5-minutes!) video of Craig sharing about CAELI on the BEETLES Environmental Education and the Next Generation Science Standards page (click play on the video under Example California Environmental Literacy Implementation). In that video, you can learn more about why we see districts as the unit of change for statewide and nationwide transformation and equitable access.

Encouraging the development of environmental literacy in all students can help lead to more equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant learning experiences, as well as support districts to achieve goals related to science and other academic subjects, English language development, social-emotional learning, and critical thinking priorities. Grounding science investigations and discussions in real-life, place-based, and culturally relevant phenomena can create a more motivating and interesting learning context. Furthermore, the NGSS contain an unprecedented amount of performance expectations related to the environment and environmental problem-solving. Taking students outdoors provides a rich, relevant learning context that traditional classrooms cannot, a context that, simply put, is better for learning a significant percentage of NGSS performance expectations.

What these plans all look like on the ground is as varied and complex as the districts we work with themselves. They do all have one thing in common though: the explicit need to connect with external partners that have expertise in teaching outdoors, and deep understanding of the communities the district is serving and the local environmental justice issues, and community-based resources within the communities. That expertise is rarely found in wide or deep reservoirs within school systems, while community-based organizations are often steeped in it. We know that teachers don’t need anything else on their plate, so supporting districts to create ongoing, systemic partnerships is one strategy for ensuring that environmental literacy is manageable and sustainable. By systemic, we mean that districts can ensure equity and quality control by ensuring that for example, every 5th grader spends a week at outdoor school, not just those whose teacher is willing to make the extra effort. Likewise, the outdoor school has one partner/client, the district, rather than dozens of individual teachers. Both sides win in these mutually beneficial relationships.

We are also working with districts to develop some key capacities in addition to developing partnerships with respect to environmental literacy, including: having a vision, understanding current classroom realities, empowering distributed leadership, aligning policies, creating strategic and sustainable plans for professional learning and instructional materials, ensuring a supportive context, and emphasizing equity and cultural relevance. (By the way, these capacities are the same key capacities that are discussed in Chapter 3 of our BEETLES Guide for Program Leaders– but they look a bit different in a school district system than they do in an outdoor science organization). Developing these capacities help ensure that educators of environmental literacy have systemic support for their efforts and don’t feel like they are swimming upstream. We have been so gratified to find that so many districts are now craving outdoor experiences for their students, and recognize the benefits to mental and physical health, well being AND learning that are routinely provided by outdoor science and environmental education programs like those in the BEETLES network.

Ultimately, we hope to see a bevy of win-win partnerships–of districts asking for outdoor science partners and outdoor science partners having the capacity, desire, and strength of program to step up to the plate–in support of systemic, district-wide environmental literacy, that results in  every student having access to the benefits of spending time outdoors, and every community benefiting from young people with the knowledge, skills, and connections to improve the quality of life, health, and social wellbeing for everyone. 

Interested in learning more about our efforts? Send us an email at beetles[at], with the subject line “Question About District Work.”


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