Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Partnering to Develop Equitable, Inclusive, and Culturally Relevant Student Activities

By Emilie Lygren and Jedda Foreman

Over the last couple of years, the BEETLES team has been working to revise our professional learning system, including our guiding principles, student activities, professional learning sessions, and other implementation support materials, to better reflect equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant teaching practices. When we first started BEETLES, we thought we were doing pretty well with all that– but over the years in conversations with many partners, supporters, participants, students, and ourselves, we realized we weren’t doing as well as we thought. Our materials were lacking in specific connections and direct guidance related to equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance. And, in some cases, we were using language that could have impacts we didn’t intend on our audiences. Once we realized this, we knew we wanted to do better!

We’re excited to announce that over the next year, we’ll be publishing 15 revised or new BEETLES student activities that specifically address equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance. This blog serves to document our process in revising and designing these activities. We are not experts and this process is not over. This is ongoing work, and we continue to have much to learn. We are committed to growing our understanding, reflecting, and adjusting our behavior and practices accordingly. 

While this blog focuses on our reflection on curriculum, instructional materials, and teaching practices, we also want to acknowledge that improving student-facing teaching practices is just one piece of the work needed to promote equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance in the field of outdoor science and environmental education. This work needs to be embedded on many levels, from reflection at the individual and interpersonal level, to organizational and systems-level change. These resources can support you as you engage with work at the organizational level: 

And, stay tuned for a blog soon featuring “Working Towards Equitable Organizations”, a pilot workshop series co-led by BEETLES and Youth Outside on shifting organizational culture.

About Our Process

We’d like to share some key aspects of our process throughout this effort. In working towards developing more equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant curriculum, we:

  1. Made it personal. An important part of our process of improving our curriculum and instructional materials was working to grow our own understanding of the issues and inequities in the field of outdoor science and environmental education broadly. We read books, articles, and resources such as Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, White Fragility, How to Be An Anti-Racist, Decolonization is Not a Metaphor, Me & White Supremacy, White Supremacy Culture, Braiding Sweetgrass, all the articles at this listly, and more. We engaged in discussion about the implications for our approaches to science and teaching  as a BEETLES team and across our department and organization. We participated in professional development focused on equity and anti-racism at work, including from Youth Outside, National Equity Project, and Center for Diversity and the Environment. Finally, we have regularly taken time for personal reflection and processing through affinity spaces, book clubs, and brown bag lunch discussion that we’ve made part of our work culture over the last two years, and will continue to do so. This is an ongoing cycle of learning, reflecting on implications, and adjusting our approaches and language accordingly. 
  2. Defined our terms. Terms like “equity” and “inclusion” can be interpreted in many different ways. Choosing specific definitions of these terms helped us to develop a common language with which to communicate our ideas and refine our thinking.
    • Equity: The guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of certain groups. The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed to assist equality in the provision of effective opportunities for all groups.
      (From UC Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity)
    • Inclusion: The act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and offers respect in words and actions for all people. (From UC Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity)
    • Cultural Relevance: Effectively reaching and engaging communities in a manner that is consistent with the cultural context and values of that community, while effectively addressing the disparities of diversity and inclusion within an organization’s entire structure.(adapted From Youth Outside)
    • Diversity: Psychological, physical, and social differences that occur among individuals, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, and approaches to learning. A diverse community, or organization is one in which a variety of social and cultural characteristics exist. (From The National Multicultural Institute)
  3. Paid the experts. We realized that our team, primarily white-identifying, and particularly our curriculum authors, all white-identifying, didn’t have the expertise or the lived experience to do this work alone, no matter how much we read or discussed. We reached out to folks to see if they would be willing to review our materials and provide their expertise and feedback on our materials. We asked some individuals, including José González, founder of Latino Outdoors, and Annie Sorrel, a graduate student with the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment,  for feedback. For a systematic review, we turned to Youth Outside, a local organization with a national reputation for dismantling systemic racism in the outdoor field. We paid each of these groups and individuals for their time and expertise. 
  4. Moved from Discussion to Approach. As our team engaged in discussion, received feedback, and reviewed our student activities with an increasingly critical eye, we aimed to draft an approach for revising our student activities highlighting connections to equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant teaching practices in our writing and materials. In drafting this approach, we realized several aspects of our student activities and teaching practices already supported equitable, inclusive, and culturally responsive experiences for learners– but also realized we weren’t adequetaley naming or calling attention to these connections in our student activities and materials. Youth Outside in particular, supported us to clarify the existing-but-invisible connections to equity, inclusion, and cultural relevance, and offered feedback on drafts of the approach described below. We also realized that we had some pretty big “misses” in how we originally crafted our activities, i.e., using language that supported racist and ableist ideas, and Youth Outside also supported us to practice recognizing the misses ourselves, and adjust our language accordingly (more on that below). The resulting approach, which we’ve described in all of our revised student activities, highlights intersections between 1. student-centered and nature-centered instruction; 2. equitable, inclusive, and culturally relevant teaching practices; and 3. our understanding and interpretation research on how people learn. This approach is articulated in three main parts, which connect to some of BEETLES design principles:
    • Engaging directly with nature: Centering learning on students’ in-the-moment observations of nature helps create an inclusive learning experience by focusing it on a shared experience to which every student has access. This sets up a collaborative learning context in which students’ ideas and observations drive the learning experience, and students recognize themselves and one another as sources of expertise. This is in contrast to science learning in which participation requires prior knowledge about science ideas, and students who have had more exposure to science tend to have an advantage. As students engage with nature, instructors are in the role of the “guide on the side.” This approach shifts power from the instructor to learners, challenges the typical learning situation in which the instructor is the only expert, encourages students to share their ideas and experiences, and makes learning a more decentralized and collaborative experience. Additionally, BEETLES activities have intentionally focused on the observation of common parts of nature– leaves, lichen, etc– which contradicts the exclusionary idea that “nature” is only synonymous with “wilderness” or is something students must “go to” to experience, as opposed to something all around us. 
    • Thinking like a scientist: When learners think like a scientist and practice academic language, they develop critical thinking skills that support them to become more independent learners—learners who have skills and thinking tools they use to learn, regardless of the level of support available from a teacher or instructor. Giving students the opportunity to think like a scientist by making observations, asking questions, and constructing explanations supports students’ growth as learners, offering them the opportunity to build critical thinking skills and learning behaviors they can apply in any context. Many students in schools that have historically been under-resourced due to racist school funding policies, redlining, income inequality, and police profiling have fewer opportunities to develop as independent learners. Specifically ensuring that students in these kinds of schools have opportunities to develop as independent learners is an issue of equity. Learning and practicing critical thinking skills in an engaging outdoor context supports students to succeed back in their classrooms, in science, and in other academic disciplines. Offering opportunities for students to discuss ideas with their peers and knowledgeable adults makes science more accessible by connecting it to students’ own actions and discoveries in the moment—not to knowledge they may not have or experiences they may not have had.
    • Learning through discussion: Through discussion, learners make connections to prior knowledge, share their lived experiences, listen to different perspectives, and have time to process the material. Productive discussions in which many voices are heard, and the group builds off one another’s ideas, create an experience in which students see themselves and one another as sources of expertise. This ensures that instructors don’t fall back on positioning themselves as the only source of accurate or important information. Participating in discussions also supports students to develop cognitive rigor and the ability to take on more advanced learning tasks. Discussions make student thinking and ideas visible to the instructor. When instructors value, appreciate, better understand, and connect to students’ lived experiences, they create a more inclusive and culturally relevant learning space. Finally, multiple opportunities for discussion provide time and space for neurodiversity–allowing students to process information in different ways. Using discussion strategies such as Turn & Share or Thought Swap (formerly known as Walk & Talk) that are part of every BEETLES student activity can help ensure that students have these kinds of opportunities for discussion.
    • Overall, these factors contribute to creating a student-centered approach in which “the ultimate goal . . . is to help students take over the reins of their learning.” (Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain). This approach to teaching supports students in becoming independent learners who are able to succeed, regardless of any individual teacher or learning context. BEETLES has intentionally designed the sequence and structure of this activity to support learning experiences where all students feel capable of success and have the tools to carry that success into other domains.  
  5. Shifted our language. In addition to adjusting activities to better reflect and explicitly point to our newly created framework, we also had to sift through and adjust specific language. Once again, Youth Outside was a critical partner in holding up a mirror for us to interrogate and reflect on how we were using language and what messages we were unintentionally sending. Three specific patterns really stood out to us in the feedback we received. One, while many aspects of our activities were student-centered, much of the language we were using in our write-ups continued to position the instructor as “expert” and the one with valuable information. Second, when we wrote about engaging students in science practices, our language often held an unspoken assumption of a lack of validity of students’ existing skills and assets. Third, we regularly did not address accessibility in our activities and resources or mention resources or strategies on accommodating students who are members of the blind, deaf and hard of hearing, and/or disabled communities.
    • Below are some examples of specific feedback we’ve received and how we responded:
    • Shifting from “Tell/Explain” to “invite/share/offer”. 
      • Feedback from Youth Outside: “Telling and explaining sends clear messages about who has important information and who does not. Offering, inviting, or sharing, allows the space for people to just have different information from the audience.
      • Response: We have replaced language like “Tell” and “Explain” with more student-centered language like “Invite,”  “Share,” and “Offer.”
    • Not assuming that learners don’t already have skills, strategies, or experiences in nature. 
      • Feedback from Youth Outside: “This framing implies that students didn’t already have strategies and tools to make nature observations, or that their previous tools were insufficient. A more assets-based revision: Ask students if they are excited about having these strategies for investigating nature, and if they think that they can use these methods to learn about living things and other parts of nature.’”   
      • Response: We have shifted thinking and our writing to use language that references building on students’ existing skills and assets, and removing language that implies that students don’t already have tools or strategies for learning. We will also continue to reflect and attempt to notice other ways we may be implying deficit-based thinking and attitudes towards students. 
    • Removing ableist language.
      • Feedback from Youth Outside: “Let’s remove language that ties an experience to physical ability, i.e “walk and talk”, “pick up”, “step up, step back” “Consider how we internalize these actions as norms, and see those who neither walk nor talk as the outliers. Consider the impact.”
      • Response: We have aimed to replace language that normalizes ability (i.e. walk, talk, pick up) with more inclusive language (move, share, choose), including changing the name of our activity Walk and Talk to Thought Swap.
    • Using assets-based language to talk about english language learners.
      • Feedback from our colleague, Diana Velez: “English Learner is preferred to make it clear that it’s ‘English’ not ‘language’ that students are learning – they have a language. But why not use the more assets-based term, ‘Emerging Multilingual’ students or learners?”
      • Response: Emerging multilingual learners it is. We’ve shifted to use this term in all our revised and future student activities and documents. 
    • Considering accommodations: 
      • Feedback from Youth Outside: “How do you encourage adults to consider accommodations for students with limited mobility, are in wheelchairs, have vision impairments or are blind may need?”
      • Response:  In addition to doing our own learning and research, we intend to grow partnerships with organizations and communities focused on accessibility for blind, disabled, deaf, and hard of hearing people, and pay for expertise of communities who hold this expertise to advise us on increasing our capacity in this area.

As a national project and one that doesn’t have a community of students, one critical component of inclusive and culturally relevant teaching that BEETLES struggles to incorporate is designing activities, curriculum, and learning experiences in collaboration and conversation with the communities we serve or hope to serve. We encourage organizations to build their own partnerships with local organizations, create community advisory boards, and engage local leaders in the decision-making, grant proposal development, and curriculum creation process at every phase. Seeking input and direction from the students and communities that outdoor science and environmental education organizations serve is a critical part of creating learning experiences that are relevant and responsive.


We have incorporated or are working to incorporate this feedback in nine forthcoming, new BEETLES Student activities and well as in eight of our most-used, existing student activities. We are in the process of revising two of our most used Professional Learning sessions as well. We’ve also added teaching notes throughout these activities to highlight practices instructors can use in discussion and facilitation that specifically support equitable participation in the learning experience. We hope these revisions to BEETLES resources and activities to increase their value and effectiveness for outdoor and environmental education programs.

As a BEETLES team, we intend to continue, individually and as a team, reflecting on our own biases, noticing how those show up in our writing, design and interactions, and adjusting our behavior and writing accordingly. We plan to continue to build on our existing partnerships with Youth Outside and more organizations. We are also in the process of developing new relationships with members of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, and with graduate students from the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment focused on supporting local indigenous sovereignty movements and integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in our frameworks and approaches to science teaching. We are committed to ensuring adequate funding for these partnerships and expertise in each of our funding proposals as well as ensuring that every proposal we write helps us to advance a vision of an inclusive, equitable, and culturally relevant environmental education so that we are held accountable for working towards equity, not as an extra thing, but as the core of our work.

In addition to this work focused on curriculum and instructional materials, we’re also engaged in other efforts to address inequities in the field of outdoor science and environmental education, including through our Working Towards Equitable Organizations project, which was recently funded by the National Science Foundation and which we’ll be sharing more about soon.

This is long, continual work. We are eager to design equitable, inclusive curriculum materials that lead to meaningful and effective experiences for youth. We are immensely grateful to Youth Outside, José González, and more partners in the field who have shared feedback with us for their careful and critical review of our work as well as their laughter and friendship that makes this work not just possible, but also enjoyable. 

4 Responses to “Partnering to Develop Equitable, Inclusive, and Culturally Relevant Student Activities”

WillSeptember 2nd, 2020 at 4:14 am

Great to read about moving from discussion to approach. And shifting from telling and explaining to offering and sharing. Nice to read about how Youth Outside’s been so helpful in the journey.

Sharon CawleySeptember 3rd, 2020 at 10:52 pm

We are re-structuring our environmental education program around the BEETLES approach, and are anxiously waiting to see what you have done with your activities and training 🙂

SamanthaJanuary 27th, 2021 at 9:27 pm

This is an inspiring blog, its honesty and description of the process you are going through, create many opportunities for me to see how I can begin to move in the same direction. Thank you!

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