By Erin McCool
Philadelphia is home to a complex tapestry of neighborhoods, each with its own challenges and strengths. Philadelphia students represent some of the most diverse in the region. While we are surrounded by nature, with 400 community gardens, 80 neighborhood parks and acres of federally protected open space, there is still great need for equitable access to high quality outdoor experiences. Particularly for students living in urban centers, access to these experiences means a coordinated approach that addresses financial constraints, transportation, perceptions, safety and school policies.
Often overlooked is the role of informal science centers to coordinate and implement high quality outdoor science experiences for students. In the Philadelphia School District, for example, there are 200 partner organizations, all working to provide various supports to schools in the district. Formal and informal educators report that while they recognize the critical need, they feel ill-prepared to authentically engage with diverse populations. These centers historically employ part time workers to implement environmental education. The professional workforce of informal educators in this region is largely inexperienced and moves jobs frequently, making it challenging for organizations to maintain high quality instruction and at the same time leaving informal educators without the opportunity to build their own pedagogical skill set.
BEETLES PHL was conceived from the notion that informal education centers in Philadelphia could better serve a diverse student population if prepared with research-based, consistent and replicable lessons designed for environmental education centers. Education leaders from Riverbend Environmental Education Center, Let’s Go Outdoors, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Wagner Free Institute of Science collectively recognized this need and shared a vision of improving the quality of outdoor science education across the region.
Prior to applying to this program, the leadership committee; Brianna, Erin, Holly, Kelly and Tarsha, had met through the outdoor education community and worked on some projects together. We had a shared understanding of where the challenges were in Philadelphia and a strong conviction that with BEETLES frameworks, passion and leadership, we could make a tangible change. We felt that bringing school administrators and informal educators together in the same learning community could build networks to support change at scale. This was a needed first step to make changes that will take several years. Another step (and a personal favorite of mine); we felt that by bringing people together in a virtual environment, we could offer an innovative and novel way to build relationships across the region, more effectively than through in-person meetings that could only happen a few times a year. By structuring this project to include virtual meetings, we would help educators become more comfortable with this platform, thereby using it more often as they continue to build professional relationships and grow as instructors. We had no idea what was about to unfold and how that would impact our vision.
We were thrilled to learn in the spring of 2020 that our project would be funded. In a sea of chaos of this uncertain time, this was a bright spot for the entire team. As we met virtually to plan our program, our investment of time was far greater than anticipated. As we sifted through the strategies to move our in-person meetings to virtual, we faced expected frustration but learned along the way. As we navigated the trauma and uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, our meetings consisted of weekly updates about our organizations, our students and even our families and communities. The steering committee meetings served as a bit of a lifeline to continue the work we began before the pandemic began.
As the pandemic carried on, the trauma shifted to the impacts of economic stress and civil unrest across the country. We were able to offer participants an opportunity to meet in person for the first time in October 2020, at the same time that riots sparked by a police involved shooting broke out in Philadelphia. In this meeting, we read and discussed articles that told the story of historic environmental racism in Philadelphia and how systems and structures have resulted in environmental inequalities that exist today. This was all the more meaningful because of the social transformation and more broad recognition of social injustice that was happening all around us.
As we approach the final weeks of our project, we have begun to gather the stories from our participants that will carry us through to the next phase. I spoke with a school administrator; through this project, she gained a more intimate perspective on the student experience in her district. With tears in her eyes, she shared her conviction to do better for her students. Many of our participants are thinking about how they can incorporate these strategies into their existing educator training and how the instructional practices can be integrated with other curriculum.
The pandemic has brought to light many seemingly disparate issues that upon closer investigation are inextricably linked. Our systems are knitted together and literally, tugging on a single string can impact the entire system. For decades, environmentalists have warned that destruction of rainforests and deep wilderness dangerously increases the possibility of unleashing a zoonotic disease that would leap from animals to humans and overwhelm our civilization. We have been successful in containing recent zoonotic diseases including SARS, Ebola, Avian flu and more, but COVID has proven to be catastrophic.
COVID was born from environmental issues and is exacerbating the environmental injustices that are closely tied to race and socioeconomic status in our country. While on the surface, we have seen reduced carbon emissions and reduction of smog in some parts of the world, this is outweighed by exponential increase in waste created by disposable PPE, reduced capacity to enforce environmental regulations and stresses to food systems that create imbalances and waste.
There are greater numbers of people of color and other marginalized groups who are already living in challenging environmental conditions, close to emission producing factories, far from access to nature, and without access to fresh and healthy food. These same communities have lesser financial means to shelter themselves from the economic impacts of 2020. Environmental issues are inherently cross-disciplinary and touch every aspect of our lives. We are seeing the need to bolster the understanding of these connections so that we can thrive in the future.
The need for comprehensive environmental education is more critical than ever before. High quality environmental education engages students in meaningful dialogue about their relationship to the environment and creates opportunities for authentic investigation. Young people, as well as adults, are seeking meaning in this incredibly challenging time and advancing environmental education can be a path forward. This can only happen if we invest properly in resources to scale our work and find models of delivery that are innovative, exciting and relevant to people. The BEETLES PHL group is committed to this work and continues to build on this professional learning community to advance equitable outdoor science education across our region.
This post is part of out Regional Networks Tales from the Field Series. Read about how other regional networks in the series here.
This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1612512. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.