Place-Based Professional Development in the Water Systems of California

By Stacey Rafalowski

While I had never experienced the Santa Ana winds, the teachers I was working with were, thankfully, prepared for the 114°F heat. Standing on an exposed hill watching 2,400 gallons of water per second rush down the Los Angeles aqueduct, the 26 teachers were exchanging stories about connecting their students to the regional water crisis while trying to recall if they had ever seen this much water in the aqueduct, which is highly visible from the 5 Freeway. One by one, I heard each teacher say something to the effect of, “I drive by here every day and never even look up!” Or, “I had no idea this was even here, I can’t wait to share this with my students!”

This was exactly the impact that the team at EarthEcho International was seeking for the professional development workshop portion of EarthEcho Expedition: Water by Design, part of an annual program sponsored by the Northrop Grumman Foundation that leverages exploration and discovery to bring STEM education to life. These 26 teachers were brought together as EarthEcho Expedition Fellows to work on a collaborative curriculum-building process based on an expedition with EarthEcho Founder Philippe Cousteau. They traveled together throughout Southern California over the course of five days to better understand water resources in this part of the country.

Grounding this curriculum in a deep sense of place is essential to connect students to the relevance and urgency of water scarcity and drought–because while water does connect us all, communities throughout the world have various unique and often complex relationships with water. This was evident just in the conversations among the Expedition Fellows. Many of the Fellows were from the region and well-versed on California’s debilitating drought, though several hailed from communities that were far from this field trip location in Sylmar, California. These communities–far from the persistent drought, far from the sunny California climate, and far from the almost daily conversation around political policies of water rights–held different values, norms, and challenges regarding water. So those Fellows were considering their own field trips and methods to support students in drawing parallels between the challenges that we were framing around water resources.

Environmental education (EE) programs have traditionally been grounded in a deep sense of place, because these programs often originate or even occur in unique places — nature centers, aquaria, parks, etc. Thus, much of the power of EE rests in the core values that connect EE to place-based education (PBE). Both of these approaches are used at nearly every grade level and can provide some of the most cross-curricular integrated content available, ranging from creative writing and citizen science, to civil engineering and economics. Each educational approach leverages this deep sense of place to better connect students to their learning and, according to Place-Based Education Evaluation Cooperative resources, can consistently be shown to improve academic achievement. But traditional EE, and to a large extent PBE, must also prepare students to solve the “wicked” environmental problems plaguing our planet. These issues lack definition and involve environmental degradation, cultural and social connections, and seemingly insurmountable economic obstacles. Moreover, these problems are global in scope, so it would seem that addressing them in one isolated geography will not result in a sustainable solution. Digital tools connecting students across geographies may, however, result in powerful learning and solutions to these problems through collective impact.

Just as water connects us all, a sense of place connects students to their “piece of the puzzle” with regard to large-scale global issues like climate change. As we explore drought and water resource management in EarthEcho Expedition: Water by Design videos, students in the Great Lakes region begin to consider the difference in the overall cost of water as a resource and their accountability to provide water resources outside of the local region. Students in Colorado challenged to design a model aqueduct to move water across a classroom discuss whether diverting water resources upstream is justifiable to communities downstream. Similarly, students in Florida draw parallels between the saltwater intrusion caused by intensive agriculture in California to the same issue in their own region. While each EarthEcho Expedition is laser-focused on the impacts of a large scale environmental issue in one particular geographic region, examining those impacts in the context of place-based, local action empowers students to address the environmental problems that plague our planet. At the same time, teachers are able to cultivate the benefits of PBE while encouraging global thinking in their classroom, which is the primary goal of each EarthEcho Expedition curriculum.

Harnessing the power of place to connect our students to global phenomena is essential if we want young learners to understand that, from an environmental perspective, everything they do makes a difference. So often we hear from adults that one plastic straw doesn’t matter or one single-use plastic bag is not going to destroy the planet. But when students understand the deep economic and social connections to water resources in the places where they live, then they are able to truly understand the collective — and damaging — magnitude of that reasoning. For our Expedition Fellows at the Los Angeles aqueduct this summer, that revelation was brought home. In the words of Jim Trogdon, Expedition Fellow and veteran Ohio middle school teacher, “Philippe Cousteau and the EarthEcho Team’s approach to getting us out in the field set the stage for problem solving, creativity, and solutions during the Water By Design Expedition. The ripple effect of this experience has been far-reaching for me, my colleagues, students, parents, and, by extension, our community members.”

Whether it’s a student excursion or an educator expedition, bringing the excitement of discovery and the thrill of first-hand experiences to young learners helps to engage, inform, and expand the classroom into the real world.

For more, see:

Stacey Rafalowski is Director of Programs for EarthEcho International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring young people worldwide to act now for a sustainable future. 

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