How California Environmental Education Providers Are Keeping Student Success at the Forefront During the Pandemic

Environmental education providers are at the heart of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative’s work to engage all of California’s K–12 students with high-quality, nature-based learning experiences. These organizations thrive on finding creative ways to get kids curious about exploring—and protecting—the natural world around them. Today environmental educators are also writing a new narrative of how to implement environmental literacy as unprecedented crises like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic escalate the need for informed, responsible community action.

We asked three California environmental education leaders about their work to empower youth through the context of their own natural and cultural environments:

  • Estrella Risinger, executive director of California’s Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE), advancing the impact of environmental and outdoor education throughout the state
  • Celeste Royer, director of environmental education at the Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School, providing outdoor education experiences to thousands of students along the Central Coast for nearly 50 years
  • Ariel Lew Ai Le Whitson, director of education and community organizing at TreePeople, dedicated to inspiring and supporting the people of Los Angeles to come together to plant and care for trees, harvest the rain, and renew depleted landscapes

In this Q&A, these three leaders explain how their programming prioritizes student experiences, even while adapting to the challenges of the current health crisis.

Please describe the role environmental education providers play in the state of California.

Estrella Risinger

Estrella Risinger: Environmental educators help make classroom lessons come alive, inspiring awe and wonder, and helping youth connect to the natural world. Environmental educators work in a variety of settings, from zoos and aquariums to state parks and nonprofit organizations, offering programs that range from a few hours to the span of an entire week. Many program providers view themselves as an extension of the classroom, and work to align their curricula with state standards. Some are affiliated with the Department of Education, and others are firmly rooted within the communities they serve.

How is this work essential to the broader system of public education?

Celeste Royer: Students are more engaged when taught in outdoor settings. This increases the amount of time they are on-task, which deepens their comprehension of the science and environmental concepts presented. This depth of learning along with their enthusiasm can also transfer to other disciplines such as language arts, mathematics, and social science.

Environmental and outdoor education help build students’ science knowledge and equip them with 21st-century skills. These programs support the instruction of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Environmental Principles & Concepts (EP&Cs). More instruction in science and the environment can lead to better assessment scores and work toward closing the achievement gap in African-American, Latinx, and English language learner student populations. Students also want and need their instruction to connect to real-world issues. As water and energy utilities and other companies are anticipating a silver tsunami of retirements, preparing students to become tomorrow’s workforce is essential.

Ariel, can you give us a real-life example of this from your environmental education programming at TreePeople?

Ariel Lew Ai Le Whitson

Ariel Lew Ai Le Whitson: Of course. Our goal is to support youth in feeling excited about knowing that they can be part of greening their communities, leading climate solutions in their neighborhoods and making a difference. Our programs span the entirety of Los Angeles County, which includes approximately 2 million K–12 students. We focus most of our work on serving youth in areas of Los Angeles that are environmentally and economically stressed, which we call our bright spot areas.

We have three programs that create real-life environmental learning experiences for students that complement what teachers are teaching the classroom and serve approximately 20,000 students a year: Eco-Tours, Generation Earth, and the Community Forester Program.

  • TreePeople’s Eco-Tours Program addresses the challenges of access to nature and outdoor learning for urban youth by enabling students to experience immersive nature firsthand – often for the first time. During Eco-Tours, TreePeople Educators lead groups of elementary, middle and high school students and teachers on guided hikes through the forest at Coldwater Canyon Park, a 45-acre wilderness area where TreePeople is headquartered. At a series of interactive eco-stations, Educators help students see, hear, and feel the natural cycles of a forest and understand how those cycles have been disrupted.
  • Through the L.A. County Public Works Generation Earth Program, we work alongside middle and high school youth to do environmental projects in their schools and neighborhoods. Projects include putting together presentations to spread awareness of environmental issues, campus recycling, community cleanups, food rescue, composting, planting trees, tree care, and school gardens.
  • The Community Forester Program is a forward-thinking immersive environmental education program that takes youth through a series of hands-on workshops in different parts of Los Angeles and culminates in an environmental project in their own community. The workshops include topics such as watersheds, urban forests, wildland urban interface, fire cycles and civic engagement; Urban Forestry in which participants learn how to plant and care for urban trees; Mountain Restoration in which participants restore fire scarred areas of local mountain ranges; and Community Action in which participants share their experiences and are provided support in taking local neighborhood action to create or promote green spaces, enhance the urban forest, and build community momentum for future activities. Youth are taught tangible environmental skills, taken on field trips across Los Angeles (mountain and urban areas), and are also exposed to environmental careers and leaders in the field.

How have you seen these experiences impact students?

Ariel: The impact of our programs can be life-changing. Our environmental education programming has been around for more than 35 years, so we hear stories of adults recalling their eco-tour experience and how impactful it was.

For example, a group of middle schoolers that were engaged in our community forester program got involved with our tree planting program in Southeast LA, one of our bright spot areas. These middle schoolers got hooked with tree planting and greening their neighborhoods, describing the activities as building their leadership skills, learning about the environment and environmental justice issues in their area, doing good for their community, and keeping them away from video games. They continued to volunteer with TreePeople, and eventually were hired as employees; two of them, Cesar and Miguel, are currently on staff as an eco-educator and a community organizer.

Celeste Royer

Celeste: In my work, I see residential outdoor science schools offer a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience for fifth and sixth grade students. During their week spent at outdoor school, students learn science and ecological concepts in beautiful natural settings, but they also learn valuable life skills such as respect, responsibility, and teamwork. Students who may not succeed in the traditional classroom thrive in the outdoor school environment. Teachers and parents often state that a week at outdoor school can transform a student’s life. Fortunately, California has both public and privately operated outdoor schools that provide these programs.

Estrella: We believe environmental education is “education we need for the world we want.” It helps young people develop essential skills like critical thinking and empathy in addition to an interest in science and an appreciation of the outdoors. Experiences in nature at a young age with skilled and experienced educators help to develop environmental literacy and civic engagement.

Estrella, how have you seen environmental education organizations across California adapt to the current situation?

Estrella: Environmental education providers in California have been deeply impacted by the current crisis. Nonprofit providers are experiencing significant revenue loss due to canceled programs. Many programs have been able to adapt by offering virtual programming, or changing their focus to staff training or review of curriculum materials. Sadly, a number of programs have had to furlough or lay off program staff. We are all hopeful that we will be able to resume programming in the fall, but recognize that the world in which we will be operating will likely be very different than the one we inhabited last year.

We anticipate that many organizations will struggle to find funding to support what will likely be an increased need for scholarships and tuition assistance. Some of the adaptations that providers are currently making may help to address the gap in funding; in addition to on-site programming, many providers are considering offering shorter programs, virtual educational experiences, and bringing programs directly to students. Providers are working with their local school districts and other partners to determine what the needs will be when schools reopen. With some of the options currently on the table, including reduced class size and an earlier start date, we are poised to collaborate creatively to determine a plan for how to best serve students across the state.

Ariel, how has the current health crisis affected TreePeople?

Ariel: As Estrella mentioned, we have shifted our focus. Early on, our teams at TreePeople realized we needed to mobilize quickly to continue to meet the needs of our youth and communities. All of our environmental education programs were immediately shut down, since they involved in-person, hands-on, outside of the home programming. We began to explore opportunities that would take our programs and shift them to virtual online learning. It was a challenge to move quickly and ensure that we were still able to produce quality material that was relevant for parents, teachers, and students. We launched our Learn At Home with TreePeople platform in April, as well as Virtual Generation Earth, to offer how-to videos, activities parents could do with their kids at home with supplemental worksheets, live lessons for middle and high school students and adults, and live interviews with experts in their fields. We centered the learning around six main themes: our community forest, trees, water, soil, waste, and plants.

We have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction from our communities. As hard and trying as this period is, we are seeing an increased yearning from people to return to nature for comfort and a breath of fresh air. We are also finding that teachers are eager for help with distance learning, and our live classroom lessons with students have been full of questions and wonder on the topics taught.

Despite the challenges we are all facing, our air is cleaner, our animals are happier, and our Earth is greener. Angelenos are feeling the difference, and are finding the time to engage at home in understanding how to make changes and learn new skills that will ensure that once we are through this pandemic, the Earth continues to thrive. As we become more resilient to the changes this virus has brought to our lives, we have an opportunity to also build climate resilience for the future. The truth is, we are all TreePeople.

How do you see this crisis affecting the future of environmental learning?

Estrella: One thing is certain: The need for meaningful learning experiences outdoors will be essential in rebuilding our communities. Access to nature—as a place to heal, to come together, and as a fertile teaching ground—must be part of our plan moving forward.

Celeste: Humans face numerous global environmental issues such as dramatic climatic changes, loss of habitats leading to species extinctions and a serious pandemic affecting millions of lives. These are large and complex issues that we must act upon now. But solving these problems and implementing numerous changes will take time. We must provide our students with the foundation of sound science and the ability to analyze problems so they can help. Students want to be and should be a part of the solution.

Environmental and outdoor education programs emphasize student- and nature-centered instruction. Instructors encourage students to look at the environmental issues we face, to think like a scientist, and to work with their classmates to discuss the possible solutions to problems. The hands-on approach used in environmental education promotes discussion, looking for evidence, and arriving at conclusions based upon that evidence. Environmental and outdoor programs that support and foster student success must be an integral part of our education system.