Environmental education in Chicago has room to improve, teachers say

Chicago teachers want to encourage better environmental education that centers their city and community. (Wokandapix/Pixabay)

by Emily Little
Medill Reports

Chicago-area educators see increased flooding, intense cold and beach erosion all around their city. They see these issues as paramount to their climate change teaching and better environmental learning.

Ayesha Qazi, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaches Advanced Placement environmental science and honors biology at Northside College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She and her students study climate change from a multitude of angles, including the science, policy and socioeconomic impact.

“Climate change to many students and families and community is just so abstract and far away,” Qazi said. “They don’t really see the connection to Chicago, or they don’t see how we’re contributing to climate change.”

As climate and other environmental issues continue to impact our community and global society, many teachers have pushed for better environmental education. These teachers are using resources and initiatives to help students understand complicated issues related to solving environmental challenges now and in the future

In Qazi’s classroom, students engage in powerful discussions, facilitated by research papers, to explore the impact of climate change on their community and what solutions are available.

What does environmental education look like in Illinois?

The current Illinois education standards, based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), have been in effect since February 2014.

Illinois identifies “Earth and Human Activity” as an overreaching standard starting in kindergarten and continuing in the elementary grades, middle school and high school. This standard covers a variety of topics, from the sustainable use of natural resources to the implementation of alternative energy.

Educators introduce the term “climate change” at the beginning of middle school. The standard directly addresses the human impact on climate change, stating that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature.”

Other surrounding states, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, also require environmental education to varying degrees. For example, Wisconsin standards teach on environmental science throughout K-12 education, while Indiana teaches in select grades. Indiana standards still refer to climate change as a “theory” to be tested rather than a fact.

Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana have similar environmental science standards, but there are key differences. Indiana only mentions climate change in middle school, and Wisconsin teaches environmental science at every grade level. There are also differences in when the standards were updated. (Emily Little/MEDILL)

Advanced Placement courses are at the discretion of the College Board, a nonprofit organization that helps students with academic success through AP courses and the SAT test. The AP environmental science course includes nine units that cover areas from biodiversity to population growth to global change. The College Board also uses the term “climate change” under its topics.

“I would say the first time I heard about [climate change] was in elementary school, but this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to dive into the topic more,” said Osita Achufusi, a senior at Northside College Preparatory High School. “It wasn’t really giving me the knowledge that I wanted to have for having those discussions that I think are so productive.”

What does an environmental science classroom look like in Chicago?

In addition to the science, Qazi believes in teaching every aspect of climate change including causes, solutions and the science anchoring both.

“I love teaching this class because environmental science is an umbrella topic,” she said. “You connect with everybody. It impacts everybody’s jobs.”

Qazi begins her class with the dominant social paradigm, or DSP, and the new environmental paradigm, or NEP. The DSP puts humans at the center of nature and above all other species, while the NEP states that humans live among other species and are therefore limited by the environment. Qazi uses these two concepts to explain why certain policies exist based on the predominant psychology around the environment.

From there, Qazi brings Chicago-based environmental issues into the classroom, such as lake level rising and the urban heat island effect. Senior student Grace Lewis said this helps her understand her own impact on her community.

“She does a lot of case studies within Chicago, and so that makes it really easy to understand it more,” Lewis said. “Once we learn the concepts, it’s a lot easier to see how it plays out within our own city.”

And students are learning directly from the source material. They receive research papers, articles and other readings to help them learn about what’s happening. Though these research papers weren’t easy to understand initially, the students said they learned through practice and discussion.

“It’s almost like getting used to reading Shakespeare,” said Gigi Calcagno, a senior at Northside College Prep. “It’s difficult to understand, but then you get used to the terminology.”

Community solutions at the focus

With the vast number of environmental issues, it’s important to teach about viable solutions. Climate experts said it is not enough to only teach about the problems.

Qazi said she believes that solutions are just as important in environmental education.

“I like to try to end every unit with some hope,” she said. “This entire class can get incredibly depressing if you do not focus on some of the wins and some of the highs.”

She focuses not only on solutions, but also on the socioeconomic impacts of climate change and environmental issues.

“I always tell my students, it’s like this triangle,” Qazi explained. “You have the ecological impacts, the social and the economical.”

Through the lens of solutions, Qazi introduces students to community organizations that are doing the work to rectify environmental issues in Chicago. She said she hopes students will see what is being done in their own community and learn how they can contribute.

Qazi also uses class discussions to allow students to bring their own experiences and perspectives on these issues to the forefront.

“It’s definitely a very open space to ask questions and to hear other people’s perspectives,” Calcagno said. “I think that getting these viewpoints from people who have grown up with all sorts of different backgrounds in all places across the city makes these discussions really valuable for us.”

What resources are available for teachers?

Qazi recognizes that her class is uncommon in Chicago Public Schools and wants to make her resources more widely available to promote advanced study beyond the basic standard.

“There’s not a lot of AP environmental science teachers in CPS,” she said. “There’s only really a couple of us.”

As environmental education becomes a focus for teachers, they need resources for their classrooms.

Qazi and colleague Ylanda Wilhite founded the Chicago Environmental Educators, a network of more than 300 teachers. They wanted this group to address the disparities in educational resources in areas of the city.

“Many schools on the South and West sides of the city cannot afford lab supplies or the training that it may take to understand how to utilize these resources,” said Wilhite, who works at the Field Museum. “We wanted to break down those barriers to scientific [and] environmental resources.”

Through the network, Chicago Environmental Educators hosts virtual workshops, book club meetings, community check-ins and interviews with people in the field for its members. These programs are completely free for members, allowing teachers to have better access to resources.

The Chicago Teachers Union passed a resolution in February 2020 to promote environmental advocacy in the community and in curriculum. The CTU also holds a climate justice committee to instruct teachers on these topics.

What more can be done?

While the Illinois learning standards and initiatives by Chicago Public Schools have begun the work on environmental education, students and educators believe there is still room to improve.

“I honestly think relative to other people, I’ve had a lot of privilege within my education,” said Penelope Shinnick, a senior at Northside College Prep. “But I wouldn’t say that I had a lot of formal knowledge surrounding environmental science.”

Students said they think there should be more education in their elementary years to build a foundation of environmental knowledge. They also think more emphasis should be on the socioeconomic impacts of environmental issues such as climate change.

The Chicago Environmental Educators hopes it can reach more teachers and have a more equal distribution of resources across the city, not just in affluent areas.

“If a school on the North Side of Chicago — as an example — has an environmental club, is able to send students to workshops and conferences, is able to invite scientists from prominent institutions to talk on climate change, then that school has resources,” Wilhite said. “The next step should be how can we get that school to partner with the school that is less funded, to share those resources, so that more students are educated on the environmental injustices which spur on climate change?”

Through education, Qazi hopes to give students a holistic view of climate change and the environmental movement.

“The environmental movement is not a hierarchy,” she said. “Each person has whatever they’re experiencing and feeling and going through [that] is just as valuable to the person right next to them. And so there is no face to climate change.”

Emily Little is a health, environment, and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.