In preparation for the 2020-21 school year, 150 teachers eagerly joined the sixth annual San Mateo Environmental Learning Collaborative’s (SMELC) Summer Institute where they deepened their skills in virtually engaging students in environmental problems and empowering them to develop real-world solutions.

SMELC is a series of paid fellowships that build teachers’ capacity for designing and delivering lessons focused on real-world environmental justice issues. Each lesson is built on solutionary project-based learning, where students learn about local sustainability issues that contribute to climate change and develop solutions to create a more just, humane, and healthy community. This focus has transformed teachers’ approach to student engagement, which in turn increases students’ academic success, confidence, and involvement in their community.

Fellows attend a four-day summer institute where they learn how to design and implement solutionary project-based units of study. Participants deepen their knowledge in environmental and climate literacy, sustainability, and systems thinking; attend workshops demonstrating how to teach a solutionary unit of study; and begin developing lessons for the 2020-21 school year.

The program attracted educators from San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara counties across a wide range of grade levels and subject areas. Throughout the institute, participants shared their enthusiasm for developing units of study that are meaningful and engaging for their students.

“I am excited to make a curriculum that is meaningfully connected to our community and our lives,” said a 2020-21 fellow. “I can't wait to see the increase in engagement and empowerment that these changes will hopefully foster.”

This year’s SMELC Summer Institute also focused on supporting teachers in delivering their project-based learning units of study in a virtual or hybrid environment. Teachers attended Zoom workshops where they participated in breakout room discussions, explored online tools, and received training on distance learning tools such as Zoom, Jamboard, Google Slides, and Nearpod.

The SMELC fellowship program is a collaborative effort that was funded this year by six local partners in addition to the San Mateo County Office of Education, including Ten Strands, Peninsula Clean Energy, San Mateo County Office of Sustainability, City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County, San Mateo County Safe Routes to School, and the Center for EcoLiteracy Clarence Heller Foundation. Eight facilitators and 19 community-based partners provided enrichment activities and hands-on virtual learning experiences for participants during the summer institute, and 10 coaches will continue to support participants in developing their units throughout the summer and fall.

“I am proud to live and teach in an area where environmental sustainability is such a major focus. Before the institute, I truly believed that much of K-12 curriculum should begin and end with humanitarian, democratic, and environmental justice issues,” shared another fellow. “My experience in the institute only served to validate and expand upon those feelings and goals.”