Published March 28, 2024

This week, 38 teachers completed their year in our Environmental Solutionary Teacher Fellowship, a nine-month program that builds teacher capacity for designing and delivering learning experiences that are student-centered, problem-project-based, solutions-oriented, and integrate real-world environmental justice issues.

The fellowship has been highly successful for the past nine years in elevating teachers' skills and confidence in integrating environmental literacy and solutionary teaching into their classroom. Learn more about three fellows in this year's cohort and how the fellowship has impacted their teaching.

Reducing Waste on the Coastside

Abby Foster, Cabrillo Unified School District

The Cabrillo Unified School District is taking steps to reduce its waste thanks to passionate teachers like Abby Foster, a first-grade Spanish immersion teacher at Hatch Elementary School.

Four students explore the life cycles of different productsAbby adopted a mindset of environmental stewardship at a young age, as she recycled cans each month with her family before any recycling program was established in her home town of Mill Valley. After becoming a teacher at Hatch Elementary, she quickly realized how much waste is generated at a school site and how important it is to shift behaviors in her school community towards zero waste.

She initially participated in the 2020-2021 cohort of the Environmental Solutionary Teacher Fellowship, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and returned as a second-time fellow and coach this year to deepen her understanding. “The whole idea of the solutionary mindset – that instead of me having an idea of how it’s going to end, I let my kids come up with a solution – that was a big takeaway the first time I participated in this program and something that’s stuck with me.”

The program has equipped Abby to delve deeper with her students into addressing waste management on their campus. “Over the years, I have brought in people to talk about recycling and do waste sorting activities with my students, but the information through the one-off presentations doesn’t stick with my first graders,” shared Abby. “This time, I have been working with my kids all year modeling how to sort waste and talking about the importance of recycling and composting. So when I started my unit, they already knew what we were talking about and could engage in deeper conversations.”

In her solutionary unit of study, Abby discussed the plastic garbage islands in the middle of the ocean and shared a video showing the potential paths a plastic water bottle might take based on how someone disposes of it. Students then learned how to sort waste properly through a hands-on learning activity and listened to guest speakers from the district office and partners such as Republic Services, which provides non-hazardous solid waste collection, waste transfer and disposal, recycling, and energy services for the area. Equipped with this new knowledge and deeper understanding of the issues created by waste, students focus on creating possible solutions in the second week of the unit.

“It was fun to see how engaged they were,” recounted Abby. “Students need to hear these messages throughout the year, have the background information on what is happening and why, as well as hands-on, engaging activities like waste sorting to have an impact.”

The program extends beyond the classroom as it has helped Abby find like-minded people across the county as well as in her own community who are equally engaged in empowering students to become environmental leaders. Abby has appreciated these connections, sharing, “getting together with other people and talking about what we do, and then learning from that and incorporating some of the ideas. The impact has been huge in that sense because it’s helping us connect outside of our classrooms.”

Enhancing Environmental Literacy Through History

Alexi Drier, Jefferson Union High School District

As a high school history teacher working with students with mild to moderate disabilities at Jefferson High School, Alexi Drier has always prioritized learning experiences where his students can develop problem-solving skills. When he learned about the Environmental Literacy Teacher Fellowship through the County Office of Education’s Preliminary Administrative Services Credential program, he felt the fellowship would help him deepen his students’ problem-solving skills and understanding of humans’ impact on the environment.

Headshot of Alexi DrierAs part of the program, Alexi was able to meet with many different community-based organizations in San Mateo County that provided curriculum, field trip opportunities, and other resources to deepen students’ learning.

“It was good to know there are a lot of community organizations out there doing all kinds of work related to sustainability and the environment,” reflected Alexi. “Meeting them and hearing their testimonies helped me to think through the vision for my unit of study and how I could work with these people or use these resources to enhance it.”

After going through the fellowship’s summer institute, Alexi developed a unique, multi-disciplinary unit exploring environmental justice through the lens of World War I. He and his students explored how the war caused harm through construction, industrialization, transportation, and other aspects of the war. He then asked students what could have been done differently and encouraged students to think about environmental justice in connection to a historical event such as World War I. 

To meet the learning needs of all his students, Alexi designed several different activities and projects that tapped into an array of modalities, including writing assignments, discussions, and artwork. Students also made personal connections through a self-assessment tool, provided by the San Mateo County Sustainability Department, to assess how much they knew about waste. Students were able to understand there is a lot more to war than just the battle, like how building factories to produce military weapons and technology in turn produces a lot of waste, creates pollution, and has other environmental impacts.

“Doing a true multi-disciplinary approach was something that I learned how to do through this fellowship,” explained Alexi. “Up until this point, history has always been my only content focus. Combining two content areas was challenging, but it was definitely rewarding because there are so many connections and in learning how to do that has made me a much better teacher.”

“I would recommend the fellowship, particularly for teachers who are trying to enhance problem-solving skills in their students,” shared Alexi. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the fellowship. Having the framework, template, and guidance on how to do solutions-based teaching was also very, very helpful and meaningful.”

Designing a Greener Future

Anna Liu, San Mateo Union High School District

Anna, an architecture and engineering teacher at Burlingame High School, has always strived to integrate environmental awareness into her classroom. However, after reading about the County Office of Education's Environmental Solutionary Teacher Fellowship program and hearing testimonials from other teachers, she became interested in how she could bring sustainability deeper into her classroom.

Headshot of Anna LiuI've done some environmental work before and my Master's in architecture was primarily focused on sustainable design,” she shared, “but I don’t have much training in how to teach about climate change and the environment.”

Through the fellowship, Anna learned about a variety of community partners, experiences, and potential classroom activities. One such activity, Exploring Nature, encouraged students to spend time in a natural environment, sketching and reflecting on their connection with it. This activity was then seamlessly integrated into a lesson on biophilic design, where students were tasked with designing a shade structure for their campus.

Anna focused her capstone project on integrating sustainability topics such as energy efficiency and sustainability design into her lessons and using solutions-based teaching throughout the school year. For example, after learning about life cycle analysis through the fellowship, she added the lesson to a unit on structures where she had students conduct a life cycle analysis for different materials used in bridge design and then discuss which materials were more apt for different projects. As a result, students gained a new understanding of materials, their impact on the environment, and some of the considerations they need to make when designing a project.

"My students are very receptive and eager to learn how buildings are a major contributor to environmental concerns, but also how they can be part of the solution,” explained Anna. “I think a lot of students are concerned about climate change and so they want to know what they can do to help mitigate it. This motivates them to design structures that are greener and more sustainable."

In another unit, Anna and her class identified and discussed major consumers of energy in the United States. The students were surprised that building operations is a larger source of energy consumption because it isn’t discussed as much. Anna then introduced them to sustainable design organizations and had students research sustainable design strategies and integrate what they learned into a classroom project. 

Overall, the fellowship provided Anna with the motivation and support she needed to fully integrate sustainability topics into her curriculum and foster a generation of environmentally conscious students who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to build a more sustainable future.

"It's not only beneficial for the students, but it also connects me with valuable community partners and industry professionals who can offer additional support and enrich the learning experience for everyone involved."Anna Liu discusses environmental literacy with other fellows