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For Earth Day and Beyond: Focus on Environmental Action Projects

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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With Earth Day 2014 coming up on April 22, many schools are making plans for one-day celebrations that promote a green message. For deeper learning --and longer-term benefits for people and planet alike -- why not use Earth Day as an opportunity to launch more ambitious projects?

Here are some resources to help.

Natural Heroes: Role Models for Environmental Action

A documentary called A Simple Question: The Story of STRAW shows what's possible when a teacher takes her students' questions seriously. Years ago, Laurette Rogers was explaining to her then-fourth-graders the concept of endangered species. One of them asked, "What can we do?" That question launched what has become an enduring citizen science project. STRAW -- Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed -- engages hundreds of schoolchildren in watershed restoration efforts across Northern California.

How can your students learn from environmental action heroes, including those former fourth-graders and their innovative teacher?

Natural Heroes is an award-winning public television series from KRCB. It features independent films (including A Simple Question: The Story of STRAW) about people who are making a positive difference when it comes to the environment.

To bring this rich multimedia content into the classroom, KRCB has just released a free guide that outlines six project-based learning plans aligned to the Common Core. (Full disclosure: I teamed up with KRCB to develop these multimedia PBL plans.) The 46-page Natural Heroes guide is free to download. It includes links to short video selections from the series.

Project plans include options for elementary, middle, and high school and incorporate a wide range of subject areas, from environmental science and STEM to language arts and service-learning. Each project idea starts with a driving question and suggested entry event, and concludes with students taking action or sharing the results of their investigation with a public audience.

Greening STEM: Sustainable Solutions

How can students engineer solutions that will lead to a healthier planet and healthier people? That's the focus for National Environmental Education Week, which takes place April 13-19 (the week before Earth Day). The 2014 theme is Greening STEM: Engineering a Sustainable World.

The National Environmental Education Foundation has published an extensive toolkit to help K-12 teachers introduce STEM projects that put students in the role of sustainability expert. (Download a free copy. Project ideas range from school gardening to energy efficiency to climate and weather.

There's also a photo contest to showcase schools that are taking on the green STEM challenge.

Get on the Bandwagon

In 1970, more than 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day. I remember joining an impromptu parade of students who rode bikes to school that day instead of taking the bus. Unfortunately, our enthusiasm for clean transportation didn't last. Sustainability wasn't yet in our vocabulary.

This year, more than a billion people are expected to take part in Earth Day events around the world. Help your students consider their long-term role as environmental stewards by planning global education projects that challenge students to think (and act) beyond their classrooms.

For example, do your students live in an urban area? Plan a project that promotes critical thinking about the design of more sustainable, resilient cities. Check out the green cities resources at the Earth Day Network, or join the global conversation about resilient cities promoted by the Rockefeller Foundation.

The Earth Day Network has published a free K-12 toolkit with resources for bringing the green cities campaign to your community. Download here:

Maybe you'd like to team up with a school in another part of the world for a collaborative project? Join the Earth Day PBL discussion at Edutopia or find partners at sites like ePals or iEARN.

Finally, take time to share your stories about what you and your students are doing to promote a healthier planet.

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Todd's picture

I loved reading your post. There has been a lot of buzz about Earth Day at my school this month. I have been feeling apathetic towards it and kind of treated it as another thing to do. After reading your blog I am much more excited about it! There are so many great opportunities to really deepen and broaden students' thinking and knowledge about the world around them and the impact (positive or negative) that they can have. My school is starting an urban garden and after reading your post I am interested in becoming involved. This garden would be a lasting positive imprint that will really deepen my students' understanding about the Earth and how they can change it.

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