By Tyler Valdes & TTriss Williams Renard
For over 10 years, the School of Environmental Leadership (SEL), a program of SEI, has built strong, innovative leaders who are empowered to creatively and critically analyze issues and formulate plans of action. In the spring of 2020, as growing research has demonstrated the extensive health benefits that result from exposure to outdoor environments, Marin County Parks announced the continuance of its community grant program called “Breathe/Respira!” which seeks to provide the means to help the local community have access to parks. The title symbolizes the ability of outdoor recreation and connection with nature to reduce stress and improve health with the Spanish translation of “breathe”, respira, included to underscore the importance of making parks available to all Marin communities regardless of language or cultural background. Upholding strong values of equity and inclusion, SEL was successfully awarded a grant to support equitable access to parks for underserved communities - a project that would be spearheaded by SEL students.
Under the guidance of SEI staff and the Marin Environmental Forum, 10th grade students in SEI’s flagship SEL - Marin School of Environmental Leadership (MarinSEL) - coordinated a year-long Leadership and Environmental Action Development (LEAD) project that brought students at Laurel Dell Elementary School to local green spaces. LEAD projects, a key component of SEL, are equity-forward, community-based environmental action projects that focus on policy change. While the original project design culminated in a field day for K-8 students and their families in Marin County parks, the challenge of COVID-19 restrictions called for solutions driven by creativity, a 21st century skill fostered through SEL.
By Fernando Gil
In spring 2021, SEI hosted a virtual Energy Challenge, giving students a fun opportunity to learn about energy conservation, help spread awareness about energy use and climate change, and win scholarships to support their future college and career goals. In partnership with Whitehorse School in the Navajo Nation, Swinerton Renewable Energy, and Heart of America, SEI made this programming available to students fully offline, as 80% of students there do not have access to the Internet at home. This meant creating alternatives for all the online aspects of the original challenge, including educational resources and ways for students to share their work. The transition was a success as Whitehorse seniors were able to engage with content and launch creative energy conservation campaigns including presentations, poems, and infographics.
Energy Conservation Poem by Xavier Martin
Energy Campaign Reflection by Diana Whitehair
By Beatrix Berry
Entering the realm of high school, with tall 12th graders, looming assignments, and the occasional beard, can be intimidating for many. It can feel especially daunting to a student who is less vocal in a room full of new faces. Despite entering the Marin School of Environmental Leadership (MarinSEL) feeling more quiet than her classmates, Harita Kalvai, a 10th grader in MarinSEL, has risen to the occasion to lead her peers and organize local youth activism for a cause bigger than herself.
When Harita started high school at MarinSEL two years ago, she found it difficult to stick up for herself and share her opinions. Despite her initial shyness, Harita has grown to be a vocal environmental changemaker through a number of leadership opportunities she found through MarinSEL.
Harita with MarinSEL classmates
In a recent project for one of her MarinSEL classes, Harita and her teammates worked closely with Marin Transit to create stickers for public buses that depict COVID-safe behavior while on the bus. In this project, she took a leadership role and demonstrated her communication skills with industry professionals and community partners who are experts in their field.
By Giselle Serafin and Jessica Redden
Eco Club co-founders Beatrix and Nana
Nana and Beatrix both started at John Burroughs High School in the fall of 2020 - right in the middle of the pandemic. They had met in middle school, where they were Co-Presidents of the Activism Club. The two decided to start an Eco Club, narrowing their focus to the environment because of its many ties to other issues they are passionate about. As Eco Club Co-Founders and Co-Presidents, Nana and Beatrix have created an impressive community wide environmental stewardship effort, all through online platforms, while only in their freshman year of high school.
In fall of 2020, the Eco Club participated in SEI’s Energy Challenge, and created a campaign that educated their fellow students about the importance of conserving energy through social media posts, videos and posters. They were ultimately the winners of the challenge!
Eco Club's posters from their Energy Challenge Campaign
Driven by the capabilities of community education, Nana noted how participating in the challenge helped them learn different skills,“We found the Energy Challenge and got more inspired on how to use skills to advocate like on social media.” As winners, they used their prize money to buy reusable tote bags which they plan to sell and raise funds for their club and also to buy gifts as a thank you to frontline workers in their community.
By Fernando Gil
Following the 2020 Energy Challenge, our team at SEI’s Energize Schools program was looking for new ways to get students excited about participating in our Earth Day Challenge. We wanted to find an engaging and entertaining way to educate students about environmental issues and their possible solutions. To me, the obvious choice was a video game.
Creating a video game hadn’t been feasible for SEI in the past, but my background in coding and engineering provided the missing pieces to make it a reality. My concept was simple, a 2D platformer (like Super Mario) with levels for different topics we wanted to cover for Earth Day. Named “Duckie’s Adventures: Earth Day,” students play as a duck who uses their knowledge of sustainability to tackle several environmental issues.
By Giselle Serafin
Smoke from the 2020 California wildfires. Photo: NASA
Throughout the devastating 2020 fire season in California and beyond, students felt the direct impact of extreme poor air quality in real time. This experience brought up a lot of questions, curiosity, and concerns about the impact of air pollution on themselves, their families, and their communities.
In January SEI worked with 7th grade science classes at Black Diamond Middle School in Antioch, California to bring SEI’s Air Quality curriculum to their classes. Through this curriculum, students are introduced to air quality science, air quality monitoring the intersection of air quality and environmental justice, and air quality policy. To make the classroom content more engaging, students learn about local air quality issues and solutions employed by nearby community organizers. Wrapping up their air quality lessons, these students were guided through an action planning project to help improve the air quality in their community.
After Black Diamond students completed their air quality project, SEI followed up with a survey to understand what they took away from learning about air quality and its impact on their community. When asked “Do you believe that as an individual, you have the ability to reduce air pollution? Why or why not?,” students responded with a nuanced understanding of the roles of individuals, communities, and professionals in implementing air pollution reduction strategies. Although students were ready to take on individual actions like biking or carpooling, many also noted that it is up to everyone to take part in change. Here are some student reflections on the question:
Resilience in Action: How High School Students Successfully Inspired Wildfire Preparedness during Distance Learning
By Tyler Valdes
The School of Environmental Leadership (SEL), a flagship program of SEI, is a project-based, environmentally-focused program that emphasizes development in leadership and 21st century skills. As part of the SEL, 9th grade students implement Leadership and Environmental Action Development (LEAD) Projects which take place over the course of a semester and align with environmental themes such as climate, transportation, energy, water, waste, and food. When I joined the SEI team in the summer of 2020, I quickly became involved with supporting the Marin School of Environmental Leadership (MarinSEL) based in San Rafael. As someone with a strong background in climate science and communications, I was thrilled when I was asked to serve as a community partner for the Wildfires LEAD project team.
Right away, the team of seven freshman students impressed me with their resolve, passion, and coordination. At the beginning of the semester, I saw the students excel at researching wildfire health effects, preparedness, and contributions to climate change. They reached out to experts such as Dr. Mark Stemen, Professor of Geography at Chico State University who contributed to the creation of the Cal-Adapt tool, for advice and information. Regardless of the challenges posed by social distancing and online education, the team set ambitious goals of spreading wildfire preparedness awareness to 5,000 households! However, as the semester went on and reality sunk in, the team honed in on impact rather than volume. For example, the group virtually presented their research and project progress to over 50 city officials and community members at the City of San Rafael’s Climate Change Action Plan (CCAP) meeting in October 2020.
A slide from a MarinSEL wildfire team presentation
By George Spencer
From my work in schools, I hear the argument over and over that K-5 students cannot hear about climate change, environmental and social justice, or the reality of our world because it "is not age appropriate" or in line with the standards. It comes from everyone: teachers, parents, school administrators. And I get it, it is tough to bring up these incredibly complex and dynamic challenges to young people, especially when we are likely struggling with them ourselves. It can feel overwhelming to plunge into a conversation where we do not have the answers. I wonder, though, if our students and kids don't understand reality, what type of adults are we raising them to become?
What if it was okay for us to not always have the answer in the classroom? For us to say: “I’m not sure; let me look into that,” and actually follow up to address their question, introducing them to experts who are already working to address these issues. What if we told our students and our kids, what is actually happening, not to disempower, but to listen and hear what comes up for them? So often, young students, especially, surprise me with their creativity, ingenuity, and imagination.
By Giselle Serafin
Instilling environmental principles in a class of students who all have different relationships with the environment is challenging. Madison Niesyn, Environmental Leadership teacher at Del Mar Middle School, was looking for ways to engage her students, some of whom were passionate about caring for the environment and others who had not yet made the connection between environmental protection and their own lives. Madison saw zero waste as an area of common ground, a place where she could start a pathway to advocacy for students at any level of familiarity with environmental stewardship. To bring education on waste to her students Madison reached out to Zero Waste Marin(ZWM).
To kick off this partnership, Zero Waste Schools Program (ZWSP) staff held an instructional planning meeting with Madison to discuss waste topics that interested her students, and how to best incorporate these themes in her virtual classroom. ZWSP staff and Madison decided to focus on what zero waste means, why the waste sorting rules are important, and where waste goes. Students were particularly interested in plastic pollution, a locally important issue in the San Francisco Bay.
ZWSP staff developed a plan for two classroom presentations on zero waste with Madison’s 7th grade class. For the first presentation, the ZWSP team joined Madison and her class virtually on Zoom. Students asked insightful questions about zero waste careers, the role of zero waste in other environmental fields, and how to take action in their communities. After the presentation, one student reflected, “Something that I’ve learned from the ZWM presentations is that if one cares about a topic, they can find outlets to pursue their interest and make our world a better place simply by educating others!”
By Emily Usaha
San Diego High School, located in the heart of San Diego, was founded in 1882 and is one of the oldest public high schools in California. The school has a rich history, which includes the construction of a castle-like building called "The Old Gray Castle" in 1907 and the Balboa Stadium in 1914. The San Diego Chargers used the Balboa Stadium as their home field for six seasons. Over the course of its history, San Diego High School has grown in student numbers as the city expanded, and as a result new buildings were built and renovations made. Today, San Diego High School is divided into three small theme-based schools including the School of Business and Leadership, School of International Studies, and the School of Science and Technology serving over 2,500 students.
U.S. Marines creating an American flag at Balboa Stadium in 1932
Image from Wikimedia Commons
Within the School of Science and Technology lives the GeoTech Academy, a small learning community serving students who are interested in focusing their studies on engineering and design rooted in sustainability and clean technologies. As Jackie Rivers, one of the six lead teachers of the academy, described it, “Geotech is a community and one big family. When any of our students are struggling they have a whole dedicated team they can go to”.
The SEI Team
Environmental education and workforce development experts share stories from the field