On a typically sunny San Diego afternoon, I met Dawn Wirts, a 9th grade physics teacher at High Tech High International, to drop off her air quality monitoring classroom kit. She offered me a campus tour and excitedly showed me around the school’s bright entryway, greeting almost every student along the way. During this first visit, the hallways were empty of the environmental murals and activism art that would soon fill them as a result of Dawn’s students’ participation in SEI’s annual People and Planet Challenge and Air Quality Program.
Created by SEI’s Energize Schools program, the People and Planet Challenge and Air Quality Program are educational tools for hands-on, experiential learning. They combine the science of air quality with its social and policy implications. Through these holistic programs, students learn how common air pollutants are measured while discovering how historical policies have led to environmental racism, the higher exposure to pollution and other environmental hazards faced by communities of color. Students also learn about air quality policy and get support in designing their own climate action projects to improve air quality.
Students at High Tech High International engaged deeply with these ideas. To ensure that students understood the social aspects of air pollution, Dawn collaborated with HTHI English teacher Dr. Sam Carrick to discuss redlining, a 1930s federal government policy that resulted in housing segregation that persists today and unfairly distributes the negative impacts of pollution. “Sometimes we just kind of stay in the science world,” Dawn said. “I really felt like it was important for us to bring in that second layer of the humanity of climate change … who is being impacted by this.”
After gaining scientific and social knowledge, students took action! Using portable particulate matter sensors from Sonoma Technology’s Kids Making Sense program, Dawn’s students rode the city’s trolley system and gathered air quality data from different parts of San Diego. While on the move, they interviewed community members about how they had been impacted by poor air quality and climate change before asking them to pledge to take action to improve their local and global environment. Nearly 300 people made the pledge, agreeing to take a wide range of actions, from using public transit to carrying a reusable water bottle.
In addition to their advocacy work, Dawn’s students completed a community clean-up around their school’s campus.
Back in the classroom, students compared their air quality data to publicly available data from the California government’s CalEnviroScreen tool to better understand how different San Diego communities are impacted by a range of environmental hazards. Using CalEnviroScreen, students could “look at their own house like, what's in their own community, what's affecting their own community,” Dawn explained.
“I was surprised by how much they just really enjoyed learning about this, engaging in this, and helping support each other,” said Dawn, summing up how this interdisciplinary and action-oriented approach captured student interest and maximized engagement. “It was really beautiful, and it did really make us step out of our traditional standard way of thinking.”
After months of research and experimentation, Dawn’s students held a showcase of their research and advocacy around local air quality issues. This opportunity to share with the community outside of the classroom was particularly valuable for the students. “I love talking to people about what's impacting the [planet], and teaching,” said one student. “It opened my eyes to the problems in my community,” said another student.
More than 30 student presentations taught hundreds of parents, community members, and students of all ages about fast fashion, ocean acidification, wildfires, and more. Installations on campus included a mural celebrating ocean conservation and an art installation made from recycled waste.
Dawn’s students created two campus art installations to spread awareness of the environmental issues they researched. On the left, an in-progress mural urging ocean conservation, and on the right, a sculpture made of recycled materials.
“Kids were learning things, impacting other people, and sharing what they’re passionate about,” said Dawn about the People and Planet Challenge. “That’s what really excites me, and gives me fuel for continuing to do this every year.”
For educators inspired by Dawn to empower their students to make sustainable change, the People and Planet Challenge will be returning this fall! The 2023 challenge will run from September 12 to November 15, with updated materials to further guide student action and expedite submission. Interested teachers can sign up to receive updates using this form.
SEI’s Air Quality Program will also be continuing to serve educators in San Diego County during this school year. Interested educators can sign up for the program using this form.
The SEI Team
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