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
These MarinSEL freshmen inspired over 80 elementary and middle school students to prepare for wildfires and educated them about the importance of climate action through virtual presentations. After presenting and hosting an interactive online trivia with a 5th grade class at Glenwood Elementary School, the Wildfire team was praised by the teacher for their communication skills, engagement, and informative content. Participating students agreed, as many shared positive feedback that reinforced the meaningfulness of the Wildfire team’s project:
“Thank you for teaching us about wildfire prevention. It was very helpful... I learned that I should make a plan with my family. I have already started to talk to them and we agreed that it would be smart to make a plan.”
- Middle School Student
They have already garnered over 70 followers on their Instagram account and reached over 1,700 community members through the distribution of educational virtual flyers, but the Wildfire team is still striving to scale up their impact on the community by planning to meet with local fire departments, educate local businesses, grow their social media following, attend future CCAP meetings, and work with nursing homes to prepare for wildfires.
Students have been posting wildfire preparedness information on their Instagram account
During a year where California saw record-breaking wildfires ravage the state, the students in this LEAD group not only fully understood the salience and significance of their topic, but also exemplified true resilience as they overcame barriers with distance learning to educate and protect their community. As wildfires become more severe and frequent due to a warming climate, it is vital that more students are empowering their communities with the knowledge, tools, and resources to support climate resilience.
The SEI Team
Environmental education and workforce development experts share stories from the field