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Going Green: Environmentalism in Linked Learning Pathways

April 22, 2021 | Ava Marinelli

Young people are the driving force behind countless activist movements across the globe, including the movement for climate justice. “Our generation is going to be the one to be handed the world next,” explains Tattianna Saldivar, a senior at Carson High School’s Environmental Science, Engineering, and Technology (ESET) pathway in Los Angeles Unified School District. “We’re going to be the ones who are able to say, ‘Hey, we probably should look at this way differently because it has a larger impact than what you guys may think.’” At ESET and other environmentally focused pathways across the Linked Learning movement, Tattianna and her peers can discover through real, relevant college and career exploration exactly how to take a new perspective on environmentalism, agriculture, and green engineering.

The Linked Learning approach creates the conditions for students to be leaders in their schools and communities through rigorous academics, career-technical education, work-based learning, and comprehensive student supports. Not only do students in Linked Learning pathways earn more high school credits, graduate at increased rates, and enroll in college at higher rates than their peers in traditional high school, they also demonstrate stronger communication, collaboration, and informational literacy skills that form the foundation for strong leadership. By supporting students in historically marginalized communities, Linked Learning helps to foster home-grown leaders and advocates like Tattianna who are ready to take on the challenges that face the next generation.

Hands-on, relevant learning opportunities are a key part of high-quality Linked Learning. At ESET, this learning takes place across two industry-quality laboratories, an acre and a half of edible forest, and in partnership with community organizations like the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, explains founding teacher Tammy Bird. “One of the things we really set up in ESET was a lot of experiential learning, a lot of hands-on learning. At ESET, our motto is ‘We do.’” Senior Alyssa Jackson shares one of her most memorable projects. “We build remote control models of the Toyota Mirai, which is their hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. We compete in races, where you drive around a racetrack for three hours and whoever has the most laps, that's how you're ranked.” In the past, ESET students have been ranked high enough to compete at an international level. Alyssa hasn’t made it to the international circuit yet, “but even though we still lost, it was an incredible experience being around all those racers and it was a great moment,” she reflects.

ESET isn’t the only Linked Learning pathway in Los Angeles tackling pressing environmental issues. In Boyle Heights, students at the STEAM pathway in Roosevelt High School are connecting the chemical and environmental sciences they’re learning about in their pathway directly to their lived experiences. This year, students worked in their 10th grade chemistry, English and social studies courses to research the history of lead poisoning from the Exide Plant near the Boyle Heights community. They identified community groups that are tackling the issue and used technology skills to create PSA posters combining what they learned about the science and community resources in an educational campaign against lead poisoning. Raquel Olvera, STEAM’s English teacher, reflects on how this particular project resonated with students: “Students are like, ‘Oh wait, my house was cleaned, or wait, my dad worked there or oh wait, my sister, when she was a kid went to the hospital because she was sick.’ A lot of our students actually had their homes cleaned because of lead poisoning and because of lead in the soil.”

200 miles north of ESET and Roosevelt High School, students at Woodlake High School’s Academy of Sustainable Agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley also leverage their community resources to bring engaging career learning opportunities to students: “I send them out into the community to see what sort of agricultural-related science projects they can come up with,” says Renee Thornberg, the agriculture sciences teacher. “And we go everywhere from water runoff to plant science, we have students who do different things in animal science, and then we do have some really good projects with shop kids. They look at different areas of agriculture mechanics that interest them and do some projects there.” Renee also partners with Monrovia Nurseries, a local community organization, to develop students’ work habits and skills. “We have actually utilized their employee evaluation sheet to evaluate our own students to show them these are the skill sets, not just working with technological stuff, but just the soft skills, the industry skills that we really stress,” she explains. “And it's kind of an eye opener for both them and us that we're not just educators of a certain academic standard, but we're also there to help support them grow as individuals and future members of our community.”

In Oakland, students at the Sustainable Urban Design Academy at Castlemont High School have worked with the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone to transform a vacant lot in the community. Students surveyed the community in partnership with their local council member, worked in their algebra class to analyze the survey results, and created designs for the space based on the community’s input. “Students were also asked by the council member to present at a community planning meeting. And then from that, the Black Cultural Zone kind of ran with some of the students' ideas to put a pop-up farmer's market on the site before real development happened,” shares pathway lead Lillian Jacobson. Some of her students now intern at the farmers market they helped design, even helping to distribute food during COVID-19. “Young people are often really overlooked as the drivers of community change when they're the ones that are going to be living in our communities in the future,” Lillian reflects. “And they often have really brilliant insights about how public spaces are used and how our communities function, and just are not thought of as designers when they really should be.”

In San Bernardino, students have the opportunity to combine environmental sciences, technology, and building trades at CORE Academy in Arroyo Valley High School, a Linked Learning Gold certified pathway. In Tim Behler’s CTE courses, students are exposed to green energy, green technology, and building trade basics. They also prepare for and take the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) assessment, which allows students to receive an industry certificate in alternative energy field. By their senior year, Behler’s students are installing solar panels for low-income community members in partnership with Grid Alternatives. “I take students out on job sites,” Behler explains. “It's usually a two-day internship. Students learn all aspects of installing Solar Plant Asset Performance Management, residential photovoltaic system. In addition to being prepared for the NABCEP, they also have real working experience installing and working with their hands.”

Through these hands-on projects, Linked Learning students have become key leaders in community efforts to further sustainability. “I just think this is such an opportunity to reimagine what education could be,” says Lillian Jacobson. “We need schools and communities to be working together to actually effect change. And as much as we can have projects where students are working in the community and a community is pushing into the school, I think that is what is going to sustain education in the long run.” When Don Thornberg’s students present to community partners through work-based learning projects, he often remarks that they’re better presenters than adults: “When I get to hear them stand up in front of a group of adults or an auditorium full of grown professionals and speak, and speak very, very well, and be comfortable doing that, it's really makes me step back and just go, ‘Wow, these kids are so far ahead of where I was in high school and so many other kids that it's really amazing.’”

Students also graduate with industry-specific knowledge that allows them to enter higher education fully prepared for their studies or start in a career field they’re passionate about. As Carmen Mercer, pathway lead at CORE Academy explains, “We want to make the stuff that they're learning in our classes directly applicable to their lives. When we look at where are the majority of the jobs, the green technologies and the water conservation and all of those kinds of things have a huge impact in our area specifically.” She’s even had students graduate from CORE Academy early because they’ve lined up jobs in the green energy sector, thanks to the connections they built in their pathway.

In preparing a generation of sustainability leaders and advocates, pathway leads hope to also foster deeper equity in their communities. “We're developing a local economic thinking generator in the context of the green economy and thinking about what does equity, and reconciliation, and ultimately, reparations look like in terms of our populations and who we're looking to serve, and melding that with what should be climate justice,” explains Tim Bremner, college and career pathway coach for Sustainable Urban Design Academy. “It should be an equity-centered, anti-racist effort to redistribute power through social and economic well-being and programming.”