Prioritizing Environmental Education with Jason Morris

Environmental education not only makes students better stewards of our planet it also makes them happier and more successful. There are ample studies at the local and program level suggesting that environmental education improves the academic performance and socio-emotional health of children. Nonetheless, the U.S. public school system has been reluctant to prioritize it. Legislation has resulted in an increased focus on math and English language arts and left little time for environmental education programs. On top of this, environmental education remains inadequately funded and without a national framework to drive implementation and evaluation in the U.S. public school system.

We spoke with Jason Morris, the Senior Program Officer for the Environmental Education Program at Pisces Foundation. Jason leads the Foundation’s grantmaking in environmental education and implements strategies to shape environmental education initiatives nationally. He believes that the U.S. school system must place a greater value on environmental education if they are to optimize learning outcomes for all students and that the federal government can do more to support schools by elevating environmental education as a critical component to every child’s education. However, without a public and private partnership between philanthropy and the federal and state funding streams, environmental education will struggle to scale.

“When the U.S. public school system prioritizes environmental education, it can get funded, and all kids benefit.”

Jason Morris

Jason is uniquely qualified to evaluate and analyze the environmental education field. In addition to his role at Pisces, he has spent much of his career providing hands-on environmental education programs for children and teens. As executive vice president of NatureBridge, Jason oversaw all aspects of NatureBridge’s residential programs in six national parks across the country. He has experienced first-hand the systemic challenges facing environmental education programs, including but not limited to, ensuring that there is sufficient funding and that programs are reaching the high needs of students and schools.

Despite these challenges, Jason loves what he is seeing at the program and local level in communities across the country. Jason takes what he calls an “abundance mind frame” when thinking about environmental education around the U.S. and believes that “we are doing very well in terms of the presence of environmental education opportunities.” However, he recognizes that this often does not translate into opportunities for all students. Jason believes the U.S. needs to do a better job of shaping those opportunities in terms of equity, cultural relevance, and how this translates into career opportunities.

“Oftentimes [environmental education] is perceived to be for kids and school districts with time and money to engage in multiple learning experiences, and there are kids and schools who simply don’t have that,” Jason states.

He believes the experience students have at school, in non-profit programs and within their community, are the foundation to building a strong environmental education ecosystem. But, he states that currently, this ecosystem lacks the “connective tissue” necessary to hold it all together. Jason feels the field of environmental education still has some evolving to do and points out six elements Pisces is supporting that come from research on the elements most mature and well-developed fields have:

1.     A shared narrative

2.     A knowledge base of credible evidence

3.     Equity and relevance to a broad swath of the population

4.     Advocacy at the state and federal levels

5.     Adequate funding

6.     Standards of practice

At Pisces Foundation, Jason’s work revolves around identifying and assisting “backbone organizations” through funding and network building. “We are trying to create those connections between the key nodes of strategic work because a school partnering with a non-profit, partnering with a community-based partner is stronger than any three of those things by themselves.” Jason and Pisces are actively looking for more backbone organizations that can uplift the field and specifically ones that can be the “connective tissue” between schools, programs, and the community at the state and national level.

If you are an educator, program provider, or community-based partner, please reach out to Green Guardians and let us know what your mission, values, and needs are. As Jason emphasized while discussing the need to increase networking, “we need to aggregate this work so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Learn more about Pisces Foundation and the organizations and networks Jason highlighted in the relevant links below.

Relevant Links

Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE) – AEOE is a statewide organization that was created by and for outdoor and environmental educators. It is the California affiliate for the North American Association of Environmental Educators (NAAEE), its mission is to advance the impact of environmental and outdoor education in California.

Blue Sky Funders Forum – The Blue Sky Funders Forum is a national collaborative that helps members learn, connect, and grow philanthropy that supports the many benefits of environmental literacy and stronger connections to nature. We are a community united in the belief that when people have meaningful experiences outdoors their quality of life, health and social wellbeing improve, and in turn, their communities become stronger and more sustainable.

ChangeScale – ChangeScale builds cohesiveness, effectiveness, and prominence in the field of environmental education throughout the San Francisco and Monterey Bay Area. It works collaboratively to achieve a greater collective impact on environmental education outcomes than any one organization could achieve independently.

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) – NAAEE uses the power of education to advance environmental literacy and civic engagement to create a more equitable and sustainable future. It works with educators, policymakers, and partners throughout the world.

NatureBridge – NatureBridge’s mission is to connect young people to the wonder and science of the natural world, igniting self-discovery and inspiring stewardship of our planet. Through overnight, hands-on environmental science programs, it takes more than 35,000 children and teens each year into our national parks to explore the outdoors, connect with their peers, discover themselves, and develop a lasting relationship with the environment.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – NOAA’s Environmental Literacy Program provides grants and in-kind support for programs that educate and inspire people to use Earth system science to improve ecosystem stewardship and increase resilience to environmental hazards.

Pisces Foundation – The Pisces Foundation provides grants to nonprofit organizations to accelerate to a world where people and nature thrive together. It supports early movers, innovative ideas, and bold leaders and organizations, adapting based on what it learns.

Rethink Outside – Coordinated by Blue Sky Funders Forum and informed by the voices of hundreds of stakeholders and allies, the new shared narrative leverages and shares communications research, tools, and strategies to tell a new story and engage new partners to bring the promise of healthy communities to all. Together, we aspire to create a future where everyone has positive experiences outdoors and shares the joy, health, growth, and sense of community that comes with it.

Ten Strands – Ten Strands is the leading field catalyst and “backbone organization” in the state of California and the founder of CAELI. It partners with the state government, local education agencies, providers of environmental education, community members, and funders to make environmental literacy a reality for all California’s K–12 students.

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