Building Capacity for Environmental Literacy

Educators and teachers have a wide range of responsibilities when it comes to implementing a classroom curriculum that meets both the needs of students and the school board. From creating engaging lessons to providing resources for new programs and initiatives, educators and teachers are doing a lot of extra work behind the scenes to make sure our students have the best education possible.  

When introducing environmental education and literacy into the school curriculum, one of the main challenges teachers and educators face is making sure there is equitable access for all students to learn in the natural environment. We had the opportunity to speak with Amity Sandage, the Environmental Literacy Coordinator for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (Santa Cruz COE), where she leads a countywide effort to promote environmental literacy for K–12 students. Amity has provided invaluable insight on making sure there is equitable access to natural spaces for all students while also helping to increase the capacity for teachers and educators in this space.  

“If we can build these experiences into the campus of the public schools so that every school has a green space, it would provide tremendous benefits and help advance environmental literacy.” 

Amity Sandage

Advancing environmental literacy has been at the core of Amity’s work with the Santa Cruz COE, and she has a unique understanding of the challenges for incorporating it into the school curriculum with experience in both the formal and non-formal sectors of education. She recognizes that equitable access for students is one of the first factors we must acknowledge to make systemic change, but she also notes that creating capacity-building tools for teachers is essential for success. 

Teachers face an enormous amount of pressure to make sure their instruction conforms to school curriculum and standards, all while maintaining high scores for performance records. This demanding environment forces many teachers to prioritize Math and English Language Arts over environmental education. Amity provides insight to teachers on how they can incorporate environmental literacy into their curriculum in a way that meets the needs of the teachers, the students, and the curriculum, and that is through an interdisciplinary approach. 

Introducing environmental literacy through an interdisciplinary approach addresses the issue of time since teachers are confronted with the reality that there is not enough instructional time in a day to introduce a new learning subject into their classroom. Environmental literacy programs can be a great tool in bringing together different subject areas in a way that connects to the world of the students. As Amity mentioned, there is an opportunity for students to apply their learning from environmental literacy to a multitude of subjects. She brought up the example of studying pesticides: If a student is studying an issue with pesticides, they can take that problem, research the history and its current impact, and understand the policies and governing body behind the decisions about it. From there, they can look at the data, the impact on the communities and ecosystems, and create an argument based on their findings. All of these actions connect to English Language Arts, Math, History, and Science in a way that is all-encompassing and advances environmental literacy. 

Although the interdisciplinary approach seems like an easy addition to the classroom curriculum, many teachers lack the resources and training opportunities to help them effectively integrate core subject areas with environmental literacy. Most teachers did not experience this type of integrated instructions themselves as students. Professional learning opportunities can provide teachers the opportunity to experience integrated learning through a student lens while building their own environmental literacy, which is what Amity and the Santa Cruz COE implement in their Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI).  

“It starts with a common understanding of what environmental literacy means among the group that is working towards it.” 

Another aspect that prevents teachers from incorporating environmental literacy is access to local resources. Many teachers lack the time to research resources, find programs to use with students, and identify phenomena in the local area that they can use within their learning. They need more outside support, which can come from the non-formal education sector in the local community. 

When community-based educators and classroom teachers collaborate, they can complement one another; both provide expertise and resources that the other needs. Working symbiotically on creating learning experiences for students that connect the classroom to field-based programs, they can effectively take advantage of each other’s resources. For example, classroom teachers can support non-formal educators in adapting lessons for multilingual students and can use assessments back in the classroom to make sure students are progressing in their learning. For teachers, one of the benefits of working with a community-based partner is the support they can provide for teachers to transition the classroom to an outdoor setting. The non-formal sector is bringing their knowledge of local phenomena that teachers may not know about, as well as access to real scientists and projects where students can engage and work with community-based partners.  

This collaboration allows teachers to feel more confident in introducing environmental literacy into their instruction and bringing their students outdoors for an engaging learning setting. Because of the firm structure of school systems, it is beneficial to have collaboration with environmental education partners who are more flexible in order to, “be drivers for innovation and pilot new programs that can lead to improvements in the school,” as Amity stated. When looking towards the ideal cooperation between the formal and non-formal sectors, it’s important to remember that what’s lacking for a lot of environmental education organizations is an insider’s understanding of the needs of the schools so that when they create programs, they are relevant and helpful to the school. A strong partnership can change that. 

“Part of the vision of ideal cooperation would be for the public school system to recognize the non-formal education system as an incredible resource for them and to really embed them into their visions and plans.” 

Amity Sandage

A great example of this cooperation at work is the success of a school-wide “Outdoor Education Week” that took place just this past year. Amity received a request from a principal who had an idea to host a week-long environmental education week for their entire school while their teachers had planning time for the shift to hybrid instruction. The principal wondered if the network of environmental education partners could create a program that could engage all K-8 students even in a 100% distance learning format. Amity reached out to environmental education partners who are at the core of the Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI) to collaborate on this project. The Santa Cruz COE collaborated with six of the organizations: Coastal Watershed Council, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Bird School Project, Santa Cruz Climate Speakers, and Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School. Together, the partners and educators built on distance learning lesson sequences that they had developed in the TLI; their goal was to make the lessons more interdisciplinary, integrate social-emotional learning, and include multiple real-world outdoor experiences for the students. Amity expressed that during distance learning, students can still “get off the computer and connect with the outdoors.” Since the non-formal and formal educators had a good partnership before the conception of the “Outdoor Education Week” and a common vision of environmental education integrated with core subjects, the execution of the event happened quickly and efficiently. 

When COVID-19 started to impact our school systems, the partners within the TLI got to work adapting all the K-12 draft lessons they had previously created and transformed them into distance learning sequences that the partners could then prepare for teachers to utilize. The lesson sequences have now been released on the TLI website for use by all interested K-12 teachers, and as teachers pilot them with students, Santa Cruz COE is collecting feedback to evaluate how well they connect to the school standards, as well as gathering data on the number and demographics of students served. 

The collaboration of formal and non-formal educators is the foundation for the success of programs such as the Santa Cruz County “Outdoor Education Week” because of the wide breadth of resources from all participants. Without the resources provided by both sectors, teachers would not have the capacity to create these engaging and innovative programs for their students. Environmental literacy is made easier for teachers to implement when there is a collaborative environment where partners and educators can work together to meet the standards and individual needs of each classroom. 

To learn more about Santa Cruz COE and the Teacher Learning Institute, visit: 

Relevant Links 

Coastal Watershed Council 

The Coastal Watershed Council is a dynamic and growing non-profit based in Santa Cruz, CA, working to transform the lower San Lorenzo River into a community destination by inspiring people to explore, enhance and protect this critical natural resource. 

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary 

Designated in 1992, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) is a federally protected marine area offshore of California’s central coast. Stretching from Marin to Cambria, the sanctuary encompasses a shoreline length of 276 miles and 6,094 square statute miles (4,601 nmi2) of the ocean, extending an average distance of 30 miles from shore. The sanctuary contains extensive kelp forests and one of North America’s largest underwater canyons and closest-to-shore deep ocean environments. 

Santa Cruz Climate Action Network 

Santa Cruz Climate Action Network (SCCAN) seeks to address the current Climate Change Emergency, recognizing that failure to act quickly will have devastating effects on future generations of humans and other life forms. SCCAN’s Santa Cruz Climate Speakers specialize in Climate Change education curriculum tailored to fit the needs of a specific class, with the goal to provide information, inspire dialogue, and motivate solutions. Their aim is to have all local students graduate with literacy in Climate Change.  

Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School 

At the Santa Cruz County Outdoor Science School, fifth and sixth-grade students experience a four- or five-day residential, hands-on science program. Students focus on investigating the rich coastal redwood forest ecosystem. Residential Outdoor Science School promotes care for self, others, and the natural world upon which our survival depends. We are committed to a safe and stimulating educational environment that nurtures an inquisitive mind. 

Santa Cruz County Teacher Leadership Institute 

The Teacher Leadership Institute for Science and Environmental Literacy is an innovative year-long program designed to support emerging teacher leaders by deepening knowledge, increasing confidence, and enhancing abilities to support the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards using the environment as a source of phenomena and connecting to the California Environmental Principles and Concepts. 

Santa Cruz COE TLI K-12 Lesson Sequences 

In 2020-21, Santa Cruz COE TLI launched the Relevant Environmental Action & Learning (REAL) Science Institute: Phase 2 of the Teacher Leadership Institute for Science and Environmental Literacy. They focused on reviewing and strengthening the lessons for teachers and students across 10 counties. 

Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History 

The Museum features educational, hands-on exhibits for children, families, and adults who are curious about the world they live in and the natural history of one of the most scenic locations on the California coast. Many locals know the Museum by the life-size gray whale statue, created in 1982, that rests near its entrance, between Tyrrell Park and Seabright State Beach. 

The Bird School Project 

The Bird School Project uses outdoor experiential learning to inspire and equip students and teachers to love, study, and steward their local environment. Limited school resources, transportation constraints, and a lack of time and support often prevent students from connecting directly with the environment. Bird School works to meet the need of utilizing outdoor locations such as schoolyards and backyards for learning and exploration opportunities. 

Tierra Pacifica Charter School 

Tierra Pacifica Charter School, formed in 1998, is a collaborative effort among parents, teachers, and community members committed to the development of the whole child. Through the establishment of a charter school, we believe we can work within the school system to create an innovative alternative model to traditional public elementary schools. Tierra Pacifica educates children from Kindergarten through 8th grade. The school is designed for families who want to take an active role in the education of their children, both in and out of the classroom. 

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