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Commentary: A caterpillar curriculum — the importance of environmental education in K-12 urban classrooms

Guest contributor | September 1, 2016

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Josh Brown's caterpillar

(Courtesy: Joshua Brown)

By Joshua Brown

At the beginning of every school year, my students ask me what I did over summer vacation. This year, I have an answer that will surely mesmerize them: I cleaned caterpillar poop. 

Let me elaborate.  

I was fortunate enough to participate in a weeklong professional development fellowship to the Yanayacu Biological Research Station in Napo Province, Ecuador, to study the effects of climate change on caterpillars. The trip was sponsored and organized by the Earthwatch Institute, an organization whose mission is to engage citizens of all ages in the scientific research process by expanding their awareness of environmental issues. I was part of a team of K-12 educators who assisted climate change researchers as they collected, cataloged and studied the pupation periods of different species of caterpillars in one of the most bio-diverse cloud forests in the world. 

Our findings were pretty grim. On average, the pupation periods of these little furry guys are rapidly accelerating because of temperature increase, meaning they’re turning from caterpillars to moths much faster than before. While this has myriad negative implications for their ecosystem, it also serves as a strong indictment of the destructive effects of global climate change. 

Prior to my Earthwatch Fellowship, I gave little thought to the minute environmental interactions unfolding around me daily. While trekking through the Ecuadorian jungle, I gained a profound appreciation for caterpillars, the negative effects climate change has on their habitat and the power of citizen science programs. (I also learned that caterpillars produce large amounts of poop!)  

Citizen science is one of the most effective ways to increase environmental literacy. The idea is simple: anyone, with the guidance of a professional scientist, can participate in and contribute to the scientific research process in meaningful ways. This symbiotic relationship between researcher and volunteer provides increased data collection and manpower for the scientist, and an unforgettable, empowering experience for the volunteer. In the case of my colleagues and me, the experience also meant innumerable teaching opportunities for our students. 

Josh Brown vertical with leaf

(Courtesy: Joshua Brown)

I teach in the San Fernando Valley, a Los Angeles suburb punctuated by tract homes and strip malls. For many of my students, meaningful interaction with nature is difficult given nature’s scarcity and lack of accessibility: 6th and 7th graders commute between their homes and school through a sea of concrete and a web of power lines. The result is an often total disconnection between themselves and the natural world, one that is especially treacherous when I try to teach environmental education.

For example, when teaching about water conservation, I quickly discovered that most of my students were entirely ignorant of the water cycle. They were unaware of the water source in our local mountains or the (cemented over) tributary that runs mere feet from our school campus. I realized that my students’ connection to their natural world directly correlate with their level of environmental stewardship. Put another way, they were more likely to care about nature if they understood it better.  In order to cultivate the next generation of conservation-minded citizens, it is imperative to empower and connect students to nature. 

One of the most poignant lessons I learned during my Earthwatch fellowship was that experiential education is powerfully galvanizing. Citizen science-themed field trips to local nature preserves or parks could provide students with the real-world experiences to contextualize their learning. For example, the Earthwatch Institute offers school-based excursions at neighborhood parks to assist researchers studying various environmental issues in urban environments. Citizen science field trips would foster a more ecologically literate citizenry by giving urban students opportunities to interact with nature in meaningful ways. 

Evidence-based, standards-driven environmental education curriculum can be incorporated into a variety of subjects as well. In one of my post-Earthwatch creative writing lessons, I ask my students to describe the physical attributes of caterpillars and moths found in both the Ecuadorian rainforest and in our local community. Supplemented with various photos and videos I took in the field (including some awesome shots of caterpillar feces, which will definitely be a hit with my middle schoolers!), we’ll learn about the life cycle and challenges caterpillars face in their habitat. While my goal is for my students to write with more descriptive language, I also hope they gain an increased appreciation for the complexities and beauty of the natural world around them. 

Future generations face unprecedented environmental challenges, including global warming, peak oil and dwindling fresh water supplies. In the face of such issues, environmental education and citizen science programs can collectively instill an understanding and empathy for the natural world.  It is in all of our best interests that our nation’s urban students develop a profound connection to and appreciation for nature. 

Joshua Brown teaches 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade self-contained special education at Holmes Middle School in Northridge. He is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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