Local organizations offer climate education for Boston-area kids
As local leaders consider the need for a climate justice curriculum in Boston’s public schools, community groups across the region are filling the environmental education gap with grassroots, hands-on programming.
May 15, 2023
In East Boston’s Jeffries Point neighborhood, just two blocks off the East Boston Expressway, an unexpected spot of green stands out against the area’s urban landscape. The Eastie Farm, a community agriculture project launched in 2015 by a group of local nature enthusiasts, is headquartered here, with smaller gardens sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.
A state-of-the-art greenhouse imported from the Netherlands is the property’s centerpiece, offering shade and a place to care for young plants. But when it’s not being used for growing fruits, veggies and herbs, the greenhouse turns into a community hub for climate education.
During the school year, Eastie Farm’s network of teachers visits elementary and middle school classrooms to deliver hands-on lessons about the environmental changes students are witnessing in their community. When school isn’t in session, the greenhouse becomes the classroom, where students and their families can take advantage of Eastie Farm’s agriculture projects and environmental stewardship programs.
Jenny Wechter is a staff member at Eastie Farm, responsible for the organization’s youth programs. She believes presenting environmental issues in a relatable way for students is essential to preparing them for a future facing climate change.
“The purpose is to expose them to really community-based, context-relevant learning and inspiration about climate,” Wechter said.
Eastie Farm is one of many local community groups that have been working to promote climate literacy among Boston-area children. Now, the advancement of environmental education has also found an audience at City Hall. Boston city councilors recently proposed a strategy to expand climate education in the local public schools.
Filed by Councilor Gabriela Colletta in December 2022 and co-sponsored by Councilors Kendra Lara and Ruthzee Louijeune, the petition urges Boston Public Schools to establish a comprehensive environmental justice curriculum. The current curriculum, which was last updated in 2016, primarily teaches climate change in science courses, and lacks other related topics like equity and the implications of climate change-related stress on mental health.
With the hearing completed, city councilors are now awaiting a response from the public school curriculum officers. In the meantime, private organizations are attempting to fill what they see as gaps in the current curriculum.
Chris Knittel is an economics professor and head of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at MIT. There, he directs an initiative called Climate Action Through Education, or CATE, a program dedicated to promoting environmental education at the high school level. Knittel was inspired to launch an initiative after learning that a climate curriculum written by the Heartland Institute and promoted to thousands of high school educators in the region — including his father — featured misinformation and climate denialism. Many teachers, he discovered, were unequipped to deliver lessons on climate change.
“They would love to teach about climate change, but they don’t,” said Knittel. “They’re afraid to because they’re not subject matter experts. So that’s one big hurdle we hope to help with.”
Recognizing the limited time educators have to meet public school requirements, Knittel hired five high school curriculum developers to identify opportunities to teach about climate change in existing lesson plans. This means that instead of replacing old content with new lessons, Knittel’s program integrates climate education into the modules teachers have already built. To do this, CATE offers 30 lesson plans, each containing a slide deck for teachers, background readings and an assessment. The plans also come with guidance as to which state and federal standards each lecture meets.
“We’ve developed a curriculum that gives them hope,” Knittel said. “It’s not just doom and gloom. We want them to not only learn about [climate change] and its consequences but also feel a sense of agency so that they could actually have an impact and make a difference.”
This solutions-oriented approach to learning is what Lisa Borgetti, a science teacher at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield and curriculum developer for CATE, loves most about the program.
“A lot of the solutions are already there,” said Borgetti, who has pioneered environmental science studies at the academy since 2006. “There’s so many things that we know we need to do. We have the technology to get there; it’s about changing public perception.”
Currently, 15 high school teachers in Massachusetts are piloting the program, and Knittel hopes to soon see it expand into other communities and states. As a parent and a teacher, Borgetti feels that this is something school boards and lawmakers should consider, especially for public school teachers, who are required to follow the strict standards set by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.
“I have a school that will support me to go to a conference or to do work in the summer to develop ideas and programs,” said Borgetti. “Not everybody has that opportunity, and I think that’s where we’re falling short.”
CATE is not the only organization taking a closer look at how local public schools teach climate change. In May 2022, a study from the North American Association of Environmental Education placed Massachusetts in the lowest tier for the inclusion of climate change content in its school curricula. This means that for every million words featured in the state’s educational guidelines, only up to 50 relate to climate and environment.
Although the data doesn’t account for differences in climate curricula across the state’s districts, City Councilor Coletta believes the findings are cause for concern. During a council hearing in March, she cited this study as evidence of why local schools should do more to teach students about climate change.
“As Boston continues to see the growing effects of climate change, we need to work on finding and adopting solutions that support our vulnerability and help us with Boston’s climate resilience goals,” said Coletta in an email to the Scope. “We must all play an active role in creating conscious stewards of our land and citizens who care about the planet.”
Preparing for Green Careers
Meanwhile, City Councilor Lara wants to see “vocational, technical education that focuses on really making sure that young people are prepared to be part of the green industry in the city of Boston.”
“[Students] are not only having a say in influencing what we do, but they actually have the technical skills to be a part of it and be involved in it,” Lara said.
Equipping youth for careers in a green economy is a priority for Eastie Farm as well. Through its Climate Corps program, over 40 youth receive summer employment and environmental stewardship work experience, introducing them to climate-friendly jobs and presenting the green industry as a viable career option.
“We want them to see that green jobs are not just this little industry over here,” said Wechter. “We train people for green jobs by giving them one.”
Wechter’s work is paying off. Her team measures their success in students’ desire to continue being involved in climate activism long after participating in their programs. Some alumni of the Climate Corps have moved into careers in environmental advocacy.
Locally, these young people have made an impact as well. Last year’s cohort was chosen to care for newly-planted trees in East Boston, improving the green space for the urban neighborhood — a role they plan to take on again this summer.
“The tree canopy changed because of the work [the students] did,” said Heather O’Brien, a teacher for Eastie Farm’s in-school programs. “They could see that there is a difference there.”
In other parts of the city, the push for more climate education is coming from the students themselves. Spring Forward is a youth-led organization that was established in 2020 by three freshmen at the Windsor School in Fenway. Mina Subramanian, the partnership coordinator and Spring Forward leader, is a junior at the Windsor School. Subramanian and other members of the organization visit local schools and conduct climate change lessons in classes ranging from elementary to high school.
While starting the program was difficult, especially with the added challenges of COVID-19, since gaining credibility with teachers, Spring Forward has held over 200 workshops most of which have been at elementary schools.
“We don’t want anyone to leave our workshop feeling negative,” said Subramanian. “We want them to leave feeling empowered. So we do present the problem and don’t scale it down at all. But we definitely focus mainly on how they can solve it.”
At Spring Forward, the students become the teachers and use their personal experiences in the classroom to create engaging overviews and interactive activities. Subramanian believes that since she is a high school student, younger students respond well to her classroom visits. Speaking in other high schools can be challenging since the instructors are often the same age as the students but Subramanian hopes she can inspire her peers and remind them of their personal impact.
Subramanian and her coworkers recognize that some schools touch upon sustainability and smaller actions to help the environment. Spring Forward, however, is interested in presenting a greater solution.
“We try to focus on the larger, more systemic impacts of climate change and look at it from that global angle,” she said. “Instead of just recycling and not eating meat, we try to give students the big picture and show them they can take action.”
Some programs take a more local, place-based approach in bringing the environment into the classroom. Skye Fournier is the education program director at Change is Simple, a non-profit organization from Beverly. Fournier and her team work closely with teachers from Salem, Lynn, Revere and other local communities to teach children about climate. Her goal is to present climate change as a global issue, while helping young Massachusetts residents better understand the issues existing in their backyards.
“There’s an incinerator in Saugus and there’s an incinerator in Revere, and we’re teaching kids about what happens when we burn our trash, and the kids are living two miles from these incinerators,” said Fournier.
Like CATE, Change is Simple strategically makes lessons that correlate with preexisting academic plans. “[Climate education] is an underutilized tool that we should be doing more in the classroom because we can infuse all of these really important skills into the topic,” said Fournier. The organization also offers professional development lessons for teachers in hopes to improve climate literacy.
Making change requires taking action, especially at the state level. One group that attempts to do so is Our Climate, a youth focussed organization that influences young people to speak directly to legislators and build coalitions to combat climate change. Eben Bein, a former high school biology teacher, is the Massachusetts field and Education manager for Our Climate.
After teaching for a few years, Bein concluded that schools placed emphasis on passing standardized tests but were not preparing students for the real world. “Eventually it became clear to me that schools are not yet equipped and future-oriented enough to really be giving young people the most important skills that they need,” he said.
Bein explains that public schools are too cautious about avoiding controversial topics like climate change. Our Climate has written a bill that would lay out an alternative curriculum, it is currently being considered by the Massachusetts State House.
While Our Climate works to implement climate education into public school curricula, their efforts do not come without challenges. Funding remains a consistent obstacle in the attempts to cultivate environmentally mindful students. Bein as well as Knittel and O’Brien agree that the lack of financial support has delayed their work.
Bein, however, believes that the most significant limitation is the absence of pressure placed on the city. Specifically, he thinks Massachusetts officials are not held responsible for their role in climate education. Bein clarified that the Massachusetts legislature is exempt from public record and open meeting laws. This means that “the vast majority of bills that any advocates work on go to committee and then die there. There’s no track record for why they die there,” said Bein.
As programs like CATE, Spring Forward and Change is Simple continue to keep youth engaged in environmental studies, some advocates hope lawmakers will begin to take climate change topics more seriously in the meantime.
“We need to ask ourselves,” said Bein, “‘is algebra more or less important or of the same importance as stopping climate change when it comes to empowering the next generation?”