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July 15, 2013

Planting Seeds: Our Environmental Education Experience with First Graders

Every Wednesday morning this semester, Rachel Roenfeldt and Molly Sullivan, ventured off campus to John Mack Elementary for our Joint Educational Project (JEP) assignment. JEP is service-learning initiative that connects USC students to schools in the community. Students adapt curriculum from one of their university courses to teach in a local classroom. On the first day, along with two classmates, we walked into Mr. Cherriokee’s first grade class where we were greeted by 26 eager students very curious about the new visitors in their classroom. Little did we know, this was the beginning of a joyful experience for all of us. Over the next eight weeks, we educated the first grade students about environmental issues and concepts, including water usage, recycling and the benefits of healthy soil. Although we faced obstacles along the way, our JEP experience was both rewarding and eye-opening.

Classroom Whiteboard (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Classroom Whiteboard (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

At first, adapting our ENST 320A syllabus to a first grade level seemed like a daunting task as we were learning the concepts simultaneously. We employed methods such as discussions, small group activities and   visual aids as opposed to dense lecture. In order to keep the language and explanations age-appropriate, we covered simple broad topics. The general outline of our lessons consisted of a KWL chart, introduction to the day’s topic, several hands-on activities, and a wrap-up. The KWL chart, standing for Know, Want-to-know and Learn, is a commonly used tool in elementary education, which helps assess student knowledge before and after lessons. At the beginning of each session, we completed the “learn” section of the chart in order to recap the previous week’s topic. We ended by completing the “know” and “want-to-know” columns in relation to the next week’s topic. This allowed us to tailor our lessons to the student’s knowledge and inquires. We quickly discovered that their perception of the environment was rather limited (as would be expected for six and seven-year-olds) to plants, animals, trees and, their favorite, rainbows.

One of the key components of our lessons was small group discussion. Each of us would teach at a separate table with six students. Focusing direct attention on a small group made it easier for them to grasp concepts, stay engaged and get to know us on a more personal level. For example, during our lesson on the water cycle, we colored in and labeled a diagram of the water cycle and discussed vocabulary in our groups. Individually, we each had our own teaching style, which allowed us to adjust to different students and their needs. The small group dynamic enabled us to form relationships with the students at our tables, which in turn made the students feel more comfortable (and sometimes way too comfortable!) around us. In addition, shy students were more willing to participate and ask questions in smaller groups than in the larger class setting. We encouraged their interaction and input by engaging them directly and preventing the more talkative students from dominating the group (Arbeau, Copelan & Weeks 2010).

In order to teach the more difficult and complex topics, we found using visual aids such as pictures to be highly effective. Due to their age and grade level, students had not been previously exposed to a lot of scientific vocabulary and language. This would have proved to be a larger obstacle if not for the use of pictures in our lessons. The students responded well to the visual aids and enjoyed seeing what new photos we had every week. Mr. Cherriokee even kept some of the visual aids to display in the classroom.

We built upon the use of these aids by performing hands-on activities in our small groups. Instead of standing at the front of the classroom and lecturing about environmental issues, we created activities that brought world issues into their classroom. For example, with our lesson on water pollution, each student was given a cup of water and was then asked to “pollute” the water using paper, vegetable oil, and dirt. Individually, the cups did not appear to be contaminated. However, when we poured all the students’ cups into one container, they could see the accumulation of pollutants in the water supply. This activity also informed them about personal responsibility in connection to the environment.

Through each of our lessons, we taught the students that they had the power to affect the environment, both positively and negatively. By exposing them to issues such as water shortage, food waste and pollution, they could understand the direct connection that humans have on the well-being of the environment. Even though a lot of our examples of human impact were negative, we stressed the fact that the students could help the environment through positive actions. Throughout the course of the semester, we engaged the students in a recycling competition. Broken up by table groups, students would bring in recycling from home as well as from school lunches and snacks. Despite the fact that this was a competition, the students recognized the importance of recycling and realized that they as individuals and as a classroom, they could make a difference. Another activity that we did was plant a bean plant and tracked its growth. Because the students were responsible for the health and growth of their plants, they developed a sense of ownership and pride. Activities such as these promoted a sense of environmental stewardship and made seemingly large concepts and issues relatable to first graders.

Bags from Recycling Competition (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Bags from Recycling Competition (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Environmental education and curriculum is still new to schools. There is little information in schools about environmental issues and concepts, despite the fact that the EPA issued the National Environmental Education Act in 1990 (EPA 1990).  This document recognized the need to inform students on environmental issues, however, the act was merely symbolic because it lacked requirements and actions. Only recently has there been a push to require environmental and climate change curriculum in schools, with the release of The New Generation Science Standards  on April 9th of this year. Developed by Department of Education officials in California and across the country, it identifies climate change as a key concept necessary for students to grasp. Each state will decide whether or not to adopt the new standards. Currently, it is estimated that only one-third of American students learn about climate change and other environmental issues (Watanabe 2013).

Because of the lack of environmental education in elementary schools, our students at John Mack most likely would not have been exposed to important environmental information without our  influence and presence in their classroom through JEP. It is extremely important to educated children at the young age about the environment and their impact on its health in order to encourage changes in their lifestyle and daily actions. Becoming more aware of the natural world and the responsibility each human has on it at an early age increases the likelihood that they will continue to make environmentally-friendly decisions and choices throughout the rest of their life. This will help to expand the environmental movement and continue the education and promotion of proper actions and responsibility on an individual scale.

Student Bean Plant (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Student Bean Plant (Photo by Molly Sullivan, April 2013).

Even though we taught our first graders at John Mack Elementary about the environment, we exposed them to skills beyond academics – an unintended bonus. Through our relationship with the students, we showed them the joys of education and further inspired to question and understand the environment around them. Studies have shown that if adults are educated and are enthusiastic about learning, their students will show the same interest (Long & Hoy 2006). As older students coming into the classroom, we were role models to encourage higher education, simply by being in college (Hamre & Pianta 2001). For some, this was the first time that they had heard of college; one student thought that USC was a beach! In addition, the students were incredibly excited to see us each week and grew more and more attached. The personal relationship that we formed between the students not only affected the outcome of our lessons and program, it also affected us as teachers. Every week, we looked forward to seeing the students’ enthusiasm, curiosity and youthful energy. We learned to think on our feet, how to plan lessons effectively and manage a group of sometimes (well maybe more than sometimes) rowdy first graders. Through our lessons and explanations of the concepts, we in turn learned and solidified our own knowledge about water and soil sustainability.  Overall, JEP was an overwhelmingly positive experience for everyone involved.

This post was written by Molly Sullivan and Rachel Roenfeldt.

 Works Cited

Arbeau, Kimberley A., Robert J. Coplan, and Murray Weeks. “Shyness, teacher-child Relationships, and Socio-emotional Adjustment in Grade 1.” International Journal of Behavioral Development 34.3 (2010): 259-69. Web.

Hamre, Bridget K., and Robert C. Pianta. “Early Teacher-Child Relationships and the Trajectory of Children’s School Outcomes Through Eighth Grade.” Child Development 72 (2001): 625-38. Web.

Long, Joyce F., and Anita W. Hoy. “Interested Instructors: A Composite Portrait of Individual Differences and Effectiveness.” Teaching and Teacher Education 22.3 (2006): 303-14. Web.

“National Environmental Education Act.” US Environmental Protection Agency. US Environmental Protection Agency. Web.

Watanabe, Teresa. “New teaching standards delve more deeply into climate change.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 9 Apr. 2013. Web.,0,6820335.story.


California Education: Growing Class Size and Shrinking Funding

Filed under: JEP,Service Learning — Tags: , , , — lecollin @ 11:16 am

With growing class sizes and limited funding, California’s education system is a hot topic in news today because of budget cuts hurting arts and science education in the classrooms. Students face fewer resources and supplemental excursions that normally better their education experience.

Image Credit: (“Measure a – how we got here “) The graph illustrates the large budget cuts that continue to trouble California’s public education system.

Image Credit: (“Measure a – how we got here “) The graph illustrates the large budget cuts that continue to trouble California’s public education system.

This semester, we have decided to bring the excursions to a local first grade classroom at John Mack Elementary School through JEP. Once a week, we adapt material from our Water and Soil Sustainability course to enjoyable material that first graders can easily comprehend and retain.

In order to adapt our educational material to a first grade level, we have adopted the use of hands on and visual activities. These types of activities have been proven to stimulate student interest, engagement, and retention in learning material, which is our goal as we teach the students about science.

 Image Credit: ("Standards for California," 2003) Here list some of the science standards first graders are expected to know by the end of the year.  We try to adapt our lessons accordingly to satisfy some of these requirements.

Image Credit: (“Standards for California,” 2003) Here list some of the science standards first graders are expected to know by the end of the year. We try to adapt our lessons accordingly to satisfy some of these requirements.

Since the students are still at a low level of reading and writing simply due to their age, pictures and visual aids have been integral to our teaching. For some students in the class, English is their second language, so visuals help them even more because they can see what we are teaching, even if they do not fully understand what we are saying. We have noticed that when we use visuals, it is easier to reference what we have previously taught, and the students immediately recall the pictures and experiments we performed.

However, using specific keywords in our lessons is still crucial to the student’s understanding of complex issues. Rather than going into “wordy” discussions about concepts that are difficult for even us to understand, we reiterate 2-4 words throughout the lesson so that the main concepts stick with the students. Since they only have to remember these few key words that are repeated multiple times throughout the hour, it is easier for them to remember what they learned the previous week.

 Image Credit: (Vargas,2009) This  image demonstrates the inequalities of teacher to student ratios children in California when compared to the US average and other states. Although the average in California is 20.9:1 our classroom at John Mack has a 25:1 student to teacher ratio much higher than even the California average.

Image Credit: (Vargas,2009) This image demonstrates the inequalities of teacher to student ratios children in California when compared to the US average and other states. Although the average in California is 20.9:1 our classroom at John Mack has a 25:1 student to teacher ratio much higher than even the California average.

One of the major problems with the Los Angeles School District is the large class sizes. With four of us teaching the first graders, we are able to give each of them individual attention. Students feel as though we are concentrated only on them which encourages them to participate more, and engage in the activities.

Using hands-on learning tools engages students by making the material more interesting and relatable. (Holstermann , Grube & Bögeholz, 2009) By being physically involved in the learning process, the students are able to make connections between what we are learning at the table, and what they are doing in their lives outside of the classroom. When we show them how trash pollutes the ocean, they say things like “I’ve seen trash in the ocean!” or even “I picked trash up off the street yesterday so it would not get to the ocean!” They can also get a serious image of the consequences of pollution or the rewards of agriculture. Stimulating students in hands-on activities engages them and helps them relate as well as remember what they have learned.

The most rewarding and influential aspect of our role in teaching the students is acting as their mentors. Scholars argue that attention and retention problems are most intense for minorities students, resulting in severe dropout rates (Fredricks,Blumenfeld,Paris,2004). Being in an urban, minority area, many students have parents who perhaps may have not graduated high school and are thought they will do the same, but we refuse to give up hope on these kids. By breaking into small groups, we build an emotional connection with the students. Working on projects together creates a reliance and attachment to one another, as well as a sense of accountability. The students try their best to impress us, and make us proud, which is a skill we hope will continue with them even after we are gone. We might be their first encounter with college at all, especially with a college student, and we must make a great impression to inspire them to set their goals high. While working on projects in class, questions come up, such as, “What is USC … is it a beach?” or “Are you a parent?” While these questions may seem absurd to us, they just show how little interaction these students have had with college students, especially outside of their minority bubble. Students can’t set their goals on college if they don’t even know what college is. By crossing these boundaries, we give the students the option of learning what college is, and possibly pursuing that path. We want to be sure the students have every opportunity to have the best life possible.

This post was written by Sarah Wood and Jennica Wragg.

Works Cited

 Holstermann , N., Grube, D., & Bögeholz, S. (n.d.). Hands-on activities and their influence on students’ interest. (2009). doi: DOI 10.1007/s11165-009-9142-0

Jennifer A. Fredricks, Phyllis C. Blumenfeld and Alison H. Paris

Review of Educational Research , Vol. 74, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 59-109

Published by: American Educational Research Association

Article Stable URL:

Vargas, M. (2009, 12 1). How do 37 students fit into 20 seats? doing the failed math of my oversized english class. Retrieved from

California State Board of Education, (2003). Standards for california pubic education: Kindergarten through grade twelve. Retrieved from website:

Measure a – how we got here. (2012, 12 19). Retrieved from


Service Learning and Progressive Science Education

Filed under: JEP,Service Learning — Tags: , , — lecollin @ 11:10 am

The Joint Educational Program (JEP) is an organization that offers USC students the opportunity to become involved in the local community. This is done through several service learning programs such as the Readers Plus Program, the Literacy Project, and many more. One of JEP’s programs, known as mini teams, places college students in an elementary school setting to teach an adapted college class–we were part of this program.

We were assigned to teach an introductory course on Environmental Studies to a group of twenty five children from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade at Foshay Learning Center. Adapting an upper division college course for grade-school level instruction was difficult because the students lacked a strong scientific background; however, we were able to illustrate important topics (hydrologic cycle, soil, energy, etc.) using basic concepts and dynamic activities. Another challenge that we faced was the fact that our class was composed of English as a Second Language (ESL) students who were taking their first non-ESL class. Upon request from the teacher Ms. Fuentes, we incorporated a plethora of scientific vocabulary into our lessons in order to expand the students’ word base. In regards to this we made sure to take extra care in spelling the words and breaking them down for easier comprehension. During the final review of the course, it became clear that while the kids were able to understand and explain concepts, it was still a little hard for them to pronounce and spell the new words. The final lesson would have been an interesting spectacle for anyone: students shouting out all sorts of pronunciations, mangled word hybridizations, and us trying to manage the cacophony of vocabulary.

In our development of class activities we incorporated new methods of science education, of which many have been already used in California schools. This new approach emphasizes exposing grade-school students to science at earlier ages and developing argumentative skills. Carl Wieman (2012) in his paper on improving science education noted the importance of “strenuousness” in classroom activities. His claim is that passive listening and simple repetitive tasks produce little learning. An article written by Elizabeth Mitchell and William Sumrall (2013) coincides with Wieman’s thoughts when it claims that hands-on methods of inquiry encourage greater knowledge retention over time. These methods create a learning environment that develops students’ scientific curiosity and knowledge of their surroundings; an approach such as this one opposes traditional teaching methods that only focus on concept learning and problem-solving skills. Based on the principles of challenge and touch we did our best to develop activities that required creative, critical thinking, and included a hands-on element. One such activity was a demonstration on the hydrologic cycle in which students played the parts of the cycle’s different stages. Students were able to touch and feel the clouds (sponges), melting ice (candy), and see the hydrologic cycle in action. When asked about the cycle after the demonstration, students showed greater understanding in comparison to the lecture alone.

In our course planning we were advised to follow the Science Content Standards for California Public Schools. We opted to tailor things more to our class situation due to the “stiffness” of the standards’ protocol and the diversity of grade levels we had in our classroom. Upon examining the standards for kindergarten to grade 12, we observed that public school students are not formally exposed to environmental science until high school or college (Bruton et. al 2009). In our class some of the older kids had previous knowledge of a few environmental concepts, but in general the class was in need of a stronger scientific and environmental foundation. In order to introduce more science and environmental education in the public school system, the government of California has implemented the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), a curriculum made up 85 teaching units that integrates “science and history-social science to academic standards” (Education and the Environment Initiative 2011). The EEI curriculum offers a model to prepare grade-school students to become the nation’s future green scientists.  Early exposure to environmental studies/science and the development of an understanding of environmental concepts are vital in addressing future environmental problems. Therefore it is a necessity to incorporate environmental studies/science into the United States’ national school standards. As stipulated by the California Environmental Protection Agency, “[…] more can and should be done to understand our relationship with the environment, and we believe the best place to begin is in California’s classrooms” (Environmental and Educational Initiative 2011).

Our service learning experience with JEP was a proving ground for experimental science education methods. For us, this grand experiment proved tremendously successful. The tactile experiences and dynamic lectures resulted in a reinforcement of academic concepts, greater comprehension, increased interest, and improved knowledge retention. Creative thinking exercises added an extra dimension of thought to subject material requiring students to contemplate on what they learned and its application. We believe that the Environmental Studies JEP program is crucial for filling the science gap in public schools. It is our hope that by exposing students to science in a manner that is engaging and entertaining fosters an appreciation and love for it that may someday lead to deeper pursuits in the scientific realm. Both of us are thankful for the opportunity to give back to the community and we are eternally grateful for this experience

This post was authored by Kieran Bartholow and Beatriz Lopez

Work’s Cited

“California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts”. Education and the Environment Initiative.      California, 2011. < from Classroom-Based Research”. Science & Technology Education Library. 2007.

“Joint Educational Program”. University of Southern California. 2013. <>

NSTA Board of Directors. “Environmental Education: Introduction”. National Science Teacher    Association.  2003. <>v/education>

Ed. Bruton, Sheila, and Faye Ong. “Science Content Standards for California Public Schools:    Kindergarten through Grade 12”. California Department of Education. June 2009. <>

Ed. Erduran Sibel, and Maria Pilar Jimenez-Aleixandre. “Argumentation in Science Education:     Perspective from Classroom-Based Research”. Science & Technology Education Library. 2007. <>

Mitchell, Elizabeth, and William Sumrall. “Assessment Comparisons Between Lecture-Based or

Inquiry Emphasized Teaching: What Is Fair?” Journal of the Mississippi Academy of

Sciences 58.1 (2013): Mississippi Academy of Sciences, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.

Wieman, Carl. “Applying New Research to Improve Science Education.” Issues in Science and

Technology 29.1 (2012): 25-32. Issues in Science and Technology, 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2013. <>.