The Web of Life: Integrating SEL into Environmental Science Lessons.
Every year, the Suquamish tribe of Washington state gather together to pay respect to the man who is the namesake of the Emerald City, Chief Seattle. This leader is revered for many reasons, not the least of which is the indelible impact he has left on the modern environmental movement.
In the 1854 Seattle gave an eloquent speech to an audience that included the first governor of Washington state. It is worth noting that the actual words attributed to Seattle, including the manner of the delivery, the timing, and the amount of creative license taken by various authors who recorded or studied the speech lends doubt to the authenticity of most versions. One version that was adapted for the children’s book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky includes the following;
“…we did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”
Even 200+ years later this reminder and warning still rings true. And it reminds us why making sure that environmental science is a focal point in every K-12 science program.
Environmental science (ES) as a discipline emphasizes the importance of understanding both natural and human systems so that students can understand how the natural and developed world interact and think critically about the best solutions to mitigate the disruption to these systems. To put it another way, environmental science teaches students their place in the world, that their actions can have both positive and negative impacts, and that they need to think about people other than themselves in order to ensure a sustainable and healthy future for everyone.
This idea of caring for mutual benefit of all who inhabited the planet, animals and plants as well as humans, forms the cornerstone of many philosophies focused on the environment. It also provides a ready-made corridor for those seeking to embed social emotional learning (SEL) into the science classroom.
Standards focused on the environment are perfect for developing SEL lessons for many reasons
· students become more self-aware of the fact that their actions have a real-world impact on those around them.
· students learn to empathize with not just people, but other forms of life, they previously have had no interest or reason to care about.
· students begin to get a wider perspective of the impact environmental issues have. Their definition of community can be expanded from local to regional to national and finally global through the lens of ES lessons and curriculum.
· in order to meet the challenges facing our environment, students must work together. The challenges are so complex that they require the building of collaboration in order to solve them.
While the skills encompassed in any SEL process can mean many things to many different people, the best and most widely excepted framework currently available is that CASEL model. You can find more information about this model as well as resources on how to integrate it into your classroom at this website;
If we look at the core competencies that make up the CASEL model, connections to ES lessons and processes present themselves quickly. Here are just a few examples;
⁃ students spend a month tracking their carbon footprint using an online calculator. They make a plan to reduce their footprint over the next couple of months with actionable steps on what changes in activity will be required. (MS-ESS3-5)
⁃ students research invasive plants and work with local naturalists to create a plan for a removal event. They organize the event for the class and community to address local issues (pulling creeping Charlie, scotch broom, buckthorn, etc) and while considering things like logistics, breaks, location, etc. (HS-LS2-7)
⁃ students learn about the different ways that public lands are used. They role-play a meeting where they represent one of the viewpoints and advocate for a plan for a park that takes their role into account. (HS-ESS3-3)
⁃ students learning about overfishing Skype with a scientist working for the Seafood Watch project at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. They prepare questions about overfishing and the impact of chemicals on the aquatic food chain to better inform their understanding of this system. (HS-LS2-B)
⁃ students discuss and reflect on their consumption and how it contributes to the strain put on natural resources needed by other countries as well as natural populations. They research rates of consumption globally and compare those in the US to others in developing parts of the world to make predictions about lifestyles need to change or adjust.
If you are interested in integrating more SEL practices into your science class, consider the following;
· What NGSS standards are connected to environmental issues where students have an impact they can understand?
· What science-related skills utilize the CASEL model? How can you bring attention to these connections for your students?
· What classroom processes can contribute to the development of CASEL competencies?
Once you’ve selected your skill and lesson targets, consider how you will help students to grow and improve those skills. A rubric with descriptors of actionable events is one of the best ways as it provides students the ability to self-reflect while allowing them to clearly see goals and expectations.