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'There isn’t being enough done by those in power': how Illinois students confront environmental issues with help from teachers

KCS 21 Art Bynne O'Hare -b.jpg
Brynne O'Hare
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Students don’t see climate change as a future threat anymore -- they look at raging wildfires and massive power outages and see a crisis today.

“Many companies are hesitant to switch over to clean energy because they see it potentially harming profits or causing job loss. What can you tell us about the benefits of switching to carbon-free energy practices from both a climate change and economic standpoint?” asked Illinois 7th-grader Brynne O’Hare.

She posed that question to a panel of experts during the 2021 Kids Climate Summit, set up by the Chicago Gifted Community Center. It’s a question many Illinois leaders have considered. The state passed a sweeping clean energy bill this year.

Other kids in the Climate Summit asked about climate change’s effect on food systems and animals. But their worries could be boiled down to one, from a Chicago middle schooler:

“My major concern about climate change," said 14-year-old Drake Boehm, "is that there isn’t being enough done by those in power.”

Students leading climate advocacy isn’t new, especially since Swedish environmental activist teen Greta Thunberg’s school strikes for climate. In Illinois, other student-led initiatives are at the forefront of environmental education conversations.

Maja Stachnik is a recent Elgin High School graduate who helped organize the latest National Biodiversity Teach-In. It’s a series of webinars hosted by Elgin that brings in scientists and researchers from across the globe to remotely present to students.

Stachnik booked scientists, led public relations and helped handle tech for the event. She says it was the best -- and only -- example she had in high school of how active a role students should have in their education.

“You are the reason that they're there,” she said. “And you're giving other students the opportunity to get involved with them, and I think that was something that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise.”

The biodiversity event started thanks to the story of the last passenger pigeon. Elgin Science teacher & teach-in co-founder Deb McMullen told it often because it’s a prime example of how factors like habitat loss and invasive species can lead to extinction.

“They were just like, ‘What’?!’” said McMullen. “’There were that many birds and they were just gone in 40 years?!’”

A project about that final pigeon, Martha, snowballed into the international, multi-day environmental science teach-in that Elgin’s been running since 2014.

That was around the same time Illinois adopted the “Next Generation Science Standards.” McMullen says support from the standards allowed them to curate student-centered curriculum.

Some teachers think environmental education deserves still more attention. Samantha Scanlan is one of them. She teaches at Plainfield South High School.

Over the past five years, she says student interest in environmental science issues has been at an all-time high. They don’t even have to leave Illinois to illustrate environmental issues. They can point to fallout from the Chemtool fire or an E. coli scare that closed their school for a day this fall.

But Scanlan laments that many schools don’t require environmental science for graduation.

“They kind of just shoved [environmental education] into classes where they don't even necessarily make sense sometimes,” said Scanlan. “It's definitely not a priority curriculum-wise, which I would have hoped [it would be] by now, after 20 years.”

Abbie Enlund, executive director of the Environmental Education Association of Illinois, agrees. Her organization is helping develop national standards and offers training and programs for Illinois teachers.

They also just rewrote their environmental literacy framework for the first time in a decade, focusing on equity.

Now, Environmental literacy isn’t just about understanding the environment, but building relationships. It’s about seeing that everything is interrelated and that humans are a part of the natural world, not over it.

Enlund says the old standards were outdated and asked all schools to do things the same way.

“It's all changed drastically in the past few years,” she said. “And we now understand that not only is this not feasible, but it's not equitable, either. Communities aren’t built the same, they don't have access to the same resources, they can't implement the same field trips and projects and strategies.“

The new tenets of environmental literacy explore concepts like environmental justice and civic action. They also facilitate student-led, project-based learning activities like EarthForce and Project Learning Tree.

Environmental issues like climate change can feel overwhelming and too big for any one student to tackle.

Educators still teach that there’s hope, though. They say students can make a difference — but to preserve their future, action from those in power is still more than crucial.