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Nationwide, climate change education does not receive adequate time in K-12 classrooms. In many states, a political divide over how schools should teach about climate change has led to rampant miseducation. Teachers aren’t adequately educated about climate change as less than half have received formal college instruction in climate science, Science reports, further limiting climate change education. In schools that have raised environmental awareness in their classrooms, environmental and climate justice remain missing perspectives.

Framing the Course

In 2021, Howard University and the National Equity Lab (Ed Equity) revisited their partnership and sought to change that by expanding access to climate education in Title 1 high schools across the country. Together, they created a college-level virtual course entitled “Environmental Studies and Justice” to expose 11th and 12th graders to the intersections of climate justice and environmental science. The partnership also offers courses in criminal justice and college algebra, but the environmental studies and justice course is the most popular.

The course is an expansion of Howard’s new interdisciplinary environmental studies program, spearheaded by the university’s current Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Rubin Patterson, in 2018. Shortly after, Patterson tapped Kari Fulton, an award-winning climate organizer and historian, to come on board as a research assistant to begin building the connections between Howard, her alma mater, and local high schools. At the same time, Dr. Janelle Burke, associate professor of biology and director of Howard’s environmental studies program, was in talks with Ed Equity. Burke and Fulton are now the virtual course’s two lead co-professors.

One hundred students enrolled in the course’s first year. By 2022, that number tripled to 300 students from 35 cities and 16 states—including California, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Florida, Louisiana, Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia. To support the program’s ecosystem of students, high school teachers, teaching fellows, and co-professors, course coordinator Ayana Albertini-Fleurant serves as a bridge between them, monitoring progress, passing along feedback, and being the first line of support. In what the course calls near-to peer support, teaching fellows—who are students in Howard’s undergraduate environmental studies program—aid and mentor the high schoolers. Fellows are just a few years older than the students and often come from similar backgrounds, making it easier for the students to find mentorship. Fellows also play a critical role in helping high school teachers fully grasp the nuances of the course’s material.

In the course’s second year, students were able to engage more deeply with the climate justice field through special guest lecturers, including NASA scientists, grassroots community activists, and leading environmental justice leaders, such as Peggy Shepard, founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. The course’s science component introduces students to critical discussions about the carbon cycle, plastic pollution, and climate change.

The course team also received feedback from high school teachers wanting to know how they could continue engaging their students with this knowledge after the course’s end. For Fulton, that feedback was a full circle moment as it became clear that the course is creating an opportunity to build more lifelong environmental organizers and advocates—work that she’s been doing since high school.

Learning and Teaching Real-Time Challenges

Throughout the year, one state of interest was Florida as many participating high school students lived there and were impacted by hurricanes. The team had to grapple with how to shape a course that accommodates students facing the same real-time challenges that they were learning about.

As the semester concluded, some Florida-based students presented stand out final projects. Students in Miami focused on the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood. This final project hit home for Albertini-Fleurant, who is of Haitian descent. A country adjoined to the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Sea, Haiti suffers from climate vulnerability and political instability. In recent years, Haitian migration to the US has risen due to displacement by climate events.

Other projects looked at changing dynamics in Florida due to climate gentrification—another issue that is impacting Little Haiti. As students explored, developers are no longer focusing on the beachfront land that South Florida is famous for. Instead, they’ve set their sights on West Florida—a lower income area that is inhabited predominantly by people color and has a higher elevation. These final projects offered students an opportunity to use the tools and resources given to them throughout the course to discover more about where they live.

Those tools and resources included teaching students how to use the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and Environmental Protection Agency EPA superfund sites trackers, which show contaminated areas deemed eligible for hazardous waste cleanup by the agency. These trackers help students see environmental injustice through a data lens. Students also engaged in community asset mapping, an approach to community development that focuses on existing resources and strengths. These are some of the same skills that effective grassroots organizers have. The course team hopes that students will be able to advocate in response to the environmental challenges they and their communities may face.

Once students complete the course, they earn three college credits that can go toward continuing their higher education. Students like Michael Santos, who was a part of the course’s inaugural class, took that knowledge with him to Yale. Originally from the South Bronx, he adapted his final project to make policy recommendations that have been picked up by elected officials in congress. For Santos, it all clicked when he started doing community asset mapping at the start of the course.

The next challenge for Howard and the National Equity Lab is how to continue scaling the course in a sustainable way and obtain resources for more administrative and teaching support for high schools and the course team. Overall, the course team is excited for what comes next. Howard will be expanding the environmental studies program this year and will have an exciting announcement at the top of 2023. For Fulton, this virtual course is accomplishing two important goals: helping to professionalize the climate justice movement and combating science’s inherent bias. As the course team moves into their third year, their most important goal is to restructure the course to provide the most balanced and structured understanding of environmental justice possible.