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EarthGen helps WA teachers address environmental injustice

Eight elementary students raise their arms as they stand around a planter box, led by a teacher kneeling on the ground.
Students of Rising Star Elementary participating in an EarthGen Program.

As the planet is increasingly affected by climate change, advocates are making an effort to raise awareness in various ways. One such advocate is EarthGen, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on providing schools with a learning experience covering environmental pollution, social injustice and climate solutions.

EarthGen offers hands-on programs for schools throughout the state to help teachers discuss climate change in positive and informative ways. Becky Bronstein, program manager at EarthGen, explained the importance of young people learning about these topics in classrooms.

“Tackling climate change, addressing social injustice, environmental injustice, climate injustice, these are the biggest issues we’ll face, [that] humanity will ever face,” said Bronstein. "The interconnectedness, the complexities of that, we need support for that, and the youth needs support.”

EarthGen, formerly known as Washington Green Schools, was founded in 2011 by a group of environmental educators. Its original focus was a green school certification program to promote schools becoming more energy efficient and adopt sustainable environmental practices.

“But that wasn’t the way that every school community wanted to engage with us and how they saw ways to address big issues like climate change and social injustice, so we brought on other programs,” said Bronstein.

So in response, EarthGen branched out. Programs now include Stormwater Stewards, which teaches middle and high school students about their local watersheds. It teaches students how they can create environmentally friendly solutions to reduce stormwater impacts and improve local water quality.

Another is Breathing Easier, a program aimed at getting elementary school students to look at environmental injustice in their own communities. Students look at air quality in their neighborhoods, deduce why it is the way it is, and what solutions they can implement to improve it.

Students are guided through these programs by their teachers, who are in turn taught by EarthGen.

A woman kneeling on the ground smiles with two children, one wearing a face mask, with plants and hand shovels.
Students on the Chinook Middle School day of service.

“It's a lot of modeling what effective teaching could look like. Teachers have the opportunity to act as students, and we act as teachers. We facilitate for them different strategies and, in that way, show different content areas that are new to them,” said Bronstein.

“It's a meta experience for teachers that they receive different strategies and ways of teaching science but also are getting new content.”

EarthGen supported programs in 379 schools across the state, accordingto its 2021-2022 annual report. Some of theseschools are in communities dealing firsthand with environmental injustice and the effects of climate change.

Bronstein said students are observing the impacts.

“Things like pollution in Puget Sound, wildfires in Eastern Washington, and then by the poor air quality in Eastern and Western Washington, floods and droughts, and seeing charismatic species that are important for their culture, lifestyle, or well-being. Those populations dwindle.”

Bronstein explained that in an education system that frequently lacks resources, EarthGen covers areas often overlooked by the current curriculum.

“The standard science curriculum is often taught in a vacuum. Students are not always taught how science impacts real-world issues like climate change,” Bronstein said. “Some schools and school districts don’t even require such science education at all, which leaves it up to teachers to try to incorporate it into the strict standards they already have to meet, so they need support to do that.”

A former middle school science teacher, Bronstein said the type of professional development support that EarthGen provides would've helped her "make the jump" to engage students in topics she felt passionate about.

Three students, two wearing face masks, crouch down on a grassy area looking at a scientific device with a clipboard on the ground nearby.
Students at Tukwila Elementary participate in the breathing easier program.

Breanne Willard, a science teacher at Silas High School in Tacoma, Wash., is one teacher who partnered with EarthGen’s Stormwater Stewards. Willard said programs like the ones EarthGen provides are vital for classrooms.

“The learning content transcends outside of the classroom. It crosses the border of social issues and issues that they’ll encounter as they grow and become adults,” said Willard. “I think the learning becomes more real and tangible and more meaningful.”

She said that teaching students about real-world environmental issues is also more realistic. Not all students will become scientists or be particularly passionate about it, but they grow up and make decisions about their lives and deal with these issues.

“I think it's so important that they can grow up and be informed citizens and that they know the science behind those issues they are going to encounter in so many aspects of their life,” Willard said.

Corrected: February 9, 2023 at 3:15 PM PST
Spelling of Becky Bronstein's last name.
Lorcan Stokes is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in journalism. Born and raised in Seattle, his interests include reading, trying hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and going on hikes with his two dogs. He aspires to become a journalist specializing in international issues and global politics.