Integrating sustainability education into existing curriculum

Published on: 
5 Nov 2021
Author: 
Hannah Carter

This fall, the 2020–2021 recipients of our Leaders in Sustainability Fellowship share some of the most important work they've done over the past year.

Educating students around sustainability and empowering them with the knowledge, skills and values needed to act as agents of change is crucial to addressing the impacts of the climate crisis. Schools and districts looking to integrate sustainability concepts into classroom teaching will find that there is a sea of ready-made curriculum programs and lesson plans that align with different standards. However, choosing the one to fit your unique needs and budget can be challenging.

Applying a lens of sustainability to lessons

Parkway School District in western St. Louis County, Missouri, sought to overcome this challenge by bringing together teachers, curriculum and sustainability staff, and local partners to take a new approach to increasing sustainability learning. It was one that worked within the district’s existing elementary science curriculum program and built bridges to sustainability within each unit and activity, where natural connections could be found. As an outcome, a lens of sustainability is now applied to all science curriculum across 19 elementary schools, impacting nearly 8,000 students each year. This was completed for little extra cost and without having to navigate the implementation of an entirely new program.

Four students work on the grass outdoors.

Students learning outdoors. Photo credit: Laurie Leary.

Parkway partnered with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center to host workshops for a task force of district elementary teachers to build their capacity in sustainability education and begin doing the groundwork of the project. The teachers, EarthWays Center staff and Parkway sustainability staff created connections to a wide variety of sustainability topics across each unit and activity within the existing elementary science curriculum program, Project Lead the Way.

Helping teachers add the content easily

It was clear from the teachers that the sustainability connections couldn’t add too much time or cost to the lessons. A mix of short, hands-on activities, videos, articles, discussion questions and ideas for taking activities outside worked best. Additionally, easy access to the content, a tie to the learning outcomes expected of students and peer support were key factors task force participants cited as necessary for wide-scale adoption and use of the materials.

Teachers brainstorm on a project list.

Parkway teacher training. Photo credit: Jennifer Abdel-Azim.

All the sustainability connections and resources were compiled in documents for each science unit online, easily accessible in a place where educators go for all their other curriculum documents. The task force also created the Parkway Principles of Education for Sustainability to guide each unit’s sustainability connections—a document that the Board of Education approved for addition into the district’s guaranteed curriculum. The task force members teamed up with their building’s instructional coach to serve as the school’s experts in this work and to provide peer-to-peer learning for other teachers.

Providing opportunities to go further

After a year of delays due to COVID-19, Parkway is now training all elementary teachers to apply a lens of sustainability to classroom units through required professional development modules, as well as optional courses for taking the work further. Educators can integrate place-based learning and sustainability topics impacting their school and the region, which empower students to take action in their own communities. These courses also highlight Parkway’s Sustainable Schools Challenge, in which students, staff and families complete activities (in competition with other schools) that align with the district’s sustainability goals.

Educators are introduced to sustainability dashboards that display a wide range of data about their school’s energy, water, waste and emissions, which help demonstrate how their buildings can be fun teaching tools. The courses take peer-to-peer learning further by highlighting opportunities and providing guidance to build student leadership through green teams, foster student passion projects and pursue sustainability project ideas directly from Parkway teachers.

From this project emerged a replicable model to increase sustainability learning within any subject, grade level, existing curriculum program and standard. In building these bridges to sustainability throughout the curriculum, Parkway School District is better able to achieve the mission of ensuring students can respond to the challenges of an ever-changing world. Partnerships have also been built among educators, Parkway’s sustainability department and a multitude of local organizations, helping to demonstrate how large an impact can be made when sustainability is approached collaboratively and holistically integrated into a school’s operations and curriculum.

Find more sustainability curriculum resources, presentations and documents developed by Parkway.

Learn more about the Leaders in Sustainability Fellows