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Integrated Curriculum, student- led Environmental Project

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Keywords: service learning, environmental education, technology, digital learning, project learning, global citizenship
Subject(s): Earth Science, Music, History, Drama, Writing, Life Science, Journalism, Science, Grammar, Service Learning, Geography, Technology, Social Skills, Video, Social Studies, Civics, Photography, Business, Art, Biology, Information Skills, Speech and Language, Reading, Math, English/Language Arts
Grades P-K through 12
NETS-S Standard:
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making
  • Digital Citizenship
  • Technology Operations and Concepts
View Full Text of Standards
School: Mt Madonna School, Watsonville, CA
Planned By: Jessica Cambell
Original Author: Jessica Cambell, Watsonville
This lesson plan is created to focus on the children’s passions as the driving force and to empower the students to become active global citizens. This lesson is geared towards making sure the curriculum provided helps students to engage positively with society. It is organized in a way to incorporate a “real life” application within the project and provide opportunities for students to “use” what they are learning to make positive change; we are trying to help them be active citizens.

While the project’s “roots” are the same each year, the topic is different as students vote on a local environmental topic of their choice to focus on. The project is student-led and it evolves based on the students’ passions. It is set up so that each individual can find his or her “gift” to contribute to the whole, reaffirming our belief that together we are smarter.

Ignite the Passion
As students become “experts” on their chosen topic and discover pieces puzzle and “why” something is an environmental issue, their passion is sparked. This causes students to “dive deep” into their research and to start thinking critically about how they as individuals, and how their class as a team, can affect real change. Student research groups of 3-4 students are formed, with each group assigned to a different aspects of the topic. These teams write papers, create display boards and present on topic such as “all about” their chosen topic, conservation efforts, threats, habitat or other related issues, including symbiotic species. For fifth grade, we’ve found that group work benefits the depth of the research the students complete and the process of learning to collaborate that is similar to what adults experience in the working world.

Community Partners
Key to making this a meaningful experience is finding and engaging with community partners. While our students are engaged in research, we teachers contact any associated nonprofits, scientists or citizen scientist groups related to the chosen topic. Not only are these partners inspired by working with students, but they bring another level of wisdom to assist the in research, other great connections and resources – and great opportunities to enhance the project learning and impact.

Mapping the Road
Once the class is “knowledge-full” and we have connected with possible community partners, students can plan the various project. This discussion begins with explaining the project “roots” or required elements, so students can brainstorm ways to develop their project that will incorporate these “roots.” These elements are what leads students towards the goal of helping them to become empowered global citizens.

Root #1 -Educate
"Knowledge is key and has changed your perspective. Now that you know about this topic and the threats/problems it faces, what can you do to share that knowledge with the public? How can we teach others?" This piece can be setting up the classroom as a “living museum” for other students, parents and guests to visit and learn; or to arrange a similar presentation at others schools or public venues. Students can create a website and blog, or make their own public service announcement or short film. In 5th grade students often choose to make a student written, directed, acted and edited educational film. We create a "mock" production company yo produce the movie and sell it as a means to raise funds for their environmental issue. Not only are we educating the public, but we are experiencing how business operate and fundraising a the same time. This piece is critical to students realizing that what they are passionate about can ignite change in others. This process allows the students to find their voice, enhance their public speaking skills and use what they learn in a meaningful way.

Root #2- Action
We ask students to exercise their rights and find their voice by contacting their elected representatives about an issue/s related to their project topic. The precise “form” of this contact can vary with the age and ability of the students: formal business letters for older grades, a guided, simplified template or student drafted/teacher written letter for younger students. This “root” can lead to other important lessons, such as the birth of the Constitution, and the different levels and roles of government bodies, and how each addresses different issues.

Not only do students write with passion and detail about a topic they care about, they are empowered when they receive letters in response and realize that their voice matters! This “root” can also include opportunities such as speaking at city council meetings, starting a petition or organizing calls to representatives.

Root #3- Service
Involve students in what can they do individually, as a class or school to “walk their talk” and make a difference. This is a great place to connect with community partners and organize a clean-up, replant habitat, gather supplies or even incubate wildlife for release. This “root” can easily be connected with math, statistics and possible science projects. For example, students can collect energy/waste data in the classroom or school, clean-up data, growth journal of wildlife or even collect home energy/waste data to inspire individual choice changes.

Root #4 - Fundraising - In addition to the aforementioned, we ask our students to give back to those who are supporting their project by finding ways to fundraise. Most years the class chooses to create a humorous movie to educate others, with proceeds from sales of the movie copies benefitting a nonprofit organization that is also working on the topic. Students have also organized raffles at their public presentations and started online funding drives. In our class this leads to the creation of a mock company in which students work in different departments, are lead by a CEO and the finances are handled by the CFO, giving students even more responsibility and a taste of the “real world.”
This is a great way to engage a math whiz with a sales department or the artists with the art department or your gifted writers with the public relations department or your techies with the production department.

Root #5- Another component is adding a science experiment or engineering project “root” to engage students’ critical thinking. This can be a class science experiment or small group experiments where students critically think about their research and how can they simulate and generate “proof” around one threat related to their topic. The experiments can be as simple as what decomposes, to more complex experiments such as ocean acidification. Or students can engineer alternatives to find a solution to threats that their environmental project faces. This can be as simple as designing an alternative product to reduce waste to designing devices to protect or prevent harm.

In the end, this environmental curriculum is really a project of passion where we watch our students become the leaders, empowered to make change and become conscious citizens in the world they inhabit.

Although we have a set plan, each year unfolds with surprises, and that unfolding is always spectacular! We have had classes create a World Wide Waste Reduction Day where they inspired people from across the world to pick up trash and post photos. We bridged the ocean and organized a California- Hawaii beach clean-up and ocean toe touch at the same time. The children jumped at the opportunity to create a plastic pollution mural for a local beach discovery center or trail signs for a habitat reserve. Students gathered school supplies, funds and created curriculum for impoverished children in Indonesian sea turtle camp. “The Fifth Grade Environmental Project” is a doorway to help students see that they are global world citizens, that they can make a difference and learn and have fun doing it!

National Winning Educational DVDs:





of past work:

















Cross-Curriculum Ideas
This is an integrated curriculum that connects science to language arts to math to technology to civics to social studies to engineering to the arts and public speaking.
This activity can be adapted to branch multiple years and grow with the students or shortened to find within a semester.
Materials: Tripods, Printers, CDs and DVDs, Video Tools, Art Tools, Point and Shoot, Batteries, Memory Cards