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Implementing Sustainability Lessons in the Mathematics Classroom

A Philadelphia-based Pilot Program Encourages Teacher Leadership in Environmental Education

By Lina Sorg

Connecting mathematics educators to the wider community is undoubtedly an important task. Mathematical techniques are applicable to a myriad of real-world environmental problems, including global warming, sea level rise, and sustainability. “There are big issues out there in the world that we want to be aware of and prepare our students for,” Victor Donnay of Bryn Mawr College said. “But it’s also an opportunity to make math more exciting.” During a minisymposium at the 2018 SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education, which took place in Portland, Ore., this month, Donnay spoke about a one-year pilot program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a model for STEM teacher leadership in Education for Sustainability (EfS). The model aims to support the implementation of the School District of Philadelphia’s (SDP) GreenFutures sustainability initiative.

Philadelphia is working to become an increasingly green city, with a focus on clean energy and local, accessible food and water. Two years ago, the SDP created its own sustainability plan with five focus areas: consumption and waste, education and sustainability, energy and efficiencies, school greenscapes, and healthy schools and healthy living. Education and sustainability are of particular interest to Donnay.

Donnay defines EfS as a holistic framework to equip students, schools, administrators, families, and community with the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind that will prepare them to create and contribute to a world where economic prosperity, social justice, and responsible citizenship may be strengthened while restoring our health and that of the living systems upon which our lives depend. The nine core EfS standards are as follows:

  • Cultural preservation and transformation
  • Responsible local and global citizenship
  • The dynamics of systems and change
  • Sustainable economics
  • Healthy commons
  • Natural laws and ecological principles
  • Inventing and affecting the future
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Strong sense of place.

Social justice concerns drive many of these standards, a few of which—dynamics of systems and natural laws in particular—are especially relevant to STEM. As changing conditions push sustainability to the forefront of conversation, the United Nations has identified a set of global goals for sustainable development. “Many of these standards one may do implicitly in many ways, but here we are making them explicit,” Donnay said. To that end, he always begins his math classes by asking students to identify local and/or global problems about which they are particularly concerned. He then addresses these specific issues as best as possible to establish a heightened level of investment.

Donnay’s EfS project with the SDP is under the umbrella of a larger partnership called the Philadelphia Regional Noyce Partnership, the tagline of which is “doing together what we cannot do alone.” It is also linked with the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools Pathways program. These partnerships emphasize the importance of teamwork when tackling multifaceted issues and the value of an interdisciplinary education. “The fundamental question underlying our work is ‘what are we educating for?’” Donnay said. He identified three driving questions of EfS interest that shaped the one-year pilot program:

  • To what extent can an EfS focus increase student and teacher engagement with STEM?
  • How can teachers be supported to implement EfS in their classes/schools?
  • To what extent can EfS serve as a catalyst to improve STEM learning by inspiring and mobilizing a wide range of stakeholders to realize a new vision of STEM education?

In the spring of 2017, Donnay recruited 14 high-school teachers (both STEM and non-STEM) and three professors from the Community College of Philadelphia for the program. These recruits took part in a three-day summer institute that familiarized them to EfS standards and included field experience at relevant sites throughout the city. For example, they visited the Fairmount Water Works and learned how mussels filter water in the Schuylkill River. After the three-day introduction, the teachers began developing sustainability-based units for the spring of 2018 that incorporated EfS standards, place-based activities, and projects that encouraged students to take ownership of their actions. Each month, they met to discuss different strategies and ideas that could eventually become part of a five-year master teacher program. Activities consistently emphasized self-learning. “Only then can you impact your classroom, school, and larger community,” Donnay said. “Change starts individually and spirals outward.”

Because Philadelphia has many museums and nonprofits that focus in part on sustainability, project participants are looking for ways to increase the involvement of both these gropus and the larger community. Strengthening community partnerships also ensures that students will continue to learn and apply their knowledge outside of the classroom. “Schools are resources to the community, and communities are resources to schools,” Donnay said. “They reflect and collaborate together.” He is currently developing a community asset map to identify organizations near schools that could provide hands-on opportunities.

Donnay concluded his presentation with specific examples of math teachers who incorporated sustainability into their curricula. Sridevi Somireddy focused on energy. She and her students investigated energy use in buildings and the benefits of possible solar panel installation. “Energy has graphs and data — it’s a wonderful place for math lessons to come into play,” Donnay said. Somireddy also conducted a lesson called “the carbon footprint in your breakfast” wherein students completed spreadsheets to determine how far their food was travelling. 

ESL teacher Amanda Fiegel concentrated on the free lunch program at her school. She realized that her students were often throwing away milk and fruit, so she calculated how much was going to waste and formed a club that allows students to repurpose wasted food. Club activities include delivering leftovers to veterans at a nearby shelter.

Donnay plans to continue working with the SDP to move the project forward, increase community sponsorship, and recruit more teachers. “Things like this aren’t necessarily in the standard curriculum,” he said. “But they give the students the agency to create the future that they want.” 

Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News
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