This post was written by educator Lauren Niemann.
I teach in Louisville, KY, which has one of the fastest growing urban heat island effects in the country, and this environmental impact does not impact our residents equally. Due to the the inequities around us, I believe it is important to give students the opportunity to evaluate data and personal accounts from residents and uncover patterns of injustice to better understand the disproportionate impacts of canopy cover declines on Black and low-income families in Louisville – a pattern that exists across urban areas all over the globe. By doing this, we can explore justice, evaluate areas of improvement, and design tangible solutions (big and small) to combat these inequities.
During the fall and winter, my students and I laid the scientific foundation for understanding the importance of urban trees and the ecosystem services they provide, such as:
🌿 support of wildlife
🌿 providing habitat & biodiversity
🌿 culture/wellness of humans
🌿 regulation of environmental quality
We used the Louisville Urban Tree Canopy Assessment as a way to focus on specific benefits of urban trees. Trees have notable impacts on the physical and mental well-being of people in cities, while simultaneously creating habitat to support biodiversity in urban areas. I like to use evidence specific to Louisville through data sources like EJSCREEN, LOJIC (an online data warehouse for Louisville, Ky), and the Louisville Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, as well as the research collective The Green Heart Project or analyses like the impacts of historical redlining on urban tree canopy in Louisville. It is very important to me to try not to influence student perceptions when sharing data. The data speaks for itself. Year after year, many students are shocked at obvious patterns of inequity illustrated when mapping demographic data against indicators of human and environmental health, and are then moved to educate others and take community action. It’s so inspiring to see them lead with empathy and evidence.
This assignment helped lay the groundwork for critical equity conversations by illuminating barriers to Black nature enthusiasts to safely access nature, and also allowed an opportunity to discuss structural barriers to Black young people considering a career in the life sciences – both of which are future units of instruction and ongoing learning opportunities that we explore throughout the year.
Lauren’s Advice for Educators
💡 Keep your bias out: It is easy to let your understanding of a concept cloud a student’s ability to learn organically. Give resources, provide opportunities to engage with material, but take a step back and let the data do the talking.
💡 Feedback, Feedback, Feedback! : Too often assessments are at the center of discussion for what students know rather than the process of learning itself, and opportunities to deeply reflect on what we know is lost. Allow time for students to collaborate and get immediate feedback from you and each other to help deepen their connection to the content. Giving students the chance to fail in low-stakes situations helps students recognize failure as an opportunity to learn rather than an outcome of their mistakes.
💡 Be Innovative: Don’t feel bound to using conventional resources or assessments. Consider how content could be applied using real-world case studies, ties to local initiatives, or through current events. In this way, content can be more engaging and relevant to students’ lives. Further invest students by challenging them to design solutions or create persuasive pieces to educate others about their new knowledge.
Follow in Lauren’s footsteps of putting environmental data to use in actionable ways for students by considering her advice and start your data exploration journey with one of National Geographic Education’s free online courses such as Collecting Data to Explore Plastic Pollution in Our Communities.
Feature image by Rebecca Hale