Grantor: William H. Donner Foundation
Grantee: Environmental Literacy Council
When the great Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, agreed in the 1960s to serve on a panel approving science textbooks for use in California public schools, he did something unusual: he actually read the material. His wife recalled the bellows of frustration and fury that rose from Feynman’s study, as he pored over stacks of schoolbooks rife with error and over-simplification. “How anybody can learn science from these books, I don’t know,” the physicist later wrote.
Feynman, who died in 1988, might be just as concerned about the state of science education today. According to the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, fewer than one in five high school seniors scores at or above “proficiency” in science—and that figure is lower than the 1996 figure. Experts point to fewer students taking advanced courses, more teachers teaching outside their field, and insufficiently challenging curricula and textbooks.
Nowhere does the downtrend matter more than in the fast-growing field of environmental science—an increasingly popular “science lite” curriculum for students that science teachers say they teach more than either chemistry or physics.
By 1998 the William H. Donner Foundation made several grants in support of the work of the George Marshall Institute, which seeks to foster better public understanding of the connections between science and public policy. Among the Donner-funded projects at Marshall was a $130,000 grant supporting a “Scientist in Residence” position to enable an accomplished astrophysicist to write newspaper op-eds and magazine articles on such topics as the global warming debate. In keeping with its practice of working closely with grantees in strategic planning, the foundation held discussions with the Marshall Institute that produced a consensus on the fundamental role played by elementary and secondary environmental science courses in shaping public attitudes toward scientific issues and the trade-offs involved in formulating public policy. With Donner Foundation help, the Marshall Institute convened a group of distinguished scientists to assess the quality of American environmental education. The result was a report that found serious inadequacies in elementary and secondary environmental curricula and recommended the formation of a free-standing organization, which became the Environmental Literacy Council (ELC), whose sole mission is to bring the best minds to bear on improving what is actually being taught in individual environmental science classrooms across the country.
In early 1998 the Donner Foundation’s grant of $100,000, in conjunction with the John M. Olin Foundation and the Achelis and Bodman Foundations, established the ELC and supported its first products, including a teacher’s guide to environmental science, as well as summary reviews that identify strengths and weaknesses in common textbooks and teaching materials. A website that provided authoritative research resources for grades K-12 was Enviroliteracy.org. The site and its resource guides quickly became a hit; they were praised and reviewed by influential media such as Science, New Scientist, Discovery.com, and PBS’s “Teacher Source.” From Donner’s point of view, this grant was the culmination of a series of foundation efforts involving both grants and staff consultation in support of its established strategic objective of improving the public’s capacity to participate intelligently in the science—public policy debate.
As word spread, the council began to be looked to as a problem-solver. One group that turned to the council for help was the national network of teachers of Advanced Placement (A.P.) environmental science courses. Many of these A.P. teachers have little background in the subject; as one told the council, “I have been struggling all year trying to stay ahead of the students.” To help, the council added a Teacher Exchange section to its website, which included even more advanced resources.
Schools especially need lab and field investigation materials—essential tools for training students in the scientific method. Unlike A.P. chemistry or A.P. physics, the environmental sciences have no established set of labs. With help from a major three-year grant from the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), the council and its science advisors are working with teachers to develop a new archive of labs and field investigations. The project also calls for online mentoring and technical assistance for teachers who are teaching environmental science for the first time.
The lab archive will incorporate new technologies, including geographic information systems and computerized sensing equipment, in addition to quantitative tools, such as economic analysis, risk assessment, and toxicology. “This is the kind of rigor and excitement that science is all about,” says Roger Sedjo, a senior economist at Resources for the Future and president of the Environmental Literacy Council. “The aim is more than great environmental science; the aim is great student-scientists and citizens.”
The Donner Foundation’s investment in the council has so pleased some individual trustees that they have even lent their assistance to council fundraising efforts. According to trustee Timothy Donner, “The FIPSE grant shows that the council is being taken seriously as a major player in environmental education reform. But I am even more enthusiastic about the impact outside Washington. The council is clearly meeting the needs of its target audience, as evidenced by the number of teachers who rely on the Teacher Exchange and curriculum materials. Its outreach is creating a network of energized, educated environmental science teachers. These are real achievements that promise real and lasting impact in helping the schools develop scientifically literate citizens.”
—James V. Capua