Saturday, January 25

Graduate students connect LA schools to environmental issues

Osceola Ward, a graduate student in Africana studies, organizes trips through the nature education program Outward Bound Adventures to encourage black and low-income high school students from the LA area to better understand their relationship to their natural environment. (Courtesy of Osceola Ward)

UCLA graduate students are encouraging young Angelenos to take ownership of their natural environments.

Osceola Ward, a graduate student in Africana Studies, is encouraging high school students to reconnect with their natural environments by organizing outdoor trips through the environmental education program Outward Bound Adventures.

Ward said he was an instructor at Outward Bound Adventures before he began to pursue a Leaders in Sustainability Certificate at UCLA. His interest in nature education and the environment stemmed from the disproportionate effect environmental issues have on black communities.

[Related: UCLA professor links humanities and environment through narratives]

“Black people are especially affected by their natural environment because they live in areas with high levels of toxins and pollutions that compromise air quality, water quality and community health,” Ward said. “In fact, three out of every five black people live near a toxic waste site.”

Ward said his efforts to teach environmental sustainability to black and low-income high school students resonate with his current research: an investigation of the role of white supremacy in marginalizing such communities. For example, Ward said housing covenants enforced by white property owners pushed African-Americans to polluted areas that left them susceptible to high rates of asthma, cancer and blood lead toxicity.

On their first excursion, Ward and Compton High School students went on a sailing trip at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute, where they learned about marine biology and to how to operate a sailboat.

Later, Ward led a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevadas and at Mono Lake.

“Kids love being outside,” Ward said. “Especially with this generation that’s so tapped into social media and the internet, (nature) helps them reconnect with not just the environment but also themselves.”

Ward said the Outward Bound Adventures program also implemented in local LA high schools a Natural Resources and Stewardship Academy that organizes nature trips and teaches students how to take care of their environment. The extracurricular program culminates in a graduation ceremony. The academy is free, so students from low-income communities who would otherwise be priced out of such organizations would be able to attend, Ward said.

Colleen Callahan, director of the Leaders in Sustainability Certificate Program, said she thinks Ward’s work is critical because students in the LA area are disconnected from their natural environment.

“Sometimes students from neighborhoods in LA never get to see the beach and mountains, even in the LA basin,” Callahan said. “This is about making sure they feel a connection to the outdoors and to nature, and how it impacts their daily lives.”

Amy Frame, a member of the Leaders in Sustainability Certificate Program and a graduate researcher in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, also has extensive experience reconnecting LA students with their natural environment.

Frame, a public school teacher and administrator in Los Angeles for 17 years, said she started out teaching history and English before gravitating towards science. Despite the switch, Frame said her early educational background helped her see the value of a comprehensive nature education.

“A lot of people think outdoor educational trips are just about science but … there’s so much more: There’s how humans have changed nature, pushed out indigenous populations, how the government and politicians maintain and regulate natural land,” Frame said.

As an administrator, Frame said she worked with external nature education programs to organize everything from overnight backpacking trips to hands-on nature projects. She added she also worked with teachers who were hesitant to implement nature education programs to encourage them to become more comfortable leading environmental curricula for students.

She added she thinks one of the most important features of outdoor education is that it builds relationships between teachers and students who struggle in the classroom.

“I would say that some of my ‘worst’ kids in the classroom have been some of my ‘best’ outdoors,” Frame said. “It’s a better environment for them, and once we come back to the classroom, there’s greater mutual respect between the teacher and the student.”

She added she thinks nature education has made students significantly more aware about environmental issues affecting California. Frame said some students who visited a site during a backpacking trip were surprised to find the water that had been there the week before had completely dried up. She said some students said the trip encouraged them to take shorter showers.

[Related: Current campus water conservation projects]

“What I really think it is, though, is that (students) feel a sense of accomplishment,” Frame said. “Many of these kids don’t feel successful in any way, but after a 20-mile backpacking trip – yeah, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.”

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