Darlene Tieu does not yet know it, but in two days the school she is teaching in, the Mann UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles, will close due to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. But she can sense it coming, and so can her kids— the students in her afternoon climate science class. As the class gets ready to start, they are milling around, laughing, joking, talking. But amid the laughter, there is a level of nervous tension in the air, like an ozone layer across the classroom Darlene Tieu’s 10th grade Chemistry class at Mann UCLA Community School has spent the year exploring climate change and its impact on their South Los Angeles community. She is getting ready to work with the students on a greenhouse gas effects simulation, but first she has to deal with a more pressing matter—finding out if the students have access to a computer at home and Internet service. She hands out a survey page, in English and Spanish, and gives the students instruction on how to fill it out. As they write their answers, she moves quietly among them, leaning in with some, almost in a hug, whispering, asking, “Do you have my cell phone number? Do you have my email? Do you know how to reach me? Call me. I will help you,” she says. Tieu will be the first to tell you that these are “great kids,” and she and the other teachers at Mann, many from the UCLA Teacher Education Program, are devoted to them. But they are also students without much in the way of financial means, almost all from low-income backgrounds. About a third live in foster care, some may be homeless. She knows that for many of them, any contact information they may have provided at the beginning of the school year about where they live, how they can be reached, has changed. She is worried about losing track of them. And she knows that for many, the school is the only place they can get a decent meal and a little encouragement.
“A lot of what drives me as a teacher in the classroom, but also as a person, is that I get to have a relationship with the students. I want to be able to care for the whole student,” Tieu says.
“Sometimes I feel like their parent. When I say goodbye to them at the end of the day, the last thing I tell them is, ‘I love you and be safe.’”
As a graduate of the UCLA Teacher Education Program, Tieu intentionally chose to teach at the Mann UCLA Community School. She wanted to be part of the community. And that emphasis carries over into her class on climate change.
“I am not ignorant of the struggles they go through. I know they’re worried about what is happening around their home, what’s happening in the streets, what’s happening with their health, what’s happening with the health of their families. And so, by doing community-based climate change science that is tied in with who I am as a teacher and who they are as students, it becomes more than just the science; it’s who’s behind the science and why we are learning the science.”
Tieu is part of a growing effort to expand teaching about climate change in California. She was a featured speaker at the Environmental and Climate Change Literacy Project and Summit at UCLA in December, part of an ambitious strategy to dramatically expand opportunities for students to learn about climate change and take part in effective solutions. But
Tieu’s climate change class at Mann UCLA is not focused on melting ice caps, polar bears or ocean acidification in the Bay of Alaska. Instead, the class explores climate change through the lens of the students’ South Los Angeles community. The idea is to make clear that climate change has a real impact on their neighborhood, on the lives of the students and their families, on their futures.
“I want to make sure that what I’m teaching our students is useful to them,” Tieu said. “When we’re talking about the greenhouse effect, it’s about what’s happening in our community. For example, we can’t talk about the greenhouse effect in LA without talking about the impact of our freeways. I want my students to understand what climate change is and what its impacts are, and to be the ones making the decisions about what to do about it for the community.”
To develop the community-based climate change approach, Tieu has been collaborating with Heather Clark, a doctoral student at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Together they have shaped a science-based curriculum that relates to the lives of students and explores the impact on the community.
We can't talk about the greenhouse effect in LA without talking about the impact of our freeways. I want my students to understand what climate change is and what its impacts are, and to be the ones making the decisions about what to do about it for the community.
The course teaches concepts required by the state, such as the conservation of energy and matter, as tools students can use to address climate change. They explore key topics such as photosynthesis, combustion, heat, and greenhouse gases.
“The class closely follows the Next Generation Science Standards and the kids are learning the canon of science,” Clark says. “But Los Angeles also provides students with an incredible opportunity to study climate change first-hand.”
In the climate change class on this day, the students will use local temperatures and conditions for a simulation on greenhouse gases. By inputting local data, they can see the potential impact on their community. And by using other data, they can see how things can change.
In the previous weeks, the students have also done drawings of how the greenhouse effect or carbon levels work their way through South Los Angeles.
“The students are very honest. They see the deficiencies,” Tieu said. “They’re like, ‘Can I draw graffiti? I see graffiti.’ ‘Can I draw that there is an oil rig pulling oil 100 feet from my house?’ These are the kinds of things that they bring into the classroom.”
In another project the students examined the “heat island effect.” Urban areas such as Los Angeles have many people living in close proximity, with large amounts of asphalt and very little green space. Local conditions such as these, combined with rising global temperatures, cause Los Angeles and other urban areas to heat up quickly. Using familiar areas in their neighborhoods, the students created models to demonstrate the effects.
“When students see these effects in their own communities, they find the topics more engaging,” Clark said.
Tieu and Clark are really trying to build on the knowledge the students bring to the classroom and the relationships they have with them to build interest in exploring important topics in climate science.
“We have really taken the time to get to know the students and been able to leverage those relationships to build better lessons that use other parts of our students’ lives as assets for learning science,” Tieu said. “Not necessarily seeing gaps of what they don’t know about photosynthesis or other topics, but instead saying, ‘I know that you guys spent a lot of time in parks. I know that you notice what happens on smoggy days. I know you know what happens when we have to cancel sports practice because there’s too much smoke in the air.’”
To learn about photosynthesis the class has explored local parks and used the UCLA Data for Democracy research brief on parks in Los Angeles. The class has used parks as a local resource and examined the impact of parks distribution across Los Angeles.
“Parks are a place where photosynthesis should be happening if we have trees,” Clark said. “And an area with fewer parks is going to be doing less photosynthesis. It’s a way for our students to move between a global scale level of science and a local example.”
Tieu hopes the community-based approach is not only helping her students to learn about the science of climate change, but to understand the implications and build the vocabulary and knowledge to do something about it. The class
reaches beyond the science to explore the political, social and economic context and institutions that fuel climate change and impact their community.
“You can’t have this climate change conversation, an honest conversation, without talking about the racial and economic inequities that are at play here,” Tieu said. “In our science class we talk a lot about how we feel a lot about these things. It’s important to acknowledge that you can feel powerless and hopeless and frustrated at what we’re experiencing. But the frustration that our students feel here is rooted in their identity and their community and that causes them to engage in the science in a different way.”
In the next weeks, Tieu has been looking forward to the students investigating the impact of greenhouse gases on Los Angeles and creating a model for the effect on the future of the city. The plan is to detail what they see in their community, such as the traffic, the freeways, pollution, and the population, and analyze the impact on the greenhouse effect. They will make a prediction and will talk about the potential of technology solutions and discuss what can be done politically, economically and socially to change the trajectory of the future. Students can choose to create models that predict a climate nightmare or models that build a positive future. But either way they have to use science to show why their predictions are accurate.
With the COVID-19 crisis looming, the plans for instruction are on hold, but Tieu and Clark’s connections to the kids and their community will be helpful.
“Everyone here is so passionate about these kids and right now all of our focus is on these kids in the classroom right now,” Tieu said. “It really just feels like a small family. All of this rigorous science and really being in tune with the community is what makes this unit of climate change in the community work specifically for our students. I think every student in under-invested communities deserves to learn science like this.”
You can't have this climate change conversation, an honest conversation, without talking about the racial and economic inequities that are at play here… the frustration that our students feel here is rooted in their identity and their community and that causes them to engage in the science in a different way.
UCLA Ph.D. Student Heather Clark’s Participatory Research Aims to Advance Student Learning about Climate Change
Heather Clark is working toward her Ph.D. in the Urban Schooling program at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. For the last two years she has been taking part in a research-practice partnership at Mann UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles to develop a model for a community-based approach to the study of climate change.
A former high school chemistry teacher with a master’s in science from Yale, Clark is exploring how teacher learning in research-practice partnerships can support youth in reimagining a climate future for Los Angeles that is more just and sustainable.
Working with teacher Darlene Tieu and the students in her chemistry class at the Mann UCLA Community School, the effort draws on the physical and social environment of the neighborhood surrounding the school to develop a model of climate change that makes clear the social and political mechanisms that drive scientific climate processes and make climate science meaningful and useful to students.
“Our approach anchors instruction in community-based experiences around the causes and consequences of climate change and frames instruction around the systems and structures that create and sustain climate inequalities,” Clark says. “We hope to study student participation in this designed environment to understand how critical awareness of community-based climate change supports learning.”
Clark’s background in science has helped to elevate the level of science content and she works closely with Tieu and the students in the classroom to shape the curriculum and day-to-day instructional activities.
“She is in so many ways directly and indirectly supporting me to create this high-level activity that I think my students deserve to do high rigor science despite the zip code that they live in,” Tieu said. “She is not just some mysterious researcher taking notes in the back of the classroom. She is part of our community. Our students know her, our students genuinely care about her.”
Our approach anchors instruction in community-based experiences around the causes and consequences of climate change and frames instruction around the systems and structures that create and sustain climate inequalities.
Clark is part of an emerging group of scholars at UCLA and across the country that view research as a partnership and her design-based participatory research is directly situated and centered in the classroom.
Along the way she is helping to create a model of teaching and learning to help students understand local climate factors and connect them with larger climate science and political and social issues.
“I’m not trying to control anything. I am trying to document really richly the interactions and participation that is happening,” Clark said. “I’m here to see how the learning and interaction was implemented. I aim to produce a meaningful dissertation next year that documents the how of learning.”