Kristen Keim

Learning Lab partner Roots of Success shares how their lessons can connect students to real-world issues.

As our need for sustainability solutions grows, so does our need for environmental justice. Often, the cost of unsustainable practices is paid by those who can't afford it.

Identifying and combating environmental injustice can be difficult, but with proper education, students and adults alike can create change in their communities. A new program available on Learning Lab, Roots of Success for High School Students and Youth, empowers students to be advocates for equity.

Colin Smith, who helps develop the Roots of Success curriculum, explains how educating high school students on the injustices of our growing environmental issues is vital for creating change.

Why is it important for high schools students to learn about environmental justice?

Environmental justice is a critical part of improving and maintaining a clean and healthy environment, especially for those who live, work and play closest to sources of pollution and toxins. Understanding the need to promote environmental justice helps students recognize that not all communities are protected from harm. It shows how people and communities have unequal access to ecological benefits such as clean air, water and open space and to social benefits like decent housing, safe neighborhoods, quality schools and access to health care.

Environmental injustice education helps students see that communities of color and low income are disproportionately impacted by environmental problems. It also challenges students to think deeply and critically about the root causes of environmental problems and the factors that need to be considered as we identify and implement solutions.

How is the Roots of Success curriculum designed to reach all students?

Roots of Success is an empowering educational program that helps students understand environmental problems and solutions, prepares them for environmental careers and inspires them to improve their communities and the world’s environmental and social conditions.

The teaching approach and materials engage students by

  • Allowing students to build on their existing knowledge and experience;
  • Providing students with content that is relevant, meaningful and culturally competent; and
  • Connecting what students learn in the classroom to real-world issues, employment opportunities and career pathways.

The multimedia, activity-based teaching approach is designed to reach students with different learning styles (e.g. visual, audio, kinesthetic) and varied levels of literacy. Roots of Success works well for all students, but it is also the only environmental literacy and job readiness program created specifically for youth and adults who are struggling in school and have barriers to employment that make it difficult for them to access stable, family-supporting jobs.

If you could only pick one, which lesson would you recommend to teachers?

“The Cloud Factory” lesson demonstrates the power every person has to create positive change in the world. It tells the story of a Latina teenager who spearheaded a movement to challenge environmental injustice in her community.

The video begins with an 18-year-old high school student, Marisol Becerra, driving past large smokestacks in her Chicago neighborhood that she affectionately referred to as “the Cloud Factory.” Years later, as Marisol watched her younger sister suffer from asthma, she realized that the smokestacks came from the coal-burning power plant in her neighborhood. The young student began mobilizing her friends and community to work together to demand that the Cloud Factory close down.

This lesson prompts students to think about environmental injustice, the impacts of climate change on communities, and how youth can become leaders in the struggle for environmental and climate justice. Marisol’s story is proof that no matter your age, you can always make a difference.

Explore the Roots of Success curriculum