Think Earth Helps Students Learn About Their Environments

This feature is part of an HCBF series highlighting the important work our partners do with the grants they receive.

Environmental education is important. Kay Ice would know. As a curriculum developer who helped found Think Earth, Ice has spent much of her life ensuring that students receive equitable access to learn about the world around them. 

“Environmental education touches on all aspects of [students’] lives,” Ice said. “That’s what I think a lot of people don’t realize.”

The Think Earth Environmental Education Foundation began in 1990 by developing and distributing instructional units to foster environmental education in schools. Their ‘Think Watershed’ project, launched in 2007, funds field trips for students on a floating lab in the ocean. 

Ice said that while many of the students that go on these trips live near the ocean, being on a boat and seeing live sea creatures is something they have never done before.

“This is a brand new experience for them, and it is wonderful,” Ice said. 

The students board a Marine Science Floating Lab that sails out of the harbors of Long Beach and Los Angeles to explore the beautiful and intricate world under the sea. The Floating Lab is outfitted with an otter trawl, large plexiglass aquariums, a plankton net, a microscope, marine life touch tanks—all used to help students engage with hands-on science learning. 

A clear favorite of students is the trawl. The net swoops into the water and catches some organisms near the ocean floor and the kids get to pull up fish, crabs, sea stars—even a small shark now and then— while on-board marine biologists teach them about the wildlife, about adaptation, how they live, how they eat, who they feed on. They learn a lot, all while having fun.

Outdoor, science, and environmental education has always been an inequitable space. From the legacies of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to the ideas of rural sprawl in white America, low-income students of color have not been given enough access to environmental education. 

“Just like there’s disparity in other areas of education, because of socioeconomic level,” Ice said. “And so much of it has to do with funding.” 

Students empty out the trawl and examine the marine life they collected. (Click on photos to expand)

In order to work towards bridging this gap, HCBF partnered with Think Earth in 2018 for its Community Benefit Grant Program to provide $40,000 in funding for their Think Watershed project. This money went to ensuring that Think Watershed could help fund travel and fees for field trips in Wilmington and San Pedro schools. 

Think Earth also works to bridge the gap in environmental education by providing environmental education resources for free on their website, because environmental education is vital, especially for younger children. 

On trips exploring the watersheds of the Los Angeles County Coast, kids get to see how their actions directly determine ocean health and the health of marine life as well as health in their communities.

“We like to show students, show kids there are pluses and minuses to everything, and it’s about choices that you make and how those choices affect your lives, animals lives, and the entire environment that we live in,” Ice said.

Environmental education is also a multidisciplinary approach. It combines aspects of social studies, exploration, engineering, English, and—of course— science. So much can be taught in one field trip. 

Students observe sea lions

With the COVID-19 pandemic putting the Think Watershed field trips on pause, Ice said that soon there will be a new way to experience the joys of learning about marine life: virtual field trips. These virtual field trips will align with Next Generation Science Standards, a new exploratory approach to environmental education. And these virtual field trips, in the spirit of making sure marine education is accessible to all, will also be free. 

As environmental education expands, thanks in part to the work of Think Earth and organizations like it, more students are learning the necessity of environmental stewardship. Human choices have such a powerful effect on the environment.

Ice hopes that students and educators who come to these field trips see that and take their environmental learning experience beyond the Floating Lab.

“I do also want people to know just how important field trips and hands-on experiences are for kids to get them interested in not only the environment,” Ice said “but education as well.”