Environmental justice (1 of 3)

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Students will be able to 1) analyze multiple resources in order to synthesize a definition for environmental justice through the lens of clean water access; and 2) propose a policy solution to foster environmental justice as it relates to water rights.

Big Idea

Worldwide, access to clean water is not a fundamental human right. How might we link the idea of water as "blue gold" to the concept of environmental justice?

FRAME: Environmental justice and environmentalism

What is environmental justice? As describe in the UNIT FRAME, environmental justice is essentially the idea that all people should have access to healthy environments. The Environmental Protection Agency describes Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights act as one of the several federal laws that help "to prevent minority communities and low-income communities from being subject to disproportionately high and adverse environmental effects." Environmental justice, then, is a legal framework occupying a central place in a STEM course. It effectively answers the question of purpose for this course. Why do we need to know environmental science? Because this is a science that can potentially improve communities and transform lives.

This "Environmental Justice" lesson sequence introduces students to the concept over three lessons.

The first lesson explores environmental justice through a case study of water rights. Students will watch purposefully selected excerpts of the film Blue Gold to generate ideas about what environmental justice is. Additionally, students will discuss ideas and refine definitions through a deep dive into issues raised by Blue Gold.

The second lesson pushes students to refine their understanding of environmental justice through exploration of A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary about environmental justice and the environmentalism movement. Students begin to understand how groups have historically pursue environmental justice in communities.  These strategies are then incorporated into students' revised definitions of "environmental justice."

The third lesson asks students to teach each other about a topic from A Fierce Green Fire in order to provide concrete examples of strategies used to increase environmental justice. Students engage in a "Learning Ambassadors" activity to accomplish this work. Finally, as a culminating assessment for this lesson sequence, students will develop an essay synthesizing understanding from this unit. This essay will serve as formative assessment for the teacher. What do students understand? What areas do students struggle? What needs to be retaught before moving onto the topics of maps and geospatial technology?

By the end of this lesson sequence, successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. analyze multiple resources in order to synthesize a definition for environmental justice through the lens of clean water access
  2. propose a policy solution to foster environmental justice as it relates to water rights.
  3. ask questions of an informational documentary
  4. collaboratively refine the definition of environmental justice.
  5. ask and answer questions about the presentation of environmental justice in a documentary film
  6. communicate information about environmentalism to peers
  7. evaluate Sunset Park through the lens of environmental justice.


  • The attached PROTOTYPE ASSESSMENT GUIDE contains an overview of activities that students will complete as an overall evaluation of learning during and after the third lesson in this sequence.
    • Documents for download that are specific to learning activities in this lesson sequence are located in the RESOURCES section of those activities.
  • ONLINE RESOURCE: Environmental justice website with topics list that could be used for this lesson sequence.

FLIPPED: Blue Gold trailer

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students are able to preview an instructional "text" for class.  (Despite the increasing prevalence of Massive Open Online Courses and blended learning techniques in secondary education, many students continue to consider videos as essential entertainment.  I describe all resources as "text" in my course to normalize the idea that every resource should receive the same level of rigorous, critical analysis.) Teachers are able to provide adequate "wait time" for students to develop an interpretation of the idea that water might be similar to gold. By the end of this section, students should be able to use evidence from a video excerpt to make a claim about why water might be thought of as gold.

What will students do?

Students will respond to the following prompt questions:  Based on your interpretation of this trailer, how do limited supplies of freshwater worldwide impact human populations? How is water like gold?  



ENGAGE: Blue gold

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students develop an overview of the themes presented in the film Blue Gold.  Teachers are able to highlight important connections between the content of the film and the concepts and skills presented during class. By the end of this activity students should be able to describe what they think will be the content focus of a film based on information in provided resources.

What will students do? 

TASK 1:  Students interpret this image from Blue Gold promotional posters.  How might a water container be like a grenade?

TASK 2: Students will read the following description from the Blue Gold promotional materials out loud as a class and then revise their interpretations from task 1:

The world’s fresh water is disappearing. As we pollute and waste away our very limited supply,corporate giants are working to make the building block of our globe a commodity, privatizing developing countries’ fresh water. In the midst of this, military control of water is rising, setting the stage for world water wars. This international award-winning film follows various examples of people fighting back against the powers that be - from grade school protests to court cases to revolutions. As the specters of drought and death loom, the film finds people willing to risk everything for their right to water, their right to survive. Past civilizations have collapsed from poor water management. Can the human race survive? (Source: http://www.bluegold-worldwaterwars.com/press_kit/blue_gold_press_kit.pdf:)

What will the teacher assess?

The teacher will look for responses that connect the image and description with evidence-based interpretations.  An example might be something like this: "I think this film is going to describe how water is a resource that causes people to go to war. My reasoning for this position is that water as grenade suggests water as a source or cause of violence; also the film description describes how military control of water is rising and that there might be world wars because of water."  My primary role is to push students' thinking by asking probing questions and calling on students to make connections.  Can you cite evidence that opposes that interpretation? 

EXPLORE: Shallow dive

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this activity?

Students will watch the first segment of Blue Gold as a class and identify one guiding question to ask and answer.  The teacher will assess students' ability to understand the main idea of the opening of the film.

What will students do?

Students receive a graphic organizer with the following directions:

We will develop five guiding questions to ask of Blue Gold.  Our goal will be to use the film as a source for evidence to support claims we make as draft responses to our guiding questions.  We will norm our understanding of this task by creating one guiding question together as class.  Then we will work in smaller teams to critically assess different parts of this film.  We will share out our team takeaways.

Students receive the following questions designed to support students' generation of their own guiding questions that they can ask of the film:

  • What questions might we ask about this resource?   
  • How might it define environmental justice?
  • How might it connect to engineering-design thinking?  
  • How might it connect to citizen science?  


  • The first attached handout "Blue Gold" handout contains a simple graphic organizer that I used for my classes.  Students may need more modeling to develop guiding questions, or may require guiding questions to be provided.  Students may also benefit from a mini-lesson about the types of questions one might ask.  Many of my students that struggled with this task found it useful to revisit their work with the Spaceship Earth debate preparation; this activity also ask students to ask questions of unfamiliar "texts."

  • Educators interested in building students' ability to generate questions to use in the analysis of text may find the second attached handout useful.  This resource describes levels of questions that my 11th grade team uses with students to provide scaffolding for the generation of academic questions.


EXPLAIN: Concept formation

5 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students are able to share out their initial understandings of Blue Gold.  Teachers are able to check students' understanding of the key themes through assessment of guiding questions and claims developed from those guiding questions. By the end of this activity, students should be able to define the concept of environmental justice through group discussion of understandings from the EXPLORE activity.

What will students do?

Students will share out guiding questions and responses from the film segment.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will push students to make connections among the shared guiding questions and answers.  The teacher will also present an idea: access to water is an environmental justice issue and this film is essentially a documentary about environmental justice.  So, what is environmental justice?  Our challenge for the remainder of this lesson is to derive a working definition of environmental justice from this film.  What do you think it means?  What evidence do you have to support your ideas?  Students will critically assess sections of Blue Gold in the "Deep Dive" activity in order to determine a working definition of environmental justice.


20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Student groups watch an excerpt of Blue Gold to explore a chosen topic in greater depth and refine ideas about the meaning of "environmental justice." By the end of this section, students should be able to use examples from the film Blue Gold to describe the meaning of "environmental justice."

Where can educators find this film?

*All links working as of March 2015.

What will students do?

Students will choose three segments from the film to critically assess a total at least 10 minutes.  (I mark these segments with timestamps).  Students use the same set of questions from the "Shallow Dive" activity to complete this work.  Once students have developed responses to their questions, they are asked to synthesize ideas and develop a definition for environmental justice that cites specific examples from the film.  Definitions might include:

  • environmental justice is when everybody in a society is able to get clean water
  • environmental justice is when people go to war in order to protect their right to clean water

How might a teacher create "chapters" in this film?

1. Introduction [:44]
2. Dying of Thirst [5:05]
3. The Crisis [1:25]
4. Pollution [6:17]
5. Desertification [7:54]
6. The Politics [5:10]
7. Government Corruption [8:14]
8. Desalinization [3:38]
9. Bottled Water [12:21]
10. Murder of Joan Root [3:17]
11. Ryan's Well [5:27]
12. The Water Wars [4:23]
13. Bolivian Water Wars [4:50]
14. Bush Family in Paraguay [3:56]
15. The Way Forward [13:54]
16. Memorial [:35]
17. Credits [2:18] 

What are some high impact teacher moves?

This can be a difficult activity for some students because Blue Gold does not give an explicit definition of environmental justice.  Rather, it shows how a particular environmental justice issue-the right to safe drinking water-plays out in a variety of political, social, and economic systems throughout the world.  This is by design.  I want my students to generate a definition (or definitions) of environmental justice from real-world examples.  This allows students to think of the concept as always embedded in a social world. Because this course emphasizes the application of STEM to improve communities, concepts grounded in reality are extremely important.  To this end, one way that I support students struggling to develop a definition is to revisit the previous lesson.  Students have already developed definitions for environmental justice; this activity simply asks students to develop a definition again through the lens of water rights.

EVALUATE: Water as weapon

5 minutes

What will students do?

Students will complete the following tasks in a short paragraph:

  • Define environmental justice.  
  • Summarize your understanding of water access issues from Blue Gold.  
  • Use evidence to support a claim about water access as an environmental justice issue.
  • Describe a policy that could address one of the problems described in Blue Gold.

The teacher will collect descriptions and use them for formative assessment data. Do students generally understand the idea of environmental justice? Can students chose evidence to support their ideas? Are there consistent mistakes that student subgroups make in how they choose evidence to support claims about environment justice?