Environmental bias

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Students will be able to 1) use maps to visually identify the proximity of human populations in different socio-economic classes to sources of pollution; 2) define environmental bias; 3) propose explanations for environmental bias.

Big Idea

Not all communities have equal access to healthy natural environments. How might we use maps to understand where and why unhealthy natural environments disproportionately affect members of low-income and ethnic minority groups?

UNIT FRAME: Environmental justice in the STEM classroom

Who or what is place for? How does place impact the health of living organisms? Do humans have equitable access to health places? What might be done to improve communities that lack health environments? This unit explores answers to such questions through a framework of environmental justice. Environmental justice is essentially the idea that all people should have access to health 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. So why does the framework occupy a central place in an environmental science course? Environmental justice is impossible without the skils and conceptual expertise of environmental scientists. It is framework that incorporates the law, STEM, and community development. Without scientists, engineers, and engage citizens, it is impossible to demonstrate that certain groups of humans are lacking the civil right of freedom from "disproportionately high and adverse environmental effects." In other words, environmental justice provides compelling answer to a question that students often ask of high school coursework: why do I have to know this? An environmental justice framework allows students and to literally change the world through STEM.

This unit aims to create learning experiences that allow students to authentically connect science concepts, scientific investigations skills, and engineering-design thinking to real-world community issues. This work is complex and rich; it could potentially be a course on its own.  As such, the series of lesson in this unit should be considered as an general introduction.  Students will learn to define environmental justice, understand how science can be a tool of social activism, identify stakeholder interests that help or hinder environmental justice, identify toxic environmental threats in the local community, create maps using geographic information systems that make claims about environmental justice in Sunset Park, and develop ideas for how developers of Sunset Park can rehabilitate the community to ensure that all citizens live in an environmentally just community. Click here for a peek at the culminating CAPSTONE project for this unit. And for a rigorous academic exploration of this topic, see this article as well as the EPA white paper in the RESOURCES section. 

INTERDISCIPLINARY NOTE: This environmental justice focus lends itself well to interdisciplinary instruction. (See this Harvard course for an example of the interdisciplinary approach at the college level.)  I was able to incorporate aspects of the US History, ELA, Spanish, Health, and Algebra courses that my current 11th grade students also take. Interdisciplinary unit development can be an excellent way for students to understand the role of STEM content in their lives and to make connections across content areas.

RESOURCES NOTES: The attached PROFESSIONAL READINGS, contains a wealth of information for teachers wishing to explore environmental justice topics in greater depth.

FRAME: What is environmental bias?

How does place affect humans? This unit examines the environment through the human-centered lens of environmental justice. Do all people have access to healthy environments? How do we know? If we do not know, what information do we need to know?

"Environmental bias" introduces the idea that certain groups of people consistently live in areas with harmful environments. It also introduces the idea that data presented on maps can make powerful claims about equitable access to healthy physical environments in cities. Where are the areas of a city that are harmful to humans? Are these areas randomly distributed, or are they consistently located near certain groups of people? What tentative conclusions can we draw from analysis of maps that present this information?

Students begin with an exploration of UPROSE, a community-based environmental justice organization in Sunset Park. Then students explore maps of Connecticut communities to identify patterns in the distribution of air pollution and the characteristics of communities closest to air pollution. Students next define environmental bias and again analyze community maps through the lens of environmental bias. By the end of this lesson, successful student will be able to use maps to visually identify the proximity of human populations in different socio-economic classes to sources of pollution, to define environmental bias, and propose explanations for environmental bias within geographic regions.

RESOURCE NOTE: The attached PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE might be modified by educators to support activities in this lesson.


12 minutes

What is the purpose of this opening activity?

Students will have an opportunity to learn about environmental issues in their own community through the work of a youth community advocate.  The teacher is able to acquire baseline data. What do students already know about environmental justice issues in Sunset Park?  What misconceptions do they have?  What information and skills will they need to develop actions plans for the unit capstone?

What will students do?

Students will collectively view the embedded profile of Jonathan Ferrer.  Jonathan is a Brower Youth Award Winner and social justice organizer at the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE). UPROSE is a community-based organization that works to reduce the environmental burdens of the Sunset Park neighborhood.

After viewing, students will answer these reflection questions:

  • What did you learn about your neighborhood from Jonathan's work?
  • Do you have evidence from your own experience that supports or refutes Jonathan's claims about neighborhood health?
  • What do you think might be done to improve the environmental heath of Sunset Park?

Finally, students will share out responses and ideas will be digitally archived.  This simply means that student responses are stored on a "view only" master document corresponding to this assignment that is accessible to all students through the online Edmodo platform.

What is the suggested timing for this activity?

The viewing, reflection, and discussion components should each take about four minutes.  This is a general introduction; depth of thought and higher order questioning will ramp up over the sequence of lessons.

EXPLORE: Tolerance.org

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students will examine the distribution of air pollution in Connecticut in order to draw a conclusion about the correlation between location of pollution and the characteristics of a neighborhood.  The teacher can learn about students' ability to extract information from a map, establish correlations, and develop arguments from sources documents that present primarily non-text information. By the end of this activity students should be able to use specific evidence from the air pollution maps to support a claim about the correlation between the location of pollution and characteristics of a neighborhood.

What are the instructions for students?

Now look at the map Air Pollution in Minority Areas. This is a map of Connecticut. Use the guidelines below to help you interpret the information it presents. With your group, look at the key.

  • What two kinds of information does the map show?
  • What do the yellow dots represent?
  • What do the different shades of blue represent?
  • What do you notice about where the yellow dots are concentrated?
  • Write a claim about what the maps shows using specific evidence from the map.

What will the teacher do?

Depending on the composition of the class, the teacher can explicitly model how to read the map, provide specific guidelines, or issue a challenge (your challenge is to develop a claim from the argument in this map).  In my classes, I will show the map, and tell students that they are looking for a relationship between yellow and blue; I will then circulate to student groups and ask probing questions to push thinking.  What do the yellow dots represent?  Are the yellow dots randomly distributed?  (If students establish a correlation) Why do you think the yellow dots are mostly in the dark blue areas? 

RESOURCE NOTE: This is an activity modified from tolerance.org; this site contains numerous ideas for developing an understanding of environmental science through a social justice lens.  

EXPLAIN: Claims share and definitions

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students share ideas about what the maps from the EXPLORE section reveal. The class then uses these ideas to define environmental bias. By the end of this section, students should be able to define environmental bias using examples from the EXPLORE activity.

What will students do?

Students engage in a "silent conversation." Individual students circulate their claim to all members of their group.  Each group member uses the plus and delta system (activity "5") to agree or disagree with each claim.  A plus is an agreement; a delta is a disagreement.  Each plus or delta also includes a one sentence explanation of the student rater's reasoning. Once students have provided feedback they will engage in a whole class discussion of the meaning of the evidence from the EXPLORE activity. This activity ends with a definition of environmental bias that students will capture in the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE.

What will teachers do?

Teachers model the work protocol with students and then provide support for students during feedback.  Did you provide evidence for your plus statement? Then the teacher facilitates a whole class discussion with the purpose of surfacing a shared definition of "environmental bias." An effective teacher move is to first define "bias" generally using student-generated examples and definitions.  Then the group should work with claims from the EXPLORE activity to create a general definition for environment bias.  


ELABORATE: Class and race deep dive

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students have an opportunity to further explore the concept of environmental bias; they are also able to make connections to their own neighborhood.  The teacher is able to gather more baseline information about students' ability to draw conclusions from graphs. By the end of this section, students should be able to make claims about environmental bias based on community data provided. Claims should align with available evidence.

What will students do?

Students will examine graphs that show the information from the EXPLORE activity through a non-map lens. Here is a link to graphs develop by tolerance.org that students will use.  Questions that student will answer include:

  • Look at graphic 1 Exposure to Chemical Releases According to Income. Develop a claim that about what this map shows.  Use appropriate evidence and explain how the evidence connects to the claim. Then do the same for graphic 2 Exposure to Hazardous Waste Sites According to Income. What relationship do the graphs show between income and exposure to pollution?

  • Complete the same tasks for the two remaining graphs 3 and 4: Exposure to Hazardous Waste Sites According to Race and Exposure to Chemical Releases According to Race. What relationship do the graphs show between race and exposure to pollution?

  • Do you think “environmental bias” is happening in the situations shown in the graphs? In other words, do you think that it is an institutionalized system that unfairly deprives people of the right not to be exposed to toxins? Develop a claim and support with evidence.

  • What about Sunset Park?. What examples of environmental biases do you see? 

What will the teacher do?

Again, my role is to push thinking by asking students probing questions about their interpretations of material.  Depending on the skill foundation of the particular class, I may also review how to read a graph at the onset of this activity. For classes with underdeveloped mathematical reasoning skills, this lesson should include an introduction to identifying relationships. (Here is an example of content that might be modified for classroom use.)

EVALUATE and EXIT: Summarizing learning

3 minutes

Class ends with an explanation of the last part of this assignment.

One way to consolidate what you’ve learned is to summarize it. Think of it as explaining what you’ve learned to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Do this by writing a short story of no more than 500 words that captures your observations of environmental bias in the Sunset Park community.  Include a description of causes and effects of environmental bias.

What will the teacher look for in this response?

I am assessing students' understanding of the environmental bias concept and students' ability to develop claims about why environmental bias exists in the local community.  Some examples of proficient connections might include:

  • the concentration of industrial buildings along the waterfront in Industry City, a warehouse area across the street from Sunset Park High School, compared with the beautiful parkland along the waterfront of the much wealthier DUMBO neighborhood
  • the absence of recreational green space in Sunset Park compared to the frequent parks one encounters in the Bay Ridge neighborhood that abuts Sunset Park.