The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

The Calumet Environmental Education Program: A Model for Science Learning

By Kirk Anne Taylor
From ASTC Dimensions
May/June 2010

“I always wanted to be able to connect what I taught in class to a real-world situation. [The Calumet Environmental Education Program (CEEP)] allows students to not only learn about environmental issues, but also take action on an issue. I feel my students learned more during this year than any other year.”
—Milton Katsaros, CEEP Teacher

In 2002, the Field Museum in Chicago launched the Calumet Environmental Education Program (CEEP) as a new model of conservation education that translates science into action for students and teachers. Developed by the museum’s Division of Environment, Culture, and Conservation (ECCo), CEEP began as a pilot project for schools in the Calumet region of southeast Chicago. Since its inception, CEEP has grown to serve more than 2,700 students and 100 teachers from 23 Calumet schools annually. Students in grades 4 to 12 learn about local biodiversity through a consecutive ladder of environmental education programs that build content knowledge grade level upon grade level.

ECCo uses museum collections and resources to promote environmental conservation and cultural understanding through programs in Chicago and South America, engaging the human communities that live in and around the world’s biologically rich landscapes. We work with partner organizations to identify and use communities’ strengths to protect biological diversity and cultural heritage. CEEP enables ECCo to work with schools and community partners, including the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Chicago State University, the Calumet Stewardship Initiative (an alliance of over 20 community-based organizations), and the Chicago Department of Environment, to address pressing environmental concerns in the Calumet region.

Stretching along the southern shores of Lake Michigan from southeast Chicago to northwest Indiana, the Calumet region contains outstanding pockets of rich natural areas, intermingled with abandoned steel mills, landfills, and ongoing industrial activity. Despite a historic legacy of contaminated waterways and hazardous waste sites, the Calumet region is home to several critical remnants of endangered Great Lakes ecosystems. This natural biodiversity and the need for conservation, together with the existing infrastructure of community leaders and organizations to implement these changes, make Calumet an ideal location for a program like CEEP.

Integrated curriculum

The CEEP curriculum has three components—Mighty Acorns (grades 4–6), Earth Force (grades 7–8), and Calumet Is My Back Yard (CIMBY) (grades 9–12)—which engage students in science by letting them apply what they have learned to real-life community conservation issues.

  • In Mighty Acorns, students visit a local natural area three times a year, participating in exploration of local biodiversity, educational activities that illustrate basic ecological concepts, and stewardship activities, such as removing invasive species and spreading native seeds.
  • Earth Force helps youth develop the problem-solving skills needed to create long-term solutions to community environmental issues. Students choose a local environmental issue—such as toxic cleaning solutions in schools or air pollution—and develop and implement a community project to address it.
  • CIMBY students participate in stewardship and ecological monitoring activities in local natural areas throughout the year. On leadership days, students visit a variety of ecosystems and share ideas about conservation with students from other schools. In the summer, interested students participate in science and conservation internships.

The CEEP curriculum model was designed to build upon the Chicago Public Schools’ initiative to cultivate clusters of schools that work together to improve the effectiveness of education at every grade level. Consequently, CEEP was piloted with one high school and its eight elementary feeder schools. The subject matter that students learn in their regular classes is integrated into field experiences so that students gain a greater understanding of the environment and acquire skills they need to act on what they have learned. Learning outcomes for each grade level are driven by Illinois Learning Standards.

One significant advantage of having a common curriculum for the CEEP cluster of schools is that it has enabled us to provide common professional development for all the teachers in that cluster. CEEP was designed to expand teachers’ knowledge of local biodiversity and basic ecological concepts. During CEEP workshops, teachers integrate environmental content into their existing classroom curricula, practice environmental education activities, and coordinate activities with teachers from other grades.

Lessons learned
CEEP was initiated with the expressed intention of evaluating this integrated environmental education model. An evaluation protocol was developed by an external evaluator, Terrie Nolinske of TNI Consultants in Professional Development. The assessment protocol consisted of attitude and knowledge surveys given to students and teachers at the beginning (pre-test) and end (post-test) of the school year for three consecutive years, from 2002 to 2005. An independent statistician reviewed the assessment protocol to verify that attitude and knowledge changes were a result of CEEP. Of the 62 teachers that took part in the program from 2002 to 2005, 54 completed the evaluation. We also analyzed the responses of the 111 students who participated in the program for all three school years consecutively.

Highlights of the CEEP evaluation demonstrate the power of professional development and hands-on learning to effect change in both students and teachers.

  • Students and teachers made statistically significant gains in knowledge about biodiversity, the local community, and local environmental issues.
  • Teachers were able to compose teaching objectives specific to the environment, focusing on the goal of preparing students for further environmental study.
  • Teachers reported feeling more confident about their knowledge of environmental issues. In 2002, 69 percent of teachers reported that a “lack of knowledge makes it difficult to include environmental content in my teaching.” In 2005, only 14 percent agreed with this statement.
  • Students reported that CEEP stimulated their interest in science through activities and field trips.

Moving forward, we intend to expand the CEEP model to additional schools in Calumet. We are also working to connect CEEP with existing programs run by our partner organizations so that we can offer schools a slate of programs that build on one another year after year. This approach enables us to strategically allocate our collective resources throughout the region.

Kirk Anne Taylor is urban conservation manager at the Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois. The 2005 CEEP evaluation is available online at (pdf, 40 pp.)

About the image: CEEP students remove invasive garlic mustard from Eggers Woods, located in southeast Chicago. Photo by John Weinstein

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