21st-Century Learning with STEAM and Sustainability


David Ward is an EcoRise Teacher Ambassador in his fourth year of teaching fourth-grade math and science at Joe Lee Johnson Elementary School in Round Rock, Texas. Joe Lee Johnson is a STEAM academy where science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics, and hands-on experiences are fully integrated into student learning. In this piece, David explores how adding sustainability education to the list of integrated subjects has enhanced student involvement and the authenticity of learning at his school.

When I first learned that the newly built Joe Lee Johnson Elementary School would be a STEAM academy, I was intrigued. In my 20 years in the classroom, I had seen many teaching models, most of them just old concepts rebranded under new names. Would this be more of the same? Thankfully, as one of the school’s inaugural teachers, I was able to join an inspiring team—led by a dynamic principal, Gabi Nino—dedicated to making sure it would not be more of the same.

Our vision was to provide students with authentic learning experiences that seamlessly integrated science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics. We learned quickly that Project-Based Learning (PBL) presented the most effective way to integrate the subjects—if a problem felt real to the students, they drove their own learning. One of our earliest successes grew from students’ shocked reaction to an article about the damaging effects of single-use plastic bottles. Voila! Our driving question appeared: How could we encourage our community to use reusable water bottles? Drawing from all STEAM subjects, students researched the problem and developed a campaign to educate the school community about it. However, the project was limited mostly to posters and moments on the school’s morning news. I wondered how my students might achieve a more tangible impact.

Around that time, I learned at a training session about EcoRise’s resources for teachers: well-planned curricula; engaging lesson plans; personal support; and, to top it off, funding! I immediately implemented EcoRise in my classroom, and our project took on a new life. My students conducted an Eco-Audit on plastic water-bottle usage and used their data to develop strategies for encouraging less waste: a pizza party and trophy each week for whichever class had used the most reusable bottles, a campaign for students to earn a collector’s set of reusable water bottles with the school’s emblem, and opportunities to win prizes for recycling plastic water bottles. To develop their ideas, manage the project, and actuate their solutions, students had to use 21st-century skills in creativity, communication, and collaboration. They calculated budgets, scripted speeches, recorded video, created games, and negotiated deals with pizza companies. Soon, the school was abuzz with talk about reusable bottles. Everyone was walking around with bottles my students had designed. Students saw the impact of their work on the community—an experience they likely won’t forget.

The following year, students developed a project to reduce food waste through the use of zero-waste lunch boxes. Using an EcoRise grant, they provided over 150 students with free Bento lunch boxes. In one semester, the number of zero-waste lunch boxes in use daily grew from six to over 170. Students also conducted cafeteria audits and created a food-share table to minimize the amount of food thrown away, and they developed a project that won a $500 grant to replace plastic cutlery with compostables.

Through these experiences, students have not only learned about sustainability but have actively employed critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. They have collaborated in teams; written reports, speeches, and campaigns; checked facts and consulted multiple sources to get accurate information; used their math skills to determine the effectiveness of their work; and solved real-world problems through the integration of STEAM and authentic learning opportunities.

It has been particularly rewarding to see students’ genuine excitement about making a difference in their community.  If my students graduate knowing not just that there are problems in our world but that they can tangibly do something about them, that is a lesson worth teaching.

Our work at Joe Lee Johnson has only just begun. The school has grown from 350 students in the first year to more than 850 currently. Growth brings both new challenges and new opportunities. Opportunities like those provided by EcoRise fortify students’ experiences and continue to build our campus vision. We still have much to learn, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

So, as they say: Full STEAM ahead!

Join us at the NAAEE Conference in Lexington, Kentucky October 16–19, 2019 to hear from David and EcoRise about how to leverage your school building, data collection tools, technology, and community support to empower students to tackle real-world sustainability challenges and foster a passion for STEAM!