The Science of Everything

The rise of environmental science in the classroom

By Sophie Webb

Stepping into the Baldwin School’s main building does not feel like stepping into a school at all. The building, which is a former hotel designed by Frank Furness, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a towering vision of red. The entryway still resembles the lobby it used to be, complete with coat racks, ornate rugs, and a crackling fire.

Students parade by in snappy plaid uniforms, and the essence of the former hotel gradually dissolves into the noise of the lunchroom, the backpacks of the students and the other small clues indicating that Baldwin is no longer a hotel, but an all-girls private school on Philadelphia’s Main Line.

The Baldwin School

The Baldwin School

Although the uniforms and the grandeur give Baldwin an old fashioned air, the institution is actually ahead of the curve when it comes to course offerings like environmental science, a relatively new offering in secondary schools.

Environmental science is the study of the earth through biology and physical science, as well as the examination of environmental issues and potential solutions.

According to the 2012 Horizon Research, Inc. National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, only 48 percent of high schools nationwide offer any sort of environmental science course, and only 18 percent offer more than one year of environmental science. Although these numbers seem low, they have been growing over the past two decades.

In Horizon Research, Inc.’s report on trends in science and mathematics education from 1977 to 2000, they found that from 1993 to 2000, the percentage of high schools offering environmental science courses increased from 24 to 39 percent. Their 2012 report shows that the percent is still on the rise.

At Baldwin, the science department offers two environmental science courses at the high school level, each a semester long.

The two courses, Environmental Science 1 – Natural Resources, Consumption and the Environment, and Environmental Science 2 – Global population, Agriculture and the Environment, complement one another, and most students opt to take both classes.

Currently, a small group of Baldwin seniors meet every other day with teacher Maggie Epstein, to study environmental science. After doing Teach for America, earning her bachelor’s degree in physical anthropology and genetics, and a master’s in chemistry and education, Epstein is in her first year teaching at Baldwin.

She describes environmental science as, “the niche she fell into,” and enjoys teaching the subject because, “it’s… a nice way to apply the other sciences, [and] because it involves not just biology and chemistry, but also economics and politics.”

In her course, Epstein tries to balance presenting environmental science in a way that is personal and relatable to her students, while also teaching them about the large scale implications and effects of global environmental issues.

She explains that “everywhere I’ve taught, kids aren’t as aware of the scope of the problem… everything sounds so far away, everything sounds kind of abstract.” A large part of her class is showing her students how immediate the problems are. Recently her students conducted air pollution labs.

She explains that, “they prepped it [the lab] here and brought it home, and did air pollution studies from where they live… we got some pretty interesting results from center city all the way out to… the country.” The air pollution lab sent students into their own communities, to analyze an environmental issue that is affecting not only their communities in Pennsylvania, but people all over the world. Epstein has brought her class to a wind farm, and a wastewater treatment plant, making sure to contextualize the concepts her students are learning about through a local lens.

Epstein’s class is the picture of educational diversity. Her students spend time taking notes on chemistry based concepts like ozone depletion, watching documentaries like the recent film Catching the Sun, and exploring literature.

As in many schools, environmental science at Baldwin is an elective course, and Epstein approaches the course with a flexible attitude, giving students the freedom to study what they want. She understands that, “classes have their own tone and things they’re drawn to.” Her students this year are interested in solar power, and are thinking about drafting a proposal to put solar panels on the science building. Epstein also makes sure to encourage her students to think critically, examining and challenging mainstream practices like recycling and shopping with reusable bags.

Epstein understands that “there’s a temptation to see this as a tree hugging class… and that’s not what it is whatsoever.” She likes to begin the course with a discussion about the “tragedy of the commons,” one of her favorite concepts.

She teaches her students that “when humans are inherently greedy… [and] everyone is kind of taking care of themselves, everyone suffers.” By starting the class off on this note, she sets the tone that environmental sciences is not only about biology, chemistry, and labs, but also about global climate change, and environmental justice and racism.

She wants to instill in her students that environmental science is learning about decision making, and being aware of how our actions impact the world.

Studying environmental science is empowering. Baldwin senior Rora Alidjani explains that she likes her environmental science class, “because with the election going on, I felt I could understand more.”

Environmental science helps students understand the world around them, allowing them to interact with the issues of their time, and see ways in which they can make a difference.

Epstein says that in her classroom, “we don’t allow wrong, we don’t allow bad, it’s just choices.”