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Unit 1: Introduction to Environmental Justice

Jill S. Schneiderman (Vassar College) and Meg E. Stewart (American Museum of Natural History, M.A.T. Program)

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.

Overview

In this unit, students develop and refine definitions of the environment and environmental justice, recognizing that extraction of resources comes with social and environmental costs.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Natural Resources: All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors. HS-ESS3.A2:

This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.


This page first made public: Jul 12, 2015

Summary

Students will investigate the history of the environmental justice movement in the United States by situating it within the context of the US civil rights and environmental movements. The unit also makes connections to issues of environmental equity on a global scale. Student-centered discussions will connect environmental justice with the scientific background of the issues, and in particular its interrelatedness with hydrologic concepts.

Learning Goals

Unit 1 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to examples of water scarcity and contamination in varied geographic locations and proposing potential solutions to inequitable access to clean water based on principles of the hydrologic cycle. The specific learning objectives for this unit are as follows:

  • Students will define environmental justice.
  • Students will describe examples of how communities may be vulnerable to environmental hazards such as contaminated or depleted water sources usually used for domestic purposes.
  • Students will identify major events in the development of the environmental justice movement in the United States.

Context for Use

This unit is designed to function as one day of instruction in an introductory geology, environmental studies or global change class. The lecture is customizable for different teaching needs and the activities can be done in class, completed together, or completed as homework, depending on time and topical needs. As a stand-alone unit, the materials communicate the critical need for access to fresh water by people in different regions around the world all under differing circumstances. This unit explains the water quality access issues and steps communities took to improve access to drinkable water. This section of the module provides an overview of the history of the environmental justice movement in the United States, situating it within the context of the US civil rights and environmental movements. It also makes connections to issues of environmental equity on a global scale. The module will connect discussions of environmental justice with the scientific background of the issues.

Description and Teaching Materials

Activity 1.1: People and Environment Exploration Activity (10 min)

Because many students perceive "the environment" as existing only in wild nature and that what people "do" in "the environment" is nothing more than recreation, this exploration activity encourages students to think about what we mean when we say "the environment." This quick teaching tool challenges this stereotypical notion of environment as relatively untouched nature and shares the definition of the environment used in the environmental justice movement. Its intention is to help students see "the environment" all around them and as a result develop a strong foundation for understanding that human health and well-being depend on the environment.

For this activity, you will need images of different types of environments. You may choose to use photos from your own community or use other images from environmental organizations or government websites. Images such as the following should provoke a range of reactions. Project these images (or your alternative customized images) onto a classroom screen or hold up for viewing printed versions in a small, seminar style class. Instructions are as follows:

  1. Tell students to raise their hands when they see photos of the environment in the following Unit 1 Exploration Activity PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 10.9MB Jun11 15).
  2. Show the images to your class one at a time, giving students a few moments to raise their hands, or not, in response to each image.
  3. After showing all the photos, reflect briefly about the class consensus on which photos depict the environment. If most students responded affirmatively only to the wilderness and recreational sports photos, explain that this understanding reflects the mainstream view of the environment in the United States, but that those in the environmental justice movement see the environment differently. If students raised their hands for all photos, note that this understanding reflects the view of the environment typically held by people active in the environmental justice movement. You can contrast this perspective with those of people who view the environment as something that exists only in the wilderness.
  4. Share the definition of the environment used in the environmental justice movement: "the places where we live, work, play and learn."
  5. Choose one image to show to the class a second time. Ask them which of the five spheres of the earth system—atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, cryosphere and hydrosphere—appear in the image. Repeat this for as many images as time allows so that students get the message that the environment usually involves all five of Earth's interacting spheres.

Example Images for Activity 1.1







Activity 1.2: Exploring the Concept of Environmental Justice Think-Pair-Share Activity (10 min)

After having considered the idea of what constitutes "the environment," this activity will help students hone their definitions of environmental justice. Instructions are as follows:

  1. Ask students to brainstorm a definition of the term "justice," jotting down some notes as they think up their definitions. Give students a minute or two for this task.
  2. Ask students to get together in pairs or at most, groups with three or four students, so they can share their definitions.
  3. Ask for responses from some or all of the pairs or small groups. Using the students' definitions, help the class as a whole construct a general definition for "justice." The instructor might choose to compare the class definition with one from an encyclopedia or dictionary. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary offers as a definition of justice: i. just behavior or treatment; ii. the fair treatment of people; iii. the quality of being fair or reasonable.
  4. Give students a moment to think about potential scenarios associated with the concept of environmental justice. They might consider situations they have encountered personally or situations they noticed in the visuals shown by the instructor in the exploration activity. Have the students share their examples in their pair or group and then share with the whole class. Instructor may list examples on the board.
  5. Have students combine the ideas from the discussion and their definitions of environment and justice to derive a working definition of environmental justice. Give them several minutes to write down their definitions.

Activity 1.3: Presentation and Discussion of the Development of the Environmental Justice Movement (20 min)

  1. Show the PowerPoint on the Development of the Environmental Justice Movement. PowerPoint about the History of the Environmental Justice Movement (PowerPoint 11.7MB Jun11 15)
    • The PowerPoint provides an overview of the development of the Environmental Justice Movement. Questions embedded in the presentation can be used to stimulate questions and dialogue. For example:
      • What evidence can you find in the images for environmental injustice?
      • Why do you think areas dominated by minorities and the poor are often sites for disposing of toxic waste? How can it be changed?
      • How can the involvement of minorities in these organizations help the cause of environmental justice?
  2. After showing the PowerPoint, give students several minutes to rewrite their definitions of environmental justice, taking into consideration what they learned from the presentation.
  3. Share the definitions of environmental justice below used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the Environmental Justice Network (EJnet).

    a. The EPA definition of environmental justice is as follows: Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

    b. Definitions from the Environmental Justice Network (EJnet) vary as follows:

    • Environmental equity: Poison people equally.
    • Environmental justice: Stop poisoning people, period.

    Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. Environmental justice is the movement's response to environmental racism. "Environmental equity" is not environmental justice. "Environmental equity" is the government's response to the demands of the Environmental Justice Movement. Government agencies, like the EPA, have been co-opting the movement by redefining environmental justice as "fair treatment and meaningful involvement," something they consistently fail to accomplish, but which also falls far short of the environmental justice vision. The Environmental Justice Movement isn't seeking to simply redistribute environmental harms, but to abolish them.

  4. Ask students to place their definitions along a continuum between both definitions. For example, draw a line on the board with the EPA definition at one end and EJnet definitions at the other; have students place a Post-it note along the line that shows the placement of their environmental justice definition.
  5. Discuss as a class the ways the definitions generated by the class differ from or are similar to the EPA and EJnet definitions. Allow students to move their Post-it notes after the discussion and explain, if they would like to, why they did so.

Activity 1.4: Minute Paper (10 min):

A "minute paper" provides the opportunity for the instructor to determine, in real time, whether the students' perception of the central points match up with those of the instructor. It will also give students an opportunity to organize their thoughts and reflect on what they have encountered in the curricular materials. For this material, ask students to address the following:

  • What two events or examples related to environment and justice from today's class do you personally consider significant? Explain why you find them meaningful.
  • Offer an example of a potential environmental hazard for your city or region.
You might also include in the minute paper the chance for students to point to an aspect of the lesson that remains unresolved in their minds. Such remaining issues can provide jumping off points for further reflection.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching notes, specific to each activity, may be found here (private instructor-only file):

Unit 1 Notes for Instructors


This file is only accessible to verified educators. If you are a teacher or faculty member and would like access to this file please enter your email address to be verified as belonging to an educator.


Assessment

The Unit 1 Minute Paper (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 37kB Jan8 15) can be used for a metacognitive assessment. A grading rubric is provided to assess student comprehension of the material Unit 1 Minute Paper Assessment Rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 120kB Sep16 14).

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »