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Unit 1: Introduction to Environmental Justice

Translated and adapted by Ruth Hoff, Wittenberg University, from Unit 1 material of Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources module by Adriana Perez, Jill S. Schneiderman, Meg Stewart, and Joshua Villalobos
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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.


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.

Cross Cutting Concepts

Patterns: Classifications or explanations used at one scale may fail or need revision when information from smaller or larger scales is introduced; thus requiring improved investigations and experiments. HS-C1.2:

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:

Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience: Moreover, anthropogenic changes (induced by human activity) in the environment—including habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, overexploitation, and climate change—can disrupt an ecosystem and threaten the survival of some species. HS-LS2.C2:

Biodiversity and Humans: Humans depend on the living world for the resources and other benefits provided by biodiversity. But human activity is also having adverse impacts on biodiversity through overpopulation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, pollution, introduction of invasive species, and climate change. Thus sustaining biodiversity so that ecosystem functioning and productivity are maintained is essential to supporting and enhancing life on Earth. Sustaining biodiversity also aids humanity by preserving landscapes of recreational or inspirational value. HS-LS4.D1:

  1. 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.

  2. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

    For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: May 23, 2016


In this unit, students investigate the history of the environmental justice (EJ) movement in the United States, situating it within the context of the US civil rights and environmental movements. Students also make connections to issues of environmental equity on a global scale. The unit serves as a foundation for exploring the scientific background of environmental justice issues in subsequent units, particularly the interrelatedness of hydrology and 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. The specific learning objectives for this unit align with the World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages as follows:

  • Communication
    • Interpersonal Communication: Spanish language learners interact and negotiate meaning in spoken conversations to share information, reactions, and opinions about environmental justice.
    • Interpretive Communication: Spanish language learners understand, interpret, and analyze what is heard, read, or viewed regarding major events in the development of the environmental justice movement in the United States.
  • Connections
    • Making Connections: Spanish language learners build, reinforce, and expand their knowledge of other disciplines while using Spanish to develop critical thinking. As part of this learners will:
      • Define environmental justice, and
      • Describe examples of how communities may be vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Context for Use

This unit is designed to function as one day of instruction in an intermediate-level Spanish class. The materials are especially appropriate for a Spanish course that focuses on environmental studies, human rights, contemporary issues, conversation, and/or global change. Students do not need any prior knowledge of scientific concepts or environmental justice. The plan is for a 50-minute class, but it can be modified to fit various schedules. Although the instructions below include both Spanish and English, the lesson is designed to be conducted entirely in Spanish. 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 freshwater 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 (EJ) movement in the United States, situating it within the context of the U.S. 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

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, the first exploration activity encourages students to think about what we mean when we say "the environment." This quick teaching tool challenges the 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.

After this warm up, students will work with various definitions of environmental justice to clarify their own understanding of the term. They will also be introduced to the history of environmental justice in the United States and consider how the concept may apply to issues in Spain and Latin America through additional PowerPoint materials. La justicia ambiental (Powerpoint) (PowerPoint 2.4MB May17 16)

Exploration Activity (10 min): ¿Dónde está el ambiente y qué hace la gente allí? (Where is the Environment and What Do People Do There?)

  • Tell students to raise their hands when they see photos of the environment.

  • Show the images to your class one at a time, giving a few moments for students to raise their hands, or not, in response to each image.
  • 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 the 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 only as something that exists in the wilderness.
  • Share the definition of the environment used in the environmental justice movement: "the places where we live, work, play and learn" ("los lugares donde vivimos, trabajamos, jugamos y aprendemos").

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

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

  • Ask students to brainstorm a definition (in Spanish) of the term "justicia" jotting down some notes as they think up their definitions. Give students a minute or two for this task.
  • Ask students to get together in pairs or at most, groups with three or four students, so they can share their definitions.
  • 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 in Spanish for "justicia." The instructor might choose to compare the class definition with one from an encyclopedia or dictionary. For example, el Diccionario de la Real Academia offers as a definition of "justicia:"

1. f. Una de las cuatro virtudes cardinales, que inclina a dar a cada uno lo que le corresponde o pertenece.

2. f. Derecho, razón, equidad.

3. f. Conjunto de todas las virtudes, por el que es bueno quien las tiene.

4. f. Aquello que debe hacerse según derecho o razón. Pido justicia.

  • Ask students to think for a moment about potential scenarios associated with the concept of "la justicia ambiental," or 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 board.
  • Have students combine the ideas from the discussion and their definitions of "el ambiente" and "la justicia" to derive a working definition of "la justicia ambiental." Give them several minutes to write down their definitions.

Presentation and Discussion of the Development of the Environmental Justice Movement (20 min): La justicia ambiental (Powerpoint) (PowerPoint 2.4MB May17 16)

  • Show the PowerPoint on the Development of the Environmental Justice Movement. Questions embedded in the presentation can be used to stimulate questions and dialogue. For example:
    • ¿Qué ves en las imágenes que puede indicar injusticia ambiental?

    • ¿Por qué crees que se escogen las áreas dominadas por grupos minoritarios y pobres como sitios para la eliminación de residuos tóxicos?

    • ¿En que respecto crees que los países de Latino América serán o no serán como los EEUU en cuanto a la justicia ambiental?

  • After showing the PowerPoint, give students several minutes to rewrite their definitions of environmental justice taking into consideration what they learned from the presentation.

Comparison of definitions (10 min):

  • Distribute the definitions of environmental justice used by the U.S. EPA and and allow students a few minutes to quickly read these definitions. Note the vocabulary words "envenenar" and "dejar de envenenar" as needed. definiciones de la justicia ambiental (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Dec15 14)
  • Ask students to talk with a partner and identify at least one major difference between the EPA and definitions. Have several pairs of students share with the class the primary differences they have identified.

Teaching Notes and Tips

For the first activity you will need images of different types of environments. You may choose to use photos from your own community, use the photos available on the website Voices from the Valley: Environmental Justice in California's San Joaquin Valley, other images from environmental organizations readily available on the Web, or the photos included in this unit's PowerPoint PowerPoint about the History of the Environmental Justice Movement (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 3.1MB Apr28 16).

If students need more time to absorb the material and work with these definitions, the assessment as described below also includes follow-up activities for a subsequent class period.


Minute Paper (homework assignment):

Ask students to to complete the following tasks in Spanish using language they know:
  • Finalize your definition of environmental justice (Escribe una versión final de tu definición para la justicia ambiental.)
  • Compare your definition to those of the EPA and EJnet. How is it similar and how is it different in each case? (Compara tu definición con las de la EPA y de la EJnet. ¿Cómo es similar y cómo es diferente en cada caso?)
  • Why have you decided to define it as you have? (Por qué decidiste definirla así?)

Grading Rubric for Minute Paper: Grading Rubric for Minute Paper (Spanish) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 86kB Apr28 16)

The two activities below can also be used as a follow-up to this unit's homework assignment in a subsequent class period:

  • 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.
  • Discuss as a class the ways in which 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.

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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 »