Nature and Society - Environmental Justice in Rhode Island

School Context

The Greene School is a State-wide Public Charter School in West Greenwich, Rhode Island.  The mission of The Greene School is to “develop citizens and leaders engaged in finding peaceful and sustainable solutions to local and global challenges.”  We serve approximately 210 students from 22 districts across the state of Rhode Island, including a significant percentage of students from urban, suburban, and rural communities.  We are a unique schooling option for students in grades 9-12 because of our commitment to engaging a diverse student population in environmental and social justice education. The campus consists of a beautiful landscape with more than 70 acres of forest and open spaces. In addition to having access to the natural spaces of the campus, we also frequently travel to various locations around the states.  

Curricular Context (Grade Level, Subject Area)

This 6 week long, 10th grade interdisciplinary project (see the overall expedition plan) takes place between three core classes: US History/Civics, Chemistry, and English Language Arts. Students examine issues of environmental justice in Rhode Island as they grapple with the state’s ecological past, human growth and development, and the state of affairs today. The expedition begins with a discussion around the question: what are the most important environmental justice issues that currently face our communities? In 2021, the expedition focused on two priority issues identified by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island: climate change and exposure to environmental toxins. In future years, we plan to have students decide the priority issues. The science behind the issues and the legal policy created to address the issues are explored as a way for students to experience how regular citizens can make positive impacts on their communities and the world. In addition to this topic aligning with our school’s mission, students also find this focus compelling and relevant because it addresses shocking equity issues that many in our school community have experienced first-hand. This project offers students the opportunity to research and learn about environmental justice, and then to raise their voices on these issues and be heard by experts in the state.

Environment

Through this project, Greene School students explore a set of real environmental justice challenges facing their communities, and mobilize community assets to address these challenges. 

Challenge:  Port of Providence/ Industrial Pollution in South Providence-Public Health

The Port of Providence is New England's second biggest deep water port, strategically located along the Northeast coast, and anchored by strong tenants each of which utilizes the port as a distribution center within the New England area. ProvPort's tenants are primarily major companies with a long history at the port. These tenant industries range in their scope and size and involve the importation of fossil fuels, the export of recycled metals, and the deconstruction of ships, along with general import and export of goods. These industrial uses – located in close proximity to the city’s racially and economically diverse residents – raise important environmental justice concerns. 

Using the Port of Providence as their classroom, tenth grade students explore questions related to commerce, environmental impact, equity, and environmental racism. Students tour the waterfront neighborhoods and commercial areas in part to see how close the industry and their community neighbors are in proximity to each other. They examine the types of industries located in this vicinity, in order to later understand the environmental impact of those industries and whether or not those industries are regulated in their work and its potentially dangerous by-products. Through this process students will also develop an understanding and appreciation for how policies related to zoning have significant implications for social, economic, and community health – in particular, that there are always benefits and tradeoffs when making zoning decisions. 

Challenge: Woonasquatucket River Historic Industrial River

The Woonasquatucket River is a river in the U.S. state of Rhode Island. It flows approximately 15.8 miles (25.4 km) and drains a watershed of 130 km2 (50 sq mi).Together with the Blackstone River to the north, the Woonasquatucket was designated an American Heritage River in 1998. Both rivers played active roles in the industrial revolution and the history of Rhode Island in the 19th century. Evidence of this industrial history remains in the fact that there are 18 dams along the river's length. The river is designated Class B , not suitable for drinking or eating fish, due to  the historic pollution from previous industrial industries. This fieldwork allows students to see a different example of pollution’s long term effects on an industrial/urban environment that looks different, but similar to the Port of Providence. Students meet with the local river council non profit to do water sampling, river clean up and discussion of historic uses and remediation efforts. There is focus on pollutants, history and pertinent legislation affecting the river.

The river serves a vital purpose in showing/demonstrating the power of legislation as its improvement, while not complete, is moving steadily in a positive direction. The uses of reclaimed industrial sites on the river also demonstrate the power of community to reclaim abused areas and make them vital to the community and the environment. It is in these positive examples of remediation that students develop a working idea of the end product of activism, lobbying, legislation and stewardship of land and water.

Assets: Community Partnerships (city planner, lobbyists, etc.)

Throughout this project we partner with a variety of governmental and nongovernmental community stakeholders including city planners, environmental news organizations (ECORI), environmental law groups (CLF), environmental lobbying groups (ECRI), and Rhode Island Audubon Society. 

Assets: Success Story of Narragansett Bay

About 40 years after the creation of the clean water act the water quality of Narragansett Bay has undergone an incredible degree of environmental restoration.  A bay/river once known for regular fish kills (from nutrient pollution) is now a place where people can fish and harvest cohogs (clams). 

Expectations

Students examine issues of environmental justice in Rhode Island as they grapple with the State’s ecological past, human growth and development, and the state of affairs today. The expedition content focuses on the two priority areas identified by an important environmental group, the Environmental Council of Rhode Island: climate change and environmental toxins. Students explore the science behind the issues and the legal policy created to address the issues, as a way to experience how regular citizens can make positive impacts on their communities and the world. Students learn about specific industrial businesses, how their practices impact the air and water quality, and how this in turn impacts public health. 

Prior Content Knowledge: This expedition relies on knowledge about Reactants and Products in Chemical Reactions, Mixtures, Solutions, Suspensions, Measuring Small Quantities (PPB, PPM, etc.).

CORE Skills: This expedition intentionally builds skills in APA citation, research, data analysis, research-and evidence-based writing, and public presentations.

The chart below shares the priority skills and content for this project, and how these skills and content standards connect in specific student products, experiences, and performances:

PRIORITY CONTENT PRIORITY SKILLS
 

The Research Process 

W. 9-10.7, W. 9-10.8, W. 9-10.9

 

Informational Writing

W.9-10.1

Investigation Design and Implementation

NGSS Science & Engineering Practices

Presentation & Civic Engagement 

 SL. 9-10.2, SL 9-10.5, L. 9-10.6, SL. 9-10.4, SL. 9-10.6

Combustion of Fossil Fuels: Chemical Reactions, Energy Transformations, Air Pollution (Science)

HS-PS1-6*   Avoiding incomplete combustion

HS-ESS3-4* Solutions to air pollution 

HS-ESS3-3 Human Sustainability

Examining state data for changes in air quality over time.

Air Quality Investigation Report

Particle and Ozone Air Quality Data Collection

After researching Students will design their own investigation then collect data 

 

State House Exhibit

Processes of Government (History)

 Standard 1: Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. 

 

-Identification of Senators and Reps 

-Current legislation 

- Law making steps/procedure

-Email to Local Representative

-Decoding Bills:

Determining effectiveness of current legislation

?

State house exhibit

(Student-Written Bill)

Environmental Justice (Science, ELA, History)

 

            

Research journal questions

Juxtaposition of wealth and less wealthy neighborhoods assets and deficits

Examination of Brown University Asthma data

Research Journalism Article

Asset/Deficit Fieldwork Investigation Design (Survey both locations)

 

State house exhibit

Exhibition

The culminating event for the unit is student presentations to an audience of peers, experts, and legislators at the Rhode Island State House. Students invite their local representatives and seek to deliver collections of signatures in support of a particular piece of legislation. At this event, students share their most powerful written and multimedia work -- drawing on the portfolio of culminating work described below: 

Formal Writing: Research Journalism Article 

The primary piece of writing students complete is a Research Journalism piece based on a chosen environmental pollutant affecting air quality within Rhode Island.  Students could choose the pollutant that was the focus of their research: ozone, lead, VOCs, Dioxoins, particulates, CO2, for instance. Students will look at the causes of these pollutants, how this issue has been addressed through policy and environment, and potential solutions. In science class students will collect and analyze data relevant to their specific pollutant. This will include initial impressions, guiding questions, key findings, and interpretations of the most important data sets. Students examine the legislative process as well as the environmental regulations that are associated with the pollutant they are investigating. Student to determine if said legislation is in fact effective or if more stringent regulations would be necessary. In English classes students study the tactics and strategies of effective journalism and examine the effects of bias in writing. The Research and Data Journal is the key piece of scaffolding used during the research process.

Multimedia Project: Photojournalism Image with Caption  

Students capture images that they feel like represent the essence of the environmental justice stories that they are learning about.  These images are accompanied by short captions and will be presented at the statehouse.  This project is the synthesis of students' initial fieldwork experience. 

Data Collection and Analysis: Air Quality Research Poster 

In science class students design and execute an investigation to test various air quality indicators at locations throughout the state.  Students use data that is publicly available to come up with a question, hypothesis and research methods before collecting data in the field. 

Formal Writing: Legislation 

Students write a piece of legislation to address a social justice need/opportunity. Students would conference local environmental stakeholders to land on key issues worth supporting or even writing a bill to be sponsored by a local and willing legislator.

See sample student work focused on:

Experience

Several key experiences, in and beyond the classroom, help students reach the learning expectations and create the culminating exhibitions described above:

Experience #1: Immersion 

A gallery walk engages students with local data about sources and community exposure environmental pollution.  The students break into rotation workshops where they analyze films and work towards building their own understanding of environmental justice. 

Experience #2:  Building Background Knowledge 

Students speak with community experts about the current events connected to local environmental justice issues.  The anchor text is the ECRI Rhode Island Environmental Report Card.

Experience #3:  Fieldwork 1-Tale of Two Cities 

Students visit different locations in Providence. Students are tasked with collecting a bank of images with captions that include factual details about their photographs that are connected to environmental justice issues. Students also conduct interviews to gather information about local perspectives. See a field experience journal.

Experience #4:  Fieldwork 2-Air Quality Data Collection 

Students visit different locations in providence as previously described.  Students are tasked with collecting a bank of images with captions that include factual details about their photographs that are connected to environmental justice issues.   Students also conduct interviews to gather information about local perspectives.

See a sample weekly agenda from the English/Language Arts Class that collaborates on this project.

Resources

This expedition planning guide lays out the compelling topic, immersion experiences, case studies, final products, and timeline for an interdisciplinary expedition focused on environmental justice issues in Rhode Island.
This rubric is used to assess students' final products and presentations, as part of the 10th grade Nature & Society expedition at The Greene School.
A gallery walk engages students with local data about sources and community exposure to environmental pollution. The students break into rotation workshops where they analyze films and work towards building their own understanding of environmental... read more
Students visit different locations in Providence. Students are tasked with collecting a bank of images with captions that include factual details about their photographs that are connected to environmental justice issues. Students also conduct... read more
This presentation lays out a week of work toward the final products of the Nature & Society exhibition, focused on understanding the human health and environmental justice impacts of pollution in Providence.
This final product from The Greene School's Nature & Society expedition, created by 10th grader Frederick Minda, shares research on the impact of idling trucks in Providence on nearby communities. 
Greene School 10th grade student Robert Mina kept this Research & Data Journal as he accumulated the background information necessary to create and present a final research-based writing piece on the ozone pollution resulting from... read more
Project