On April 22, 1970, 10 percent of the U.S. population joined together to demand protection for the environment. In this episode of Keystone Education Radio, Earth Day Network (EDN) Education Coordinator Kira Heeschen joins us to discuss Earth Day’s upcoming 50th anniversary, the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign, Earth Challenge 2020 and the importance of student and youth involvement.
This episode is sponsored by SiteLogic and The Nutrition Group.
We see Earth Day as this day where people come together to both remember the history of where we’ve been and how much we’ve achieved, but also how much more we have to do.
We like to say that Earth Day is not just a day, it’s a movement and our goal is to raise awareness around environmental issues that are impacting communities and globally.
We really try to put the tools out there and empower communities to take on these leadership roles in their communities and give them the tool and knowledge that they need to have impactful change.
So what we try to do is use Earth Day as a focal point every year to concentrate environmental action and to really build and sustain momentum throughout the year.
For 2020, we have decided on a theme of climate action just because so many different environmental issues feed into this larger umbrella issue of climate change.
The Earth Challenge 2020 app, the initiatives goal was to allow people to be connected with the scientific process and to have them contribute to global data that helps us understand the state of health of our environment.
The plastic side of the app is tied with our global cleanup program. And so anyone who’s participating in the cleanup throughout 2020 is definitely encouraged to use this app so that we’re both cleaning up the litter and the pollution that we’re seeing out in our environment, but we’re learning from those experiences as well.
From the big global examples like we have with Gretta, it’s just this incredible movement of students all over the world who are saying, this is our future we’re talking about, the health of our future and our goals that we would like for our lives. So we’re going to step up and fight to protect it.
What was the catalyst, if we can go back some years, 50 years, what was the catalyst for the first Earth Day? What action did this movement prompt over these past 50 years and where did it begin?
50 years ago, in 1970, the first Earth Day occurred, and in the 50 years prior to that, our country saw this enormous surge in industrialization. Around this time, we had really immense air and water pollution from industry. We had really strong lead gas emissions from really inefficient cars. The disposable lifestyle was really on the upswing. We had this peak level of pollution throughout the United States. The book Silent Spring came out in 1962, that was a really formative event in the environmental movement by Rachel Carson. She released this book that was explaining how pollutants and pesticides were impacting our natural world. That really woke a lot of people up. Then throughout the year of 1969, the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught on fire because it was so polluted. And there was an oil spill, a pretty significant oil spill, off the coast of California near Santa Barbara.
So all of these things were coalescing together to have people start to notice how polluted their environment had become. Human health was a really big issue, urban smog was really big. So what happened was Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin was looking around at all this and also paying attention to some of the social movements that were going on at the time. The late sixties and early seventies was really big for the antiwar movement in Vietnam as well as the civil rights movement. He was looking at all of these things coming together and decided that he wanted to host a national teach-in on the environment. To have a day where everyone in the United States really came together to decide that the environment was worth protecting, that human health was worth putting this effort into. So he created this bipartisan committee of senators and they hired a whole team of college students around the country who were going to plan this teach-in.
Without any social media, without the internet, they were able to get 20 million Americans to take to the streets on April 22nd, 1970 to demand that their government were to take care of the environment, to clean up pollution, to really take care of human health. Within the end of that year, the EPA was formed, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were passed and similar laws and organizations similar to the EPA were starting to be passed in countries all over the world. This day really brought together young and old Americans, urban and rural. It was a very bipartisan day, and so it was this spark plug of this day that brought people’s attention to the environment and had people come together to decide that we wanted better.
Since then, the past 50 years, we see Earth Day as this day where people come together to both remember the history of where we’ve been and how much we’ve achieved, but also how much more we have to do. It’s really just a day where people can bond over this shared commitment to the environment and for every community that looks so different, but there’s all of these similar values and goals that underlie the day that really brings people together.
Earth Day Network as an organization, why was that formed and what role does the organization play in today’s environmental movement?
Earth Day Network has come out of this movement, and as Earth Days started to pass, some of the original organizers decided that there should be a nonprofit that coordinates a lot of these efforts. Dennis Hayes, who was actually the national organizer hired by Gaylord Nelson, he was a student at Harvard at the time. He really took on this leadership role in organizing Earth Day, year to year, and so he’s actually still our board chair emeritus, he’s still very involved with everything that we’re doing. The organization really plays this role in trying to bring people together around this common mission. We like to say that Earth Day is not just a day, it’s a movement. Our goal is to really raise awareness around environmental issues that are strongly impacting communities and impacting globally. What we try to do is we want to raise awareness on these issues.
A lot of times, it’s hard to find trustworthy and factual information about what’s going on out there. We really like to try to put that information out there and to really build capacity in the general public for them to be able to take actions in their communities. So that looks again, very different for every community, because a small town in Iowa is going to look very different, their environmental issues are going to look very different from a small town in Taiwan. We really try to put the tools out there and empower communities to take on these leadership roles in their communities and give them the tools and the knowledge that they need to have impactful change.
What we try to do is use Earth Day as a focal point every year to concentrate environmental action and to really build and sustain momentum throughout the year. We do this by setting yearly themes, trying to bring people around these common issues every year to really build momentum on them and then bring in these coalitions of partners and audience who want to join in on this movement and really mobilize together around the issues that we’re facing.
As you said, the issues may change and also there’s the uniqueness of different regions in different countries that might be facing different issues. Is that correct to say?
Yeah, absolutely. In 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, recycling was the biggest issue that everyone was talking about. It was such a huge global issue, and it’s interesting because we kind of see that coming back. Some of our recycling systems are breaking down a little bit. We see these issues cycle through, and I think especially throughout this year, different organizations are all focusing on different things. For 2020 we have decided on a theme of climate action just because so many different environmental issues feed into this larger umbrella issue of climate change. So that’s what we’re working on this year, but we really want communities to feel empowered to focus in on what’s really going to benefit their community members.
Earth Challenge 2020 is the world’s largest coordinated citizen science campaign. This initiative was created in partnership with the Wilson Center and the US Department of State. In April, an app will allow users to collect billions of observations and valuable environmental insights into air quality, plastic pollution and insect populations. With technology being so prevalent in classrooms today, can you tell us a little more about this particular initiative and the app that’s part of it?
Yeah, definitely. It’s amazing just how much technology has changed in the past year, in the past five years, in classrooms. Because when I was in high school, absolutely no technology and now we have class sets of iPads and phones and laptops for them to be able to utilize this technology in a way that really impacts their learning, which I think is fantastic. So the Earth Challenge 2020 App, the initiative’s goal was to really allow people to be connected with the scientific process and to have them contribute to global data that helps us understand the state of health of our environment. Citizen science as a greater field is just this incredible field that allows normal citizens to be involved in the scientific process and to contribute really meaningful data to the scientific community. What we wanted Earth Challenge to do was to provide that opportunity for them to collect data, but then for them to have a little bit of an extended experience with that data so that they had the opportunity to learn what that data means for them and what they can do about it.
So the two widgets that we have available right now are air quality and plastic pollution. We will have some more available throughout the year, insect populations being one of them. They are still in development. What we want users to do is to go in and they’re going to collect data, they’re going to be provided with information on how they can take action on their data. Then they’re also going to have the opportunity to interact with open source data that exists around the world. This is a piece that I think is really valuable for educators. If they wanted to be able to provide these experiences in the classroom where students are sorting through global data and trying to make meaning out of it and understand what it means for the health of their communities and the health of communities around the world.
What we did to establish this app is we asked researchers all over the world, what environmental data do we need to better understand the health of our planet? We were actually able to get feedback from researchers from all seven continents, including Antarctica, which is very exciting. We came up with these widgets that we were going to do to explore the topics that they suggested. So air quality and plastic pollution were two of the really, really big ones. What users will do when they’re using the app is they’ll take a photo, either of the sky or of a piece of plastic that they find in their environment. With the Plastic App, they’re going to go in, submit either photos of plastic that they come upon throughout their normal day, or they’re going to submit photos of plastic and overall litter that they’re collecting during their cleanup efforts that they’re doing for Earth Day.
They’re going to submit it to help build that data of what kind of litter is out there. They can identify the litter and then they’re going to be fed these action items. So it’s saying, “Okay, you came across this litter, what can you do about it?” Here’s some things in your country that are relevant and can help empower you to fix the issue of pollution in your community. In the Air Quality App, you will take a picture of the sky and it will geolocate to the nearest high–quality air monitoring system. And it will tell you what your air quality is. Now you might see that number and think, okay, so what does that mean?
The app will then give you more information about is that number good? Is it bad? If it is bad, what are some things that you can do both in your personal life to have a lesser impact on air quality? Then as a citizen, what are some actions that you can take to influence policies that are going to protect air quality or community-based solutions that could help. It’s just a really great way to balance both collecting data that’s going to contribute to environmental knowledge, but then also being able to empower and build capacity for citizens to then take action.
Is this app intended for everyone, beyond the education and the student community as an educational or student project? Is this available to anyone?
Yes, definitely. So we definitely think this app is a great tool for educators to use with their students to have a really great unit on either of these topics, but we also want any other citizen, wide diversity of age and location to feel like they are really contributing to the global understanding of environmental health by collecting this data. Any person going through and collecting this data is helping us better understand the health of our environment. Anyone can learn how better they can help protect the environment. Additionally, the plastic side of the app is tied with our Great Global Cleanup program. So anyone who’s participating in the cleanup throughout 2020 is definitely encouraged to use this app so that we’re both cleaning up the litter and the pollution that we’re seeing out in our environment, but we’re learning from those experiences as well.
In your role with Earth Day Network, you do facilitate programming for educators. What resources are available to the school audience?
Yes, great question. So as the education coordinator here, my job is to find opportunities and provide support for educators to be involved in Earth Day’s 50th anniversary this year. The first thing that we did is we created a couple of lesson plans around these earth challenge topics. On our website you can find three levels of difficulty activities around both air pollution and plastic pollution. And then as further widgets are released, we’ll have more lesson plans go up for those as well. And so these are beginner, intermediate and advanced activities that you can pair with the earth challenge experience. Some of them are a little bit more introductory to the topic to help younger learners understand what is plastic pollution, why is it a problem? And then older learners or more advanced learners can really dive into some of that data and say, “Okay, what is the extent of the problem, what can we do about it?”
And really have an interdisciplinary experience with some of these both science and civic education pieces of earth challenge. Then we also have our former years’ climate education week toolkits. We have toolkits on plastic pollution, species protection and climate change. These are toolkits that have lessons and we link out to tons of great resources that are produced by our partners and their toolkits that teachers can use to have a week long unit on any of those topics. We’ve also produced a series of menus of ideas that will help any audience decide what they want to do for Earth Day. We’ve created them for schools that are good for educators to start planning. We’ve created a menu for student clubs, the students want to be the leaders behind the planning initiatives. We have a new menu for sports teams.
So if a coach or a gym teacher wants to decide to do an Earth Day, how can we be physically active and really think about human health in terms of the environment. We also have menus for zoos and aquariums and nature centers and parks and all of those as well. We also just developed an environmental history timeline activity. It’s this beautiful PowerPoint and PDF timeline of big milestones throughout the environmental movement and throughout the history of how our environment has evolved. This is a great activity both to learn about the history side of the environmental movement. At the end we’ve left a couple of blank slides for students to decide what they’re going to do in 2020 to really contribute to the environmental movement. So what’s happening in 2020 that’s going to change how we see the environment next year or in 10 years or for Earth Day’s 100th anniversary.
And then the last one I want to mention is our teach-in toolkit. We understand that the term teach-in was this huge piece in the 1970 Earth Day and the first Earth Day, but not everybody knows what that means, it’s not quite as common of a phrase anymore. We’ve created this toolkit to both explain this historical root of the word teach-in and what it is, but also provide guidance on how do you host one, what does it look like? My favorite part of it is we have these grab bags of topics where if you say, “Okay, I want to host a teach-in, but I’m not sure what topic I want to use or I know I want to do it on this topic, but where do I start?” We have these grab bags.
You can go in and say, “Okay, my community experiences a lot of flooding.” So here’s what you need to know, here’s where you can learn more about it, here’s a couple of ideas for what speakers you could involve. Here’s some ideas for what calls to action that you could end your event with. Because the big part of the teach-in is that all of your audience members know when they walk away from the event or from the class lecture that you had that day, what are they going to do to be able to make a difference? And that’s really the pivotal part of the teach-in.
It sounds like you are engaging at all levels and at all ages, but why do you think it’s so specifically necessary or essential to engage the youth in this movement?
Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s been so incredible in the last couple of years to just see how youth have taken the lead in the environmental movement. From the big global examples like we have with Greta [Thunberg], it’s just this incredible movement of students all over the world who are saying, this is our future we’re talking about, the health of our future and our goals that we would like for our lives. So we’re going to step up and fight to protect it. We really like to say that we don’t expect every student to be at Greta level, but we just want students to feel like, if it’s even at the scale of their classroom community or maybe their school district wide community or even their state or country or the world, we want them to feel like they have the power to make change and that they have the tools and knowledge that they need.
As adult allies here at Earth Day Network, we want to support educators who are really tasked with this monumental responsibility of preparing them for their future. We want to give tools and resources to help those teachers give those students the knowledge and tools that they need to succeed, both just in life in general, but also as environmental leaders. One thing that we try to do at Earth Day Network here is we like to amplify those voices because we hear a lot from students that they have these ideas, they have these passions and desires for their future, but they don’t always know how to get it out there. And as an organizational ally, we want to give them the platform to make that difference and to really raise their voices up.
One anecdote I’d love to touch on is, I actually went to a Youth Climate Summit last year and I was talking to one of the organizers and she said, or I said to her, “I’m so excited to have these youth leaders, you guys are so impressive, you’re so incredible. It’s so amazing that you’ve taken the lead on this.” And she was like “Thank you,” and was grateful but was also like, “I just want to make clear that we’re doing this because the change that we would love to have seen come from adults hasn’t happened yet.” So it’s interesting because we want to empower students and we want them to be these incredible leaders that they already are. We also want to make sure that we’re looking at our own behavior and our own actions and saying as adults, are we also contributing to the goals that they’re trying to work for as well?
It sounds like there is an abundance of program material and resources and toolkits. Where can listeners find more information about Earth Day Networks’ initiatives ongoing and the resources available as well as the specific 2020 initiatives? Where can they go for that?
Yeah, definitely. So everyone could go to earthday.org to see all of our campaigns, all of our resources. We have campaigns on tons of different topics and we also have campaigns that focus on a variety of different audiences. We really try to engage with elected officials at the local level. We have resources for mayors and governors. We also have resources for faith communities, if faith communities want to be involved in any way. We just have a whole gambit of opportunities and resources on our website. A couple that I want to make sure I mentioned are our education resource library. This webpage within our website is where you can find all of our educational materials and lesson plans and ideas. Then we also have a page called Earth Day Schools. So this is an awesome map where you can see schools all over the world that have signed up to commemorate Earth Day’s 50th anniversary with us, and you can actually sign your school up to be on the map.
When you sign up, we’ll bombard you a little bit with ideas and tools up until Earth Day just to make sure that you have the resources you need in your classrooms and with your audiences. We also have a map of events on our website and so this is a great resource. If you’re just looking for something to do for Earth Day and you want to find something near you, you can go in and type in your zip code and find all of the events that are going on near you. And if you’re hosting an event, you want to make sure you register it so that it can be on the map as well.
Kira Heeschen, Education Coordinator, Earth Day Network
Kira Heeschen is the Education Coordinator at the Earth Day Network, an environmental nonprofit that is coordinating the global efforts for Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. 50 years ago, the polluted state of America’s water and air drove 20 million citizens to take action and demand environmental protection.
Today, Earth Day Network is proud to partner with organizations and schools around the world who will use this momentous anniversary to advocate for a clean and secure future. Earth Day 2020 presents an incredible opportunity for teachers to engage their students in civic engagement and boost environmental and climate literacy initiatives in schools. Kira works with her team to create resources to help educational and community institutions plan impactful environmental and civic education programs throughout 2020. She has created toolkits, lesson plans and menus of ideas to help guide Earth Day activity planning.
Kira earned her B.A. in Earth Science with a minor in Secondary Education from James Madison University. After spending a summer working with students in the VA Youth Conservation Corps Kira decided to focus her passion for teaching on the environment. After earning her M.S. in Environmental Education with a focus in climate change education from Antioch University New England, Kira began her position at Earth Day Network. Kira’s favorite part about her job is connecting with passionate educators who want to help their students change the world!
- Sign up as an Earth Day School to get even more resources and ideas and to put your school on the map.
- Look for ideas, activities and toolkits in our Education Resource Library
- Register your Earth Day events on our global map. It can be open or closed for registration, by putting it on the map you help demonstrate the collective environmental action in 2020!