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Designing, Sustaining, and Evaluating Environmental Justice Projects: The Critical Community Science Tool

Connected Science Learning February–March 2023 (Volume 5, Issue 1)

By Kelsie N. Fowler

Designing, Sustaining, and Evaluating Environmental Justice Projects: The Critical Community Science Tool

We are living in a precarious environmental moment. One brimming with water, air and soil pollution, deforestation, flooding, forest fires, mass extinctions, and the climate crisis. While not all people are to blame for this environmental degradation, over the last 70 years human impact on the environment and climate has shifted Earth into its next geologic era, the age of recent man, or the Anthropocene (Gough and Adsit-Morris 2020). The severity of this acute and mercurial change leaves many educators wondering, “What is my role as a human, and teacher, living on this earth among rising seas of destruction?” And many of us who teach science, formally or informally, recognize how we are uniquely poised to help turn this tide—we want to facilitate learning that cultivates environmental justice.

However, environmental justice is a tall order. It is an interdisciplinary response to environmental damages that are seeded in deep political and social conflicts. “Environmental justice connects race, class, indigeneity, gender, and environmentalism and fundamentally involves social justice….it is a concrete response to intensifying and interconnected conditions of pollution and inequality” (Sze 2020, pp. 4–5). Therefore, regardless of how motivated we may be to teach for environmental justice, knowing how to engage youth in science learning that disrupts environmental destruction remains under-explored (Philip and Azevedo 2017).

One way educators are taking up this work is through citizen science or place-, project-, or problem-based learning experiences that prompt youth to study local environmental phenomena as scientists and/or activists. This approach gives youth much more to do than regurgitate facts or construct seemingly neutral social and cultural explanations of phenomena (Calabrese Barton 2012; Bang and Medin 2010). Although science learning is rarely designed to explore consequential issues that transect science and society (Bang and Medin 2010), engaging youth as scientists studying local environmental phenomena can powerfully blur the lines of who, where, how, and for what science learning occurs—important steps in realizing change. Nonetheless, the combination of learning about environmental problems in-situ and students working as scientists, does not automatically equate to young people being more engaged as sensemakers or agents for justice. Nor does this prepare the next generation to avoid casting new environmental catastrophes.

In this article, I respond to this troubling reality by introducing the Critical Community Science (CSS) Tool, which supports designing, sustaining, and evaluating learning about environmental justice phenomena. To explain what the CCS Tool is and how to use it, I share examples from the “Plastics Project” in Mexico where the tool was developed. The second half of the article highlights how science educators have used the CCS Tool to plan environmental projects or units, and my own learnings regarding how to support others in teaching for environmental justice.

What is the Critical Community Science (CCS) Tool?

As discussed above, most science educators need support to generatively attend to matters of justice because they are not explicitly taught how to engage young people in learning that explores and addresses real-world environmental problems. The CCS Tool was created to provide this guidance.

What is the origin story of the CCS Tool?

The CCS Tool originated from a Youth Participatory Science Project (Morales-Doyle and Frausto 2021) in which Mexican students, ages 7–17, living in a small fishing community on the Baja peninsula worked with scientists and science educators at a marine field station. Together they studied the phenomenon of marine plastic pollution and viable solutions. As the “Plastics Project” unfolded, it was evident that the critical histories, questions, and concerns of students and other community members related to the phenomenon should be at the heart of our work—a centering that transformed a stale outdoor environmental science unit into an expansive and life-giving project aimed at fostering waste justice.

Like most Youth Participatory Science projects, the Plastics Project changed in response to the participants’ wonderings and growing explanations of the phenomenon. Youth developed and iterated upon research protocols used for measuring and documenting plastic debris found across 40 different sampling sites. They also built research equipment from repurposed trash, taught guests how to collect data, communicated goals and findings of the project with others, led community beach cleanups, created social media posts and videos to raise awareness, and pushed their adult partners to be more proactive. These changes to the Plastics Project corresponded with use of the CCS Tool (see Table 1 for examples), and, most importantly, our understanding of and fight for environmental justice. (To learn more about the youths’ exploration of the plastic pollution phenomena, check out this StoryMap: Centering Baja Youths’ Ocean Plastic Wonderings and Expertise.)

Table 1. Example Shifts in Plastics Project after Engaging with CCS Tool Four Different Times
Example Shifts in Plastics Project after Engaging with CCS Tool Four Different Times

Click here for larger version

How is the CCS Tool used?

Because science education and scientific research often fail to recognize and honor sociopolitical and cultural connections to topics of environmental concern (Morales-Doyle and Frausto 2021; Bang and Medin 2010; Liboirin 2020), it was necessary to slow down and consider these systems of oppression and complexity when supporting students in studying the plastics phenomena. After all, if the ways that science and society intersect remain invisible, it is impossible to begin suturing the wounds left from plastic consumption and disposal injustices.

Therefore, making visible the complex sociopolitical and cultural connections to places, projects, problems, and science practices at work, must become a priority. As shown in Figure 1, the CCS Tool helps do this with its five separate, but interlocking dimensions—Representation and Membership, Histories, Science Knowledge, Ways of Being, and Futures. The circular graphic is designed for recording connections about what is known, wondered, or should be done. The table (organized by dimension) identifies key considerations, questions to ask, and offers starter resources and example activities to support the growth of the user’s critical noticings and interpretations related to the phenomenon.

Figure 1. Front and Back of The Critical Community Science (CCS) Tool
figure 1 Front of The Critical Community Science (CCS) Tool

Click for a larger version of Front and Back

This simple design guides everyone—from seasoned researchers to young elementary students—to understand and disrupt unjust systems and histories and help author real justice. However, the CCS Tool doesn’t assume the user knows these histories or can even individually learn them. Instead, the dimension prompts are designed to elicit well-buried knowledge and pasts by encouraging communal remembering and sensemaking that includes representation and membership of those most marginalized. Furthermore, as described later in this article, the tool can also be used by science educators to plan transformative outdoor environmental projects. In other words, the CCS Tool’s inherent value lies in its versatility and inclusion of diverse perspectives that forge deep sociopolitical and cultural understandings of phenomenon—which is the first step on the path toward justice.

Each dimension of the CCS Tool plays a unique role in helping the person(s) using it first notice and name relationships between environmental problems and political and cultural conflicts, and then design for disrupting this harm and cultivate healing. Together the dimensions encourage users to holistically reflect upon or learn about:

  • the history of the issue or project,
  • whose expertise must guide the work,
  • how the work should unfold,
  • what evidence should be collected, and
  • toward what futures the work is moving.

For example, “Representation and Membership” is intended to help recognize and amplify the smallest or most frequently dismissed lives impacted by an environmental problem (i.e., youth, Indigenous peoples, marine animals, the water itself). The “History” dimension identifies how the problem came to be and attempted solutions (i.e., attempts to build a formal waste collection site, initiatives to reduce plastic bag use, and the work of other local organizations combating marine plastic pollution), so that the past won’t be problematically reproduced or erased. In the third dimension, scientific terminology, protocols, varying methodologies, and facts about the phenomenon are named. The prompting of this type of thinking is not meant to imply that the other dimensions are not forms of science, but rather to explicitly acknowledge big science concepts and methods most valued by schools/programs and dominant society, so that when support is needed, the work can be framed in ways that are honored and seen by these systems of learning and science. The “Ways of Being” dimension aims to center radical forms of care and refusal of extractive, racist, and harmful ways of doing research (e.g., we choose to use upcycled materials to build all our own research equipment as a way of keeping our material footprint small and practicing alternatives to consumerism, which fuels the plastics crisis). And the fifth section, “Futures,” encourages the imagining and designing of ways forward that are not only “environmentally friendly” but recenters the thriving of those who have been disproportionately impacted by the injustices (Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples and/or more-than-humans).

Although each dimension contains important nuances, it is the overlap between these that are particularly powerful—like a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Considering the dimensions together could be the difference between simply naming aspects of the phenomenon and allowing these ideas to cross-pollinate for a more robust understanding of the topic and paths forward. For example, the “Representation and Membership” dimension on its own helps identify specific stakeholders who have been involved or impacted by the environmental phenomenon that otherwise may be unrecognized. But when what is known about these stakeholders informs the “Future” dimension, imaginings of life beyond the environmental injustice being studied become more concrete and help map a trajectory of action that supports the liberation of those stakeholders. In this way, the CCS Tool can help educators avoid isolating ideas and overlooking common pitfalls that negate or trouble environmental justice projects.

Other suggestions for using the CCS Tool

Although we used the tool in only a handful of ways in the Plastics Project, its simplicity and participatory nature allows for many forms of creative and critical iterative use. For example, the CCS Tool could be used to collect and/or organize stakeholder perspectives before launching a project and as project members or goals shifted. Hung as a large poster with the environmental justice phenomenon (e.g., “Marine Plastic Pollution”) penned in the middle, the tool could become a parking lot for jottings, photos, sticky notes, or other artifacts to land as youth researchers learn, make important connections, ask questions, or surface tensions. The tool could also be used for assessment, with students asked to show their scientific learning and critical thinking through the various dimensions. It is important to note that in each of these iterations the tool roots the work in accountability to the past, future, and community—becoming a catalyst for participatory science and justice.

Science Educators Use the CCS Tool to Plan Outdoor Environmental Units or Programs

As other educators began asking about the Plastics Project, the CCS Tool became pivotal in sharing the varied dimensions and depth of this work (see Figure 2). Through these interactions I began to wonder how the tool might support other educators doing, or wanting to do, environmental justice work.

Figure 2. CCS Tool Became a Graphic Explaining the Plastics Project to Visitors
CCS Tool Became Graphic Explaining the Plastics Project to Visitors

To explore this possibility, I pulled the tool into a short series of seminars I led with Master’s degree students visiting the field station to complete their field methods requirement. Although these graduate students sought professional degrees in teaching biology, zoology, conservation research, or something closely related, a central goal of their coursework was to expand their understanding of participatory forms of science (i.e., community-based science and citizen science). However, the field course was not designed around environmental justice specifically and my contributions were, admittedly, an add-on. Despite this, the rare combination of science teachers, informal science educators, and field scientists in this course lent well for thinking across formal and informal learning spaces about what science educators are prepared for and what supports they need when teaching environmental justice phenomena.

In the next section I explain how I introduced the CCS Tool to educators and how engaging with it became an opportunity to think about learning in and with community in justice-oriented ways.

Science educators engaging with the tool

The educators were first tasked with outlining what they had learned about the Plastics Project over the past week working as volunteers under the guidance of the youth researchers on poster-size blank versions of the tool. On these, they recorded their own connections and questions. This first meeting helped orient the educators to the tool and concluded with a brief discussion of how this process might apply to their own teaching/research.

During the second session we unpacked the five dimensions together. Then, with printed individual tools in hand, everyone selected a phenomenon specific to environmental learning and justice and recorded initial ideas for each dimension, referencing the table as needed. In our final gathering, the educators shared their drafted CCS Tools with each other (see Figure 3), discussing noticings that surfaced across projects and asking for help thinking through specific contexts/phenomenon.

Figure 3. Artifacts of Educators’ Engagement with Tool
Figure 3. Artifacts of Educators’ Engagement with Tool

Analyzing journal notes and audio recordings of the seminars later revealed that most of the graduate students were moderately to highly invested in thinking about how environmental justice intersected with their current roles as science educators. Many of the classroom science teachers shared that in the past they had wanted to address matters of environmental justice but had been unsure where to begin—as this was never embedded in curricula. For example, a science teacher from Maryland with four years of experience shared, “I have wanted to do something like this for a while…My students could totally do this. They need to be learning science that helps.” Other educators, both informal and formal, who were already leading youth in studying environmental problems, appreciated the space to reflect and improve their own efforts. A community center educator said, “I’m realizing teaching for environmental justice is complicated…It should be more than just going outside, collecting some data related to a problem, and then talking about it.And a biology teacher of 15 years said,

“Our highschoolers collect data on different issues near our school and we have been working on reporting it but looking at this, I hadn’t really considered student voice in these projects, but why not? It is something that when I step back and am honest about, I had been considering but it is long overdue—it is something I need to make a priority and talk to others about.”

The tool spurred educators to rethink what “teaching for environmental justice” entails and surfaced topics that were new to educators and those that butted against stale, problematic constructs of environmentalism and conservation. In hindsight it is easy to trace how each of these topics, in its own way, revealed the educators’ lack of familiarity with the environmental justice movement more generally (with its roots in centering marginalized voices and honoring the specificity of communities). And without this deep familiarity, the educators often reverted back to dominant colonial and extractive ways of studying and protecting the environment. Common tensions the tool surfaced included:

  1. More-than-humans as stakeholders
  2. Refusing to generalize places and science as an objective endeavor
  3. Fostering ecological hope

In these last sections of this article, I narrate each tension and include my own realizations as to why these specific points need(ed) deeper consideration. Through this work, my hope is to pinpoint areas for science educators to focus their learning as they sink into better designing, sustaining, and evaluating science learning for environmental justice.

More-than-human stakeholders

Across the sessions it became obvious that most of the science educators present were unfamiliar with the terminology “more-than-human”—a phrase that disrupts the human-nature divide and calls attention to the numerous Earthly beings and parts of Earth worthy of respect (Abram 1996; Wall Kimmerer 2013). Rarely were species or parts of nature other than humans included in their tools. The idea that species, and other parts of this world, should be centered as stakeholders with lives, histories, and agency was novel to most. Realizing this, I now flash back to an afternoon class I sat in on with the Master’s degree students, where their resistance to more-than-humans as stakeholders was palpable:

"Quietly settling onto a bench at the back of a station classroom, I had arrived in time to hear the presenting group of six talk about developing solutions for restoring a river. Immediately, one student offered up a joke about fish being stakeholders, which elicited a hearty chuckle. The group began to move on, but I couldn’t help myself. “Wait, I don’t get it. Why don’t you consider the fish themselves to be stakeholders?” The day before we had sat outside to look across the bay, and I had played an audio of Potawatomi biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer reading from her book Braiding Sweetgrass about bays (or “Wiikwegamaa”) being alive and deserving protection like any other person. We had talked about the Rights of Nature Movement. The conversation was brief but was rich with thinking about how viewing parts of nature as living beings with their own voices might change how humans acted. I hadn’t used the word stakeholder but still, had nothing sunk in? The man at the front of the room looked around with a nervous grin. “Well, we of course want to bring the fish back. So, I guess they are sort of like a stakeholder, but we really thought about who would be impacted—you know?” The consensus in the room was that stakeholders are humans (i.e., scientists, local leaders, fishermen), not other species, or parts of Earth."

In this moment it became clear that, despite being in a program designed to improve conservation efforts and science teaching, definitions of conservation and environmental justice were still firmly situated in a western Eurocentric paradigm that perpetuates ideas about human superiority and saviorism of nature—ideas that set the next generation up to create “solutions” or “systems” that, at best, unintentionally extract and destroy parts of nature.

There needs to be a more concerted effort to think with science educators about the histories, voices, and futures of those who have historically been marginalized or harmed, including more-than-humans. And while the CCS Tool can help hold us accountable for planning and teaching environmental science differently, more needs to be done to support educators in learning about the power of multispecies and more-than-human stakeholders and weaving this throughout their work. We need to imagine a world where all people grow up seeking and valuing the diverse voices of Earth.

Refusing to generalize places and science as an objective endeavor

When the science educators began using the CCS Tool, they also frequently stripped whatever environmental phenomenon they were examining of all specificity—especially regarding the place. Physical or natural gifts of a place and any cultural ties to this place seemed easy to forget or leave unnamed. To my dismay, some educators even scrubbed the Plastics Project they had been deeply engaged in for the past week of specific community leaders, groups, and histories they had been learning about. In the second session, I made sure to name this and as the educators engaged with the CCS Tool around planning their own projects, I noticed this trend did not improve but often worsened. For example, community organizations or individuals remained nameless, it was unclear what local species were being referenced or where the project took place, and biogeographic patterns and solutions were ambiguously broad. When I elevated prompts on the tool to include this information, many of the educators confessed that they didn’t know or “would need to do additional research to find these answers.” This pattern led me to add in the instructions of the tool that “wonderings” or points for further research should be recorded to prompt follow-up.   

The erasing of specificity reminded me that because of the broken world we live in, many people want quick solutions and have been taught that creating projects that are generalizable across places are ideal. Although possibly well-intentioned, this is the equivalent of conservation colonization—the unique identities of places are erased, are oversimplified, and replaced by these universal approaches.

Similarly, many science educators were surprised that the Plastics Project methods changed as frequently as they did. As they used the CCS Tool during the first session to unpack what they knew about the project, educators asked, “Should we write the methods that are current or past methods?” and “Do we add the microplastic or macroplastics methods?” In every case, I encouraged them to add both because together they inform our current and future work in ways that are important to remember and reflect upon.

As the educators turned to their own projects, the conversation often settled into a light debate around keeping field methods consistent over the course of a project. The initial consensus was to stick with the methods, no matter what. Changing research protocols sat in antithesis of what they had been taught and were problematically “unscientific.” One classroom teacher rationalized this differently saying, “Even bad methods will teach students something and students will learn this when their data has no clear pattern.” This logic was easy to follow and reflected my own thinking just a few years ago, when I had prioritized lessons about objectivity and quantifiable data. However, collecting data that can’t be used to identify the extent of problems or facilitate change is fruitless. Why continue spending time, materials, and effort on universal methods that generate powerless data? Methods that reflect the specificity of place and community are transformative.

Fortunately, through these conversations and with use of the CCS Tool, their loyalty to generalizability and objectivity began to shift and many reflected that they need to consider “letting go of rigid methods” so the efforts of the youth would mean something—so learning would not be about what doesn’t work but about doing the work. Moving forward, science educators (and scientists!) need to resist the notion that generalizability and objectivity for the sake of validity will realize positive environmental change.

Fostering ecological hope

Mapping out how the fifth dimension, Future, would be attended to within their own environmental projects also proved quite challenging. Educators were quick to admit that given the realities of the programs or schools they taught in, they were struggling to imagine authentic ways forward beyond the standard perfunctory whitewashed solutions (e.g., stealing and then “preserving” Indigenous land, or solutions that require economic wealth or racial security but continue to place burden of change and action on individuals already most impacted by environmental injustices). Among a handful of challenges, they unanimously named time constraints and/or limited funds to sustain future work of the project as the most difficult barriers to overcome. We discussed how doing environmental justice work in community and across an extended, multiyear, timescale inherently neutralizes these obstacles. Additionally, they reflected upon how neglecting to design for justice—for the future—exacerbates these and other obstacles, and keeps everyone too busy running circles to disrupt the injustice.

In response, we collectively brainstormed how to design for this dimension—even when ecological hope seems distant. Like other conversations, this brainstorm greatly informed the version of the tool introduced in this article. For example, I followed the guidance of one teacher who, during this time, wisely suggested centering the broad phenomenon (i.e., plastics in our community), rather than just the injustice (i.e., plastic pollution in our oceans) as a way to shift science learning away from the catastrophe and toward ecological hope. Here is a list of some of the other ideas brainstormed. Youth can

  • create maps, zines, artwork, bulletin boards, podcasts, etc., that share stories of joy, wonder, and flourishing they encountered while engaging in the project;
  • participate in or lead community events to advocate for changes to improve the issue;
  • find and partner with local/national groups already working on the problem to make the work more economically and socially viable and sustainable; and
  • engage in tasks that elicit imaging and speculating solutions and futures beyond the problem, an important step in eventually actualizing change. 

The takeaway here is that there are many ways to teach for building a future worth learning and designing for, but the CCS Tool itself will not provide these answers. We must collectively move science learning from apocalyptic and damaged-center narratives (Tuck 2009) to learning that engages in knowledgeable, justice-oriented, and joyful world building.


Teaching science—especially environmental science phenomenon—through a sociopolitical and cultural frame is a vital first step in fighting for environmental justice. As we face the mounting storm of environmental ruin, and community loss associated with this destruction, it can be easy for environmental educators to either shy away from science learning situated within sociopolitical and cultural histories, or to jump blindly into the mess. However, these responses will not seed the change this world needs. Fortunately, the CCS Tool asks that we slow down, even pausing sometimes, to engage in deepening our understanding of environmental phenomenon. And although this depth may seem beyond the purview of science education, this is what transforms mundane scientific work into forms of radical care and powerful antidotes to environmental injustices.


This work continues thanks to the brilliant work of youth scientists and community members in Bahía de los Ángeles and support by the NOAA Marine Debris Prevention program. 

Kelsie N. Fowler is a Postdoctoral Scholar in Climate Justice Education and Instructor of Secondary Science Methods at the University of Washington – College of Education in Seattle, Washington.

citation: Fowler, K.N. 2023. Designing, sustaining, and evaluating environmental justice projects: The Critical Community Science Tool. Connected Science Learning 5 (1).


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