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Engineering for Ecological and Social Justice

What Can Pollinators Teach Us About Designing Healthier Cities for Humans and Other Species in the Face of Climate Change?

Science Scope—January/February 2023 (Volume 46, Issue 3)

By Veronica Cassone McGowan and Todd Campbell

Engineering for Ecological and Social Justice

CONTENT AREA Engineering and Life Science


BIG IDEA/UNIT Conservation and justice-centered engineering

ESSENTIAL PRE-EXISTING KNOWLEDGE Some knowledge of species interactions and relationships is helpful but not required

TIME REQUIRED Five days, but can be shorter without the final project

COST No cost

SAFETY Remind students to keep a safe distance from pollinator species that can sting.

Humans are a part of the natural world, and human health is intrinsically tied to ecosystem health. However, access to healthy ecosystems is not equally distributed. The way communities are planned and constructed determines how viable these areas are for humans and other species. Historic urban planning practices such as redlining and the use of eminent domain for highway construction through, above, and below neighborhoods are two examples of how engineering-related decision making has fragmented and isolated communities and land—many of which are frontline, low-income communities of color—with impacts on social, ecological, and economic health (Islam and Winkel 2017; Schell et al. 2020). Examples of impacts from these decisions include food apartheid, “heat islands” from reduced tree canopy cover, exposure to pollution, and increased vulnerability to climate change–related impacts such as flooding. Framings of ecological and social justice are increasingly being taken up by emergent engineering fields, such as community-based engineering and humanitarian engineering, to address contemporary intersecting social, technical, and ecological challenges. The Engineering for Ecological and Social Justice (EESJ) Instructional Framework and associated classroom unit that we introduce in this article provide educator guidelines and an example unit for engaging learners in a more place-based and critical approach to engineering problem solving that situates engineering problems and proposed solutions in their historic and social contexts. Our goal in this work is to invite learners to think critically about the impacts of engineering on humans and ecosystems in order to design more just and equitable engineering solutions for their own communities and beyond (Riley 2008; Dunne and Raby 2013; see Table 1).

The authors created the EESJ framework to cultivate a type of engineering mindset that engages students’ everyday, community, and cultural knowledges as they learn to read the powered dynamics built into urban and other landscapes in order to reimagine and take action to transform their communities for ecological and social justice. At the center of our EESJ instructional framework are four core practices that serve as a set of fundamental planning and instructional strategies to guide curriculum creation, adaptation, and instruction when teaching EESJ in K–12 science classrooms (see Figure 1). The core practices outlined in Figure 1 emerged from prior curriculum co-design work with teachers, educational researchers, and disciplinary experts and were used to guide the development of the instructional unit described in this article. Core practices apply across disciplinary topics and are intended to stimulate advancements in student thinking across groups and to support students’ participation in disciplinary pursuits (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten 2009). We add that equitable classroom instruction requires that students’ everyday knowledge and community ways of knowing anchor and connect planning and instruction through EESJ core practices.

Table 1. Critical engineering practices for designing for ecological and social justice (adapted from Dunne and Raby 2013).

Traditional engineering

Critical engineering

Problem solving

Problem finding and understanding

Provides answers

Asks questions

Models as prototypes

Models as stories

Design as production

Design as vision

Design as solution

Design as a medium for thinking

In the service of clients and industry

In the service of society and community

Change the world to suit us

Change us to suit the world(s)



Centralized decision making

Distributed decision making

Building for the present

Building futures

Note: Adapted from Dunne and Raby 2013.

Figure 1
Core practices of engineering for ecological and social justice.

Core practices of engineering for ecological and social justice.

Unit background

Habitat fragmentation is the leading cause of species decline worldwide including for pollinator species—the focus of this unit. Pollinators can thrive in urban spaces; however, viable greenspaces are not equally distributed across landscapes and are not connected in ways that support pollinator migrations, especially in response to climate change. Pollinators are important to human health and food justice. Seventy-five percent of plants and one third of food crops depend on pollinators, such as bees, for survival. A reduction in pollination means a reduction in food production and diversity globally, with food scarcity disproportionately impacting under-resourced communities (Islam and Winkel 2017). Creating and expanding urban greenspaces is one solution that engineers, landscape architects, ecologists, community members, and others are using to create conservation corridors that support pollinator health. In this unit, students take on the perspective of pollinators as they design conservation corridors to support pollinators and humans in their own communities.

The following is an abbreviated description of the instructional sequence for the unit. A link to the complete one-week unit with related student documents and assessments is provided in Supplemental Materials at the end of this article. This set of lessons was taught in a longer, multiweek unit in partnership with community gardeners by the first author. Adaptations of this lesson have also been taught in partnership with elementary and secondary science teachers in the Pacific Northwest.

Activity 1: Lesson launch: Eliciting students’ prior knowledge, ideas, interests, and expertise (50 minutes)

Taking on the roles of conservation engineers, students begin this five-day unit by exploring the driving question: What can pollinators teach us about creating more connected, sustainable, and just landscapes? The week-long instruction described in this sequence includes students’ background learning about pollinators, conservation corridors, and the impacts of habitat fragmentation and climate change on human health and species migrations. This background knowledge supports students’ engagement in the unit design challenge—designing a pollinator corridor for their own neighborhood. Enacting and constructing designs from this activity is an optional extension to this lesson sequence that students can do in class, at home, or as an after-school activity. Students engage in the full set of critical engineering practices in this five-day unit even without the optional extension.

To launch this unit, students watch the video (see Online Resources), which describes how climate change is causing a phenological mismatch between flowering plants and their pollinators. Phenological mismatch is when bloom times occur earlier or later than pollinator species emergence or arrival, leaving both species without the other’s services. After watching the video, students engage in a brief, whole-group discussion to share what they already know about pollinator health nationally and the impacts of climate change on pollinator species. Depending on your students’ background, they may or may not have heard about colony collapse disorder in bees or the steep declines in monarch butterfly populations or other species. Teachers can support students’ reflection by eliciting students’ knowledge of what pollinators are found in their own neighborhoods and what plants these pollinators depend on (10 minutes).

To prepare for the conservation corridor design challenge, students watch the video Pollinator Corridor Hives for Humanity (see Online Resources) to see how one community created patches of green space including meadows, flower gardens, and vegetable gardens to support local pollinator health and to build community through healthy food and open space. Before playing the video, introduce the pollinator conservation corridor design challenge to students so that they can take notes on how the volunteers in this video are solving a similar design problem for their own community. After watching the video, students engage in a think-pair-share to discuss which solutions from the video could be adapted and used in their own communities or around the school (see Image 1). To build on the ideas shared in this lesson, students do a self-documentation activity in which they document pollinator species and habitats in their own neighborhoods as homework. During the self-documentation activity, students walk around their neighborhoods and take or draw pictures of any pollinators or pollinator habitats that they see. Pollinators are present in urban, suburban, and rural settings so all neighborhood contexts work for this assignment. Remind students to walk and take or draw pictures only in spaces where they know they are allowed to explore. Remind students that some pollinators can sting, so they should use caution when observing some species. Students share their self-docs at the beginning of Day 3 to ground small-group design work in students’ own community observations.

Image 1
Image 1: Self Doc: What does your neighborhood look like to a pollinator?

Image 1: Self Doc: What does your neighborhood look like to a pollinator?

Directions: Take or draw pictures of your neighborhood from the perspective of a pollinator. Remember that some pollinators sting so be mindful and respectful when observing other species and take precautions if you are allergic to bees or other stinging insects.

Activity 2: Understanding conservation corridors: What does it take to support pollinators and human health in our neighborhoods in response to climate change? (50 minutes)

Begin Day 2 by having students reflect on the Hives for Humanity video from yesterday by asking guiding questions such as “What did you learn from yesterday’s videos about supporting pollinator health?” and “How did community members design solutions that increased pollinator populations and also supported humans in the community?” Project the Global Habitat Fragmentation Map (see Online Resources) on the board and introduce students to the idea of habitat fragmentation, which is the breaking up of continuous landscapes due to road construction, suburban sprawl, and other forms of development. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the leading causes of species decline globally due to barriers to species’ movements and migrations, especially in response to climate change. Orient students toward the map by reviewing the legend and note that darker red means more fragmented landscape (i.e., landscape that has been broken up into more and smaller parts). Ask students to share what they notice about the map on global and local scales, such as areas of high fragmentation or continuous habitat. Students will likely notice that most land around the globe is fragmented and that land in North America is highly fragmented. Next, project the visualization Where Animals Will Move Under Climate Change (see Online Resources), which shows how species migrations will change in response to climate change, and invite students to consider how habitat fragmentation impacts these migrations. In a think-pair-share, ask students to reflect on fragmentation in their own neighborhoods, including what types of development might restrict species movement and how it might impact local species in the future as they shift ranges in response to climate change (15 minutes).

For the remainder of class time, students work in groups of four to complete the Small Group Research on Connectivity Corridors Guide that is included in the online lesson plan (see Supplementary Materials; see also Image 2) to research real-world examples of conservation corridors and how they have been used to solve problems associated with habitat fragmentation. For this activity, each student watches one video from the table and shares their research and ideas for their own neighborhood solutions with the group. Students can complete the tables individually for an individual grade, or as a group for a shared grade, depending on the teacher’s preferences. If students don’t have access to 1:1 laptops, the teacher can play videos for the class, while small groups discuss the examples and local solutions together. After this activity, have each small group share one or two ideas from their discussions with the class (35 minutes).

Image 2

Image 2: Small Group Research on Connectivity Corridors

In small groups, explore some of the ways that conservation engineers and landscape architects are creating “connectivity corridors” on “pollinator corridors” to create pathways between fragmented habitats. These pathways help pollinators move between habitat patches so they can find food and respond to changing landscapes due to climate change. Use these designs as inspiration for how you will approach our design challenge. Visit each site below and take notes on features that would work in your own neighborhoods. Later, you will incorporate these ideas into your own design work. 


Video of corridor/greenway

Design ideas for your projects/ neighborhoods

Habitat Biodiversity

(3 minutes)

Hedgerows are a type of corridor.

Pesticides can harm pollinators.


Science Bulletins: Habitat Corridors Benefit Isolated Plants

(2 minutes)

Corridors are for plants and also the movement of seeds.

Pollinators need native plants.


B-Lines: How insect pathways can ensure the survival of pollinators and pollinating insects

(2 minutes)

There has been a 97% decrease in pollinator habitat from habitat fragmentation.

Planting flowers along roads and mowing less can help create more habitat for pollinators.


Dolores Street Pollinator Boulevard Community Planting Day   

(4 minutes)

Plant flowering plants along roads.

Building corridors can be a community activity.

Activity 3: Iterative problem scoping and solving: Building models from our classroom and neighborhood research (50 minutes)

In this activity, students begin the most important practice for justice-centered problem solving—problem scoping through building complex systems models to understand the range of ecological, social, structural, and historic variables that relate to supporting pollinator and human health locally and globally. Students begin this activity by sharing their self-documentation observations of the possibilities and challenges in supporting pollinator health in their own neighborhoods (5 minutes).

Begin the modeling activity by creating a complex systems model on the board as part of a whole-group discussion. Examples of these models are in the Complex Systems Modeling Guide (see Online Resources), or you can share the example pictured in this article. In a think-pair-share, have students first list and then share all the variables that might relate to supporting pollinator health in their own communities and beyond. Encourage students to think back to the videos and resources from the first two activities as well as their self-documentation examples. As students discuss their ideas in pairs, write the words “pollinator health” in the center of your board (see Image 3); this will be the center of the complex systems model and will help ensure that students talk and that proposed solutions are anchored in supporting multispecies health, which is central to EESJ.

Invite students to write variables from their own lists on the board around “pollinator health.” Students may list key variables such as reducing pesticides, mowing less, planting native species, creating roadside greenspaces, and community-based planting efforts. Next, ask students to come to the board to draw arrows that highlight the relationships between each variable—students draw green arrows to indicate when one variable increases another and red arrows when one variable decreases another (see Image 3). As more arrows are added, students should notice that problem solving in real-world contexts is complicated and includes many interacting parts that need to be considered when creating justice-oriented solutions (35 minutes). When students are back in pairs, have them discuss which variables seem to produce the greatest gains for pollinator health, support human health, and minimize unintended impacts of design work on other species and communities. This discussion will ground students’ design work in the next activity (10 minutes).

Image 3
Image 3: Example of Complex Systems Model

Image 3: Example of Complex Systems Model

Students used variables from the brainstorming and problem-scoping, small-group activity to construct a shared complex systems model. Students noticed that “conservation corridors” was a key variable to reducing the negative impacts of climate change while also supporting factors that related to bee and human health in their own communities.

Online unit materials include a set of complex systems modeling cards to support small-group complex systems modeling as a part of, or in addition to, the whole-group discussion described here (see Supplemental Materials). The purpose of this activity is not to narrow down variables to a “best” solution, but rather to surface the complexity of solving real-world engineering problems and to explore a range of possible solutions while also trying to minimize the negative impacts of design work. The Complex Systems Guide in Online Resources provides more detailed instructions for this activity.

Day 4: Design charette: Designing ecologically and socially just solutions (50 minutes)

In Day 4 students engage in a design charrette to quickly draft and share a range of ideas for creating conservation corridors that support pollinator and human health in their own neighborhoods or around their school. A design charrette is an authentic and collaborative design practice in which groups of engineers (i.e., students) draft, share, and critique a range of solutions to a design problem. The purpose of a design charette is to generate and share ideas quickly; drawings are typically rough sketches that only highlight key details of proposed solutions, akin to a visual brainstorm (see Image 4).

Figure 4
Image 4. Students collaborate to sketch solutions for supporting pollinator health in their own neighborhoods and around their school.

Image 4. Students collaborate to sketch solutions for supporting pollinator health in their own neighborhoods and around their school.

Divide students into groups of four to six students and give each group a sheet of easel paper and drawing materials. Begin the activity by facilitating a whole-group discussion to have students outline the criteria and constraints for their designs (10 minutes). Criteria should include supporting long-term pollinator and human health, as well as other requirements based on students’ research and everyday knowledge of their own communities. Constraints may include limited time and resources or using only native plants as part of the design process. Once students have outlined their criteria and constraints, small groups sketch their solutions to prepare for the gallery walk in the next activity (40 minutes). This activity is an opportunity for students to work in small groups to synthesize their learning from the videos, discussions, self-documentation observations, and complex systems modeling activities and to engage in independent research to design proposed solutions for supporting pollinator health in their own neighborhoods or around the school. Two regional pollinator planting guides (Ecoregional Planting Guide and Pollinator Friendly Parks Planting Guide; see Online Resources) support small-group research.

Day 5: Gallery walk: Using evidence to support ecologically and socially just solutions (50 minutes)

The final activity of this unit is a classroom gallery walk in which student groups share their proposed solutions and visual design ideas with their peers (30 minutes). Students use the Gallery Walk Student Guide from the online unit to take notes about which features from each group’s proposals would work best in their own communities or around their school (see Supplemental Materials). Each student writes a claims-evidence-reasoning (CER) statement using evidence from the gallery walk proposals to advocate for a particular set of design solutions for their own community or school. A CER scaffold with prompts is provided in the Gallery Walk Student Guide. Finally, students share their ideas with the class during a whole-group discussion to elicit common themes and solutions among the CERs (20 minutes).

While this one-week unit engages students in the full set of critical engineering practices, there is also an optional extension activity that invites students to construct or enact their solutions in their own communities or around their schools by planting pollinator gardens. Community-based solutions might include creating window boxes; educating community members about pollinator friendly practices such as reducing pesticides, mowing less often, and leaving leaves on the ground; and many other ideas generated by students’ own research and local contexts. See the EESJ rubric (see Supplemental Materials) to guide assessing students’ thinking through this unit.

The EESJ framework opens new possibilities for engaging K–12 learners in critical and place-based approaches to engineering design. This framework attends to nature-based solutions that support ecological justice for humans and other species whose needs are often not considered during engineering pursuits. We invite educators and curriculum designers to leverage this framework as they create EESJ lessons and projects that are relevant to their own students and contexts.

Online Resources

Wild Science: Bees and Climate Change [video embedded in article]—

Pollinator Corridor Hives for Humanity [video]—

Global Habitat Fragmentation Map—

Where Animals Will Move Under Climate Change—

Ecoregional Planting Guide—

Pollinator Friendly Parks Planting Guide—

Complex Systems Modeling Guide (pp. 25-36 in Design Pack Systems Thinking)—

Supplemental Materials

Lesson Plan for Engineering for Ecological & Social Justice Lesson

Connecting to the Next Generation Science Standards—]

EESJ rubric

Veronica Cassone McGowan ( is a research scientist and lecturer in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. Todd Campbell is a professor of science education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.


Dunne, A., and F. Raby. 2013. Speculative everything: Design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Islam, N., and J. Winkel. 2017. Climate change and social inequality (Working Papers ١٥٢). New York, NY: United Nations, Department of Economics and Social Affairs.

Riley, D. 2008. Engineering and social justice. Synthesis Lectures on Engineers, Technology, and Society 3 (1): 1–152.

Schell, C.J., K. Dyson, T.L. Fuentes, et al. 2020. The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments. Science 369 (6510): eaay4497.

Windschitl, M., J. Thompson, and M. Braaten. 2009. The beginner’s repertoire: Proposing a core set of instructional practices for teacher preparation (Paper presentation). DR-K12 Principal Investigator Meeting, Washington, DC.

Biology Citizen Science Climate Change Engineering Environmental Science Instructional Materials Life Science Social Justice Middle School

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