Exploring sustainability literacy through nature journaling in school gardens

Dedicated to fostering sustainable change through education, School of Sustainability master’s student Julia Colbert helped implement nature journaling in local elementary school classrooms.

“Education has always been a significant part of my life. No matter where I go, what I do, and who I spend time with, I find myself gravitating towards education spaces,” Colbert said. Read more from Colbert in her Q&A.

Question: What interests you about sustainability education?

Answer: During my first two years at Arizona State University as an undergraduate student in the School of Sustainability, I was very interested in food waste. It is a global issue that has numerous environmental, social, and economic consequences. I actually conducted a comparative study on perceptions of food waste in urban agriculture participants across Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States during a sustainability study abroad trip, but found that I was much more interested in translating this knowledge to practice and engaging individuals and groups in that practice than conducting research on food waste.

I also really wanted to engage and empower individuals with knowledge and pathways to action to make their community a better place. Once I realized that what I was most interested in was actually a whole field within sustainability, I was sold. This was going to be my career. From then, I began working at ASU’s Decision Center for a Desert City and the Sustainability Teachers’ Academy training K-12 educators in sustainability science and how to bring their new knowledge to their classrooms through projects.

It was so exciting to have the opportunity to translate what I was learning in my sustainability courses and research projects to people that were actually going to use it in their daily lives. Now, as part of my graduate work at ASU, I have been coordinating the Student Council Sustainability Officers Initiative, an initiative started by the City of Phoenix a few years ago to engage K-12 students in sustainability leadership. The initiative has been a wonderful way to continue my work in sustainability education and collaborate with students and educators in Arizona.

Q: How can we use sustainability education to invoke institutional and behavioral change?

A: I always remind myself that awareness does not necessarily lead to action. I think this is a key part of sustainability education. To me, half of sustainability education is the content, frameworks, and theories within sustainability science, but the other, perhaps more important half is how to create change with this knowledge.

Sustainability education is powerful because it both teaches people about what is happening in the world, from overflowing landfills to air pollution to climate change, and how to take action in their own community. It is very place-based and context-specific since a solution in one place may not work in another, even within the same country or region. So, we can use sustainability education to engage people more deeply in environmental, social, and economic issues globally, then empower them to create solutions locally.

Q: Can you tell us about you work with nature journaling and how it has been influential with elementary school students?

A: I focused on nature journaling in school gardens for my master’s research. One of my committee co-chairs and I partnered with a local elementary school that has five school gardens. One of the garden volunteers shared that they wanted to find a way to connect the students more deeply to the gardens, and that nature journaling could be an answer. We piloted the nature journaling initiative with four classes at the school, two third-grade and two sixth-grade, over 10 weeks in spring 2019.

My co-chair Dr. Eileen Merritt was interested in the teacher perspective of the initiative and I was interested in the student perspective, so we conducted interviews with both students and teachers and collected student nature journals. While there are many school garden studies, there are only a few nature journaling studies, and both sets of literature need more research focused on the perspective of students participating in garden-based learning activities such as nature journaling.

From our study we found that nature journaling in school gardens can help students develop a sense of place and lay a foundation for them to become systems thinkers, two elements of Victor Nolet’s (2009) sustainability literacy framework. Within those two aspects of the framework, students shared a variety of positive emotions they felt while nature journaling, biophilia, sensory experiences such as hearing the wind blowing through the trees, and detailed observations of the organisms in the garden. Students enjoyed spending additional time outdoors during the school day and having time to write and draw about the natural world.

Personally, I saw how calm students were when spending time nature journaling in the garden. Many students would actually find places to sit in the garden, surrounded by plants and bees buzzing from flower to flower. I was inspired by how much they seemed to love and appreciate the space, which is one of the reasons why I decided to conduct my master’s research at the school. I encourage everyone to try it! Here is a video about how to start nature journaling I co-produced for a course in the Teachers College at ASU.

Q: How can we develop our sense of place and engage in systems thinking in our daily lives?

A: Nature journaling is a great way to start. So many people, especially in highly urbanized areas, are less connected from nature than those who have access to green spaces like parks and gardens. However, there is often more nature around us than we think. Taking extra time to observe, wonder, and connect to the world around you, even just in a small backyard or local park, may help to ignite your sense of place in your own community and engage in the systems that make up our world. You may be surprised at what you notice for the first time! All you need is a piece of paper, a writing utensil, and 15 to 20 minutes outdoors.