|Newhalen students observing birds and tracking data|
I have to admit, if you asked me to define “ecojustice” prior to meeting Michael Mueller, I might have offered something about young men with big beards in Patagonia gear strapping themselves to Redwood trees to keep loggers at bay. And although there’s a time and place for people to engage in that manner, it only takes a few moments in Dr. Mueller’s office at UAA’s College of Education to set me straight.
“Ecojustice refers to justice for both humanity and nature. Where ‘social justice’ focuses on justice for humanity, ecojustice focuses on larger matters that encompass the natural world, too.” As the ADN described in a piece focusing on Mueller’s work last year, “anthropocentric thinking -- humans as the most important species -- has been championed at the expense of the planet, for profit and personal and corporate advancement.” Ecojustice, on the other hand, strives to teach students about our species’ “relationships and interconnections” with the natural world.
And as an instructor tasked each term with training a new generation of educators who will go into their communities and challenge young people, his dual passions for ecojustice and the climate-change issues currently impacting Alaska come with an added measure of responsibility attached.
“In education, this interest carries over into an exploration of how we can best prepare teachers to engage students in issues specific to that ‘eco’ piece.”
Referring to it as only an “interest”, however, risks selling Mueller’s efforts short. Within the space of a few moments with Dr. Mueller, you’re magnetically drawn into a shared, deep engagement with his pursuits. His excitement for both ecojustice and education prove infectious.
It’s hardly surprising then that five years ago, Ed Lester – the principal of Newhalen School in Illiamna and then a stranger to Dr. Mueller – walked through the door of his office unannounced and proposed they work together. Lester, an alumnus of UAA who had become familiar with Mueller’s work, wanted to create engaging, science-based projects to help cultivate and foster student awareness of the environmental issues specific to their region.
“Every year, all the village schools that comprise the Lake & Penn and Bristol Bay Borough come together for a week. There are twelve schools represented in the region with close to 120 students in attendance for that week of activities together. They participate in Native Olympics and talent shows, and take all their meals together. And all the teachers and students from all the schools camp out in school for the week…” he chuckles and then adds, “It’s madness.”
When Ed approached Michael, the schools were interested in building structured academic events into their annual gathering. Ed and Michael brainstormed a variety of ways they could offer learning experiences that would cultivate learning and foster an awareness of issues critical to their lives in regions experiencing the effects of climate change, for example.
It was the beginning of a thriving and ongoing partnership that continues today.
In that first year, Mueller offered the kids workshops ranging from forensics (how to read a blood spatter), to writing and recording a PSA for local radio. That week, the students ended their week of academic focus with a dance. Mueller named the week of activities the “Science Prom.”
In the five years since launching his first Science Prom the topics have remained engaging and far-ranging – students can take part in activities from cold water survival to building bridges; making robotic arms to orienteering with a compass; radio-tagging salmon to building and setting off Estes rockets.
|Students learning forensics during Science Prom|
|Lake & Penn students readying to launch Estes rockets with Dr. Mueller|
|Readying for the big Science Prom end-of-week dance!|
As an added bonus, Mueller now involves his graduate students in the Lake and Penn and Bristol Bay Borough events. Five years later, presented with twice annual science-themed intensives – one in September, and another in April – his students have become a reliable and active mainstay in the program.
But how does team-building robotic arms, studying bioluminescence, and learning how to write PSAs relate to ecojustice?
“We begin by offering the kids opportunities they don’t normally have in each of their separate, remote locations,” Mueller offers, “And we’ve worked to motivate them with memorable experiences, too. Then, by immersing and involving them in different group projects with a scientific focus, we’re involving them in group decision-making processes that could lead to further involvement.”
In the remote regions comprising the Lake and Penn school district, in which standards of living and the local economy regularly fluctuate with, for example, the market price of salmon, Mueller knows that kids need to be thinking about the impacts of local decisions on their lives and their futures.
“Consider Newhalen,” he offers, the school with which he’s become most involved: “They’re the headquarters for the Pebble Mine.”
|Newhalen can learn to write and then air PSAs on their own school's radio station|
The proposed mine project, of course – as no one seems more aware than Mueller – continues to prove a controversial and heated topic throughout Alaska. It's widely known, for example, that the mine could potentially impact the largest migration of sockeye salmon in the entire world.
“We don’t go into Newhalen and tell the students what they should think about the issue. After all, from where many of them are situated, Pebble’s brought jobs to the area, they’ve paved the roads – but there’s also a noticeable tension around the issue throughout the community, too. So, our first priority is to teach the kids that as legitimate stakeholders in their communities, it’s critical that they make informed decisions. No matter what they decide about something like Pebble Mine, they need to know how to participate more fully in the decision-making process, right? So, in our work, we’re cultivating learning experiences that will give them skills to engage with any issues they’re encountering.”
Presently, Mueller and his students are hard at work work building a bird habitat in Newhalen – an effort that will allow Newhalen youths to start collecting data on the many bird varieties local to the area, as well as the diverse migrating species. His hope is that as Newhalen youths compile data on the birds in their region, he’ll be able to help other village sites in the Lake and Penn district develop their own bird habitats. Taken together, as the region’s schools compile and exchange data over the considerable distances separating them, students will be able to close those gaps between them by sharing critical information about what birds are migrating where, how they’re responding to climate changes, and more.
In other words, an exercise in ecojustice – providing youths with continuing, “real time” opportunities that explore and reveal our undeniable relationship and interconnectedness to the natural world.
Dr. Mueller will offer a presentation on his bird habitat project with Newhalen students at the CCEL's Community Engagement Conference at UAA on Friday, October 27, 2017 at 9:30am, in RH110.
- Jonathan Bower, MSW student, CCEL
|Newhalen youths observing birds and recording data|