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Earth Day, Teach-ins and Saving the Planet Since 1969

“Teach-ins” were inspired the first Earth Day. Andra Yeghoian of the San Mateo County Office of Education is leading efforts to make environmental and climate literacy top priorities throughout K-12 systems.

Earth Day 1970
A large crowd listening to Earth Day speakers in New York’s Washington Square on Wednesday, April 22, 1970.
Earth Day was born with an educational mission. Its founder, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, made this clear in a letter to the president of CBS, recounting that, “one day in early August, 1969, the idea occurred to me that we could get political attention by having a nationwide environmental day patterned after the Vietnam teach-ins two or three years earlier.”

The “teach-in” concept, which originated at the University of Michigan, differs from other approaches to education. It is built on public dialogue between faculty and students, with an explicit goal of attracting media attention and influencing policy, an exercise in bringing knowledge to bear on activism.

Andra Yeghoian, environmental literacy and sustainability coordinator at the San Mateo County Office of Education, is the first person to lead a county-level effort at integrating environmental concepts across districts, grades and curricula. She’s not patterning this work on the “teach-in” model, but she does want students to leave the county’s schools with an understanding of their relationship to the natural world and how their actions and decisions can affect it.

The county’s educational network comprises 23 districts, about 170 schools and almost 94,000 students. The county office is a co-founder of the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative. Yeghoian serves as co-chair of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI). This public-private partnership works to help California schools provide instruction that realizes the state’s commitment to environmental literacy and reflects the Environmental Principles and Concepts in its education code.

Most recently, Yeghoian has been working with Ten Strands on a project to develop K-12 curriculum resources on climate change and environmental justice. This work is supported by a $6 million grant from the California Department of Education.

In keeping with Earth Day’s educational origins, Yeghoian talked to Governing about environmental education in the 2020s and the tension between the demands of stewardship and the pace at which schools are developing programs to help students understand and navigate the challenges that lie ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The San Mateo County Office of Education's One Planet Schools Challenge recognizes innovative sustainability efforts.
(San Mateo County Office of Education)
Governing: Over 5o years out from the first Earth Day, how would you characterize the need for environmental education? Do we need to step it up? The stakes seem to keep getting higher.

Andra Yeghoian: I would say we are in an all-hands-on-deck crisis situation. There is no hope for humanity if K-12 education does not get on board and put environmental and climate literacy in its top three priorities.

This system controls the heart and minds of the entire society, and if it is not on board, how could humanity put the environment and climate change in their top priorities? Where else would they figure out that they need to do that?

We’re nowhere near where we need to be in order to really solve this crisis. I think we currently graduate around 500,000 students every year in California, and I would say a very, very small percentage of those kids are graduating environmentally and climate literate.

Governing: Do you have hope that this can change?

Andra Yeghoian: There’s definitely hope. Our San Mateo County office was the first county office to make an investment in a regional model for catalyzing this work in schools.

Within five years, we’ve seen big investments from county offices to prioritize this work. About eight to 10 county offices have done this, and we’re seeing more and more school districts prioritizing it.

Governing: How is this work affecting students?

Andra Yeghoian: We run a youth program in our county in partnership with a few other county agencies. About 60 to 70 kids apply every year. These are kids self-selecting to say, “I care about the climate, but I don’t know enough about it and I’m very frustrated that I’m not learning about it in school.”

It’s the same every year — about 90 percent of them come in feeling that there is nothing they can do, that there is no hope. By the time they graduate, it’s the opposite. Ninety percent feel empowered to make a difference and believe that there is hope, that change is possible.

We want this happening in school, so every kid has equitable access to learning about the environment.

Governing: Teach-ins were a focus for the first Earth Day. What’s happening in 2022?

Andra Yeghoian: We have a teachable moment here. Is anybody actually teaching about that teachable moment? I’m not sure. There are not a lot of schools in school districts utilizing Earth Week or Earth Day as a moment to do a teaching. Plenty of teachers will do something on the day, but I wouldn’t say there’s a large, organized effort across the state of California.

On the broader scale we have $6 million from the state to write a climate and environmental justice curriculum, in partnership with Ten Strands. The idea is that there will be a model curriculum for every grade level that addresses climate change and environmental justice. That project has another two years left on it, so people won’t see that model curriculum until 2024.
Andra Yeghoian
Andra Yeghoian: “There is no hope for humanity if K-12 education does not get on board and put environmental and climate literacy in its top three priorities.”

Governing: Some have expressed skepticism about the reliability of science in the context of pandemic response. Are you seeing any rejection of climate science?

Andra Yeghoian: That is a real thing that has existed for years, but I have never experienced anybody contacting me to say that we shouldn’t be teaching climate literacy. It’s hard for people to do that when so many communities in California are impacted by high heat and wildfires and drought and floods. Climate change is already happening.

Instead, it’s the opposite. More than 50 organizations are eager to be a part of the model curriculum project and have put in letters of intent to do that.

Governing: Are there ways that the federal government can support state efforts?

Andra Yeghoian: I really appreciate what has been going on in the Biden and Harris administration, and its April announcement of a big investment in school infrastructure to make it more climate resilient.

It’s a huge turning point for our country to have that coming out of the federal government. I was on a call today with the Department of Energy with educators across the country, looking at the best ways for us to spend this $500 million grant program.

Governing: Won’t the resilience projects that are funded also create learning opportunities?

Andra Yeghoian: Absolutely. Every infrastructure investment is a teachable moment. You can utilize that campus as a laboratory for learning.

That’s a win-win. Not only are you making a healthier campus for the planet, and for the students and teachers that are in it, you’re creating a space for kids to learn about things like decarbonization and water resiliency and ecosystems.

We’re on the right trend, but we need to kick up the scale and speed quite a few notches.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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