Real-World Education

Civics teacher takes kids beyond the classroom for a lesson in environmentalism, community activism, and government responsibility

A high school civics teacher in Brawley partnered with state environmental agencies for a yearlong student project focusing on environmental justice, air pollution, and the Salton Sea.

On May 4, CalRecycle staff attended a showcase at Brawley Union High School celebrating the project led by teacher Jose Flores. The project included lectures, hands-on activities, and fieldtrips to increase environmental literacy and to provide professional development opportunities for students from disadvantaged communities.

The goals of the program included: academic development through environmental literacy, professional development through exposure to leaders in multiple environmental fields, and personal development through hands-on and active learning opportunities that apply academic concepts to real-world issues.

At the showcase event, students presented on the history and significance of environmental justice and the health implications of hazardous dust from the Salton Sea. Over the course of the project, students learned not only about these issues but also about the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government.


Luis Olmedo, Founder and Executive Director of Comite Civico del Valle, left, speaks with civics teacher Jose Flores at Brawley Union High School.


For one demonstration, students modeled the difference between dry soil and wet soil at the Salton Sea and explained how the dust from the dry lakebed contributes to the poor air quality of the surrounding community. They suggested that keeping the soil wet will limit the dust and reduce contamination.

Flores described his project as a way to expand teaching and learning beyond the four walls of the classroom. He wanted to apply academic concepts to real-world issues and provide opportunities for students to engage civically on community issues.

“It takes a village and a plan,” Flores said. He explained how the Blueprint for Environmental Education and the College, Career & Civic Life (C3) Framework served as the “perfect storm” to connect students to the environment and their community and to apply knowledge toward local improvements.

Flores has been recognized for his efforts with numerous awards and accolades and, in 2016, was honored by the Obama Administration with the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators(PIAEE).


Brawley Union High School students learned about different boards, departments, and offices within CalEPA and painted related pictures for the attendees to take home. Shown are, from left, Angela Vincent, CalRecycle; Jose Flores, Brawley Union High School civics teacher; Kevin Olp, CalEPA; Abraham Zhan, DTSC; Ana Mascareñas, DTSC; and Jaimie Huynh, CalRecycle

Abraham Zhan, who led the project for DTSC, explained, “One of the most important things about progressing not only as an individual, but as a society, is to always question things and ask to figure out why things work or how they work.” Zhan said teaching students how to think, rather than what to think, was a critical goal throughout the process.

Engaging youth in a meaningful way is crucial to tackling difficult issues that both communities and government face today, and will undoubtedly face tomorrow. CalRecycle continues to think creatively about how to support students and teachers across California to create cleaner, safer, and more sustainable communities.

— Angela Vincent
Posted on May 31, 2018

Summary: A high school civics teacher in Brawley partnered with state environmental agencies for a yearlong student project focusing on environmental justice, air pollution, and the Salton Sea.