Student Voice: How SSEC used Co-creation to develop their Environmental Justice! guide and How You Can Too

Who should decide what students learn and how they learn it? My experience as an intern with the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) Science for Smithsonian Science for Global Goals team opened my eyes to new possibilities. 

 As a master’s student studying environmental conservation education, I was thrilled to learn that during my internship I would help develop the recently published Environmental Justice! community research guide. The entire experience – from researching environmental justice issues to designing educational activities – was invaluable to my growth as a student and aspiring curriculum developer.  

Student-Led Learning 

The Smithsonian Science for Global Goals guides use a variety of student-led approaches designed to engage young learners in understanding and taking action on global issues. One of my favorite frameworks, developed by SSEC staff, is the Global Goals Action Progression. This progression helps learners develop sustainability mindsets, through a Discover, Understand, Act framework. The process also strengthens students’ scientific literacy, critical reasoning skills, and systematic understanding of large global issues.  

Within the activities of every Smithsonian Science for Global Goals guide, students are encouraged to pursue personally significant and culturally relevant ideas. This choice is essential to providing students with a sense of ownership and agency in their learning journey. Taking this approach even in the development process opened my eyes to the concept of co-creation.  

Using a Co-Creation Approach 

Co-creation entails the inclusion of students and their perspectives in the development stages of new learning experiences. The SSEC curriculum developers took this approach to developing the Environmental Justice! community research guide. I realized how useful student’s perspectives can be for their own learning and for teachers seeking engaging content. I was so intrigued I decided to research this process further for my graduate studies.  

To determine how co-creation impacted the outcome of the Environmental Justice! guide, I performed a qualitative analysis of several different meetings and materials. I observed two student focus groups, interviewed the Environmental Justice! curriculum developer, and analyzed the curriculum before student focus groups and noted any changes that were made as a direct result of student input. While students were important to the development process, the group that had the greatest impact were the team of interns that assisted with guide development. The intern group, which consisted of high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, met weekly with the curriculum developer to brainstorm activities and research tactics. As a member of the group, I found that all interns were given the opportunity to “learn by doing” – by actively contributing, we were both learning curriculum development skills and changing the outcome of the guide.  

I ultimately learned that student feedback did change the Environmental Justice! community research guide. By meeting with students and asking for their perspective, the curriculum development team was able to create a guide that was more responsive to learners’ interests and needs.  

Incorporating Co-Creation into your practice 

The wonderful thing about co-creation is that it is a flexible practice and can be utilized in different ways. Co-creation gives learners the opportunity to serve as educational consultants instead of consumers of content, and to develop collaboration skills in the process. Overall, this approach lets students feel like contributors and that their voices and ideas matter. While the idea of co-creation may be daunting and abstract, there are many ways it can be implemented in the classroom. In fact, teachers are in the perfect position to utilize co-creation with their students. Here are a few ways to get started:  

  • Let students choose a specific activity or project topic instead of assigning it to them. This is a great way for students to take ownership over their learning and research something they are interested in.  
  • Test a new lesson plan with a group of students and ask for their feedback before trying it with other classes.  
  • Include students in the syllabus development for the current or following semester.  
  • Ask students about the specific ideas and topics that matter most to them and incorporate them into a lesson.  
  • Encourage students to design activities or games for a specific unit.  

You can also use co-creation and student feedback while teaching the Environmental Justice! guide. Before using the guide with your class, review the different activities with students and ask them which parts of the guide interest them. Even if you intend to use the full guide, you can make students feel like their voices matter, and that they have agency over their learning.  

Even though I do not plan to pursue another degree after earning my master’s, I strive to be a lifelong learner and enable others to do the same. The SSEC empowered me to actively contribute to a topic I find invaluable for current and future students. I started my internship thinking I would learn about being a curriculum developer and left knowing much more about my personal learning process. If I am given the power and trust to pursue my interests, I am a stronger and more curious learner.   

Click here to download the Environmental Justice! community research guide.  

About the Author

Maggie New

Maggie New is a digital marketing and communications consultant based in Washington DC. She interned with SSEC in 2021 as a part of her graduate research in environmental conservation education at New York University. Her work spans food and environmental justice, healthcare, and international aid.