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My FAVORITE WAY to celebrate Earth Day in high school biology

As high school teachers, we miss out on getting to celebrate big holidays with our students. We don’t have Valentine’s Day parties with card exchanges and heart cupcakes, or 100th day of school celebrations like our elementary teaching friends do. But if you are a high school biology teacher, guess what? You can (and should!!) celebrate Earth Day with your students!

What even is Earth Day?

Earth Day is observed on April 22nd every year, and is the largest secular holiday/observance in the entire world!! Crazy, right?

The first Earth Day was established in 1970, during a time when the world was rapidly advancing from economic and industrial perspectives, but environmental preservation was being set to the side. It was created as a day to recognize the importance of preserving our environment and protecting the Earth, despite the numerous societal and technological advancements.

Now, April 22nd is observed as a day, worldwide, where we pause and assess practical ways each individual can contribute to helping the environment – in their homes, schools, and workplaces.

Why celebrate Earth Day?

First and foremost, if you are a biology teacher, I would be SHOCKED if human impact on the environment and sustainability were NOT included in your state or national standards. So really, celebrating Earth Day is probably a natural part of your curriculum!

Historically speaking, Earth Day has united people from ALL political, societal, and economic backgrounds. It is a day that bridges gaps across streets, neighborhoods, states, and even CONTINENTS. Like I said above, it is the largest secular observance in the entire world!! What a cool opportunity to allow our students to be a part of a WORLDWIDE cause!

As secondary science teachers, it is critical for us to keep science relevant for our students. We are some of the last people that have a chance to impact these future leaders before they are set free into the world to make their own choices and decisions.

I believe it is our duty to consistently expose our students to ways that they can make significant contributions to society – and the clean, sustainable living that Earth Day promotes is absolutely a cause worth celebrating and inviting our students to be a part of!!

How can I celebrate Earth Day?

There are SO many ways you could celebrate Earth Day with your students. One of my FAVORITE ways is to show a documentary about environmentalism to get your students thinking. I have a video companion guide made for “A Life on Our Planet“, an awesome documentary on Netflix with David Attenborough that came out in 2020. You can access the video guide for FREE here!

But my FAVORITE way to celebrate Earth Day is with a resource I’ve used with students for over six years. It is a resource I originally wrote back in graduate school that I like to call the Human Impact Project.

I love using this resource for Earth Day because it really opens students’ eyes to their role in living sustainably. It requires very little materials, gives students lots of choices, keeps them researching and thinking critically, AND gets them doing a hands-on mini-investigation that THEY design. What more could you want from an assignment??

So, how does it work? I introduce this project by first giving students an opportunity to quantify their environmental impact as an individual by using a carbon footprint calculator. Of course, this is just an estimate, but it gives them a great starting point to work from. So many students are CLUELESS about their personal negative contribution to the environment.

After, I have them research and explore different ways that they could decrease their carbon footprint on an individual level. I want my students to see that individual decisions can and DO impact society as a whole. This requires them to research specific, actionable steps they can take in their own lives.

From there, students come up with two potential action plans that they can put into practice to decrease their carbon footprints over a 10-day period. Students will review these with their peers, parents/guardians, and you, their teacher, to receive feedback and suggestions. They will then revise their plans and come up with one finalized action plan to implement.

I like to give students a month-long period to do this data collection portion from home so that they can find the best 10-day period within the month to implement their action plan. At the end of the month, I provide a few days in class for them to work on (1) creating a visual to represent their experiences from their action plan, and (2) writing a reflective essay on their experiences. All of this is graded with the included rubric.

I don’t do project presentations for many of my projects (because it takes a LOT of time and I do a LOT of projects) BUT this is one my students have consistently loved doing over the years, so I make time for it. It is perfect for helping with spring fever, and students can learn SO MUCH from sharing their experiences.

I love this project too because it is perfect to start on Earth Day but really continues through the end of the school year. It’s such a great way for students to see that sustainability isn’t something that can be acquired in observing one special day, but is a lifelong commitment to change. It is a really cool way to end the year, too, with students seeing the BIG picture of all they’ve learned in my biology course for the year, and the BIG impact they could have as individuals on society. What better way to end the year than for students to see how much they matter in the world?

BONUS: How you can celebrate Earth Day as a SCHOOL!

If time is permitting, I love to take this project and extend it even further by getting students involved with initiatives to celebrate Earth Day in other classes and extracurriculars. Here are just a few ways I’ve done this in the past:

  • There are so many amazing ways that Earth Day has impacted legislature in the United States – beginning with the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 with the very first Earth Day. This is a GREAT opportunity to connect with the AP Government or AP United States History teachers at your school and do a collaboration!!
  • Do you have a marketing class or internship at your school? See if they would want to do an Earth Day campaign to get the word out to the school about why the day should be celebrated and HOW to celebrate!
  • Can you collaborate with the head of student council to do a schoolwide initiative to start a recycling program, plant a tree, or start a compost and school garden? These are really practical ways to get the whole school involved and for your students to see that they can REALLY make a difference – in their school and in the WORLD!

I hope these ideas have inspired you to celebrate Earth Day with your students this year. Especially if you have taught in a virtual or hybrid setting and feel like you have missed out on a lot of your normal hands-on experiences with your students. This is an AWESOME way to end the year with a project that works so well virtually/from home. Plus it can really bring your virtual and in-person students, if in a hybrid setting, together for a common cause!

Best of all, it is a way to end your year by providing students with a memorable experience and learning opportunity that they can apply to their lives for years to come. All is not lost this year, teacher friends!! Let’s end the year strong!!

Want to try this specific project with your students? You can find it by clicking here! Included are 5 pages of student handouts, plus 5 pages of specific suggestions for teachers with implementation and differentiation – all from my own experiences using this project with my own students!

Any other big dates you like to celebrate with your students? I have fond memories from high school celebrating Pi Day in math and Mole Day in chemistry. I’d LOVE to hear about your favorite celebrations you’ve experienced as a high school student, or thrown for your own students as a high school teacher! You can share them with me on my contact page or by DM-ing me on Instagram. I LOVE hearing and learning from you!

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