CSUN Partners With NASA to Teach Sustainability and Climate Science

  • Four elementary school teachers sitting around a table with another standing behind them, during a workshop.

    A handful of the elementary school teachers during a workshop. Photo Courtesy of Susan Belgrad.

  • A handfuls of the elementary school teachers during a workshop. Photo Courtesy of Susan Belgrad.

Climate change isn’t an easy topic to talk about, and it can be harder to teach — especially to kids in grades K-12.

Susan Belgrad, a professor of elementary education at CSUN, is helping K-12 teachers hone their tools for educating their students about sustainability, by hosting workshops on the university’s campus and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and awarding the teachers grants to start sustainability projects at their schools.

Twenty-nine elementary school teachers — many CSUN alumni — visited JPL in Pasadena, from June 24-28. An additional 29 secondary school teachers will do the same from July 22-25. Legendary among scientists and space fans alike, JPL is NASA’s go-to center for the robotic exploration of space. It’s also a major employer and destination for CSUN interns and alumni. For some of the teachers, the invitation was the chance of a lifetime.


NASA’s JPL campus. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Teachers were advised to wear comfortable walking shoes, which they needed as they toured JPL’s facilities and walked the massive campus to take in the scale replicas of probes sent into space and the mission control room. Samuel Benji ’17 (Liberal Studies), now a third-grade teacher at Magnolia Science Academy 7 in Northridge, said he had been on vacation and raced straight from his flight into LAX that morning — he didn’t want to miss his chance to visit the JPL grounds.

The workshops for elementary school teachers focus on how to introduce sustainable habits to young students, whereas the workshops for secondary school teachers go more in depth on teaching teens why sustainability matters.

“I can’t really go into depth about climate change, but I go over the basics of reduce, reuse, recycle and ways to reduce their energy use,” said Diane De Guzman ’17 (Liberal Studies), a first-grade teacher at Calahan Elementary in Northridge. “They know that you should use metal straws instead of plastic — little things that are easier to understand.”

Benji said he hoped teachers at his school would use their grants from the program to start a recycling program at their school.

“​Last year I taught kindergarten, and we’ve talked about recycling and stuff like that,” Benji said. “The students get really involved in it, they want to do it in the classroom. And then, we send home information on things they can do at home, like how to recycle, how to save water and electricity.”

Belgrad said that knowledge gaps about sustainability exist at every level of education.

Belgrad teamed up with Ota Lutz, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) elementary and secondary education specialist at JPL, in 2013 to educate university in education programs how to talk about science. CSUN professors and JPL educators then decided to give teachers a week of in-depth training in sustainability during the summer, partnering with JPL and the Institute for Sustainability to educate teachers on interpreting the continuous stream of ever-evolving data on the environment.

“Climate science is a pretty complicated topic, so we at JPL have come to understand that teachers are really struggling with climate topics,” Lutz said. “It’s a perfect marriage, because not only is CSUN’s campus really far ahead with sustainability practices, but they are interested in educating [on these practices]. Teachers are between a rock and a hard place, because in order to keep up with all this, you have to have a lot of time on your hands or a science degree.”

On May 4, JPL also partnered with CSUN to host more than 70 K-12 teachers on the university’s campus. Speakers included Seidel, Lutz, Herr and Misha Kouzeh, Institute for Sustainability project coordinator, with many others. The event included CSUN Energy and Sustainability Tours as well as a Garden and Composting Tour.

“The Institute for Sustainability is pleased to be part of this powerful project,” Kouzeh said. “By bringing together NASA-JPL scientists, CSUN faculty and K-12 educators, we can identify ways to plant seeds at a young age and prepare our teachers to educate our future generation of scientists in climate science — and, ultimately, be the change.”

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