Wisconsin teachers connect human and planetary health in new lessons for students

A dozen Wisconsin K-12 teachers went back to school for the last year to learn more about the connections between the health of humans and the health of the planet.

The K-12 teachers from Madison, Middleton, Milwaukee and Montello were part of the Planetary Health Partnership, a new professional learning program offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI), Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) program in the School of Education.

GHI Director Jonathan Patz sees multiple wins in PLACE’s Planetary Health program–for Wisconsin, teachers and their students, human well-being and the health of animals and ecosystems in an age of global environmental crises. “These students will be future,” he says. “If they can learn how the health of humans and the planet are connected while they are young, they are most likely to continue the vital work to preserve the health of both.”

The program was designed to build a network of educators and researchers who can change how environmental health issues are taught in schools.  During the year, the teachers heard from UW researchers, including GHI/Nelson Institute Planetary Health Graduate Scholars, as they developed new ways to introduce students to how humans are changing the world and inspire them to take action to solve environmental problems.

“Planetary health means we have to think about the planet as a bunch of systems that are dependent on each other. If we don’t see that picture, that’s a problem.”—Heather Messer, Clark Street Community School, Middleton.

The teachers approached the topic through a variety of themes and projects.

  • Hanna Brostowitz, an advanced learning specialist in the Madison Metropolitan School District and wildlife rehabilitator used her passion for animals to inspire elementary and middle school students through “Planetary Health Investigator.” The game shows students how human behavior impacts wild animals.
  • In studying edible insects, Sandra Campos-Diaz introduced her biology students at James Madison Memorial High School to everything from eco-system interactions to the carbon cycle to benefits for human health and the environment.
  • Messer’s love of trees led her to develop Planetary Health + Human Health, a class that takes her high school students from counting trees in their neighborhoods to examining city-wide tree maps to understanding health inequities.
Hanna Brostowitz developed a Planetary Health Investigator game to introduce students to human impacts on wild animals.

Teaching planetary health is vital because human activity is the dominant driver changing our environment, Brostowitz says. “We need this generation to continue the fight for planetary health. The seeds that we plant now will impact the work that our students do when they’re our age and in the workforce. That’s what teaching planetary health is all about: inspiring global citizenship.”

Patz and Noah Weeth-Feinstein, associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education, provided the planetary health resources suitable for K-12 students, and Christina Stefonek, PLACE math and science professional learning specialist, says their proposal fit PLACE’s mission to further UW-Madison research by creating professional learning experiences for educators. “We are excited that so many students have engaged with the planetary health framework this year,” she says. “In many cases, students asked for and had opportunities to advocate for changes in their schools based on what they had studied around planetary health.”

Bringing planetary health to the classroom

Sandra Campos-Diaz

The K-12 planetary health education framework is based on 12 cross-cutting principles—such as urgency and scale, inequality and inequity, and global citizenship and cultural identity—that the teachers used to plan their classes.

As the Campos-Diaz’s students near the end of the edible insect lessons, they are focusing on communication, one of the cross-cutting principles. Using visuals, data, technical information and easily understood language, they’re creating infographics to promote edible insects. They’re also designing a survey to see if people can be convinced to eat insects, whether to benefit the environment, for nutritional benefits or because they can be consumed in ways that taste good.

“Oftentimes, students ask, why are we learning this?” Campos-Diaz says. “They need to know it’s relevant to them and useful to them in their life.” The planetary health framework helps students see broad applications for science and to look ahead to careers and how, as citizens, they can contribute to solving the environmental and equity problems we are facing related to food.

Hanna Brostowitz

In “Planetary Health Investigator” game, Brostowitz invites elementary students to uncover why animals brought to the Dane County Wildlife Center are sick or injured. They get clues come from people who found the animals, local maps and wildlife rehabilitators. “Slowly they piece together these puzzle pieces until they see what causes the harm, whether it be air or water pollution, habitat destruction or climate change, all while noting the ways in which each problem is tied to humans and unintended consequences,” she says. “The kids love animals, so there’s a huge buy in.”

Middle school students look at people who are ill or injured. They may discover that someone who recently developed asthma lives in an apartment with a moldy basement caused by flooding due to increasingly extreme weather. “Students see it impacts you, me, our loved ones and everyone in the community, not just the animals—and always find some human intervention,” Brostowitz says. “There’s the aha moment: We are the ones that are causing the illness or injury. It’s a game changer.”

Her hope is “

Heather Messer

to bring this knowledge to my students so they can become passionate about planetary health, find their sense of advocacy and make changes locally and globally. If I can help students to recognize their membership in the global community, they will be able to define the values and practices of the next generation, and to positively affect their communities.”

Messer knows trees are interconnected with the earth systems and human health. When she was introduced to the tree inventory tools, she knew she had the beginning of a planetary health class. “The visualization of where the trees are located along with county public health maps were the hook to help students enter the work like data scientists,” she says.

From neighborhood to city, Madison to Milwaukee, students learned about public health and understanding how resources impact health. When students see the differences in tree cover between Madison and Milwaukee, they ask why, and the conversation moves into red-lining and equity.

“At first students wonder why we’re talking about trees,” Messer says. “Then they look at what trees can do for us in all parts of the system.” Students study trees and the public health index in four neighborhoods. They see who’s at risk for heat vulnerability and see the connection to fewer trees. They make a hypothesis and defend it.

The lessons are about personal responsibility and understanding climate change and how it relates to their daily lives and choices. “Everything about planetary health is connected to me and to us. It’s the immediacy,” Messer says. I have to know about this. I have to make good choices because my choices impact everybody else and everything on the planet.”


By Ann Grauvogl/May 13, 2021