Environmental Injustice Pedagogies: Brokering Epistemic Trust in Cross-Institutional & Inter-Disciplinary Projects

Prerna Srigyan, Margaret Tebbe, and Nadine Tanio
05/27/2024 | Reflections

Seven high school science teachers across California are currently “field testing” two curriculum units on environmental justice and climate change that we, the authors, have designed. Our units are part of a K-12 curriculum project supported by the California Department of Education and managed by Ten Strands, an environmental literacy nonprofit.1 Our vision was to translate Environmental Injustice (EiJ) – a large, lower-division, undergraduate course designed and taught by Kim Fortun and a graduate teaching team – into two fifteen-hour units for 11th and 12th grade students. 

EiJ mobilizes research in transnational disaster STS to promote comparative thinking across disasters and places. Students learn a conceptual and analytic repertoire to collaboratively write interdisciplinary, place-based, environmental injustice case studies.2 Many of our students live near environmental hazards, and even those who are relatively protected voice concern about rapidly changing environmental conditions. We see it as our responsibility to prepare these students to grapple with the unique technological, epistemic, and ethical challenges posed by disasters exceptional and mundane.

We proposed to bring the EiJ repertoire into high school science classrooms by integrating insights from disaster STS into K-12 science education. The project invited new institutional possibilities within K-12 science education,3 but we also experienced tensions borne out of diverse organizational norms around science curricula. We came to recognize these tensions as points of incongruity around “interiorised processes of knowledge creation,” or what Knorr Cetina (2007) terms “epistemic cultures.” Below, we describe some of the turning points within our collaboration in the overall project that became forces of change, requiring the brokering of “epistemic trust,” a mutual recognition of others as knowing and agential subjects (Gaztambide 2019).

We analyze in particular the search for interdisciplinarity among subject-specific standards and teaching, the relationship of K-12 to university education, and the emerging political economy of environmental justice education in the United States. As translational research is fast becoming the norm in medicine, environmental health, and governance, new “cultural choreographies of science” (Traweek 1996) — new modes of enacting, performing and sharing epistemic cultures – are needed to make interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaborations work. Our work is one such attempt.

Storylining Science

Like our undergraduate students, many of whom take the class to fulfill general education requirements, our units introduce high school students to interdisciplinary social science research. Unlike our undergraduates, most high school students will encounter our curriculum in a science classroom. Cross-disciplinary explorations on climate change at K-12 levels are possible (and encouraged) by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS),4 but much remains to be accomplished in leveraging sociopolitical analysis in science classrooms, especially in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic and social movements pushing against anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, militarism, and heteropatriarchy.

When we read Ten Strands’s call for papers, we saw an allied vision where we could connect our research and teaching of transnational disaster STS in higher education to California’s high school students.5 Most curriculum development in the United States is done by publishing companies, school administrators, curriculum consultants, and teachers with instructional design experience. This project, however, called for “community-based” curriculum writing teams with lived experience on climate change in California to develop standards-aligned, open-access, interdisciplinary instructional materials on climate change and environmental justice. 

To maintain consistency across the units, Ten Strands recruited “curriculum development experts” – nonprofit leaders in STEM instructional design, University of California-based subject matter experts, and a consortium of university-based climate change researchers – who would help community-based writing teams develop standards-based curricula. They also adopted the “storyline model,” in which student inquiry drives lesson sequences. We understood the reasons for these conditions, but they also felt constraining and forced. In time, we’ve come to characterize these conditions as features of the epistemic culture of K-12 STEM curriculum design.

An underlying epistemic tension in K-12 education, especially in teacher education and professionalization, is the movement between subject matter and pedagogical expertise. The “storyline model” is supposed to facilitate this movement. In this model, students observe an “anchor phenomenon” and generate questions that drive lesson sequences, thus mimicking how STEM professionals create knowledge. Storylines are framed as a move away from the “banking model of education,” where teachers deposit knowledge into passive learners, and towards the co-construction of scientific knowledge by teachers and students. Few textbooks, units, or lesson plans follow the storyline model, however. Moreover, using the model in K-12 classrooms requires intensive coaching, particularly for those who themselves have learned and taught science in more traditional modes.

Initial project meetings brought all partners together to focus on culturally-relevant and inquiry-driven instruction. In these meetings, we realized our initial “anchor phenomenon” might not fit the project’s imaginary of interdisciplinarity. Conventional storyline science units focus on topics like antibiotic resistance or lactose intolerance, where students can observe a discrete anchor phenomenon and generate questions.6 We were expected to focus on issues like sea-level rise and flooding, extreme heat, or particular types of pollution; however, many communities do not experience disasters as discrete and isolated events. Instead, intersecting pathways – for example, a combination of redlining, procedural injustice, neoliberal governance, and the dismissal of community knowledge – often contribute to cumulative and disproportionate environmental harm, or “environmental injustice.”

To do this, the units ask students to evaluate knowledge claims for justice, characterize hazards and health effects, conduct data ethnography, use civic data responsibly, and question the nature of science relevant for environmental justice. Moreover, we wanted to design the units to introduce students to places beyond California, leveraging critical localism with planetary scope. In our undergraduate approach, for example, we introduce many cases of disasters in the United States and beyond to introduce students to comparative thinking and cross-scalar analysis.

This divergence from the storyline model caused anxiety in project leadership, who viewed it as a matter of inexperience in K-12 instructional design. As university-based social science researchers with undergraduate and community education expertise, but outside of university schools of education, we did not exactly resemble established higher education partners. These anxieties externalized as disagreements with the style of collaboration that the project management advanced early on. We felt that little was being accomplished in the all-partner meetings. How did we ultimately manage to write a curriculum across epistemic cultures that seemed at first incommensurable?

Brokering Epistemic Trust

As we voiced these tensions, the project management changed the style of consultation with curriculum development experts. Instead of meetings with all partners, writing teams were paired with individual curriculum development experts to meet one-on-one to develop the units. We have been surprised by how this shift enabled our collaboration to move forward.

The curriculum development expert we work with, Jean Flanagan from BSCS Science Learning, is skilled in the kind of translational work this project requires. Her experience in navigating the epistemic cultures of curriculum design, science education, non-profits, and state standards made her receptive to our expertise. In our weekly meetings, we have worked together to resolve some of the epistemic tensions that the storyline model introduced.

First, she helped us reconcile our vision in framing “environmental injustice” as a scientific phenomenon by pointing to a growing body of literature in socio-scientific modeling.7 We also came to recognize STS-allied concepts in K-12 science education like “nature of science” and “scientific sensemaking” that could support our instructional design approach. In turn, she has come to see her work as aligned with STS. We have both noticed that we have started to speak the other’s language, learning how to situate the other in their referential worlds. Building on liberation psychology, Gaztambide (2019) calls this mutual recognition “epistemic trust,” experiencing the subjectivity of others to invite them to inhabit more fully into our worlds.8 Second, her recognition that we are doing something different, and interesting, mattered to the project leadership, legitimating us as partners in the overall project.

We have also built epistemic trust through collaboration with the teachers testing our units. There were early concerns that including disasters like the 1984 Bhopal gas leak or Louisiana’s Cancer Alley could be traumatic or irrelevant to California high school students. Here, teachers have been our allies, pushing for the recognition of student (and teacher) capacity for “difficult knowledge."

Brokering epistemic trust in this project therefore required constant translational work between STS and science education with skilled mediators and experienced teachers. Interdisciplinary and cross-institutional projects like these lead us to question how we, as anthropologists and STS researchers, can be good hosts and guests in the projects that we become attached to. How might we open up genre forms like the storyline to divergent influences and compositions and to divergent thinkers, conscious of and working against the margins of their own practice and knowledge domains? How might we build student’s capacities to tolerate difficult knowledge and frustrations of working across different styles of thinking and knowing?

Even though the field testing for the high school curriculum units is still underway, we have started to receive similar feedback from high school students. One student wrote: “My least favorite part is when I'd get stuck on a portion but luckily my peers and teachers assisted me.” Another wrote that they enjoyed “collaborating with the entire class in order to address the different aspects of how environmental injustice affects us all. I gained perspective on certain things that I never would have thought up."

It is almost certain that the curriculum, once published, will not be taught the way we imagined it. While we cannot predict how or who will teach this particular curriculum, we are confident that the process of developing it has helped us (and the many teachers, curriculum designers, and students we’ve worked with along the way) become better able to build the kind of trust necessary to make new collaborations in the future.

Author Bios

Prerna Srigyan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UC Irvine and a curriculum designer at the EcoGovLab. Her dissertation research is on the politics of culture and scientific knowledge in STEM pedagogies in the United States.

Margaret Tebbe is a PhD student in anthropology at UC Irvine and a curriculum designer in the EcoGovLab. Her research focuses on children’s environmental knowledge and schools as sites of environmental (in)justice, particularly in California’s Central Valley.

Nadine Tanio is a project scientist in UC Irvine’s EcoGovLab and a lecturer in disability studies at UCLA.  She trained as an educational researcher interested in experimental, collaborative ​research methods that contribute to feminist and postcolonial STS.

Editor's Comment

Richard Fadok edited this post with assistance from Aaron Gregory.


1. The public-facing project synopsis from Ten Strands details the formative conditions of this environmental literacy project.
2. So far, students have written case studies on California counties, cities, and most recently, on schools as sites of environmental injustice.
3. Throughout the post, we refer to “project” to mean the entire curriculum development project managed by Ten Strands and to “units” to mean our group’s curriculum design work.
4. NGSS is a policy document that creates and recommends science education standards in the United States based on the National Research Council’s A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012). It is a multi-state effort and has been adopted as science standards in 20 US states. California adopted NGSS in September 2013.
5. While climate change education was not mandatory in California when we began this project, it has proven timely as California passed a new law (AB 285) requiring all schools to implement climate change education by the 2024-25 school year.
6. For example, the antibiotic resistance storyline unit starts by asking students, “How did this little girl fall so sick?” Students might wonder if this is common and if it can also happen to them. This question drives the next lesson.
7. Thanks also to Wonyong Park and Hosun Kang, our science education research colleagues, who helped us bridge our approach with instructional design advances in K-12 science education.
8. Thanks to Margaux Fisher for this point.


Cetina, Karin Knorr. 2007. “Culture in Global Knowledge Societies: Knowledge Cultures and Epistemic Cultures.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 32 (4): 361–75. https://doi.org/10.1179/030801807X163571.

Gaztambide, Daniel Jose. 2019. A People’s History of Psychoanalysis: From Freud to Liberation Psychology. Rowman & Littlefield.

Traweek, Sharon. 1996. “Unity, Dyads, Triads, Quads, and Complexity: Cultural Choreographies of Science.” Social Text, no. 46/47: 129–39. https://doi.org/10.2307/466849.

Published: 05/27/2024