By. Chris Freeman, AP Environmental Science Teacher, and BB Vincelette, student, Kellam High School, Virginia Beach, Virginia


If the United States is to retain its position as a leader in science and technology, we will need to prepare approximately 1 million more students for STEM professions in the next decade (2012, President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology). This reality is heightened by the fact that STEM jobs in sustainability-related fields (e.g., biology, agricultural, environmental, and life sciences) are in growing demand, with an expected occupational growth of 20.4% in the next decade (National Science Board, 2014).


As an AP Environmental Science Teacher engaged and interested in a greener, more sustainable future, I know that teachers are working hard to prepare our students for STEM related courses and green careers.  Students are also pushing themselves to meet expectations, excel, and earn the grades needed for entrance into competitive colleges.  I wonder, however, if we have prioritized covering too much material over deeper learning related to environmental and social issues?  Could personalized learning in STEM-related classes help add context to content that inspires our next generation of social and environmental stewards?


In 2015 Virginia Beach City Public Schools created a group called the Design Fellows to explore how personalized learning can support students to deepen learning and better prepare them for college and careers.  I became a Design Fellow with the hope that providing my students with more autonomy would increase creative thinking, problem solving, and decision making skills needed in college and beyond.  The early results have been exciting!  I have had students design miniature anaerobic digesters for power production and develop solutions to address the impact of climate change on our community.


Personalized learning gives students a voice in how they learn and emphasizes the learning and design process in addition to the course content.  In a recent project examining the mining industry in Virginia, students explored sustainable businesses that could be more beneficial to Virginia.  Some also studied whether mining, the third largest industry in Virginia, could be modified to be more sustainable.   I worked together with students to create the learning outcomes for the project and gave students voice in the design of the assessment rubric.  Students also had the freedom to submit their proposal using the medium of their choice.  By providing students the freedom to personalize their learning, the end products reflected student driven ideation and STEM-based solutions for a greener future.


Personalized learning in STEM classes is a starting point to empower students and develop an informed economic, social, and environmental consciousness. As students make the transition from teacher directed learning to student directed learning, it can take time for them to develop confidence. “Many pupils express conflict in their thinking between wanting to lead aspects of their own learning, while simultaneously wanting teachers to take charge of their learning as teachers are perceived as more knowledgeable and able to provide the information pupils need to help them achieve well in national tests and examinations (Robinson, 2014).”


In my role as an AP Environmental Science teacher, I create opportunities for students to increase self-awareness and develop confidence as self-directed learners and problem solvers.  By providing opportunities for them to address real world issues, I also hope to help them develop their own path to the future. Below is the story of one of my current students and her perception of high school and preparedness for college and beyond.




There is an obvious beauty in an equilateral triangle, with three sides, all equal in length, forming a beautiful geometric form that is perfectly balanced. My life is more like an isosceles triangle. With eight AP classes under my belt and six more to go, forming the pinnacle of the isosceles, my life is anything but balanced. I qualify as one of William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep,” or a high achieving student petrified of failure whose main goal is to get into America’s elite universities (Deresiewicz). I already have enough credits equivalent to a semester at most universities, and my journey in high school is not complete. With a recent revelation (i.e. reading Excellent Sheep) and my discovery of environmental science, I decided to make my life’s, and our world’s, sustainable triangles less like isosceles’ and more like equilaterals.


My life’s imbalance is a direct result of the education system and my own ambitions. The current education system has bred and nurtured too many sheep. “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose” (Deresiewicz). I am one of those sheep. I placed myself on the path of excellence, or at least so it seemed, with excellence equating to a top notch school and a prosperous career. I have immersed myself in many AP courses for the sake of having a high GPA, participated in numerous extracurricular activities, and studied diligently for the SAT. My high school experience has revolved around what my future holds in college and afterwards, rather than crafting a self-identity and cherishing adolescence. Why was the idea of learning, not for the basis of making money in the future, but for the sake of learning not presented to me, and many others, through the school system? Though the education system has hindered my introspection, my experience has not been all bad. I have learned a large amount of content, which has influenced my interests and career options in environmental science.


My interest in environmental science grew as I saw its value in balancing environmental integrity, human equity, and economic vitality, which all relate to my life outside of school. Mr. Freeman’s AP Environmental Studies class made me aware of alarming issues that hit close to home. For example, “The United States is losing soil 10 times faster – and China and India are losing soil 30 to 40 times faster – than the natural replenishment rate,” relates to my rural community, called Pungo (Pimentel). Class topics relate to my community, which has tractors hogging the road, corn and soy lining the fields, and posted signs reading “GMO Certified.” Learning about soil and sustainable farming techniques has increased my awareness of the practices that take place in my local community, as I see the corn swapped for soy and the round hay bales bundled. My family quickly assimilated to life in Pungo with an ever growing collection of animals including not-so-micro pigs, chickens, ducks, and horses, whom I all adore, especially my pink pig Mildred. Observing the environmental practices that take place in my community, learning environmental science content, and fostering a love for animals has propelled my interest in environmental science as a career option.


The field of environmental science is broad, but ultimately my passion for problem solving pushed me in the direction of environmental engineering. As I explored environmental engineering, it became apparent how many opportunities are present. I could take steps to clean water and air, develop waste disposal systems or more efficient energy sources, or even restore ecosystems. I hope that in the future “excellent sheep” will cease to exist, or that at least students will rise above “sheepdom” and recognize where their true passions lie, as I have with environmental science. As I work to balance my life, I hope to balance the world’s as an environmental engineer.



Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York, NY: Free, 2014. Print.


National Science Board.  (2014) Science and Engineering Indicators 2014 Arlington VA: National Science Foundation (NSB 14-01). Retrieved from


Pimentel, David. “Soil Erosion: A Food and Environmental Threat.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 8.1 (2006): 119-37. Web.


President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).  Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 2012


Robinson, C. (2014) Children, Their Voices and Their Experiences of School: What Does The Evidence Tell Us? Cambridge Primary Review Trust, Retrieved from


About the Authors

Chris Freeman teaches AP Environmental Science at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia.  In 2016 he received a Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators.  He has developed an apiary research site at his school and works to promote building design as a teaching tool throughout the region.  He enjoys hiking, canoeing, and kite aerial photography.


BB Vincelette is an avid equestrian and student. She is currently ranked first in her class at Kellam High School, in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She spends her time outside of school riding horses and caring for her barnyard animals. In the future, she hopes to attend college and study environmental engineering.