That’s the distance between South Dakota State University and Hoonah, Alaska, where Carie Green, the Profilet and DeJong Family Endowed Director of Early Childhood Education and associate professor in the School of Education, Counseling and Human Development, has been traveling via car, commercial airlines, seaplanes and ferries to conduct field work for her National Science Foundation-backed research project.
For the past few months, Green has made a number of trips to the remote edges of the Alaskan wilderness to visit villages and gather data on environmental identity theory. Her project, titled “Investigating environmental identity development among children in rural Alaska Native communities through intergenerational, culturally responsive community science programming,” began last February, after NSF announced $538,911 in funding over two years.
Green is building off her previous work, specifically, the environmental identity development theory that she developed and subsequently published in 2015 while a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“The theory is a framework in which we interpret the data we collect,” Green explained. “It’s referring to how children develop their relationship with the natural environment and how they begin to see themselves in relation to the natural world.”
Green’s theory stemmed from an interest in linking the understanding of child development to environmental education. The theory builds off the four stages of a previous framework (Erik Erikson’s “Identity and the Life Cycle” from 1980), where children navigate through a series of progressions in the development of their environmental identity. The child’s success hinges on overcoming environmental and emotional conflicts during their healthy development as they progress through each stage. Sociocultural, geographical and educational contexts influence the way in which a child’s environmental identity is formed.
“The heart of the work is really looking at how the environment shapes children and how children shape the environment,” Green added.
Environmental identity has come to be understood as an important component in children’s future knowledge of and commitment to the environment. However, little is known about how young children begin to construct an environmental identity and how adults can support them in their development. This project aims to fill in this research gap.
Molly of Denali
An important piece of this project is the PBS KIDS television program “Molly of Denali,” an award-winning animated series produced by GBH KIDS in Boston. The show follows the adventures of 10-year-old Molly Mabray, an Alaska Native girl who lives in the fictional village of Qyah. “Molly of Denali” is the first nationally distributed children’s series with Indigenous lead characters.
“(The show) is a really, really big deal in Alaska,” Green said. “It’s very representatives of Alaska Native communities, and the producers have worked really intensely with the Native communities to ensure that the show is culturally relevant.”
“Molly of Denali,” which debuted in 2019, works with more than 80 Alaska Native advisers to ensure authenticity. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have applauded the show for its inclusive nature, with the Los Angeles Time calling it a “huge step forward” for Native American representation.
Green and her research team will work closely with “Molly of Denali” producers to accomplish the project’s two main goals: to learn about how children from rural Alaska Native communities develop environmental identity, and to use this knowledge to create new “Molly of Denali” resources and programming. To do this, researchers and producers will collaborate with three Alaska Native villages—Hoonah, Bethel, and Northway—to generate research and to create and test an intergenerational, community-based environmental science program that is supported by media and incorporates culturally responsive ways of understanding and doing science. The team is also working closely with key partners and advisors to guide the project’s activities.
Green got involved with this project because of her previous experience working with young children in Alaska.
“GBH wanted someone to partner with on a project that had a framework for looking at how children are making their relationship with the natural environment,” Green said.
The first phase of the project, which is ongoing, has Green and her research team traveling to rural Alaskan villages to gain a better sense of the children’s connection with the environment. Green’s research methods rely on the children’s perceptions, experiences and their relation to the natural world, which makes the children active participants in the research process.
“We collect drawings. We ask them to draw their favorite thing to do outdoors, and then we ask them to describe their drawings,” Green said. “We also do family outdoor experiences—I refer to them as family nature tours.”
To get a better sense of what the children are actually experiencing, Green equips them with wearable GoPro cameras to analyze what they are seeing and experiencing on the nature tours. Families can choose to share any activities they like to do in the outdoors. Green has spent time with families smoking fish they have caught, picking blueberries and cranberries, or just playing in mud puddles.
“This work is really about showing the diversity of childhood experiences in nature,” Green said.
The second phase of the project will see Green and her team work closely with two rural Alaska Native communities to develop, test and revise an implementation model of a community science program that supports environmental identity development.
The third phase will investigate the widespread implementation of the proposed educational materials across Alaska.
Green’s research project flips the model from other research done in Indigenous communities, because rather than look at deficiencies—a bulk of published research is focused on the social and economic problems in reservation communities—this project looks at the strengths of the traditional cultural lifestyle that’s really connected to the land.
“How can everyone learn from these experiences with what should be important and what should be a valued part of childhood experiences?” Green said.
This project advances the efforts of NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program, which hopes to better understand culturally responsive approaches to broaden participation of Indigenous students in STEM education and careers.