Restorative Justice through Nature: Elsa Barron '21 & ESS Student Karli Siefker '21

A baby preying mantis will extend its front legs and make itself appear as tall as possible to fend off a hungry spider. This may seem trivial, or perhaps humorous, and indeed, the group of teenage boys in DePaul Academy’s biology class laughed when they first saw a video of this encounter. But then, when asked to think more about it, the conversation turned to how us humans are similar to the preying mantis – sometimes we act big and tough when we don’t want to get hurt. These students could relate to the insect, and thus, grow in their connection to nature. 

While Elsa and Karli originally planned to go to the school each week, leading hands-on activities that help the students interact with nature, they adapted their project due to the pandemic. They still lead hands-on activities, but now they do so through Zoom, while the school’s biology teacher helps implement the lessons with materials Karli and Elsa drop off. This connection is a key way in which “environmental education fosters healing of the person and Earth, and is thus a process of restorative justice,” Notre Dame senior Karli Siefker says. Together, with senior Elsa Barron, her sustainability capstone project has been to develop an environmental education curriculum, weaving in environmental justice, climate change and sustainability, for DePaul Academy in South Bend, which is a residential school for teenage boys in the criminal justice system. 

The key to developing this curriculum was to teach the students science concepts while also providing access to nature in a way many had never experienced before and addressing some heavier concepts around justice. They focus on hands-on activities because research shows that “nature can be incredibly important for mental health and trauma healing, which is the process DePaul is trying to lead the students through in their nine months there,” Elsa explains. During fall the brightly colored leaves inspired awe from the students and laid the foundation for a discussion of photosynthesis as well an art activity.

Elsa says that aside from adapting to not interacting in person, one of the key challenges in this project has been identifying the right level of detail to go into in the material. She says they’re “teaching intense concepts about justice” but at the same time trying to incorporate basic science. Again, the hands-on elements have been key. To begin a discussion about environmental justice, they had the students draw their home communities and include ten places that were significant to them in some way. Then they had the students remove things and add things to improve the community, making space for thinking about how we relate to our surrounding environment and how it can affect our quality of life. This led to a hopeful discussion of opportunities to improve their communities. 

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Elsa Barron ('21)

Both Karli and Elsa discuss the power of reflections shared by the students at DePaul. Karli says one of her favorite parts has been “watching students’ amazement at the natural world - especially for students who haven’t had much interaction with the natural world.” And Elsa emphasizes that the learning has gone both ways. “It’s a really incredible class. Almost every week we learn something new. Students will bring up concepts or build connections that we didn’t make, which is always the most exciting thing.” Their faculty advisor, Professor Maria McKenna in the Department of Africana Studies, notes that Karli and Elsa “were ambitious trying to do a community-based project in the midst of a global pandemic, but they made it work. And the feedback from their students about what they were learning was quite moving.” 

Karli and Else recently received a Community Impact Grant from the Center for Social Concerns to provide more green spaces on the campus. They have started working with the DePaul faculty to identify locations for areas such as garden beds, a sensory garden, murals and an aquaponics system, among other ideas. “The goal is to provide reflective spaces for students and the opportunity to engage with the natural world. The hope is that the gardens can be used along with our sustainability curriculum to add experiential learning to the curriculum,” Karli explains. 

“Elsa and Karli bring an incredible diversity of skillsets to this project,” says Professor Rachel Novick, Director of the Sustainability Minor. “Karli is a Theology major in the Glynn honors program who is also minoring in Education, Schooling and Society. Elsa is also a Glynn honors student and is double-majoring in Biology and Peace Studies. Bringing different ways of thinking together to address complex environmental and social challenges is what the Sustainability Minor is all about, and we’re incredibly grateful to the Center for Social Concerns for the generous grant that is enabling Karli and Elsa to enhance the long-term impact of their project.”

Elsa and Karli plan to continue teaching lessons virtually this semester, but are also hoping their curriculum can continue to serve students even when they have completed their capstone. “Karli and Elsa's project reminded me, and I hope others, that the work and learning around sustainability is something that everyone can, and should, be exposed to,” says Professor McKenna. “If we start teaching young people early and often to notice the world around them and how to care for it, we can absolutely impact the future.”

Read More Student Spotlights on the Minor in Sustainability Website.