John Jung: K-12 Educator of the Year

John Jung, environmental science teacher at Mesa High School, was recently recognized by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) as the recipient of the K-12 Educator of the Year Award. The award is given to educators who promote environmental education and utilize the environment as a context for learning in their teaching.

AAEE’s President, LoriAnne Barnett, recently caught up with John to find out how he came to have such an impactful career in the field of environmental education.

How long have you been involved in environmental education?

Over 30 years ago, my friend, Larry Langstaff, invited me to an Arizona Association for Learning in and about the Environment annual conference. That was very early in my career as a public school science teacher; I has very little knowledge of or experience with teaching EE. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, the conferences were well attended, and the sessions were almost always presented outdoors. The classroom activities I learned at the AALE conferences were the reasons I originally became interested in EE.

What was your inspiration for becoming an environmental educator?

I brought these lessons back with me and attempted to integrate them into the curriculum whenever possible. To me, the topics and themes of the lessons were fascinating, and the lessons themselves applied the best practices of teaching.

What steps did you take along your career path that have helped you get where you are today?

I remember very well the drive back from an AALE conference and talking with my wife about the pointlessness of attending the conferences because I couldn’t use the EE activities in the highly structured curriculum of the courses I was teaching at the time. The very next day, I began the steps to create a course at Mesa High School strictly devoted to Environmental Education/Science. And the next year, close to 25 years ago, Environmental Science was offered for the first time at Mesa High.

I was fortunate to teach this subject where no standard curriculum existed at the district level; this gave me the freedom to experiment with curricular structure and outcomes (ie. Outcome Based Learning). Never totally satisfied with the results of the experiments, I began a Master of Natural Science degree program at ASU in 2000. That’s where and when I discovered “concept mapping”. This graphic organizer supports the main themes of EE and can be used for instruction, learning, and assessment. My students construct a series of concept maps throughout the year that eventually interconnect into one giant display of an entire year’s worth of learning.

The last chapter of my professional life has been devoted to my direction of the development of Mesa High’s “Garden of the B’s.” Our award-winning Garden began 4 years ago as a concept when I was moved to a classroom near a vacant acre in a remote corner of campus. After obtaining permission from the superintendancy, planning, grant writing, planting, and weeding filled the next two years with the initial planting in April of 2015. The Garden is nearing three-years-old and is arguably one of the best things I’ve done for EE.

What are some of the main components of the EnviSci Program?

The titles of the major units would be Ecology, Sustaining Biodiversity, Food and Water, Mineral Resources and Energy, and Pollution and Health.

Were there any major hurdles in developing or getting the program approved? From your school or your district?

The College Board requires the prospective AP teacher to write and submit a course audit, which includes the scope and sequence, curricular objectives, and classroom resources. Only after the audit has been approved can a school offer a course (ie. Advanced Placement Environmental Science) with an “AP” label. That was the first hurdle. Once a course is listed in the district’s course catalogue, students may choose APES during Jan./Feb. registration for the following school year. I was fortunate to have a principal at the time when APES was first offered to approve a class roster of only five kids. After that first year, the word got around that APES was a better choice than other courses, and enrollment grew year by year. I’m proud to report that now in the 11th year of APES being listed in the Mesa Public Schools course catalogue, five out of six Mesa high schools offer the course.


I’ve taught lots of different subjects in my 35 year career as an educator. Math, English, other sciences, PE, and computer programming come to mind. None of these come close to Environmental Science in fun-factor, relevance, and interesting topics.


How does EE drive the content you share with you students in your EnviSci course?

When I began Mesa High’s program a long, long time ago, the only resources I had were a previously adopted textbook and 160 text-based worksheets (from the only other Environmental Science teacher in the district), and the growing collection of activities from AALE/AAEE conferences. It was the work of NAAEE that drove the content into a cohesive framed curriculum. NAAEE’s “Excellence in Environmental Education: Guidelines for Learning (Pre K-12)” became my number one resource during the early development of Environmental Science at Mesa High.

Do you provide any opportunities for students to learn skills like critical thinking, communications, and understanding bias? If so, what are they?

All the time! I have scores of activities that force students to think outside their little bubble. For example: my APES class is currently learning about mining. After a week’s worth of activities, they will role-play characters in a court case involving permission to mine in an environmentally sensitive area.

What advice would you share with formal or non-formal educators just starting a career as an environmental educator?

I’ve taught lots of different subjects in my 35 year career as an educator. Math, English, other sciences, PE, and computer programming come to mind. None of these come close to Environmental Science in fun-factor, relevance, and interesting topics. I know a number of fellow educators who changed from other subjects to EE, but I’ve never met someone who purposefully changed from EE to anything else. EE is the oldest educational topic and the only one other than perhaps communication skills that crosses into other species. It’s too important to teach the youth of today why and how to save the Earth.

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