Jessica Sheffield Zamora

Special Relationship (Virtual)
Headshot of Fellow Jessica Sheffield
Because of the pandemic, Jessica Sheffield Zamora was selected by Ashoka as a Special Relationship (Virtual) using an online process.

Introducción

Jessica is applying a collective impact approach including the private, social, academic, and governmental sector to turn children and their communities into agents of environmental change. Championing teachers as leaders in this transformation, she is strengthening environmental education in Costa Rica by providing the training, resources and support teachers need to turn their schools into models of regenerative development.

La idea nueva

Jessica is creating a culture of change agents in Costa Rica to deeply transform human’s relation to the environment with the overall aim to shift mindsets and create a society with broad conscience about the interconnections with nature. Therefore, Jessica is redesigning education in Costa Rica through the implementation of tools, trainings, and collaboration to generate an environmental transformation from the bottom-up. She invented a free educational platform tailored towards teachers with environmental videos, lessons, and infographics in Spanish since a large part of the information about environmental issues and contexts is only available in English. Approved by the Ministry of Education, all activities are ready to be implemented in the classroom for a variety of subjects. Instead of teaching environmental education as a separate subject matter, the material is included as a whole to properly educate about the importance of nature - improving children’s everyday practices and behaviors.

To complement this, Jessica offers teacher training programs and workshops, and further engages teachers from different schools through an award competition that recognizes and empowers the most environmentally friendly educators. Jessica is directly collaborating with local municipalities so they can systematize and replicate the teacher awards in the future. Jessica works directly with children by hosting environmental challenges called "My Guardian Challenge” to encourage them to find solutions to environmental problems with concrete actions and to create a network of children dedicated to protect and value the natural world. Jessica is also working on systematizing the children awards to scale it nationally and have more kids working directly with nature. Finally, convinced of the great impact collective acting can have, Guardianes de la Naturaleza is collaborating with the private sector, such as hotels, to adopt marginalized schools and turn them into guiding models of sustainability. Through the implementation of activities such as recycling, installing solar panels, composting, and gardening, it serves as an inspiration for other schools to become environmentally friendly.

El problema

Costa Rica is known for demonstrating leadership in environmental policy passing green initiatives such as the National Plan of Decarbonization for 2018-2050. However, this plan or any other does not cover a strategy to implement environmental education in schools throughout the country. Even though the government has attempted to introduce an environmental curriculum in the past, it has been inefficient because the teacher training programs did not provide sufficient training in environmental education topics and teaching strategies. Moreover, environmental education has been designed as a separate subject requiring additional time and resources, rather than being embedded in the core curriculum.

According to research conducted in Costa Rica by the Institute of Education, University of London, “frequent budget shortfalls further exacerbate the existing scarcity of resources which educators – especially in poorer, rural areas – continually face.” This lack of funding for education, which is especially acute in rural communities, presents an additional barrier to providing effective environmental education. Even though the Office of Environmental Education undertook a series of workshops and seminars about environmental education, it did not reach isolated rural schools and teachers in Costa Rica. In consequence, the problem still remains – educators feel unprepared to teach about the environment because they do not have the necessary training, tools and resources. Jessica believes geographical location should not interfere or be a reason for the lack of environmental education.

This lack of support for environmental education has caused young children and the wider community to become misinformed, resulting in unsustainable lifestyles. Since no one teaches them about sustainability, nature and everyday impact on ecosystems, children have no model to follow. This encourages behaviors that contradict humans’ connection and interdependence to nature, such as contaminating rivers and deforestation. Global issues such as the climate crisis, loss of biodiversity, ocean and land contamination require urgent global and local solutions. If teachers are not equipped with the necessary tools and knowledge regarding the environment, it remains difficult for children to be informed of contemporary environmental issues and sustainable alternatives that have a positive ecological impact on the planet. Even though Costa Rica has made great progress towards environmental politics such as regenerative energies or the protection of nature, the country still lacks efficient, tailored bottom-up initiatives and approaches. To really become a role model in terms of regenerative systems and ecology, the country still needs to strengthen systemic, holistic strategies on all kind of levels and among different actors. Jessica has identified an opportunity to generate an impact in the children, the parents, the teachers, and their greater communities, shifting their mindset and practices towards more sustainable ones.

La estrategia

Jessica’s environmental experience and education made her realize that the key to fix the problem was teaching and training the educators. She was inspired to create a free educational platform, based on the materials piloted in her own school, to not only tackle the symptoms of the problem but fix it from the root through the education system. Besides providing teaching resources for educators, Jessica complemented the approach with environmental competitions for students and teachers, and included the collaboration of the private, public, and social sector to build a solid infrastructure for long-term change. Jessica’s initiative focuses on supporting the empowerment of two pillars: teachers and children. Teachers are seen as ideally positioned to build a culture of environmental proactiveness through their direct impact on future generations. By working through teachers, Guardianes de la Naturaleza can indirectly reach thousands of children and quickly scale to national and regional levels. Meanwhile, children represent fundamental actors to achieve the strategy of collective impact, since they can inspire the wider community and bring the culture of changemaking into the future.

Starting with teachers, Jessica offers a free online platform that is available to download and designed with rural teachers in mind. To target the Latin American audience where environmental resources are limited and mostly in English, Jessica offers all the material in Spanish. The platform offers multi-media training and teaching resources, covering themes such as climate change, water resources, electricity, solid waste, health, nature under threat, biodiversity in plants and animals, and ecosystems. All materials are designed to be seamlessly incorporated into any core subject, including math, social studies, science, languages, music, poetry, and even drama. There are over 100 lessons that are ready to be implemented as an integral part of classroom activity, not as an extra lesson. Since the platform's launch in 2017, over 665 lessons have been downloaded by 198 users from different parts of Latin America and Spain. Moreover, teachers can voluntarily sign up for the trainings to learn how to use the environmental education guide.

Guardianes de la Naturaleza currently works directly with 30 schools and indirectly with 14 schools, empowering the teachers and giving them the necessary tools for the implementation of environmental education in the classroom. In 2019, 18 teachers and 30 mentors from 16 different NGOs were directly trained on the use of the educational materials so they can instruct the methodology with other educators in Costa Rica. This is a fundamental part of their strategy as they seek to replicate the model in the whole country with the overall aim to serve as a role model for other countries in terms of environmental education. As of 2020, Jessica trained 30 college students that study pre-school education on environmental education. Guardianes de la Naturaleza has also created awards for teachers to recognize and empower those who are involved the most and to encourage others to join the movement. So far, 30 schools participated and 15 teachers were nominated and, as of now, 6 teachers have been recognized and awarded for their commitment to environmental education.

Similar to the teacher awards, Jessica created “My Guardian Challenge”, a program tailored towards kids, from pre-school to sixth grade, which enables the children to actively participate in ecological activities through several challenges. The kids are invited to solve an environmental issue in their school or community. More than 200 children have participated so far and have developed solutions to environmental problems such as river cleaning, reforestation, recycling, and more. The children that generate the greatest impact are awarded trips to a natural site to encourage participation and effort in the activities. Jessica has also written multiple environmental children’s books that have been donated to more than 10,000 children throughout the province of Guanacaste, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. She plans to write more books to empower children in Latin America. In relation to Jessica’s first two books, Guardianes de la Naturaleza has also provided children with recycling and composting workshops. With the broad range of the different programs she has impacted more than 13,855 children by teaching them about the environment and improving their educational experience. In the future, Jessica wants to quadruple the participants of “My Guardian Challenge”, create a children’s environmental news podcast, and make the awards part of the Ecological Blue Flag Program, which is a joint venture created by various government entities such as the Costa Rican Tourism Institute, Ministry of Environment, National Water Service, Ministry of Public Health and National Tourism Chamber. The program recognizes the effort and voluntary work in the search for conservation and development in Costa Rica. Jessica works directly with the Commission of the Ecological Blue Flag Program to strengthen the environmental impact in the country and encourage more participation.

Jessica is closely working with the private sector to spread her environmental movement among different sectors. In this context, she has linked businesses to marginalized schools to transform them into models of sustainability by implementing practices such as recycling waste, installing solar panels, implementing gardens using organic fertilizer, among other measures to become climate positive. Throughout an entire year, Guardianes de la Naturaleza accompanies the stakeholders involved, from employees to the school board, and helps them in creating a community so the activities can continue even without the presence of Guardianes de la Naturaleza. To date, 7 hotels and 7 schools have been involved. By bringing together this variety of actors and activating a collective impact, Jessica is positioning the education system as a key driver of environmental regeneration at a national level.

In addition to the collaboration with the Blue Flag Program, Jessica closed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Education and the educational state department of Nicoya. The platform is already approved by the Ministry of Education and Jessica’s strategy is to work closely with the government to systematize all the processes such as the teacher and children awards so they can be replicated nation-wide through the Ministry of Public Education and at the regional level through local municipalities. Several municipalities such as Belén, Nicoya and Orotina are already purchasing Jessica´s books on environmental education so that these can be used in their schools. As part of her replication strategy, Jessica is already cooperating with NGO allies in Colombia and Argentina to replicate her model internationally. Based on these first achievements she aims to establish more partnerships with other organizations that can bring the model to their countries and to collaborate with the Ministries of Public Education throughout Latin America to implement it at a higher level. In the short term, Jessica is planning to develop a strategy to provide more environmental services to more municipalities. Jessica is also planning to develop collaborations with the Ministery of Tourism and Environment.

La persona

Jessica was born and raised in Heredia, Costa Rica. She grew up in an educational system where environmental education and conscience was non-existent. Since middle school, Jessica was a nature lover thanks to her friend’s parents who were biologists and invited her on many trips to national parks and other protected areas. These experiences made her deeply aware about the environment and influenced her values and behavior. Her exposure to nature led her to understand the interdependence among all living beings and inspired her to become an environmental activist. She started her first eco-club at school when she was only fourteen and already knew that she wanted to be a biologist. She then decided to go to college and study Marine Biology, where she graduated with the best grade average of her program. In 2004, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship that allowed her to obtain a Master’s degree in Environmental Resource Management in the United States.

In 2007, with her new experience and knowledge regarding the lack of environmental education in the classrooms and training for the teachers, Jessica decided to co-found an ecological school in the rural coastal town of Nosara, Costa Rica, called Del Mar Academy. The eco-school was the laboratory and the initial inspiration for the free educational tools, training, and experiences provided in Guardianes de la Naturaleza. When the town of Nosara began to expand, so did the trash. Therefore, Jessica co-founded Nosara Recicla, a community initiative to help address the lack of waste management and also educate others on proper disposal of waste. Today, the Nosara Recycling and Education Center is a model for the whole country, as they also promote the active participation of the community. After founding Nosara Recicla, Jessica saw the problems regarding waste management and decided to write her first book for children, “The Guardian of Nature and her friends save the river.” However, Jessica quickly noticed that in order to fix the root causes of the environmental challenges, it was important to spread the tools and contents she has created and successfully piloted in her own school to the entire educational system by focusing on teachers, giving birth to her initiative Guardianes de la Naturaleza.

Jessica was a finalist in an entrepreneurial competition in 2015 for a proposal for sustainable homes, which is now part of the governmental Ecological Blue Flag Program. Guardianes de la Naturaleza has also been awarded as the top 8 best project in human development for Latinoamerica Verde.