How Creating Tiny Scenes Sparked My Students’ Interest in Environmental Conservation

This post was written by science educator Lyanne Abreu.

As a 2019 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow (a partnership with Lindblad Expeditions) that traveled to Antarctica last fall, I wanted to create a project highlighting environmental problems in the region. During COVID lockdowns, a former GTF posted on Facebook about a photographer that took pictures on a tiny scale. This was such an inspiration that Anthropoteeny was born. Its mission is to bring global awareness of enormous problems into a teeny platform. There is so much going on in the world, and art is such a powerful medium to reignite curiosity about our planet. 

One of the first ideas was to create a tiny scene highlighting krill fishing in Antarctica. Few people are aware of the implications of krill trawling, so I studied krill nets and decided to showcase this in a way that can engage people of all ages while educating and exposing an issue that would have otherwise remained unseen. I crafted the icebergs out of meringues and the fishing nets out of stockings. Some elements are purchased figurines but most others are homemade — I want to give the scenes an element of intrigue so that a person’s curiosity triggers a heightened sense of awareness for the issue. 

I started Anthropoteeny this summer to expose environmental issues during a time where environmentalism was at a standstill due to COVID-19. When we started school in the fall, I introduced the 9th-grade environmental science academy students to the artwork of various paper and miniature artists along with my own collection and we kicked off a semester-long modeling project. First, students had to research a topic of interest that tied to a geographic location. They couldn’t just pick a generalized concept like “oil spills.” They needed to research a specific event that happened in the last year, the cleanup, and the impact it has had on the environment. I wanted them to have a specific focus so they would have a purpose for their images. Once they had their idea they needed to research and write a paper about their environmental topic, sharing at least one article and resources they used. And finally, after they understood the environmental issue, they could create their actual models. 

Lyanne works with a student using a mirrorless camera, tripod, and lightbox to capture the shot of the Javan Rhino. Photo courtesy Lyanne Abreu.

I am amazed at how beautiful my students’ work is. Some kids have never used clay before and they are working it into a beautiful albatross! They are starting to give me the fine, accurate little details that are the hallmarks of Anthropoteeny. For example, one student is developing a root system for a specific tree in the Congo, which is amazing. Some students are focusing on whaling in Japan, which means I want to see the type of whale and an element that indicates it’s a Japanese boat (perhaps Japanese symbols or a flag). They are giving me those little details, and it’s really neat to see them thinking about them as they upgrade their process. 

Once their projects are complete, they will be shared on the Anthropoteeny Instagram page.  I want to highlight the environmental issues the students created, photographed, and researched to help educate others about ongoing global problems. This is what conservationists do; they highlight issues and help find solutions. These projects will address organizations, action groups, and individuals that are having an impact. If these students can show their work to younger generations, it can open up new channels of conversation and get the world talking about what is going on. Their creative outlook and exaggerated elements can capture and captivate attention in a way that a photograph wouldn’t be able to do. I want students to recognize that they are not only elevating their own voices but also they are amplifying the voice of the environment through their artwork.

One thing I’ve learned from this project: If an educator is going to teach the process, they have to be a part of it and see where it leads them. As much as I have enjoyed developing a new modality of student learning, understanding the creative process brings a greater level of expertise in order to properly guide the students with their own visions. This way, the educator is more empowered to lead by example, helping to facilitate a more creative learning process for the student. This deepened level of connectivity between purpose and place will be instilled in students, igniting that curiosity necessary to develop an Explorer Mindset

Have you or your students worked on a similar project as a class assignment or just for fun? Share photos with me at to help expose global environmental issues on a social platform and keep the conversation going.

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