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January 2000 | Volume 42 | Number 1
Environmental Education Evolves
When Dixie Reimer started teaching about the environment 14 years ago, the middle school science teacher was viewed as a radical. "Teaching about the environment was considered `out there,'" she laughs.
These days, environmental education is still on the cutting edge, say those in the field. And now it's considered a tool for creating responsible citizens and furthering education reform.
"We can trace the roots of present-day environmental education to nature study, outdoor, and conservation education," says Bora Simmons, professor of teacher education at Northern Illinois University. In those earlier forms, Reimer remembers, teachers would encourage students to choose a topic such as nuclear energy or acid rain, research it, and give a report.
Since the late 1960s and 1970s, the most significant change in environmental education has been "an emphasis on citizenship, problem solving, and issues identification," explains Simmons.
This emphasis is important, because "we continually make decisions that affect the environment, from deciding whether or not to recycle a soda can to bigger policy issues, such as NAFTA," Simmons notes. And the state of the environment affects our quality of life, she continues. For that reason, environmental education is an essential part of the curriculum in a democratic society.
Because humans and the environment are in constant interaction, "it's our responsibility to help kids understand the ecosystem where they live and the impact humans have on it," says Mary Lane, principal of Hawkins Middle School in Olympia, Wash. "Our children will be responsible for making decisions that help preserve or make a healthy environment. For that, they need to know what a healthy environment is and how to make good decisions."
It's important that children know they don't have to wait until they are adults to make a difference in their environment, notes Richard Wilke, distinguished professor of environmental education at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. "Kids can decide if they will recycle, if they will turn the lights off when they aren't needed. Kids also have a lot of money to spend these days, and they can learn to make a difference now in their consumer choices." The behaviors and attitudes that children develop continue into adulthood, he suggests.
As children develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to make informed decisions, say experts, teachers need to allow young people to form their own opinions. "It's not our role to tell kids that all decisions need to be based on protecting the spotted owl," notes Lane. The challenges facing humans within the environment don't have black-and-white answers. "We won't come to answers without an understanding of the environment and human needs."
Few educators contest the importance of teaching young people to be decision makers, but they may wonder why schools should offer environmental education, especially when museums, nature centers, and organizations such as the Boy and Girl Scouts offer many similar learning opportunities. One important reason to teach about the environment in K–12 education is that "schools can create a scope and sequence," so children don't learn the same things about the rain forest in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, notes Rosalyn McKeown-Ice, director of the Center for Geography and Environmental Education at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville.
Moreover, content and skills taught in environmental education often correlate to national and state standards, says Simmons. As a result, "adding environmental education doesn't add another layer to the curriculum; it becomes the common fabric that holds the curriculum together," states Donnan Stoicovy, principal of Park Forest Elementary School in State College, Pa.
As an interdisciplinary curriculum framework, environmental education can help teachers, schools, and districts reach teaching and learning goals, say those who study the issue. A decade or two ago, the district environmental educator would send out lists of optional training programs for teachers, remembers Susan Toth, director of education at the Pine Jog Environmental Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. "Now environmental education is more of a dialogue based on what the schools need." Educators ask, "How can studying the environment work as a tool to help meet educational needs?" says Toth.
Because state essential learnings drive the curriculum, we must seek out materials and opportunities to help us deliver them, Lane says. She adds that "we know that programs that engage students and where young people learn in an integrated way are most effective."
For these reasons, "environmental education is in sync with education reform," McKeown-Ice notes. "It takes what we know from research and practice about good teaching and learning and brings it into the classroom."
When Komachin Middle School in Lacey, Wash., opened its doors eight years ago, teachers and administrators had already adopted strategies that support school reform efforts, including block scheduling and class assignments that allowed teachers to teach the same children for two years in blended grades.
The school staff also knew that a community focus would make learning real and relevant for students. And because salmon is an issue in the Komachin community, an environmental education focus would be more than appropriate. Several species of the fish were being considered for the endangered species list, Reimer explains. If the salmon were placed on the list, the entire community would be affected. Building and zoning laws, for example, would have to be changed to protect salmon spawning beds, she points out.
To help implement their ideas, the school staff secured an Environmental Protection Agency Model Links grant, which allowed planning time and resources for teachers to look at the curriculum and plan how to weave the theme of "Building a Sustainable Community" throughout it. Based on the work of their teachers, students at Komachin now participate in a yearlong project, during which they learn about the indicators of sustainability in their community through different subjects.
For example, in science, students visit three local ecosystems to test water quality, observe and sketch native species, and record human influences. In language arts, they study literature of social harmony, and they investigate how basic needs are met and how the public participates. Students calculate their family's personal water usage in math class. And they choose and participate in a service project, such as putting gravel in a creek bed to improve a spawning bed for salmon. The project culminates in a performance assessment that showcases student work in the content areas and includes the students' recommendations for future activities in the community.
"Building a Sustainable Community" generates excitement among teachers, students, and parents, and the students perform well in the content areas and in the final performance assessment, according to Reimer. But this year educators in the state have high-stakes testing to consider. Like other schools in Washington, the staff at Komachin is focused on state essential learning tests, which will begin this spring for students in grades 8 and 10.
"The stakes are high for schools because scores are published as front-page news, and programs are cut or instituted based on those scores," notes Reimer. The staff at Komachin feels a bit nervous about the testing because "teaching the way we do takes time. But we are hoping that the test is focused enough on problem solving that the students will do well," Reimer says.
For now, many educators such as Reimer are betting on environmental education, which allows teachers to cover content and to "hook kids and make them want to learn."
While environmental education has evolved as a tool for school reform, many environmental educators remain "out there" in their passionate commitment to the environment. When asked about the importance of studying the environment, Wilke paraphrases Gaylord Nelson, former U.S. senator and founder of Earth Day: How long can a person live without doing a math problem or spelling a complex word? How long can a person live without air to breathe or water to drink?
The environment can affect us in terms of health, loss of aesthetic, and economics, Wilke notes. For these reasons, no matter how it enters the curriculum, "environmental education will never be a luxury."
Environmental education isn't limited to forests, streams, or mountains. "The environment is all around us, wherever we are, inside and outside of the home," says Rita Greene, environmental and earth science teacher at Rezin Orr Community Academy High School in Chicago. "Environmental science is the study of one's environment," Greene explains, "including air and water quality and noise pollution." Even in a city, students can study plants, animals, and insects, she notes.
As the students study their surroundings and seek ways to make changes, they learn about their community, says Greene. "Environmental education helps young people learn about alternative sources of energy, but it also shows them that there are churches, learning groups, and small businesses that can help them get jobs beyond working at Burger King," she says. "They learn there are resources to tap into."
The Belgrade Charter and the Tbilisi Declaration resulted from two United Nations conferences held in the 1970s. They established the following definition, goals, and objectives for the field of environmental education, which are still widely accepted.
“Environmental education is a process aimed at developing a world population that is aware of and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, attitudes, motivations, commitments, and skills to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.”
Awareness: To help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness of and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.
Knowledge: To help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experiences in and acquire a basic understanding of the environment and its associated problems.
Attitudes: To help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.
Skills: To help social groups and individuals acquire the skills for identifying and solving environmental problems.
Participation: To help provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.
Reprinted with permission from the Spring 1999 EEducator. For more information, contact the North American Association for Environmental Education, Membership and Publications Office, 410 Tarvin Rd., Rock Spring, GA 30703; phone: 706-764-2926; Web site: (www.naaee.org).
Copyright © 2000 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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