Reinventing Environmental Education

This morning we had a group of 1st graders participate in the Soil Secrets program.  They gathered “ingredients” for soil and cooked up a great batch…except that it will take 100 years for their ingredients to decompose and become one inch of soil.  At least that’s what they were told.  I told Howard the naturalist that I’ve been taking his teachings on Change and the 3 As (Awareness, Appreciation and Action) and blogging about them.  I told him I added “Attitude” to the list.  Just then, another staff member chimed in and said, “Oh, those are the 4 pillars of Environmental Education: Awareness, Appreciation, Attitude and Action”.  So intuitively, I’ve been piecing together a way of learning that’s already been codified and stamped with a Presidential approval…by Richard Nixon, no less.   I looked it up on Wikipedia.

Environmental education (EE) refers to organized efforts to teach about how natural environments function and, particularly, how human beings can manage their behavior and ecosystems in order to live sustainably. The term is often used to imply education within the school system, from primary to post-secondary. However, it is sometimes used more broadly to include all efforts to educate the public and other audiences, including print materials, websites, media campaigns, etc. Related disciplines include outdoor education and experiental education.  EE focuses on:

  • Awareness and sensitivity about the environment and environmental challenges
  • Knowledge and understanding about the environment and environmental challenges
  • Attitude concern for the environment and help to maintain environmental quality
  • Skills to mitigate the environmental problems
  • Participation for exercising existing knowledge and environmental related programs.

There’s a history section that notes that thinking about the environment was at first a more philosophical endeavor, engaging writers and ‘naturalists’ like Rousseau and Agassiz and became a more “scientific” issue after the Depression and dust bowl days when Conservation Education became “a major scientific management and planning tool that helped solve social, economic, and environmental problems.”

On Thursday, I learned that the CCC had built the dam at the Wehr Nature Center in 1935.  I also learned that they planted pine forests on top of the glacial kames because reforestation was generally considered good management.  Howard told me that it introduced a monoculture that wasn’t really typical of the native vegetation of the area.

So I’m beginning to realize that I’m stepping into the middle of a long-term drama.  The dialogue isn’t new, I’m just new.  But I notice that the dialogue has become more clinical and less poetic.  I like the aspect of grace.  I like the aspect of wonder.  I met a student on our program today who is getting her certification in early childhood education, K-3.  Environmental education represents 8 hours of her total degree requirements.  She will check it off her list and be that much closer to becoming a teacher. What will she impart to her students?  She laments the fact that most city kids don’t get the opportunity to go on a field trip to a park.  They simply can’t afford it.  Sometimes one parent will foot the bill for the entire class to go, and that helps.  When they can’t leave the school, they try to do a nature unit in the classroom.  One class did a seed experiment that failed because their class was in a basement room that didn’t get enough sunlight to grow the seeds in their little plastic bags.  They all rotted instead of sprouting.  What happens when you put in your required curriculum hours on environmental education but the students don’t actually get to experience a natural environment?  I suppose they learn that environments can be very different.  Wendell Berry hates the term, actually.  He says, “I don’t live in an environment.  I live in a place.”

Man, I wish I could take every kid in Milwaukee out one at a time and show them the Wehr Nature Center or Havenwoods at least once every year of their school career.

Green space at the heart of the city at Havenwoods State Forest, Milwaukee

That would be a good beginning.  How do you develop love for the world in yourself?  How do you help develop it in another person?


2 thoughts on “Reinventing Environmental Education

  1. I too like the aspects of grace and wonder. I am homeschooling my young boys this year and am struck everyday by the joy of being able to be outdoors while most students spend the overwhelming majority of their time indoors. As a teacher on maternity leave this year, I have promised myself, if I go back to the classroom, to take my students outside more. I have fought for more field trips, but it’s even easier to just go outside.

  2. If the seeds are rotting in the dark basement classroom, what is happening to the children? Something for school districts to think about.

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