Some thoughts from our Executive Director on the current state of Environmental Education:
Twenty years ago, the term Environmental Education left a
sour taste in most people’s mouths.
Perhaps it still does for some, but it shouldn’t. Most everyone in my current profession will
agree that Environmental Education hasn’t always been done well and in the
1980’s and 90’s, even when it was; the term had been hijacked in popular culture
by agenda-based organizations and lobbying groups. Moreover, anything accompanied by the word
environmental was often assumed to indicate a negative for industry,
agriculture or progress in general. It
is long overdue for us to recommit to the word ‘environment’ for what it really
is, the space in which we all live and rely upon as an endless provider. From the space to go hunting or enjoy a hot
spring soak, clean air to breathe and water to drink, to the soil to grow our
food and minerals to fuel our economy; all of this is our environment and we
need to know it well. More than know it,
it needs to impassion us and especially our youth.
We all know that increasing population, along with demands
for natural resources and energy are all posing new and complex problems for
our environment. Problems that we don’t
fully understand, problems that grow in importance with each new generation,
problems that our children and children’s children will need to have the skills
and passion to find innovative solutions for.
This is where the new environmental education comes in.
|EE in Action, Lamoille Canyon, Nevada|
The first thing that Environmental Education (EE) does is
simply to get children into the environment, the natural environment that is,
outdoors. The average American child
currently spends more than 6 hours per day looking at an electronic screen, be
it a computer, television, video game or phone.
That number will disturb most parents who grew up spending their free
time involved in creative outdoor play.
Besides the lack of real connection to the environment, this problem,
which has been coined nature-deficit disorder, has many other negative
implications. It has taken some time to
gather data, but studies have now linked lack of time spent outdoors to
childhood obesity, attention deficit disorder, low Vitamin D (produced from
sunlight) levels, near-sightedness and lack of cooperation and conflict
resolution skills. These studies
continue to mount. Scientists in Finland
have recently announced they have found a connection between children who do
not play outside and thus are not exposed to various microbes found in soil
have higher rates of allergy/autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease
Once children have ventured outside of the classroom, or
their front door, they can be engaged in place-based education. This important aspect of EE simply means that
students should first learn about the environment with which they are most familiar,
their place. Should we expect a student
in northern Nevada to truly connect with the rainforest or Arctic Ocean if they
have not had the opportunity to connect with the high desert environment which
they can see and touch every day? Probably
Another guiding principle of the new EE is inquiry. The inquiry approach to learning teaches
children how to think, not what to think.
Viewing the environment from the scientific perspective, inquiry
learning strengthens investigative, observation and analytical thinking skills
as students seek their own answers to problems.
Inquiry helps students take their current level of understanding and
make new conclusions based on observation and experimentation. There is no one chained to a tree in the new
Environmental Education does not mean time away from academics.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. All
traditional subject matter can be taught with the environment as a classroom
and model. Environmental curriculum is
designed to meet state and national academic standards and studies have shown
that learning outdoors increases overall academic performance in core
subjects. Even classroom-based
environmental education has tremendous benefits. In our very own French Ford Middle School
(FFMS), standards-based EE curriculum was one of several changes implemented a
few years ago to combat struggling science scores on standardized testing. Since that time, FFMS has shown a drastic
turnaround in this area. It is important
not only for students to gain skills and an understanding of science but to be
inspired by it. Seeing science applied
to streams, plants, soil, etcetera, in a natural environment, helps to do
The inspiration that Environmental Education can provide is
crucial to reverse the falling number of students enrolling in higher education
and pursuing careers in science and natural resources. We desperately need bright young people to do
just that, to be the next generation of environmental or agricultural
scientists, engineers or land managers.
Those young people need to be prepared to solve complex environmental
issues, to steward the land and create good policy. The decisions they make will ultimately be
theirs, but they should have a solid foundation on which to make them through
this new style of EE.
Now, this new EE isn’t really all that new. It has been gaining momentum for some time
now. It has been present in Winnemucca
and Humboldt County for the past 10 years.
I am proud of what Nevada Outdoor School has done thus far for local
youth and families. I know of no other
community our size anywhere which has the same breadth and volume of
environmental and outdoor education programming available. And for a community which has such a history
of connection to and reliance upon the environment as we do, be it for work or
play, why shouldn’t we? I think we all
want to see the tradition continue with our children at the forefront, to see a
strong balance between conservation, outdoor recreation and our need to use the
land. Environmental Education will help;
it is good for all of us.