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 (gluten intolerance).
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 not.
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.
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 this.
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.