Plankton is at the bottom of the food chain. It’s what little fish eat before they’re eaten by bigger fish. Commonly known forms of plankton are algae and jelly¬fish. Not so commonly known, however, is that the photosynthesis of phytoplankton—the plant version of plankton—is responsible for roughly half the earth’s oxygen.
James’s students spend a lot of time either outside or in a lab. They’ve visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Hopkins Marine Station on California’s Monterey Peninsula, and they’ve helped with a global initiative known as the Census of Marine Life. “One of the goals is to get them out there and making observations,” he says.
Another goal, James says, is to get his students to analyze data, either information they’ve collected or that James himself has gathered from marine biologists in the field. Either way, he says, he wants his students to know the data are real—not just a page out of a workbook—and he wants them to draw their own conclusions.
In one exercise, students drop foil-wrapped pennies into cylinders of water with different water temperatures. Since temperature affects the density of water—higher temperatures beget lower density—the pennies fall at different rates. This exercise, James says, becomes a discussion about plankton, nature’s aquatic drifters: whether they’re more likely to sink when temperatures rise, and if they do sink, then what? And what other factors come into play?
“Any time you can get them to think,” he notes, “that’s kind of a victory right there.”
Showing, Not Telling
James’s approach to teaching includes key components of what experts consider sound environmental education practices, and those practices are very different, experts say, from what one might think. “Often people have the misconception that environmental education is training tree huggers,” explains Brian Day, executive director of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). “That couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Teaching students about the environment does, indeed, lend itself to controversial issues—climate change, coal mining, oil spills, and coastal erosion, to name a few. But the intent, Day says, is not to take sides. Instead, he says, environmental education has two main objectives: to teach students about the complex interactions between human systems and natural systems, and to show them how to make informed and responsible decisions about their lives and the environment. To achieve these goals, environmental educators say, there are certain guidelines teachers should keep in mind. One of those is to do what James does and encourage students to draw their own conclusions.
“The children have to be the ones driving the bus,” agrees Gerald Lieberman, director of the California-based State Education and Environment Roundtable and principal consultant for the California Education and the Environment Initiative, a legislative mandate to develop and disseminate an environmental education curriculum. Teachers are responsible for providing students with context for environmental issues, he says, one that includes all sides of an issue, and then it’s the teachers’ job to step back and let the students decide where they stand. “That’s critical,” he says. He offers an example: a California lesson on oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge that was based on published articles from five different points of view. There’s no proselytizing, Lieberman maintains. It’s the students’ job to do the comparative analysis.
“As soon as anybody thinks you are trying to tell kids what the conclusion is—for example, global warming is happening—as soon as you do that, you’re in trouble,” Lieberman says. Not only does it run the risk of inflaming emotions about an already controversial issue, but it’s simply not a good way to teach, he says. “As soon as you say, ‘Here’s the answer,’ you’ve blown good instruction.”
Nevertheless, environmental education often begins with certain assumptions (e.g., that one should strive to conserve natural resources, such as water or energy). This is similar to health programs that encourage kids not to smoke, use drugs, or engage in risky sexual behavior, and civics classes that encourage students to vote, notes Jim Elder, director of the Campaign for Environmental Literacy (CEL).
According to Elder, “When you look at environmental education, some [behavior changes] are relatively benign. The conservation aspect of it, for example, is relatively uncontroversial across the political spectrum.” Other issues, such as the use of nuclear power, are controversial. “In that situation, it’s more about teaching kids and people about the underlying controversy,” he says.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “we want to empower students to be able to make the right decisions, but it’s their choice whether they are going to buy an SUV or they are going to buy a Toyota hybrid, and the good teachers recognize that.”
Today’s concept of environmental education has been four decades in the making. It took hold in 1970 with the celebration of the first Earth Day on April 22, but waned after passage of No Child Left Behind mandated testing in only two subjects, English language arts and math (see sidebar “Key Dates in Environmental Education”). Close SidebarKey Dates in Environmental Education
• 1970—The first Earth Day is celebrated on April 22, laying the groundwork for environmental education to become a distinct field apart from science education.
• 1990—The National Environmental Education Act creates an office within the Environmental Protection Agency to promote environmental literacy.
• 1998—The College Board adds environmental science to its roster of Advanced Placement tests.
• 2001—Congress approves the No Child Left Behind Act.
• 2005—Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder is published.
• 2008—The No Child Left Inside Act (NCLI) passes the U.S. House of Representatives with a bipartisan vote of 293 to 109. Although it does not prevail in the Senate, the bipartisan support there inspires a number of states to start working on environmental literacy plans in case NCLI becomes law.
California is way ahead of every other state when it comes to the development of an environmental ed curriculum, according to sources who are tracking the progress states are making in this area.
Since 2004, well over 1,000 people, 6 state agencies, and 19 school systems have contributed to the creation of 85 teaching units that can be plugged into daily lesson plans in science and social studies from kinder¬garten through the 12th grade.
For example, a unit on the California Gold Rush examines the mining and extraction practices used to mine gold and how those practices, including the use of mercury, created dead lakes in the state, according to Gerald Lieberman, a principal consultant for the California Education and the Environment Initiative, which oversees the state’s environmental education plan.
Now that the curriculum piece is close to completion, he says, the next step is to recruit school systems: “Our goal is to have 50 of them implementing these new units by the end of the current school year.”
One of its main strengths, Lieberman notes, is that it weaves environmental instruction through the science and social studies curriculum instead of creating separate, stand-alone courses.
When it comes to curriculum, however, experts agree that there is a great deal of variation in how schools are incorporating environmental education. Some whole schools are devoted to environmental themes, while other districts have added single classes dedicated to the subject, like AP Environmental Science and North Carolina’s earth/environmental science course, which all students must take and pass before graduation. Environmental literacy plans in some states, like California, call for incorporating environmental education into K–12 curriculum guidelines for core subjects.
While stand-alone classes like AP Environmental Science are still largely seen as a “frill”—colleges that want high schoolers to have three years of lab science don’t always count them—CEL’s Jim Elder believes that the situation will soon change owing to student interest.
Interest in environmental education from teachers is another factor behind its resurgence. The subject provides ample opportunity for inquiry-based instruction, as well as for teaching students to be thoughtful and analytical about their work, teachers say.
Take, for example, the AP Environmental Science course taught at Southwest Guilford High School in High Point, N.C. Teacher Florence Gullickson says her students have trouble with some of her assignments because they’re not based on rote memorization. “I may give them an essay to write about a coal-burning plant, or toxic waste, or shellfish,” she says. “They have to think.”
An essay on coal-burning plants, for example, would be part of a larger lesson on conventional energy—coal, oil, gas, and nuclear. “Most of our power plants are coal burning,” she says. “That’s the cheapest of the three fuels to use, but it’s also the dirtiest of the three, and in doing their research they will discover that.”
For this reason, DeeDee Whitaker, who along with her colleague Joanne Altendorf teaches the state’s required earth/environmental science class to Southwest Guilford ninth-graders, says she loves teaching about the environment. Compared with chemistry, which she taught for 28 years, “it’s so much more dynamic,” she says.
Examining Solutions, Not “Problems”
Another tenet of good environmental education is making sure that it’s not all doom and gloom, says Elder. “The field needs to spend at least as much time, if not more, on the solutions. That’s what helps people get over some of the discouragement that comes when you are first introduced to a lot of environmental challenges that we are facing.”
This rule of thumb was evident in the adjacent classrooms of Whitaker and Altendorf one day last fall when both were teaching their students about water quality. Whitaker showed her class pie charts depicting how much water the average household in the United States uses for various activities—washing clothes, washing the car, taking a shower. At the same time she prompted her students to come up with ideas for saving water, and as a group they came up with several, including taking shorter showers, washing larger loads of laundry, and—to the disgust of a few—flushing the toilet less often. In Altendorf’s class, the students learned about volunteers who take to canoes and collect trash along North Carolina’s waterways, how a hog farm collects hog waste into a lagoon and converts it into organic fertilizer, and about a housing development that channels storm water runoff into man-made lakes for use in irrigation.
Similarly, the number-one rule for teaching young elementary school students about the environment is to veer away from the darker side of the equation. Proponents of environmental education say it’s much more productive and beneficial for young children to understand and appreciate their natural surroundings than it is to learn about environmental disasters. (see sidebar “Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education.”) Close SidebarA Developmental Approach to the Environment
Noting that the word kindergarten literally means “children’s garden” and that the very first kindergartens had individual gardens for each child, the NAAEE’s guidelines say environmental education for young children should:
• Incorporate exploring woodlands
• Getting wet feet
• Climbing rocks
• Building with sticks
• Running on grass
• Turning over rocks
• Following insects
• Stomping in puddles
The NAAEE guidelines advise avoiding a problem-oriented approach with young children, who do not have “the coping skills to face the tragedies of environmental crises and problems.” They further note, “When faced with the loss of endangered species and environmental degradation, young children may respond with sadness, fear, and helplessness, which can lead to a defensive apathy.”
“Focusing on rain forest destruction seems really inappropriate to me,” says David Sobel, the director of Teacher Certification Programs at Antioch University New England and a leading proponent of place-based education, which focuses learning on the local community with the intent of teaching students to be active citizens and stewards of the environment. “You don’t introduce these large global tragedies,” he says, “that are distant and abstract and that the kids can’t have much of an impact on. [It] ensures a sense of hopelessness.”
This idea is also included in the Guidelines for Excellence put out by NAAEE to help with curriculum development. “No horror in elementary school,” says Day, the organization’s director. “It’s not the time to press kids. It’s a time to open their eyes to the wonder of nature. And that will in time lead to the kinds of values and the creative decision making that needs to be done later on.”
Benefits of an Interdisciplinary Approach
Environmental education is also taught best when it’s tied to the various skills taught in other subjects, according to those who have studied the discipline. This means incorporating terms like “potable” in vocabulary practice; analyzing water density data in a science class and tying that to marine life habitats; or, in a social studies class, discussing the impact environmental rules and regulations have on the marketplace, consumer rights, and human health.
When environmental education is both comprehensive and interdisciplinary, it has been shown to have a positive impact on student learning. One widely cited study is Closing the Achievement Gap, issued by the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) in 2000. SEER is a California-based organization that promotes integrating the environment into school reform efforts and K–12 curricula. Its 2000 report looked at 40 schools across the country that had extensive environmental education programs in place, and its conclusions are based on a combination of surveys, student test scores, grade point averages, and attitudinal measures, as well as interviews with more than 650 teachers, principals, and students. The study found that environmental education prompted students to become more engaged in learning and improved their performance in math, science, reading, writing, and social studies.
Environmental education works to engage students because it’s a topic that is easily made relevant to the everyday lives of students, according to Day. “When you provide ways for kids to connect what they’re learning to the lives they live day to day,” says Day, “they have a reason for learning it . . . When you reinforce it from one subject to the next, they start to put pieces together and they feel like they have some understanding of the world in which they live.”
When that happens, he says, they also start to understand the role they play in the world. “It starts to make sense,” he says. “It’s empowering.”
Lucy Hood is a freelance journalist based in Raleigh, N.C., and a regular contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.