Friday, October 16, 2009

The Power of Environmental Education

When you write for a living, sometimes it is a struggle to come up with a topic, a theme, even an inspiration for posting on blogs such as these. Sometimes you're too busy to put down your thoughts. But then, every once in awhile, something makes you stop and remember why you do what you do. And sometimes, it's better to let someone else tell the story.

Below, you will find an essay from friend, volunteer and fellow educator, Mike Sustin. His essay is about how environmental education can truly inspire, not just our students, but even ourselves. Thanks Mike, for reminding me of why I love my job.

In 2006 I was given the green light to develop an Environmental Science course at West Geauga High School, my alma mater and my place of employment for the past eleven years. While developing the course, I spent an enormous amount of time reaching out to resource people at other schools and at the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District, Geauga Park District, Ohio Division of Wildlife, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History and the Environmental Education Council of Ohio. Everyone I spoke with was incredibly encouraging, but everyone had a different perspective on how Environmental Education (EE) ought to be offered and on what it should be focused. Environmental Science is interdisciplinary by nature (no pun intended) and requires students to really wrap their minds around complicated issues and to draw upon prior knowledge and skills from other courses. I chose a textbook, I planned some laboratory experiences and field trips, but ultimately, I decided to keep an open mind and let my students’ interests drive the direction of the course.

After working with the first two groups of students through the first year, I became acutely aware of two problems that so many Environmental Education professionals had been lamenting for years. First, our kids are indeed suffering from “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase coined by author Richard Louv in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods. The second problem needing addressed can be summed up by an often used quote from author and naturalist Robert Michael Pyle, “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” Both problems are diagnosed by the observations that my students know everything about polar bears, every species of penguin, bleaching of the coral reefs, the importance of recycling and energy conservation, but they can’t identify a single tree or bird’s song in their own backyard. These wonderful students, all of them seniors, most of them voting for the first time during their final year of high school, know so much and yet don’t know enough to really care about what they can personally embrace and purposefully impact.

Three days that changed my life were spent on summer vacation in 2008 with Annie Rzepka and Nancy Speck of the Geauga SWCD, Jen White of the Portage SWCD, and over a dozen other teachers on a three day road trip called the Advanced Wonders of Watersheds Workshop. We piled into vans and explored EE opportunities all across the north coast from beautiful Burton all the way to the Oak Openings Region near Toledo. On the long ride home I decided that a trip like this needed to be offered to my high school students. How better to help them understand than to get them out there in the diverse environments of their home state and let them connect the dots on their own?

On June 23, 2009, the first ever Summer Ecology Experience Across Ohio was ready to hit the road. At 6:30 am in the parking lot of West Geauga High School a group of nine students and their three chaperones loaded the vans for what would be an eight day and seven night road trip across Ohio. The itinerary included programs at Black Swamp Bird Observatory and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge near Oak Harbor, Ohio State University’s Stone Lab at Put- In-Bay, the Army Corps of Engineers office at Caesar Creek State Park and The Museum at Fort Ancient near Wilmington, the outdoor drama, “Tecumseh!” in Chillicothe, Hocking Hills State Park and concluded at Old Woman Creek National Estuarine Research Reserve in Huron.

The entire program was intended to address big picture topics such as conservation and preservation of habitat, human history of land use, and geology. Students were also engaged in activities on edible and medicinal plants, water quality monitoring, watershed management, wildlife identification, and rock climbing and rappelling. Moreover, all of this education was accomplished outdoors and outside each student’s comfort zone away from their families, camping in tents, cooking their own food, caring for each other and learning to deal with fears.

Student learning was assessed through daily journal assignments and other entries including poetry and artwork. An assessment strategy I had adopted from the Wonders of Watersheds workshops was the use of haiku. Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that uses only three lines, the first and third lines contain only five syllables and the second line contains seven syllables. The brevity of this form of poetry requires students to focus on key elements of a lesson and how they have internalized the material. Here are some examples:

Lake Erie can stratify
-Heather Wilcox, after a lesson on limnology at Stone Lab

Dragon or Damsel?
Eyes on top or at head’s side?
Wings tall or spread wide?
-Hanna Wilson, on the boardwalk at Ottawa NWR

The students’ journals reflected exactly the kind of learning I had envisioned for them. Each of them made the obvious connections I had planned, and all of them made the connections I had hoped they would catch. After reading their journals, I was pleasantly surprised, time after time, with the quality of the introspective entries the students had made. Each of them commenting on how one experience or another changed them, or brought a sudden clarity to their place in the world. In the heart of this teacher, I had only privately hoped that a student or two might have reached this level of informed understanding. Reading these journal entries made the months of planning worth every minute.

In closing I would offer teachers the challenge to do something with students outside. All the hurdles that you can think of are just excuses. All you need is an imagination. Pay attention to your students. Take them outside and you will find your lesson plans under that rotten log or in the stream or mud puddle or at the birdfeeder. The Ohio Academic Content Standards should not be viewed as an anchor around your neck, and pointing to that thick green book as an excuse is exactly that. Taking kids outside provides for boundless integration opportunities for science, math, language arts, social studies and more. Get on the phone or the internet and contact your SWCD, your park district, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, or the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and you will be amazed at the resources waiting for you to use for free and in your own schoolyard. Lastly, I will share a quote from Rachel Carson that has inspired me in my growing career as an environmental educator, hopefully it strikes a chord. “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”