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The Four Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse:
- species loss
- water scarcity
- population growth
Mike Weilbacher, director of the nonprofit Lower Merion Conservancy in Gladwyne PA, has written an article in the May 2009 issue of Educational Leadership, a pulbication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).
Weilbacher’s organization surveyed high school students and found that although they are overwhelmingly “pro-environment” they have remarkably little information about breaking environmental issues.
They asked students to name one bird they can identify by song. No one could do it.
“If local birds disappear from the landscape because of extinction, or arrive three weeks late because of warming climates, it’s possible that no one will notice,” he writes.
An International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports that one in four of the world’s mammals are at risk of extinction from habitat loss. Many critically important rivers no longer empty water into the sea.
Even though an interest in green ideas has been resurging recently, the issues are far more global than they were forty years ago when the environment became an topic for educators. They are also intertwined with politics.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels currently exceed 385 parts per million, nearly 40 percent higher than pre-Industrial Revolution levels — and rising every year.
Students simply have to become environmentally literate.
The Problem — Four Issues
- Viewing screens has become a child’s full-time job. They are plugged in 24/7, watching 25 hours of TV a week and vast numbers more on the Internet, Facebook, phone and games. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods (2005) has coined the phrase nature deficit disorder.
- No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has caused many schools to trade field trips for test prep. Science teachers routinely eliminate environmental education, because such topics don’t appear on mandated tests.
- Student exposure to environmental issues depends on the luck of the draw: if you get a teacher who’s interested in things related to nature, you’ll learn those topics, but if your teacher is a drama afficionado, that’s what you’ll spend time on. Says Weilbacher, why not cross-pollinate?
- In a universe of nonprofit environmental educational facilities, teachers approach environmental education like a Chinese menu. They pick a field trip from Column A and a lesson plan from Column B; toss in an occasional Earth Day assembly and then assume that students are environmentally literate. (And nonprofits want kids to keep coming back, so they emphasize fun over content, immersing students in activity-based education designed to be an appetizer but which ends up becoming the main course.)
Research May Turn the Tide
The Children and Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) showcases data demonstrating the educational benefits of immersing kids in the outdoors. There is a massive amount of such data.
The American Institutes for Research (2005) studied the effects of weeklong residential outdoor education programs. Comparing these students with control groups, they found a 27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts, enhanced cooperation and conflict-resolution skills, higher self-esteem, and gains in problem-solving, motivation and classroom behavior.
According to a Canadian study, children whose school grounds include diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another and more creative.
Another study determined that children who played in green settings have reduced symptoms of ADD.
“No Child Left Inside:” more than 1,000 nonprofits have launched a variety of efforts loosely organized under this title.
The National Audubon Society has pledged to place a family-oriented nature center in every congressional district.
Connecticut governor Rell launched a special Web site (www.nochildleftinside.org) promoting state parks.
The US Congress has considered a No Child Left Inside Act that would provide federal funding for environmental literacy efforts.
Green Charter Schools sprinkled throughout the country have been designed around the premise that the entire science curriculum can be taught through environmental education. Some sites:
- The Green Woods Charter School in Philadelphia on the campus of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education;
- Wisconsin’s River Crossing Environmental Charter School,
- California’s Environmental Charter High School;
- Connecticut’s Common Ground High School;
- Florida’s Academy of Environmental Sciences.
There is a Green Charter Schools Network (www.greencharterschools.org).
The “Integrating Context for Learning” movement (clumsy title, simple concept) has grown in the last decade. In this model, the rigorously scheduled normal school day has been replaced by programs that use the environment and the outdoors as the centerpiece of students’ curriculum.
This format breaks down barriers between disciplines, stresses team building and individualized learning, and involves students in real-world community issues.
Radnor Middle School in suburban Philadelphia engages students in outdoor field studies all year round.
An analysis of 40 Environment as an Integrating Context programs discovered that students in these programs outscored their peers on standardized tests, had better grades, and acted more independently and responsibly. And at one of these schools, reports to the principal’s office declined 91 percent.
Wood Kindergartens: a radical movement out of Europe. In this model, child care workers and youngsters aged 3-6 spend the entire day outdoors in nature. Proponents contend that playing outside for prolonged periods strengthens students’ immune systems and improves development of manual dexterity, physical coordination, tactile sensitivity and depth perception. Some nature centers in the US have begun opening variants of these Wood Kindergartens.
sole source: Mike Weilbacher’s article in “Educational Leadership,” the publication of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD); May 2009. www.ascd.org
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