Johnny Appleseed would have been pleased: environmental education is on the boom. Across the United States, in thousands of projects and courses that feature everything from hayrides and songfests to emotional discussions of air pollution and oil spills, American schoolchildren and their teachers are being educated in the eternal verities of nature, as well as the equally eternal profligacy of man.
The growth of environmental education (also considered “ecology,” “conservation” and “outdoors” education) is an offshoot of the ecology movement of the last decade, inaugurated during the nationwide “Earth Week” of May 1970.
Since then, the movement for better environmental education has received additional impetus from such natural or man-made catastrophes as the recent Argo Merchant oil spill and the drought that is currently parching the western states.
“Crisis tends to educate people,” said Rudolf Shaefer, environmental education counselor in California’s Department of Education. “Nevertheless,” he said, “you can’t get a sustained commitment based on scares. Just look at what happened during the energy crisis. A few years ago you couldn’t give away a Cadillac. Now they’re chic again. Tell me: what have people learned?”
To build a sustained and knowledgeable commitment to the environment, educators in localities large and small are now striving to involve their students in an active and constructive relationship with the outdoors. The most popular approach is to have students learn by doing. For example:
In Santa Clara, Calif., high school students have created a community recycling plant, and are now earning credit for supervising it. One graduate of the project was considered expert enough to deliver a paper on ways to ensure global environmental quality to a recent United Nations Environmental Studies Conference in Stockholm.
In Catoctin Mountain Park, near Camp David, Md., sixth graders from the public schools in Washington, D.C. are being exposed to such subjects as stream and woodland ecology in the “Round Meadow Environmental Laboratory.”
On the Hudson River, aboard the sailboat Clearwater, crews of secondary students from nearby Hudson Valley, communities are learning not only how to sail and use wood stoves, but how to operate sophisticated anti-pollution equipment and sewage disposal units as well.
In another outdoor Eco-Center in Thompson, Ill., students participate in an intensive “canoe-camping study” course which required them to prepare their own “environmental impact-statements.”
In Elgin, Ontario, students from 15 high schools in a course called “Our Sun: Our Provider” spend 10 weeks each summer setting up demonstrations showing how to save energy in the home. Recent student inventions include a wind-powered pumping system and a sun-powered oven.
Many of these projects are partially funded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Office of Environmental Education, created by Congress in 1970 to help raise the nation’s “environmental literacy.” Operating on a budget that has varied between $1.5 and $3.5 million a year, the environmental education office annually receives at least a thousand grant requests from environmental educators across the United States. Of these, between 5 and 10 percent receive necessarily modest grants ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.
Water Bogan, director of the Office of Environmental Education since 1972, thinks that the boom in environmental education is finally beginning to tail off. “The number of requests we receive has been declining recently,” he said. “Nevertheless, their quality — by which I mean their creativity and thoughtfulness — has definitely improved.”
Now the environmental education is past its faddish phase, Mr. Bogan believes that such education is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. He points out that as a result of the effort of a number of communities, more and more secondary students are becoming competent in environmental issues. He also says that cooperation between secondary and higher education environmental authorities has increased, with the result that the materials used in the secondary classroom show “much more expertise.” The Office of Environmental Education itself recently gave money to the National Science Foundation to develop a package of energy-related teaching materials that Mr. Bogan hoes will soon be used nationwide.”
Mr. Bogan says that more and more school systems are using a “multidisciplinary” approach to environmental education. “Environmental education seems to have finally passed the show-and-tell approach,” he says. “More teachers are exposing their students to the cultural, economic, and legal aspects of the environmental problems an issues.”
Michelle Perreault, chairman of the Sierra Club’s environmental education committee, agrees. “Environmental education used to be something that was isolated inside a school’s science department. More and more educators are beginning to see that it isn’t simply a subject you can pigeonhole.”
An example of the multidisciplinary approach to environmental education is the “Energy and Us” course taught at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper, Wyo. The course grew out of a temperature inversion that occurred in 1972, intensifying the smog emitted by a local power plant.
As a result of questions students raised about the incident, the school developed a course about energy-related problems taught by members of the school’s biology, chemistry, physics, and sociology departments. Students, who help plan the content of the course, now regularly visit the offending power plant and other local industrial sites and report their findings to community groups.
Usually the spark that translates environmental awareness into environmental action is provided by the teacher himself. One such teacher is Arthur Cooley, a biology teacher at Bellport High School in Brookhaven, L.I. In 1969, Cooley’s students began a group study of the Carmans River, which runs throughout the school district. As industrial development in the county grew, Cooley and his students saw the river becoming increasingly polluted. With Me. Cooley’s sponsorship, 25 students banded together into an environmental action group, “Students for Environmental Quality,” and began a campaign to save the Carmans.
Partly as a result of intensive student lobbying, the New York State Legislature decided to place the river under the protection of New York’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers Act. The student group is still active, and is now working to pass legislation against throwing away bottles.