Thursday, December 9, 2010

Recapturing our Wild Side

“Too many of our rivers and streams are becoming polluted, and we are losing our connection to the parks, wild places, and open spaces we grew up with and cherish. Children, especially, are spending less time outside running and playing, fishing and hunting, and connecting to the outdoors just down the street or outside of town.”

-President Obama

Presidential Memorandum: America’s Great Outdoors

April 16, 2010

Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic,
Nankoweap Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park
Nature sustains our very existence and is the inspiration behind much of our modern science, medicine, technology and mathematics—not to mention that observing nature is also a fascinating pass-time.

Yet, despite the obvious importance of our natural environment, a growing number of young people are becoming increasingly detached from and apathetic toward nature. According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, children ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day consuming media on various types of electronic devices (cell phones, computers, television, mp3 players etc.), with links to poor performance in school, obesity, bad behavior or boredom often reported in the heaviest users.

As urban sprawl continues and our environment shifts from “natural” toward a more manicured, artificial environment, human beings’, and especially young people’s, connection to our natural environment has begun to diminish. Consequently, vital environmental issues tend not to be prioritized. In order to meet the environmental challenges we face, it is crucial to encourage an interest in and affinity for nature by providing better opportunities for young people to engage with nature in meaningful and lasting ways.

The challenge of invigorating young people’s desire to respect and enjoy nature is a daunting one and at ICP we believe national service and service-learning are important avenues for accomplishing that goal. This blog entry is the first in a pair of entries that endeavors to discuss some of the most vital aspects in the larger strategy of fostering meaningful experiences with and preserving our great outdoors.

These strategies include: incorporating environmental education and service-learning into school curricula, engaging underrepresented young people in the cause, creating more opportunities for youth service in preservation and revitalization programs, and encouraging parents to allow their children to experience nature by utilizing America’s wonderful public lands.

Cultivating an affinity for nature in young people is a first and critical step toward safeguarding our environment. It is unrealistic to expect a person to care for something they have no appreciation for, or understanding of. Experiencing nature in meaningful ways is about more than just preservation, it offers young people a window into the beauty and complexity of nature that they might not otherwise have had, as well as an opportunity to learn about science, math, culture, history, etc. Compassion stems from empathy, and empathy necessitates a level of understanding.

Environmental education, both formal and informal, can be the first step toward a greater understanding of nature. The No Child Left Inside Coalition (NCLI) is a national coalition of over 1,800 business, health, youth and faith groups working to ensure that every student achieves “basic environmental literacy.”

The NCLI defines Environmental Education as “the study of the relationships and interactions between dynamic natural and human systems.” Experiencing these interactions first-hand while also contributing to nature preservation is an important piece of that education. It is a component of a young person’s education that is critical to his or her own future, as well as that of the planet. NCLI is working toward incorporating environmental education into the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools throughout the United States.

Weaving environmental service-learning activities into academic curricula is a critical method of encouraging the development of valuable connections to nature. In September, the Maryland State Board of Education recognized this opportunity and voted unanimously to make environmental education part of the public school curricula; something the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a strong advocate for environmental service-learning for young people, had been working toward. Maryland was also the first state to mandate service-learning participation as a graduation requirement which first came into effect in 1997.

Recognizing the value that early interaction with science and nature holds is vital to creating environmentally conscious scientists and public servants of the future. I was fortunate enough to have teachers who recognized the advantages of interactive learning long before the Maryland State Board of Education inserted it into curricula.

My elementary school science teacher, and later my favorite high school biology teacher, both held several classes in a much larger and more interactive classroom environment—the great outdoors. We would take “nature walks” to learn about plant genus & species or take samples for further study back in the classroom. Unbeknownst to us, however, was that we were forging a valuable relationship with nature, something a student cannot glean from a textbook or computer screen.

My memories of these particular teachers and classes were some of my fondest and most informative as a child, and helped to create the affinity and respect for nature that I have today. Research also shows that the great majority of adults who are active in the environmental science, engineering and advocacy fields “had formative outdoor experiences during childhood or had role models who directed their attention to the environment.”

Similarly, at the Forest Hills Elementary school in Pennsylvania, Nola Barton, an AmeriCorps Environmental Education Specialist, is helping teach a series of hands-on lessons about animals, plants insects etc. She says that “without these firsthand experiences, children often have many misconceptions about animals and nature, so we try to dispel some of these myths.”

Interactions such as these, seeing physics in action or examining first-hand how a mammal differs from a reptile, are the types of memories and experiences which could help spark much needed interest in science, mathematics and nature; and help to solidify an important bond between a young person and his or her environment.

A recent Purdue University study of 10 eighth grade science classes serves as a more tangible example of the success of interactive learning. This study involved conducting science classes in two distinct teaching methods. Five classes were taught in the traditional manner using textbooks, lectures and tests while the other half were taught using experimental interactive teaching methods including a design/engineering challenge. The researchers found that the students taught using the interactive teaching methods were more engaged in the learning process and more successful in grasping the material.
Photo Credit: Guido Tramontano Guerritore,
Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah,
National Geographic

The researchers concluded that through hands-on learning and direct experiences young people exhibited a deeper understanding and higher level of interest in the material being taught. Furthermore, researchers at Purdue also observed that while all students in the experimental learning classes made gains, these gains were especially evident in students whose native language is not English.

Earth Force, an advocate of environmental education for young Americans, states on their website that incorporating interactive environmental learning activities into education is vital to “fostering young people’s ability to critically assess environmental information and use it to make sound choices.”

Developing relationships with nature among young Americans through environmental education is an important step in providing them with the experience necessary to take on the immediate environmental responsibilities of our world. Planting the seed of this important bond with nature at a young age will help to solidify this key relationship.

With studies like the one completed at Purdue University exemplifying the benefits of hands-on learning, and government institutions such as the Maryland State Board of Education recognizing the importance of environmental education, the initial steps toward an environmentally responsible future are being taken. However, if we are to succeed in these goals, we must continue to encourage young people’s thirst for knowledge, exploration and a concern for in the environment.

A subsequent blog entry will follow next week, outlining some of the programs underway in the United States and globally whose aim is to help achieve these goals, as well as how and where you can get involved.

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