Teachers Prep Kids for the Future
by Yvette C. Hammett
Educators have switched from preaching to kids about environmental degradation to using hands-on lessons to get K-12 students not only interested in the world’s environmental priorities, but also actively participating in solutions, maybe even seeking out related careers.
“You hope students can translate passion into intellectual curiosity on these subjects and develop the expertise so they can go beyond being an activist to being an advocate,” says Kenneth Walz, Ph.D., who works on the Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Walz, who teaches chemistry, engineering and renewable energy at Madison Area Technical College, also serves as its director of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education.
While K-12 environmental education still has no specific niche in curriculum, according to a case study of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, numerous groups and educators are working to ensure the next generation is prepared for the environmental challenges it will certainly face.
Today’s educators believe hands-on learning will prepare Generation Z and those that follow to look for solutions and even seek active roles to implement them. Aaron Baker, a Sussex, New Jersey, advanced placement environmental
science instructor and a two-time winner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Presidential Innovation Award, says the key to getting through to the next generation is showing them a problem that’s close to home that they can touch and feel, and then relating it to a global issue.
“A major part of my philosophy for environmental education is to try to engage students in environmental issues in our own community,” Baker says. “We collaborate with the Wallkill River Watershed Management Group to restore riparian areas and increase biological diversity.”
The high school students have planted more than 750 trees in the last three years along the creek that runs right below their school. “This type of hands-on work not only has a direct relationship to their lives here in Sussex County, but is also relevant to similar issues on a global scale.”
The 30-year-old National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) no longer sends speakers to schools. Instead, it encourages teachers to get the students outside working with partners like the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service to learn about real world problems near their homes, says Robert Sendrey, program director of environmental education.
Motivation and inspiration are key, he says. “We were created to help make the environment more accessible, relatable, relevant and more connected to the average American’s life.”
Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of climate change and the challenges ahead, NEEF promotes a healthy lifestyle and emphasizes the need for clean air and water. “We emphasize the well-being of people, which is directly related to the health of the environment,” Sendrey says.
Success starts with a change in attitude and awareness, and ultimately needs to culminate with action, he says. For example, NEEF teamed up with zoos and aquariums for the Skip the Straw campaign, educating the public about the environmental harm caused by single-use plastics. The University of Wisconsin K-12 education program focuses on environmental impacts of the energy sector—especially on air and water quality.
“If you are burning coal to produce electricity, it creates all kinds of atmospheric pollution—acid rain and soot that causes respiratory illness,” says Walz. “If we weren’t burning fossil fuels, urban smog wouldn’t even be a thing.” The energy curriculum for students includes content on biofuels and electric transportation. “For them, it is more thinking about the types of transportation they use, whether they are driving, riding a bike or taking a bus.” They don’t get to choose what kind of fuel the bus runs on, but they can be educated to be good future consumers, he notes.
“I think they appreciate the issue,” Walz says of the students. “Middle schoolers bring the passion. That sort of raw, emotional angst is something we left behind in our teenage years. Adults have been way too complacent for way too long.”
Yvette C. Hammett is an environmental writer based in Valrico, Florida. She can be contacted at YvetteHammett28@hotmail.com.