The case for K-12 environmental education
By Andy Balaskovitz,
Great Lakes Echo
June 29, 2009
Randy Showerman leads his boy scout troop out his back door and into the dark and silence.
There are no lanterns or campfires, no knot-tying or shelter-building lessons. Silence is key. He tells the scouts to stare at the sky and listen. It’s usually best between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.
“Environmental education needs to begin with the kids having an understanding of their surroundings,” he said. “That means getting them outdoors.”
Showerman is the state supervisor at the Michigan Department of Education and an associate professor in the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University. He tries to bridge the gap between Michigan’s K-12 curriculum and environmental education strategies.
Environmental education is a hands-on approach to ecosystems, land use, water quality and energy use, Showerman said.
“It needs to begin with [kids] having an understanding of their surroundings,” he said. “You’ve got to start when they’re young before habits start.”
Numerous studies show that environmental education heightens children’s awareness and improves standardized test scores, Sowerman said. And emerging green jobs mean that environmental education needs to play a larger role in the curriculum.
To address that need, the state Department of Environmental Quality partnered with state educators to form the Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum Support. The environment-focused curriculum for fourth through ninth graders includes lessons on biodiversity, land use, water quality, energy resources and air quality.
Since 2004, teachers, university faculty and environmental and consulting groups have field-tested and reviewed the materials. The research is positive in places as diverse as Detroit and Traverse City.
“There was a clear need for it, it was well-received and the materials were successful in the classroom,” Douglass said.
Future jobs require environmental knowledge, said Tom Occhipinti, education coordinator with the state environmental agency. Partnerships with non-profits, conservation and outdoors groups, colleges, trade organizations and faith-based communities help.
“Most of the 10 million people in Michigan belong to one of these groups,” Occhipinti said. “By working with all of them, we can best get the word out with minimal resources.”
A Balanced Public Education?
Controversy over state-mandated curricula began in 2001 when former President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. Critics of the bill said it deemphasized science- and social studies-based subjects.
Teacher unions and non-profits nationwide are now rallying behind a bill before Congress called the No Child Left Inside Act – an effort to gain federal funds to advance environmental education.
“Environmental education is facing a national crisis,” the bill states. “Many schools are being forced to scale back or eliminate environmental programs.”
Michigan has 36 groups supporting the No Child Left Inside coalition, including the Michigan 4-H Program, Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the YMCA.
A Good Take Home Message
Claudia Douglass remembers the days when Johnny Carson and Dean Martin smoked cigarettes on television. She also remembers the push with anti-smoking campaigns in schools to inform students of tobacco’s health effects. She believes kids’ taking this information home to their parents was momentous for the cultural shift in the public’s perception of smoking.
“It’s the same idea behind environmental education in schools so that this generation can learn important issues and take them home to their parents,” said Douglass, associate dean of the College of Science and Technology at Central Michigan University and science editor for the state’s environmental curriculum effort.
“You’ve got to change behavior.”
Numerous studies show the importance of public environmental education.
Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning is a nationwide study that found that environmental education works without taking away from the other subjects. Benefits include better standardized test scores and reduced discipline and classroom management problems.
Michigan’s Legislature is hopping on board. Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed a bill to divert civil fines into a state Environmental Education Fund. Sponsored by Rep. Doug Bennett, D-Muskegon, the money will be managed by the state treasury and will not exceed more than $250,000 per year.
In 2006, the Legislature approved a plan to designate schools as “green” if they meet 25 environmental standards that include activities from recycling paper to setting up a school composting system.
There are about 300 “green schools” in Michigan and that number is expected to grow to 350 by 2010, said Doug Russell, executive director of Michigan GREEN, an energy education consulting group.
The need for school environmental programs reflects a societal shift in consciousness, Showerman said. “We’re pushing to become a more “green society” and our schools should reflect that.”
Said Douglass: “It’s our future.”