Environmental education: Problems and solutions

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Teams of high schoolers competed in the 2009 Michigan Envirothon on Michigan State University's campus. Photo courtesy of Svenja Drebes

By Andy Balaskovitz, abalaskovitz@gmail.com
Great Lakes Echo
June 30, 2009

Environmental education changes how kids learn. And educators integrating it into other subjects say it’s worth the effort.

A nationwide study – Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning – found environmental education raises standardized test scores and reduces discipline and classroom management problems.

The economic downturn makes it tough for such programs to flourish in Michigan and elsewhere. But there are hopeful signs. Recent legislation diverts some civil fines into a state Environmental Education Fund. Non-profit organizations, universities and the state are investing in such efforts. In other cases, individual schools and teachers stimulate environmental education.

The lack of state funding is an ominous cloud for public education, especially for teacher training for environmental education. And while funds directly for the schools depend on local taxes, curriculum-related funding usually comes from grants.

“Michigan has 10 million people and no money, so what do we do?” asked Thomas Occhipinti, education coordinator with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

He believes integrating environmental education into the curriculum sidesteps funding shortages. Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum Support, a partnership of state educators and the environmental agency started in 2004, does just that.

“We saw a need to bring environmental education to the mainstream curriculum,” said Claudia Douglass, associate dean of the College of Science and Technology at Central Michigan University, who also is science editor for the partnership.

But merging environmental issues with the other subjects is only half the battle.

“What’s also critical at this time is that (students) have environmental experience through opportunities to get outside,” Occhipinti said.

The state effort targets high school students by expanding on the state science requirements. High school students are often turned off by generic science requirements, Occhipinti said. Environmental projects can spur their interest.

Michigan Envirothon, an annual high school competition since 1994, awards the most creative and useful demonstration of environmental science. Teams must apply their experiment to the community. It is funded entirely by industry sponsors and fundraising.

Svenja Drebes, the competition coordinator, was most impressed by a team last year that created an environmental curriculum for its own school.

“Combining their own interests with what was best for their school was very cool,” she said.

But challenges remain.

“There is no direct ‘plan’ for environmental education in the state,” said Randy Showerman, state supervisor at the Michigan Department of Education.

Showerman, also a state Future Farmers of America adviser, said the curriculum could be updated more often to adjust with economic changes.

Doug Russell, executive director of Michigan GREEN, an energy education consulting group funded mostly by state grants, said the newest state curriculum emphasizes high achievement and test scores.

“Right now, teachers are adjusting to that [new curriculum] and are helping kids just get their diploma,” he said. “We want to include our materials but it’s a big challenge and there’s just not enough hours in the day.”

While energy is just one of many components of the new curriculum, it is really a topic that involves math, social studies and even literature, he said.

“There’s more that can be done,” he said.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade learn scientific standards such as gravity, force, motion and evolution. For high school, the state requires three years of science and social studies and four years a of math and English. Science courses include biology, physics and chemistry.

Showerman and others believe environmental education needs to be more integrated into the high school curriculum.

“There’s virtually nothing to do with environmental education included in it,” he said.

Instead, the environment agency has created a more formal relationship over the past 15 years with the state Department of Education to insert environmental themes into the elementary and middle school curriculum.

“All schools need to be teaching about the environment,” Showerman said. “There’s a lack of understanding as to what it is and how it affects everyday life.”

A little help from some friends

In Michigan, some of the strongest efforts for getting environmental education into public schools come from the non-profit sector.

Urban Options, an energy consulting group in East Lansing, gives energy audits to schools and offers seminars on how to improve building materials and energy use. The group has a 14-year-old contract with the city of Lansing to help grades K-5 integrate environmental projects at school.

Five Lansing area schools have mid-scale composting operations, said Becky Jo Farrington, environmental education manager for Urban Options. The group hopes to expand that effort and help yet more schools.

“We can supplement the low funding and staff cuts at the state level,” Farrington said. “We play a vital role to make sure this information is out there not just for kids but for families all over the state.”

Other environmental coordinators for public schools include the Ann Arbor Ecology Center, Michigan GREEN and the Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education.