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Investing in Our Future: Fostering an Environmentally Literate and Engaged Society
Leila Pinchot

Leila Pinchot and helpers plant American Chestnut Tree Watching a child develop an emotional connection with nature fulfills and rewards those who invest their time in sharing their knowledge of and passion for the outdoors. For instance, the moment when a teenager becomes so entranced by the delicate movements of a marbled orb-weaver spider that she forgets to complete the text message she was writing. Or seeing a student accidentally uncover a northern red salamander in the duff and yell for her classmate to come over and watch it. Fostering these types of experiences, in which children understand that they are a part of something profound, something intricate, and something requiring care, is one of the most effective conservation strategies we can promote. The research is clear: kids who spend time in nature tend to grow up to become adults who want to protect that nature i. Unfortunately, research also shows that kids are spending less and less time outdoors, leading to what Richard Louv so appropriately calls “nature deficit disorder,” yielding an American population increasingly disconnected from nature ii.

An obvious way to increasingly expose youth to nature is by incorporating environmental education into school curricula. This goal is of course faced with the constraints of national and state academic standards, of limited classroom hours and limitless instructional desires.While youth culture turns away dramatically from nature and the outdoors, increasingly rigorous academic standards leave teachers little room for flexibility in their classes, leading to a dearth of classroom time spent on ecology and the environment. Academic standards are intended to ensure that all students are taught specific facts, concepts, and skills that state departments of education decide are appropriate. While well-meaning, the standards arguably have become unwieldy—too much is required in already overly-packed class schedules. This means some subjects undoubtedly get left out, and unfortunately, ecology and environmental sciences are often dropped in favor of harder sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and molecular and cellular biology, which are represented more heavily in standardized tests.

This dilemma caught the attention of an unlikely source: Michael Rains, Director of both the US Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and the US Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory. In a strategic brief on environmental literacy (USFS and Pinchot Institute for Conservation, 2013) Rains states:

“It is not uncommon for the majority of students to graduate from high school with little or no instruction about the importance of conservation or how sound land stewardship plays a role in the health and sustainability of our natural resources. Accordingly, there should be little mystery that our citizenry that forms our society is less than informed about the role of environmental health on people’s lives.”


Plummeting environmental literacy among our nation’s youth so concerned Rains that he decided to pursue a Masters in Secondary Education, spending nights and weekends taking classes, and teaching 9th Grade Earth and Space Sciences at Marple Newtown High School as part of his student teacher experience. Since then, Michael has helped develop several environmental literacy initiatives with Forest Service partners and is working with the Pinchot Institute to develop an in-depth teacher training program to help teachers acquire the knowledge and skills they need to incorporate ecology and environmental science into their tight teaching schedules. The Pinchot Institute hopes to offer this program to high school science teachers at Grey Towers National Historic Site during the 2014/2015 school year.

Leila Pinchot The new teacher training program will once again give teachers the opportunity to learn from our nation’s leading forest scientists at the home of the American conservation movement. Forest Service research scientists will lead teachers through hands-on ecological field activities that introduce them to their local ecosystems— challenges facing them and methods for addressing these challenges. Specialists will help teachers incorporate their newly acquired knowledge and skills into their curricula. Finally, the course will take a place-based pedagogical approach, in which understanding of place and its interconnections— ecology, culture, social dynamics, and politics—are key. Conservation is fundamentally connected with many aspects of our society; learning about these connections is vital for understanding how to effectively implement conservation policies and programs.

While developing this teacher training program, we have started to offer hands-on forest ecology research experiences for high school students, with a particular focus on urban youth, who historically have been underrepresented in environmental education programs. These experiences are designed to get kids out into the woods and involved in ecological monitoring to help them understand conservation issues first hand. Learning that Pennsylvania’s forests are suffering from an overpopulated deer herd in a high school science class may (or may not) resonate with kids who grew up spending weekends and summers outside. But for city kids who have not spent much time in the woods, this is an abstract concept with little direct relevance to their daily lives. Giving students the opportunity to explore and investigate ecological issues for themselves in a living laboratory allows them to poke and prod and ask questions, which leads to making connections. This is the fundamental essence of learning.

On a recent trip to the Milford Experimental Forest, a group of high school students from a Philadelphia Zoo mentorship program (Zoo CREW iii) partook in two activities: in the first, the students estimated the local deer density based on deer pellet counts; in the second, students compared oak seedling regeneration inside and outside of a deer fence. The students themselves developed an understanding that the deer density was above the carrying capacity of the local ecosystem, and they also saw the direct ecological consequences of this imbalance. A lively discussion of ways to address this problem ensued, which included the political and cultural roadblocks to reducing the deer density. It was inspiring to witness the students putting the pieces together—the science, the politics, the ethical questions—and come out of the activity eager to help, as opposed to discouraged and dispirited. Pinchot Institute Research Assistant and former city-girl Nalat Phanit described the essence of the experience: “By the end of the day, the students had walked on fallen logs, hopped through the fern thicket, used both hands to dig the ground, smelled sassafras, and attempted to whistle through an acorn cap. This will leave a lasting impression on the students into their adulthood and will lead them on the path to becoming environmental stewards.”

Not every one of those students will become a forest scientist or conservation biologist, but that is a good thing.We need lawyers who can identify bird calls, small business owners who understand the connection between forests and water, construction workers who know why young forests are important, and township supervisors interested in the ecological implications of climate change. We need a public that understands the importance and complexity of conservation; in essence, we need an environmentally literate citizenry.

Leila Pinchot is a Research Fellow with the Pinchot Institute in Milford, PA. In January 2014 she will start a position as a restoration ecologist for the USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station in Delaware, OH.

References
i Chawla, Louise. 1999. Life paths into effective environmental action. The Journal of Environmental Education: 31(1), pp. 15–26.

Coyle, Kevin. 2007. Environmental Literacy in America: What ten years of NNETF and Roper Research say about environmental literacy in the US. The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, Washington, D.C. 128 pgs.

Wells, Nancy M. and Kristi S. Lekies. (2006). “Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism.” Children, Youth and Environments 16(1): 1–24. Retrieved [October 1, 2013] from http://www.colorado.edu/journals/cye/

ii Louv, Richard. 2008. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC. 390 pgs.

iii See http://www.philadelphiazoo.org/ Get-Involved/Volunteer/Zoo-CREW.aspx
 
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