Below is my perspective on climate change education. I gave this speech at the MADE CLEAR (Maryland and Delaware Climate Change Education, Assessment and Research) Climate Change Education Summit at the University of Maryland on September 19, 2011. I felt honored to be one of four panelists, and the only undergraduate student, that spoke at the Summit. I’ve included the YouTube video of my speech too.
Looking back on my childhood, I fondly remember watching the stages of butterfly metamorphosis in the first grade, catching and identifying insects in the fifth grade, and going on nature walks with my camera by eighth grade. When I reached high school, I took AP Environmental Science, a class where we were able to test the water quality of Black River, the closest body of water to my school in Chester, New Jersey. I do realize that unlike me, not every child growing up in the United States enjoys nerdy activities, like bird watching. Can the appreciation that I have for the planet, which seemed to develop naturally, be taught to those who spent their childhoods inside playing video games, oblivious to the ecosystems in their own backyards?
My peers and I grew up in what seems to be the “Pre-Climate Change” generation. Although climate change has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution, the idea of human impact on the environment did not saturate the media until the early 21st century. The “Green Revolution” in America will certainly impact the curriculum of the next generation, but where does that leave students my age? In my experiences at the University of Delaware, I have seen students manifesting the idea of “conspicuous consumption.” At first glance, a student wearing a hemp necklace, Tom’s shoes and a floral skirt with Nalgeen and canvas bag in hand appears earth-friendly. Ask that student how much he or she drives around campus, whether he or she consumes local food, or whether he or she pressures congressman to pass renewable energy policies and the answer may surprise you.
Although students my age seem to be coming a little late in the game to the environmental discussion, I have hope for our climate future because of the incredible children that I had the pleasure of meeting through my job at the Hunterdon County Parks Department Summer Nature Program. Every weekday for eight weeks during the past two summers, I would arrive at Mountain Farm/Teetertown Preserve, to implement the one week program I developed for my third and fourth grade nature campers.
Educators must be discussing some form of climate change awareness, as my eight and nine year old campers are already familiar with “going green.” My campers could identify our composting bin, were asking where the recycling bin was, and were proudly explaining the organic and locally grown foods that are a part of their diet. Two summers ago, I discussed global warming, carbon dioxide emissions and the dwindling polar bear population with the campers. We coupled this discussion with a sustainability game where we brainstormed ways to be energy efficient in each room of the house. The campers surprised me every week; already familiar with “squiggly” light bulbs, biodiesel (one camper recognized “French fries” as an alternative form of energy), and hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
This past summer, I did an activity to illustrate the concept of river pollution flowing downstream. I drew a river across ten pieces of paper and asked each camper to take a piece. I told them that they had all become millionaires and could afford whatever house they wanted on the riverfront property. As I’m sure you can imagine, the children had rather creative ideas: floating trampolines and zoos, roller coasters, helicopter landing pads, and rather eccentric pets. I had one camper, however, named Adam who drew a simple yellow house, with a fenced in yard for his dog to play in and a swing set for his kids to play on. When I asked him why he chose to draw his part of the river in such a way he told me, “I don’t want anything I don’t need.”
Now, while Adam is a rarity, it only takes one person with a great idea to make major, progressive changes in our society. The earlier children learn about their responsibility as a steward of the planet, the more time they have to develop into concerned conservationists and serve as the voice of the future, which is why I am a strong advocate for environmental education being incorporated into the curriculum as early as possible.
Though bringing environmental aspects into the classroom has proven to work efficiently (at least with my campers), there is no better way to learn than experiencing something first hand. The children at Nature Camp are learning about the environment not in a confined classroom but instead outdoors, which allows for them to be surrounded by the beauty of nature and understand the idea of conservation through their own personal experience. It is incredibly exciting as a Nature Program Leader to see young girls wearing snakes as necklaces and watching campers’ smiles stretch wide when they find a skull inside an owl pellet. Having a camper come up and ask if we can check on the swallow fledglings in the barn or having a swarm of children running at me and screaming how someone found a frog or an insect gives me hope for the future. If these young children foster an appreciation for all things outdoors, they will learn to live sustainably as adults.
The idea of an interactive, hands-on approach to climate change education can be successful for my peers, those of us who were out of the elementary school system before the “greening” of the American media. Through traveling to the ACPA (American College Personnel Association) Institute on Sustainability in Boulder, Colorado, this past June, I became familiar with Ohio State University’s Buckeye Metro Farm. What started as an initiative by a few members of a student group has, become a model for climate change education. Passionate students with a vision were lucky enough to obtain some land on campus property for three plots, totaling roughly an acre of farmland, and a number of grants and support from faculty and staff to make their dream a reality. One of the plots is even headed towards certified organic. The OSU Student Farm involves students from Metro High School and local organizations to help plant and sell their products at the Farmer’s Market. The University’s Dining and Catering Services buys products to use in the campus dining halls. The Horticulture and Crop Science department offers an organic gardening class taught on the Student Farm. The department has even created a concentration within the Horticulture and Crop Science curriculum on sustainable food systems due to the Farm’s popularity among students. It seems to be a well-oiled machine at this point that involves not only the students and the University, but the surrounding community.
The OSU Student Farm can serve as a model for climate change education at the college-level. Not only are students literally digging in the dirt, they are giving back to the community and have the option of receiving college credit for their experience to boot.
In the end, I am hopeful for our future. I believe that education is the key to progressing towards a greener American climate: environmentally, politically, and economically. To quote Baba Dioum, a great ecologist: “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”