Art and the Environment

Art and the Environment

Getting to the HeART of Teaching Marine Conservation

by Kerry Hynes

I don’t understand.  This is too hard. Why are we learning this?”  These are just a few of the phrases that I hear in my classroom that force me to stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself that, yes, I am going to get through this lesson.  As a teacher in 2018, I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Every single day, educators take on the task of fostering students’ learning and increasing achievement in a variety of venues.  And guaranteed, as a teacher, every single day you will come across challenges that make that task even more difficult than it already is.  Limited resources, varied abilities, language barriers, and disinterest are a few elements that can deter every effort that you have to teach a strong lesson.  It can be tiresome, frustrating, and downright exasperating when it seems as if there is no success in sight.

Engagement and Conservation

When I was assigned to teach a conservation and sustainability themed course this year to elementary school students, I was plagued with the thought of how I would be able to make the content accessible for all of my students, especially when they had never been exposed in depth to these topics.  From experience, I have noted that many students associate negative attitudes with science, which makes sense due to the abstract nature and complex content of the subject [i]. Effective learners also need projects that advance their feelings of aptitude, permits them to form connections with others, gives them a sense of self-sufficiency, and advances prospects for creativity and self-expression [ii]. In turn, this can allow for greater engagement, thus creating a student who will display enthusiasm, effort, commitment to the task, and concentration. It is vital to guarantee lesson resources that relate to students’ lives and emphasize ways education can be practical.

Specifically, with regards to science, conservation-based programs have shown that participating adolescents are able to develop more moralistic attitudes toward the environment and increase positive lifestyle changes [iii]. I had the virtuous voice inside my head reminding me just how meaningful this sort of course could be in helping my students develop those environmentally sensitive attitudes, a growth that could be beneficial in leading them to understand their important role as stakeholders in conservation efforts. So not only did the content need to be accessible, but students had to become engaged with what they were learning in order for it to be applicable and produce tangible benefits to society.  No pressure.

Now the question arose. How was I supposed to take this increasingly important material and transfer it to not only the minds, but hearts, of kids, many of whom were English language learners and students with disabilities? They have as much of a right and obligation to become global and environmental citizens.  But how do you do that despite these challenges?


The Case for Art and Science

For me, success came with the incorporation of art.  I developed lessons that In order to further develop a sense of success and allow students opportunities to work in ways in which they find their strengths, nontraditional forms of teaching have begun to emerge in the classroom as ways to engage. Multi-modal studies, which include art, allow students to engage with the curriculum in a different way so that they can examine and make meaning through all types of mediums, including graffiti, pictures, music, and gestures [iv]. Art can be a supplementary tool to teaching conservation, in that it allows individuals to become engaged with visual representations that are not as overwhelming in the sense of requiring an extensive amount of background knowledge.

Since emotions also play an integral role in our actions and everyday deeds, the arts present a way for people to form an emotional attachment and help reach new audiences and  can play a positive role in changing behaviors that affect the environment [v]. Mediums such as the visual arts, poetry and music offer a vehicle to address the public not only on important issues, but in a way in which it can connect to emotions, beliefs, and attitudes [vi]. Presenting facts alone is less likely to produce a long term outcome that changes behaviors and outlook on issues [vii], whereas the incorporation of arts can lead to the long-term retention of retaining of the content long-term as well as a method to motivate innovation [viii].  Especially with students who don’t speak English as their first language, or need alternative pathways to comprehend information, visuals communicate in a way that words cannot.


Teaching Marine Conservation

When it came to teaching a unit on the threats surrounding marine life, I decided to try to use art as one of the main mediums for conveying information.  Despite living in an urban setting, there are many marine species that live or migrate through the our waters surrounding the city. Threats such as beach litter, loose fishing constraints, oil leaks, and improper disposal have been cited as some of the main causes of marine pollution and litter [ix]. With marine pollution being increasingly associated with decreasing aquatic populations, it is imperative that action and knowledge is increased to save these species.

Being that my school is in an urban setting, many students didn’t realize the variety of animals that were directly being impacted by marine litter and pollution only a few miles away.  However,since many visit local beaches during the summer, as many are visitors at local beaches, I wanted them to understand the connection that they each have to the issues of marine litter and pollution.  Many tend to bring many items with them such as coolers, food and beverage, and blankets, which are disposed or left at the end of their visit on the sand away from trash receptacles. Any amount of garbage and litter that is left on the public beaches is detrimental to the wildlife when left to be blown away or very, very slowly break down.  There are many negative effects of this apathy for the natural world, some of which include disease, suffocation, infection, and ingestion of plastics and other types of litter, as well as entanglement in various packaging and disposed netting [x].

In order to teach about this topic, I formed educational centers that students were able to rotate to throughout the lesson, each with a different set of resources that focused on various subcategories of marine conservation.  These centers used various art forms as the main methods of communication. For example, political and nonpolitical cartoons were displayed to illuminate the effects of oil leaks on habitat and seabirds. Paintings depicting the ocean with tons of man made debris floating around taught about the physical litter that winds up in the water, as well as the threats of entanglement, and ingestion.  Songs and performance art pieces were also shown to educate my students about the dangers to biodiversity and vast effects that our actions can have on the environment.

After students learned about threats to marine life, their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution  or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts. Since many of my students are able to access information more readily (both in terms of engagement and understanding) through artwork, I decided to have them communicate the knowledge that they acquired to others through some of the same mediums.  Their task was to create a work of art that would educate the public on the issues of marine pollution and litter or explain ways in which they could assist in conservation efforts.   Since that technique was effective in engaging students, I figured that others who weren’t inclined to go out on their own to research marine conservation could learn through similar, appealing methods.  And you know what? It worked.

It seems as though art can bring out the heart in science.

Kerry Hynes is a STEAM educator in an elementary school and assists in running a Makers Lab which focuses on sustainability and conservation. She is a graduate of Manhattan College and is receiving a Masters degree in biology from Miami University in conjunction with Project Dragonfly and the Wildlife Conservation Society.





[i.] Osborne, J., Simon, S., & Collins, S. (2003). Attitudes towards science: A review of the literature and its implications, International Journal of Science Education, 25:9, 1049-1079, DOI: 10.1080/0950069032000032199

[ii]  Kostons, D., Van Gog, T., & Paas, F. (2010). Self-assessment and task selection in learner-controlled instruction: differences between effective and ineffective learners. Computers & Education, 54, 932e940. doi:10.1016/ j.compedu.2009.09.025.

[iii] Jacobson, S. K., Mcduff, M. D., & Monroe, M. C. (2007). Promoting Conservation through the Arts: Outreach for Hearts and Minds. Conservation Biology, 21(1), 7-10. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00596.x

[iv] Cable, T., and T. Ernst. (2003). Interpreting rightly in a left-brain world. Legacy 14:27–

[v] Brown, A. G. (2003). Visualization as a common design language: Connecting art and
science. Automation in Construction. 12(6), 703-713.

[vi] Jacobson, S. K. (2009). Communication skills for conservation professionals. Second edition. Island Press, Washington, D.C.,

[vii]  Inoa, R., Weltsek, G., Tabone, C. (2014). A study on the relationship between theater
arts and Student Literacy and Mathematics Achievement. Journal for Learning
Through the Arts. (1).

[viii] Gurnon, D., J. Voss-Andreae, and J. Stanley. (2013). Integrating art and science in undergraduate education. PLoS Biology 11(2).

[ix] Zettler, E.R., Mincer, T.J., Amaral-Zettler, L.A. (2013). Life in the “Plastisphere”: Microbial Communities on Plastic Marine Debris. Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (13): 7137-7146.

[x] Kraus, G., & Diekmann, R. (2017). Impact of Fishing Activities on Marine Life. Handbook on Marine Environment Protection, 79-96. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-60156-4_4

Garden of Wisdom

Garden of Wisdom

News release submission for CLEARING Magazine – February 2017

The Garden of Wisdom

A peace-building program among environmental educators and conservationists in the Middle East inspires children to love and nurture the natural world. Please help us to publish our first book, The Garden of Wisdom: Middle Eastern Stories for Environmental Stewardship.

s professionals who care passionately about the world around us, environmental educators are living through some challenging times. Now there is good news about something real that you can do to help bring about positive change in a troubled region while fostering a deep connection between children and nature. In recognition of its promise to transform the lives of many people, this project has been awarded the National Storytelling Network’s prestigious Brimstone Award for Applied Storytelling. Your contribution will help us to promote environmental awareness and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East—one person, one organization and one story at a time.

For the past ten years, environmental educator Michael J. Caduto—co-author of the award-winning Keepers of the Earth® series of books and author of Earth Tales from Around the World and Catch the Wind Harness the Sun—has been directing an environmental education and storytelling project in the Middle East. The Stories for Environmental Stewardship Program involves more than 50 individuals and 20 organizations from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. This courageous community of professionals shares a passion for conservation and for encouraging children to understand and cherish the natural world.

The Stories for Environmental Stewardship Program is now ready to publish its first book: The Garden of Wisdom: Middle Eastern Stories for Environmental Stewardship. Artists and photographers from the Middle East are illustrating this anthology of children’s stories. This book will also become a steppingstone to an environmental education curriculum that reveals how nature is the root of a shared connection to the land that binds all peoples as one.

With your support this new book can bear fruit. Once the book is published, proceeds will be used to offer books and small grants that support the work of environmental education and conservation organizations from throughout the region. Please visit the Garden of Wisdom campaign at the following web page to watch the video and find out how you can help to make it possible to publish these inspiring stories:

Thank you!

Michael Caduto
Phone: 802-484-3484

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing

by Cecelia Bosma
Trinity Lutheran School
Litchfield, Arizona



W3e live on a planet with limited resources that are often consumed without caution. Finding ways to engage students in pro-environmental behaviors that conserve these limited resources rather than take them for granted is a priority for environmental educators. The human population also needs to work on understanding the benefits and risks we take with our daily behavior. Conserving the use of paper towels at home and in public is one easy pro-environmental behavior that will have a positive impact on the environment. Paper towels do not just use up trees, they also require large amount of water for production and they end up in landfills which generates pollution as they slowly decompose. However there are numerous alternatives to using paper towels at home and at school. These alternatives are efficient effective and financially thrifty. Often times conservation practices are rejected because they are time consuming and or costly. Alternatives to paper towels are neither. The financial benefit is an incentive for people that don’t relate to the environmental impact of using paper towels.

IMG_1947Last fall, I designed a project to engage my eighth grade science class in a meaningful scientific inquiry project that assisted in deepening students’ understanding of the importance of conservation action through environmental education. The project action focused on eliminating paper towels in school bathrooms. There are many environmental benefits to reducing the amount of paper towels manufactured. One benefit is the reduction of trash in landfills because generally bathroom paper towels cannot be recycled. Another benefit is the reduction of chemicals leaching back into our soil from decomposing paper towels. This in turn saves trees from being processed into paper towels. Environmental benefits are also found in the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of paper towels, and the reduced amount of fuel burned transporting paper towels.

Getting started on an inquiry project that is focused on building environmental knowledge through conservation action on the school campus can be a challenge. I have been working middle school students on various inquiry projects to build environmental knowledge for several years. Each time I start a project I am learning right along with my students. This project was no exception. Sharing ideas about inquiry and lessons that motivate students to learn and build knowledge is how we as teachers can help each other build stronger lesson plans that benefit our students and communities.

Project Inspiration

Educating adolescents about the impact they have on their environment is necessary for nurturing lifelong environmental stewardship (Nancy & Kristi, 2006). In the last twenty years, environmental education has been gaining a stronger foothold in classrooms across America (Stevenson, Peterson, Bondell, Mertig, & Moore, 2013). The purpose of environmental education is to teach students how to make responsible decisions, using critical thinking in order to take action to maintain or improve our environment (Short, 2010). Educators should encourage even small steps toward environmental conservation, as they are building blocks to lifetime environmental conservation action (Short, 2010). Accordingly, the primary goal of environmental education is to instill knowledge that leads to pro-environmental actions and behaviors for individuals, groups and society (Heimlich, 2010). I have found that engaging the learners in hands on actionable learning has a positive effect on the outcome of environmental education.

The burgeoning population of planet Earth has brought about observable changes in the environment both in populated and unpopulated regions of the world (Short, 2010). Scientists have observed these drastic changes in the form of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, deforestation and global warming, all of which can be attributed to human actions (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Therefore, it is society’s responsibility to take action to improve the current environmental status that threatens the very existence of humans (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Additionally, it is important to incorporate positive actions into environmental education (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our environment. Students are motivated by positive changes that help our environment such as recycling. Inquiry style learning is one way to incorporate positive action. Increasing environmental knowledge is a crucial part of environmental education (Grodzińska-Jurczak, Bartosiewicz, Twardowska, & Ballantyne, 2003). This project incorporated the inquiry process into the environmental education program. The students construct their learning by observing, asking questions and problem solving (Crawford, 2000). The inquiry process is a way for students to do science like a real scientist. Educating school children about environmental concerns now will promote action in the future (Evans et al., 1996).

The Project
A class of twelve eighth grade students took part in the paper towel conservation inquiry project. The project began with students watching the video that inspired me “How to use a paper towel” (Smith, 2012). Upon completion of the video, students were asked what they thought of the video and if they thought there were other ways that we could conserve paper towels in the bathrooms on our campus. Following the video students took a trip to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms nearest to our classroom. Science class is at the end of the day, and students observed the piles of used paper towels in the garbage and on the ground.

They were challenged to develop a plan for measuring the volume of paper towels that were used daily for a week. Students worked in pairs to identify a plan which was presented the next day in class. Students then voted on the plan they thought would work the best and took steps to put it into action. One students brought in a scale from home and others created a data sheet for recording the measurements taken daily of the weight of paper towels used in each bathroom.


Table 1 Paper towel weight chart created by students


Table 2 Financial comparison of paper towels versus hand dryers created by students

The students tracked the amount, in pounds, of paper towels used in the 3 sets of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms for 5 days. This data was calculated and graphed to demonstrate the amount of paper towels that our school is disposing into the landfill each day. A total of 288 pounds of paper towels are thrown in the trash each week from the collective school bathrooms (figure 1). Students contacted the person on staff who handles the ordering of paper towels to determine that the school spends about $350.00 on paper towels each month. This information was tabulated into the final graph that compared the expense of paper towels versus the expense hand dryers (figure 2). The graph shown in figure 1 and 2 were developed by students; while it could be perfected it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of middle school students. Upon completing the charts students noticed that the older students used considerably more paper towels than younger students did.

Students brainstormed alternative ideas to using paper towels. They researched hand dryers, cotton towel dispensers and looked at the practicality of using personal towels. After researching each option, they used the data they collected on alternatives to paper towels to create a presentation to share with fellow students, parents and the church board who has a strong influence on decision making changes. The conclusion of the study resulted in the student recommending the installation of new efficient hand dryers that dry hands in 12 seconds or less. As the students pointed out in their presentation the machines are also designed to kill germs in the air and on the skin (Gagnon, 2007).

paper towel pres.The presentation was videotaped and posted on the school website. Posting the video required getting permission from all of the parents. This was worthwhile effort because the students were then able to share what they had learned accomplished and produced with their own community of friends and neighbors. This made it possible to spread the idea of replacing paper towels with hand dryers to the larger community outside of our school.

The final piece of this project was to present a written proposal to the Board of Directors for consideration. Students were given the task and some guidelines and they had to collaborate and compromise to develop a well written proposal that included their research and data results. The objective of the assignment was to persuade the board to approve the installation of hand dryers in the bathroom. The proposal was completed and presented, and is now being considered for implementation.

Action and Reflection

The benefit of inquiry learning is that it provides a method for gaining deeper knowledge about a subject, in this case environmental education, and it also builds students skills in problem solving and analysis. This project provided students the opportunity to conduct science like a scientist. They observed and questioned. Then they looked for alternatives, conducted research, devised an action plan and carried out an investigation. The final part of the project included compiling their findings and presenting to decision makers. Encouraging and guiding students to learn about their environment and then to take action is taken to authentic level when it involves real and actionable projects. It is my hope that the board finds merit in the study and takes the necessary steps to change to electric hand dryers. This action will mitigate the burden, the use of paper towels, puts on our environment.

I know that this project was beneficial in bolstering students’ knowledge of environmental issues. Throughout the project students took ownership of each step and worked diligently to complete the work. The following are several comments from students at the end of the project.

“I liked being able to go outside for science.”

“I hope that hand dryers are installed in the bathrooms”

“I worked really hard on this project because it might be good for our school”

This paper towel action-centered conservation project works to build students conservation and knowledge that works to promote continued conservation action (Stevenson et al., 2013). Schools are looking for ways to keep the material fresh and relevant for the students incorporating inquiry science works towards that goal. We have a planet with limited resources, and an economic system that often ignores that fact. As time goes by the need for action is even more crucial for the survival of all of us. Paper towel reduction is one idea that students can be engaged in environmental education. We have to find ways for students to not only learn about importance of caring for our environment but that knowledge must lead to continued environmental action for the objective to be met.

As a teacher, focusing on improving techniques to guide inquiry learning, leads to discovering ways to make projects authentic and real. Utilizing inquiry in environmental education provides students an enriching learning environment. This is my story of a journey to use inquiry as a catalyst for environmental change. Embrace your story.

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