Environmental Learning Center:
Restoration project heals environment, community and college
Written by Shelly Parini, CCC senior executive project manager
he Environmental Learning Center at Clackamas Community College (CCC) represents something different to everyone. Some see it as a place to stroll and commune with nature. Some see it as an outdoor learning laboratory. And others see it as a pioneer in recycling.
As the college marks its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is entering a new phase with the restoration of the headwaters of Newell Creek on the CCC Oregon City campus.
The ELC is located on a 5-acre natural area containing the headwaters of Newell Creek. The site is part of the 1800-acre Newell Creek watershed, a steep forested canyon that is bordered by the neighborhoods and businesses of Oregon City.
The restoration efforts of the site are made possible through a Metro Nature in Neighborhood grant and the contributions of others who have stepped forward.
The restoration will:
- Enhance water quality within the Newell Creek watershed
- Increase the capacity of the ELC to serve as an educational resource for college students, schools and teachers, industry members and families
- Provide passive recreation for east metro communities
- Leverage the ongoing support of community partners committed to protecting the health and sustainability of the Newell Creek watershed
Concurrent with the restoration plans, CCC undertook an extensive community engagement initiative, the ELC Historical Preservation Project in 2016. The college invited community members, students, faculty and staff to share memories of the past, as well as dreams for the future of the site. Hundreds of people have participated in this process.
The college and the ELC have shared a long history together. The relationship, while sometimes rocky, was shaped around a vision of environmental learning and stewardship. Today, the ELC is a coveted indoor and outdoor classroom for college-wide programs such as Water and Environmental Technology. It is also continues to attract regional universities and local community educational partners to the site. As the restoration project moves forward into the summer of 2017, the college is pausing to reflect on the history of this place and the many people who shaped its shores.
In his memoir “Transforming Lives,” CCC past president emeritus John Keyser wrote, “The ELC developed early in the college’s history under the leadership of President John Hakanson, as a response to intense community interest in developing new strategies for living in harmony with nature.”
The ELC has a rich history as an educational resource for the college, regional schools, industry and the community. Located on the site of a former Smucker’s processing plant, the ELC was created to demonstrate what people could do to reclaim industrial sites, address storm water issues and restore wildlife habitat in urban areas.
The idea of creating the ELC gained momentum in 1973, when a group of students under the leadership of Leland John, an art instructor, formed a committee and drafted a plan. “At the ELC, art, community and the environment came together in a singularly unique way, celebrating all three because people were willing to work together for the benefit of their creation,” ELC founder Jerry Herrmann said.
Herrmann had the uncanny ability to recruit volunteers and talent to the ELC. One of his more infamous efforts was recruiting the Oregon National Guard to excavate the site; transforming it into what we know today as the “ecology ponds.” Herrmann always dreamed big when it came to the ELC. In 1977 he hired Nan Hage to design the center’s first pavilion. Hage designed the building to enhance the environment. It was built in 1981 and cost a mere $10,000. Being astute recyclers, Herrmann and Hage got a much of the materials donated. All of the cabinets and flooring are Malaysian mahogany. The boards are ballast from the bottom of ships.
Recycling became a driving force for the visionaries. Herrmann developed a recycling depot at the ELC for the community. It soon became a full-service recycling center, putting the ELC on the map. In fact, it was one of the most successful recycling depots in the state at that time, handling up to 100 tons of material a year.
Stories were also recycled at the ELC. In 1984, storyteller Dean “Hawk” Edwards worked alongside volunteer coordinator Leslie Rapacki to develop and care for Hawk Haven, also known as the birds of prey exhibit.
“The goal was to create an educational wildlife habitat on an industrial site. In essence to recycle the industrial site itself,” Hage said. Clearly they did that, and then some.
In 1987, Lakeside Educational Hall was completed, providing a place for the community to gather and take classes. “Eighty percent of the construction material in this facility was simulated wood made from recycled plastics,” Keyser said. The lighting was recycled from marijuana grow lights donated by local law enforcement officers.
The next visionary to land on the scene was astronomer and scientist Ken Cameron. It was his connections that led to the Haggart family dome donation to the ELC. The Haggart Observatory, as it is now known, opened March 7, 1989, so the community could view the partial eclipse of the sun occurring that day.
As recycling revenue began to decline in the 1990s and CCC subsidies dwindled, the ELC suffered setbacks which strained its relationship with the college. The ELC was in need of a new champion. After a number of interim executive directors, Keyser, who was then president, stepped forward to put the ELC back on track by providing several years of stable funding and critical infrastructure updates. This investment attracted environmental educator John LeCavalier, who was hired in 1996 to reactivate the ELC.
LeCavalier’s leadership was instrumental in attracting like-minded partners, like Larry Beutler of Clearing Magazine, to the ELC [Ed note – CLEARING actually moved to the ELC several years before LeCavalier began his tenure as director.]. His contributions also include developing new programs and initiatives. He further established an endowment for the ELC that would keep it resuscitated for many years to come.
LeCavalier believes the ELC has a life of its own. During his interview he noted, “There is nothing to indicate that the tenacity of this physical place at the headwaters of Newell Creek and the people that have been involved it will not continue well into the future.”
When LeCavalier departed due to budget cuts in 2006, Alison Heimowitz took over as the ELC’s education coordinator. Even as a part-time instructor, Heimowitz developed critical environmental educational partnerships that are still in place today. Together, these partnerships bring hundreds of children to the site each year to learn in an outdoor living laboratory. Heimowitz was also the spark plug behind the writing and designing of the Metro Nature in Neighborhood Capital Grant, which was approved by the Board of Education in 2013. The CCC Foundation Board of Directors also stepped forward to support the grant by committing to raise the critical match to make the grant possible.
The Newell Creek Headwaters Restoration and Education Project brings together a range of public agencies, conservation groups and community members to engage in a collaborative impact initiative. This project brings to life the best of what the ELC has been and provides hope for what it still can be. After hundreds of hours of conversation with the multitude of community members who consider themselves friends of the ELC, the relevancy of this place and what it has to offer is as important today, as it ever was.
When asked about the relevancy of the ELC’s future, the retired U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley said quite simply, “Environmental learning never goes out of style.
If you would like to stay engaged with the ELC and the restoration and education efforts, visit www.clackamas.edu/ELC.
by Shamin Graff
Lake Katherin Nature Center & Botanic Garden
Palos Heights, IL
he sat quietly for several moments, watching and waiting. Suddenly, a streak of yellow flew by and then another. She quickly snapped a few photos on her phone as they flew off. Excitedly, she uploaded her photographs to iNaturalist, the first goldfinches that had been added to the biodiversity project she joined. She loved to see as all the new species being added by her and other citizen scientists like herself.
Across the United States, large institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History have developed spaces where visitors can watch scientists in action and ask questions about the work being done (Smithsonian Institution, 2013; The Field Museum, 2008). At the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, an entire wing dedicated to the pursuit of science recently opened, which includes opportunities to engage visitors in citizen science (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, 2012).
If your institution is anything like mine, creating a space for science and engaging visitors in citizen science programs may seem to be a greater project than time or financial resources can support. However, the resources put into a successful program can pay dividends over time for both the institution and its visitors. Knowing this, we dedicated a small space in our nature center to science and chose existing citizen science programs that could be tailored to meet the needs of our institution. The following is the evidence-based framework we created for doing so, based on extensive research that has been done in free-choice learning environments, including nature centers and museums.
The Case for Citizen Science
Citizen science is not a new idea, as participation in citizen science programs dates back to the 1700s in Europe where amateur bird enthusiasts recorded bird sightings (Dickinson, Zuckerberg & Bonter, 2010). Utilizing the Internet, today’s citizen science programs rely on crowdsourcing, or having large groups of people who each make a contribution, to collect data or classify previously-collected data. With many people sharing the work in this way, large data sets can be compiled that otherwise would not have been possible (Dickinson et al., 2010). These large data sets can not only be used to monitor a population or phenomenon, but also serve as a starting point for new questions to be researched (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009). For example, there is a project that asks participants to help transcribe old maritime records that can then be used to study climate change (www.zooniverse.org/project/oldweather) and several that ask people to help identify animals caught on camera traps. Both tasks require enormous amounts of man-hours and would be not feasible without the help of citizen scientists.
Besides the research benefits, participating in citizen science projects also have potential to increase scientific literacy. It can be difficult to assess, but research has shown that content knowledge can be gained through participation (Brossard, Lewenstein & Bonney, 2005). When participants are specifically instructed in science inquiry and the significance of the research being done, it may be possible to affect participants’ understanding and attitudes towards science in a positive way (Trumbull, Bonney & Grudens-Schuck, 2005; Jordan, Gray, Howe, Brooks & Ehrenfeld, 2011). Though more research is needed (Jordan et al., 2011), using citizen science to engage visitors over the long-term may also be a way to increase appreciation for nature and a caring attitude toward nature and biodiversity (Brewer, 2006), something we all strive for in environmental education.
Creating a Space for Science
Although your institution may not have a wing to dedicate to science, there may be an area that can be used to introduce visitors to science, provide reference materials and perhaps even offer scientific equipment for visitors to use. For us, we needed a space that allowed visitors to overlook not only our site, but also our planned bird feeder installation and this guided our selection. As research in free-choice learning environments has shown, the physical attributes of a learning environment can affect visitor learning in both positive and negative ways. Visitors often feel more comfortable in smaller exhibit areas (Maxwell & Evans, 2002), so do not be discouraged by limited space. Although it is tempting to create an immersive environment where visitors can feel they have been transported to someplace else, this may actually overshadow any educational messaging (Pedretti & Soren, 2006). Instead, working to minimize distractions can increase visitor attention and potentially visitor learning (Maxwell & Evans, 2002). For us, that meant separating the area from the high-traffic by the entrance and shielding noise from the adjacent area for young children. Simply rearranging and strategically placing furniture created the ideal space for us. We also included a comfortable seating area to provide visitors a place to rest and that may encourage longer stay-times.
Choosing a Citizen Science Project
Choosing the citizen science project that fits the needs of your institution is important to the future success and support of the program. We chose projects with a local focus that visitors could participate in at our site in order to fit our institution’s mission. There are a wide variety of citizen science projects to consider. SciStarter (http://www.scistarter.com) provides a searchable database of citizen science projects around the world that may assist you in finding a suitable project.
Institutional resources should be considered when choosing a project. The time investment for some projects will be greater than others. Some projects require frequent reports, sometimes even daily. Still others have fees associated with participation, require specialized training, or use equipment that must be specially purchased.
It is also crucial to consider the target audience when choosing a project. Many projects will not easily lend themselves to being used with visitors. Some data collection may be too intensive for the visitor experience while others may have strict restrictions on reporting. In these instances, you may choose to participate as an institution and then share your contributions to the project with visitors. This could be expanded by offering visitors a similar activity to participate in, as we did with Project FeederWatch, a bird monitoring program through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, some projects may have data collection periods that may not coincide with times of highest attendance. For example, Project FeederWatch only runs from mid-November through early April each year (Bonter & Hochachka, 2009), when many nature centers in northern climates have a decline in attendance.
When developing site-specific materials for your chosen citizen science project, you should consider including an explanation of scientific inquiry and the role visitors are taking by participating. This may help them develop a better understanding of how science research is conducted and the importance of citizen science (Trumbull et al., 2005). Research at science museums has shown that visitors often come away with a changed view of science, but it is one that sees science as a set of facts, not a collection of knowledge that is always evolving (Rennie & Williams, 2006). We can help science literacy by showing visitors that though some scientific knowledge has been rigorously validated, there is still much that is not fully understood, even after years of study. Without addressing these misconceptions directly, we may unknowingly undermine science literacy goals.
Our institution does not have naturalists or docents who are available to facilitate the citizen science area, a major hurdle for a project like this. To support self-directed learning and participation in citizen science projects, easy-to-follow materials are recommended (Banz, 2008), such as signage, brochures and worksheets. These self-guided activities can also provide visitors with a framework designed to help them conduct their own inquiries, allowing them to see firsthand the nature of science (Allen & Gutwill, 2009). Hopefully, this will also promote repeat visits to the area and enhance learning (Banz, 2008).
While developing a citizen science program, program assessment should be discussed. Simply having visitors participate was our initial goal, and multiple iterations of materials and methods are still being used to reach that goal. However, research on the impact of citizen science is limited and contributions are needed in both data and research methods (Brossard et al., 2005). If resources allow, assessment of content knowledge, scientific inquiry, impact on stewardship and changes in conservation values are highly encouraged, and are in the planning stages for our project.
The Framework in Action
At Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens (LKNCBG) in suburban Chicago, Illinois, the first implementation of a citizen science program following this framework is underway. With only three full-time staff members, resources are limited and minimal funds were used for the project. However, as our mission seeks to “promote environmentally sustainable choices through education, outdoor experiences and scientific research,” it has been important goal for 2013 to begin to introduce citizen science to the 26,000 visitors that come through the nature center annually (LKNCBG, 2013).
The physical space for our citizen science center was formed using a 130 ft2 area inside our nature center. The area provides a small reference library, comfortable seating and views of our bird feeders. There is literature for each citizen science project located in the citizen science center, along with worksheets and identification guides. There is also a chalkboard for visitors to record and share their data.
Three citizen science projects were selected to help us reach our goal. As an institution, we are participating in Project FeederWatch (www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/), a program that collects bird counts at feeders. For visitors, we are offering a paper-based activity similar to the actual data collection for the project. We have also started a project online at iNaturalist (www.inaturalist.org) that allows visitors to record observations of wildlife seen at our site in order to compile a biodiversity atlas. Finally, we have joined Project Budburst (www.budburst.org) as a Botanic Gardens Partner to encourage visitors to gather data about seasonal changes in ten target plant species onsite.
These specific projects were chosen mainly to help build visitors’ ecological knowledge. Research has suggested that as cultures become more affluent, this ecological knowledge is lost (Pilgrim, Cullen, Smith & Pretty, 2008). The projects we have chosen offer an opportunity for visitors to learn about species and their roles in local ecosystems, which we hope will help address this loss of knowledge. Also by increasing ecological knowledge, visitors may become more aware of their local environment and the issues it faces (Cooper, Dickinson, Phillips & Bonney, 2007), potentially leading to greater support for restoration and preservation of natural lands, including our own site.
Although it is a modest start, and interest from visitors is just beginning, we hope that citizen science will become an integral part of the visitor experience to LKNCBG and will inspire other environmental education institutions to develop similar programs. We expect that it will take time to build a culture of science at our institution and this is just one step in that process. In the future, we plan to evaluate our program through visitor surveys to not only improve our own programs, but also to share with the environmental education community.
Taking the First Step
A citizen science center may be a great way to further your institution’s mission and goals. Using this research-based framework as a guide, it is possible to create a place to engage visitors through citizen science, even when resources are limited. Through these programs, environmental education institutions can play a key role in increasing their visitors’ science literacy and ecological knowledge. With time, visitors may start taking a more active role in stewardship and provide greater support for local environmental causes. It all starts with taking the first step.
Allen, S. & Gutwill, J. P. (2009). Creating a program to deepen family inquiry at interactive science exhibits. Curator, 52, 289-306. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2009.tb00352.x
Banz, R. (2008). Self-directed learning: Implications for museums. The Journal of Museum Education, 33(1), 43-54.
Bonter, D. N. & Hochachka, W. M. (2009). A citizen science approach to ornithological research: Twenty years of watching backyard birds. In T. D. Rich, C. Arizmendi, E. Demarest, & C. Thompson (Eds.), Tundra to Tropics: Connecting Birds, Habitats and People (pp. 453-458). Proceedings of the 4th International Partners in Flight Conference, McAllen TX.
Brewer, C. (2006). Translating data into meaning: Education in conservation biology. Conservation Biology, 20, 689-691. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00467.x
Brossard, D., Lewenstein, B., & Bonney, R. (2005). Scientific knowledge and attitude change: The impact of a citizen science project. International Journal of Science Education, 27, 1099-1121. doi:10.1080/09500690500069483
Cooper, C. B., Dickinson, J., Phillips, T. & Bonney, R. (2007). Citizen science as a tool for conservation in residential ecosystems. Ecology and Society, 12(2), 11.
Dickinson, J. L., Zuckerberg, B., & Bonter, D. N. (2010). Citizen science as an ecological research tool: Challenges and benefits. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 41, 149-172. doi: 10.1146/annurev-ecolsys-102209-144636
Jordan, R. C., Gray, S. A., Howe, D. V., Brooks, W. R. & Ehrenfeld, J. G. (2011). Knowledge gain and behavioral change in citizen-science programs. Conservation Biology, 25, 1148-1154. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01745.x
Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens. (2013). 2012 Annual Report.
Maxwell, L. E. & Evans, G. W. (2002). Museums as learning settings: The importance of the physical environment. The Journal of Museum Education, 27(1), 3-7.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (2012). New wing opens with 24-hour celebration Friday, April 20. Retrieved from http://naturalsciences.org/about-us/news/new-wing-opens-24-hour-celebration-friday-april-20
Pedretti, E. & Soren, B. J. (2006). Reconnecting to the natural world through an immersive environment. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 6(1), 83-96. Abstract retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com
Pilgrim, S. E., Cullen, L. C., Smith, D. J. & Pretty, J. (2008). Ecological knowledge is lost in wealthier communities and countries. Environmental Science and Technology, 42, 1004-1009. doi: 10.1021/es070837v
Rennie, L. J. & Williams, G. F. (2006). Adults’ learning about science in free-choice settings. International Journal of Science Education, 28, 871-893. doi: 10.1080/09500690500435387
Smithsonian Institution. (2013). FossiLab. Retrieved from http://paleobiology.si.edu/FossiLab/index.html
The Field Museum. (2008). DNA Discovery Center. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/dna/
Trumbull, D. J., Bonney, R. & Grudens-Schuck, N. (2005). Developing materials to promote inquiry: Lessons learned. Science Education, 89, 879-900. doi: 10.1002/sce.20081
Shamim Graff is a volunteer at the Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens in Palos Heights, Illinois.
by Megan McGinty
North Cascades Institute
Last year we began a service-learning summer program for high school students focusing on climate change. The Climate Challenge program consisted of a summer residency in the North Cascades followed by a service project in which elementary-school students were taught by the returning high-school students back in their home communities that fall. We planned a challenging field itinerary for the summer portion – studying glaciers, interviewing scientists and exploring hydrological systems. The student team made both geographic and intellectual discoveries and practiced presentation skills in order to bring their stories to their hometowns. We anticipated that they would struggle to master new skills, become proficient communicators, and hoped that they would become passionate teachers.
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What we did not anticipate was the strength of the reaction from the adult audiences that the students encountered. The first clue was a rant posted online in response to an article in the local newspaper that briefly mentioned the then-pending program. (From the reference to “enviro-nazi youth,” I can only assume the comment was made by an adult.) Other reactions were far more favorable. People consistently commented upon how inspiring the students were, mentioning the word ‘hope’ again and again. The rangers and resource mangers that showed the students their daily work thanked us for the opportunity to interact with the students. The most striking meeting happened over dinner at our environmental learning center one evening when the students gave a brief impromptu presentation as a way to introduce themselves to a group of adults attending a naturalist class. When the students sat down, a woman across the room stood up and turned towards them. “I want to thank you all. We have done such a poor job of taking care of the Earth and now my generation has left you such a mess. I am so grateful to you and want you to know you are our only hope.” By this time, tears were running down her face, the dining hall was still and a few other adults also had red eyes. As she sat down, I looked over at the students, who were gape-mouthed. I had been nervous about them confronting the enormity of the task before them and wondered if the woman’s address would discourage them.
Over the course of the rest of the program, the students referred to that night as the point when they began to take the program more seriously, realizing that people were relying on them in earnest to address climate change. At times the amount and intensity of the expectations being put forth seemed a bit overwhelming and unrealistic for the students. As staff, we were often asked how to teach kids about climate change without getting depressed or depressing them.
Amid all this, the students never struck me as burdened. Yet neither did they seem uninformed. If anything, they were saturated with information and were quick and adept at adopting new ideas and applying scientific concepts. Flux seems to be a natural state of affairs for them.
The youth who are growing up now, with climate change as a primary concern, are facing a far different threat than any confronted by previous generations. Since the founding of the United States of America, people have faced civil war, wars in Europe, unrest over race, wars in Asia and the possibility of annihilation by nuclear war. While variations of all these threats still exist (and may always be present to some extent), they are all generated by humans.
In these cases we are both the victims and the agents. Meeting these challenges is a matter of appealing to the humanity that lies within the enemy, an enemy that is biologically identical to us and therefore subject to all the great strengths and debilitating weaknesses that we ourselves are capable of. Hope is rooted in our vision of ourselves not just as a nation or race, but as a species.
The problem with casting climate change as a foe is that we can barely define it or its effects in concrete terms. At best it is a poorly understood process, driven by forces that we struggle to comprehend, let alone grasp well enough to manipulate. We may know enough about the gross concepts behind the carbon cycle, meteorology and hydrology to understand that our climate is changing, but these topics become exceedingly challenging and intricate when combined with the physics of aerosols and clouds, quantum mechanics and paleoclimatology. In addition, climate change occurs on a scale far greater than most of us can easily fathom. We know what tens of thousands of years is, but how many of us can honestly say we have an actual operating sense of even a hundred years? In terms of both the mechanisms involved and magnitude of change, climate change is a great unknown. The level of uncertainty posed by climate change is far greater than that posed by war.
This is probably where the generational hinge folds. Students today see climate change as a static fact, a reality that looms in the form of species loss, desertification, and wars about water. They consider themselves optimistic yet realistic. They expect to see changes in the climate, but they also expect to adapt, to develop technologies for a different planet and to live under laws that strictly regulate the use of resources. They anticipate losing habitats, biodiversity, and undeveloped landscapes. I’ve asked students what they think the difference between older people’s views of climate change are compared to theirs. Upon hearing their answers, it occurs to me that the fear surrounding climate change is ours, not theirs. Climate change is a great unknown, but this is true of so many other factors in these students’ lives- whether they will go to college, fall in love, have children, what career they will choose, whether they will encounter fortune, illness or wealth. To them, the issues resulting from climate change are among a host of many other big questions. These students still embrace uncertainty, and right now, that fact is to their advantage.
This past fall, the same students that addressed the group in the dining hall were presenting their views on youth, climate change and involvement before a panel of federal officials. One young woman stood up and related a pivotal moment that occurred for her during the summer. As she spoke about standing on top of a mountain and realizing that the land as far as she in every direction was public land, her voice cracked and tears ran down her face. She took a deep breath and continued. “I realized that this land was my responsibility and that I want to do everything I can to protect it into the future.” While some of us may see a reason for despair, there are others who hear a call to arms.
When these students learn about pressing issues, their response is a desire to inform others about it. They intend to catalyze the change they believe their communities need. One student said “It’s easier for us because people who grew up earlier kept seeing things get better and all we’ve seen is things go downhill.” They consider themselves naïve, but are looking forward to making and seeing change. They realize that not all the changes will be good, just as they realize that they will not be successful in all they undertake. They also understand that climate change has winners and losers, but they see no reason why they, and we, can’t adjust.
Perhaps as these students age, and go on to both succeed and fail at the challenges that occur in the course of their life journeys they will become jaded, tired and lose hope. Their expectations don’t seem as high as those of students 10 or 20 years ago, but they also seem to be more accepting of the situation. I am confident that as they go out into world they will find some assumptions that they are working under to be far more challenging than they imagined, but also suspect that their lack of pre-set notions about what should be will serve them well as they innovate and adapt their way onward.
by Julie Corotis
Children were taken hostage in Russia, thousands died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bombs were detonated in Palestine and Israel. All of these events have occurred while I have been an environmental educator at IslandWood. How these events define my role as an environmental educator may seem obscure at first, but they are actually paramount to my decision to devote my life to this career.
I began to question the value of environmental or outdoor education last September when I read reports of the hostage crisis in Russia. Children were sacrificed for political gain while I was preparing to teach children about ecosystems. My career choice and what was needed in the world did not seem to be congruent. I could not see how what I was doing was alleviating suffering and dissipating hate. I wondered why it is important to teach children the abiotic parts of an ecosystem when there is a current of hate running through our society. Through this ongoing monologue I realized what role I want to play in environmental education. I want to help children build relationships and a sense of community in hopes that they will leave their experience with me a bit more likely to make positive choices.
I do not believe that children should grow up thinking that the environment is the world’s greatest problem, and it is their duty to save it, which some refer to as the ‘gloom and doom’ approach. Personally, I think that social problems have greater potential to exterminate humans long before we have a chance to kill the planet. The point of this polemic is that I believe children should be taught the value of treating everything with respect, which includes the natural world.
My role as an environmental educator is to teach about the environment, both natural and human-made, and to help others see and value the relationships in and between both. At IslandWood I spend a significant part of 4-day School Overnight Program discussing communities, those in a watershed or ecosystem, our group’s and their home community. Mornings begin with a focus question, which I have altered so that they are broader and can have answers that apply to the students’ own life. For example, “What is an ecosystem?” becomes “What is a community?,” so that human and natural communities can be discussed. The final question of the week “What can I do to make the world a better place?” can have myriad answers that connect their experiences at IslandWood and their lives back home.
I think that the experience of being outdoors in a small community can change people’s lives in extraordinary ways. The setting removes familiar pressures and attitudes, the people often feel freer to be themselves, and the experience is interesting. The combination of environmental education in the outdoors has had a great role in bringing me to this point in my life. I have lived, worked and studied in small communities in nature and believe that I am a better person because of it. I have facilitated these experiences for others and am consistently amazed by its impact. Patience, tolerance, respect and gratitude are virtues that can grow from environmental education, and I believe that these virtues are what is needed to save the world.
Julie Corotis is a graduate student of the IslandWood School on Bainbridge Island, Washington.