Growing greener young people

Every spring, thousands of students from all grade levels transform Michigan riverbanks into science labs. Donning waist-high waders or big rubber boots, they venture into the water to cast nets for collecting the aquatic life. Later they will sample the water and chemically test it. For that day, the students are scientists assessing the quality of water that runs through their communities.

Nate Childers's eighth-grade class from Hart Middle School in Rochester Hills, Mich., had been regularly testing one of those Michigan waterways: Stony Creek, a tributary of the Clinton River. Past class testing had shown the creek to be in relatively good health. But, when his students tested the water quality of Stony creek one-day in the fall of 1998, they discovered a silt-clouded stream with little aquatic life. Curious about the dramatic turnaround of the Creek's health, the students walked 500 feet upstream and discovered the problem. Sediment was washing directly into the creek from a housing construction site that had no soil control measures.

The students turned to the Clinton River Watershed Council for help. Together they notified the proper county officials about the situation. The county issued a cease and desist order on site construction until the construction company installed soil control measures such as fencing and hay bales to reduce the amount of soil entering the creek. Once those measures were in place, the students were able to document immediate improvement in the health of Stony Creek.

Mr. Childers' class is just one example of how environmental education can enhance science and civic lessons by taking them out of the textbook and turning them into real life experiences for young people. It is no wonder more and more schools are adopting formal environmental education programs.

Developing quality educational programs

The need for better environmental education is clear. After all, only one in three adult Americans has a passing understanding of our most pressing environmental issues, according to a 1999 Roper Starch poll commissioned by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. The poll's overall conclusion was that Americans lack the basic knowledge to respond to the major environmental issues that we face. For example, water quality ranks highest among environmental concerns for Americans, but that concern does not translate into accurate knowledge about the issue. Most Americans believe that factories are the main source of water pollution when, in fact, it is non-point source pollution such as runoff from lawns.

That same poll found that 96 percent of American parents and 95 percent of all adults support environmental education in schools. What parents and educators need to understand is that quality environmental education is what children need.

Like all recognized classroom disciplines, standards of excellence have been outlined for environmental education. The North American Association of Environmental Educators has determined that excellent environmental education fosters:

  • Knowledge of environmental processes and systems;
  • Inquiry and problem-solving skills;
  • Skills for critical decision and action; and
  • Personal and civic responsibility.

In other words, environmental education should not just be about teaching young people about endangered pandas or that there is a hole in the ozone layer. The emphasis in environmental education classes should be how to think about environmental issues, not what to think about them. Programs must offer youth opportunities to lead the problem-solving process, without adult agendas driving the process.

The results of a cross-disciplinary approach to environmental education are promising. A report resulting from a national roundtable on the environment and education found that students learned more effectively through an environment-based context than compared to the traditional classroom context (Lieberman and Hoody, 1998). By integrating academic disciplines, environmental education elevates learning beyond rote knowledge and into tangible lessons that foster critical thinking, analyzing and problem-solving skills. Environmental education specifically structured to teach across a variety of disciplines was found to improve student performance in reading, writing, math, science and social students while enhancing the overall school experience, according to the same report.

(Learning) a civil action

One discipline that environmental education effectively teaches in a way that traditional classrooms do not is civics. Civics lessons become a natural extension of science lessons when they are applied to real-life situations, just as Nate Childer's class found when they discovered a problem in their creek's water quality. An opportunity to teach hands-on civic lessons is just as critical as teaching real-life science experiences, as evidenced by a 1999 Department of Education study. The study found that almost three-quarters of students at all grade levels have only a basic knowledge of the democratic process.

That lack of knowledge is translating into lack of desire to participate in democracy. A 1999 Roper Starch poll of incoming college freshmen commissioned by the University of California, Los Angeles, of incoming college freshman noted that only 17 percent of the students felt it was important to influence the political system. That same study found that only 18 percent thought the environment was a pressing issue in need of their attention.

Helping students understand their connection to communities when they are in grade school plants the seeds for a lifetime of responsible citizenship. The satisfaction and pride young people take in community work is a strong reinforcement. Another benefit is that schools have a chance to develop new community relationships and expand their resources through these programs.

Mentoring the next generation

Environmental education programs are an ideal outlet for environmental professionals to pass on their expertise to the next generation. The watershed education and protection programs throughout Michigan, for example, are supported by an ongoing partnership between area schools, local watershed organizations, General Motors (GM) and Earth Force's Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN). GREEN is a program of Earth Force, a national, nonprofit organization that guides youth in identifying environmental issues in their communities and creating long-term solutions around those issues. General Motors has recently announced the GM Clean River Program, a commitment to expand these education and protection efforts to improve the health of rivers across the country.

GREEN provides the programming and equipment, while GM provides both funding and volunteers who act as on-site experts on the riverbanks. Environmental engineers as well as other staff from local GM facilities take the time to visit classrooms and take on mentorship roles with the students. Teachers and students can turn to these experts as resources when questions about their watershed arise. Such programs give adults the outlet to use their skills to improve their job satisfaction, their community and the education of young people.

"Participating in the GREEN program allows GM to work as a partner in our communities. GM environmental engineers are able to share their enthusiasm for the environment in a way that demonstrates to our children the role of science in their day-to-day lives," GM Director of Environmental Services Chris Bates said.

The enthusiasm volunteers show is shared by the educators and students.

"It is exciting for me to open a newspaper and see that my students are being recognized as community leaders," Childers said.

Programs like this give students the opportunity to excel. Childers' students are not unique in regard to their initiative and enthusiasm to learn, help and improve their community's environment. Students in all grade levels and from all backgrounds are capable of acting as a force for positive change if given the chance to succeed. Quality environmental education helps children succeed by helping them see themselves as leaders right now. PQ1: The emphasis in environmental education classes should be how to think about environmental issues, not what to think about them. PQ2: Environmental education programs are an ideal outlet for environmental professionals to pass on their expertise to the next generation.

Recommended reading:

Lieberman, Gerald A. and Lina L. Hoody. Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrated Context for Learning. State Education and Environment Roundtable, 1998. (
The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. Environmental Readiness for the 21st Century: The Eight Annual National Report Card on Environmental Attitudes, Knowledge and Behavior. 1999. (
The National Center for Education Statistics. NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card. 1999. (
Education Commission of the State's National Study Group on Citizenship in K-12 Schools. Every Student a Citizen: Creating the Democratic Self. 2000. (

This article appeared in Environmental Protection, Volume 11, Number 9, September 2000, Page 26.

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This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.