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The Many Benefits of Teaching Environmental Literacy to Our Youth

by Marisa Briscoe McNatt (bio)

Published 1/26/12


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In schools across the country, environmental courses are increasingly becoming a part of the curriculum. Today, nearly two-thirds of the nation’s 2.5 million K-12 teachers include environmental education in the classroom, reports the Campaign for Environmental Literacy. This is good news.

With climate change, depleting natural resources and a burgeoning population, the youth of today — leaders of tomorrow — will have to make tough choices about everything from where our energy comes from, to water use, to transportation choices.

By integrating environmental literacy programs in the classroom, or teaching students about how human decisions and actions affect environmental quality and using that information to become responsible citizens, today’s students will be better prepared to take on tomorrow’s challenges.

“We must embrace change. The leaders of a sustainable future are in the classrooms now," says Bryan Beckett, co-founder of EcoGreenOffice, a one-stop-shop for environmentally friendly office products.

By supplying schools with paper, writing tools and folders made from recycled materials, EcoGreenOffice is helping schools to meet their sustainability goals and teaching students about the possibilities for recycled materials.

“It's exciting to see young students using school supplies that were once tires or water bottles. This sort of education is a great example of the 3 R's: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle," Beckett says. EcoGreenOffice currently supplies a number of local schools in the Denver-Boulder region as well as a couple other institutions around the country which shows how schools are practicing the green principles that they teach.

Green Youth Education - Teaching our Children how to live a sustainable lifestyle
Green Apples or Red?

Incorporating green concepts into course curriculum at an early age is essential teaching our youth sustainability.

Environmental projects and initiatives also teach students more than just facts. They also learn how to write well, think critically, collaborate and solve problems creatively — skills critical for success beyond school.

For example, the Community Adventure Program, offered for academic credit in the Boulder Valley School District through the Cottonwood Institute, gives students the chance to go on hikes and overnight camping trips. In addition to experiencing the outdoors, students who are a part of the program choose a local environment concern and collaborate with residential organizations to design and implement a project to positively address the issue.

By taking on environmental projects, students not only help the local environment and learn skills that are critical for success in the 21st Century. Students also experience immediate benefits.

When environmental learning is integrated into the classroom, students exhibit better performance on standardized tests, reduced discipline problems, increased enthusiasm for learning and greater pride and ownership in accomplishments, reports the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education citing a study from the State Education and Environmental Roundtable.

Incorporate Green into education material
A Wealth of Green Knowledge

There are numerous resources online and at your local book store that can assist you in constructing green lesson plans.

In other words, “In today’s world, environmental literacy is not a luxury,” writes Gene R. Carter, Executive Director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, in the preface to the work Advancing Education Through Environmental Literacy.

Environmental literacy also provides students with an edge in another way. Studies are showing a rapid growth in green jobs across the United States. For example, green jobs in the U.S. grew by 9.1 percent between 1998 and 2007, reports the Pew Charitable Trusts.

With the numerous positive effects of environmental literacy programs to be considered, progress is being made on the legislative front.

“Organizationally and pedagogically environmental education (EE) in the United States is, by many measures, the strongest it has ever been, in spite of serious budget constraints on every level … ” writes the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

The Office of Environmental Education escaped cuts in 2011, receiving funding at 2010 levels of $9.083 million, reports NAAEE.

The “No Child Left Inside Act of 2011,” — a bill supported by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island — would provide funding for states to create outdoor, educational activity programs, train teachers, and form state-specific environmental literacy plans.

Also, in June 2011, Maryland became the first state to require high school students to learn about the environment to graduate.

Finally, the No Child Left Inside Coalition provides and opportunity for citizens, business, environmental and educational groups and others to support environmental literacy legislation.

However, teachers interested in teaching environmental education don’t have to wait for legislation. A variety of online websites, such as classroomearth.org provide instructions on how to incorporate environmental learning into the classroom.

[1] www.fundee.org
[2] http://www.cottonwoodinstitute.org/courses/community-adventure-program/
[3] https://www.caee.org/
[4] Archie, Michele L. (2003). Advancing Education Through Environmental Literacy. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
[5] Retrieved January 22, 2011 from EPA’s National Center for Environmental Publications.
[6] www.pewtrusts.org
[7] http://www.naaee.net/
[8] http://www.cbf.org/page.aspx?pid=687
[9] http://www.dnr.state.md.us/dnrnews/pressrelease2011/sgg_062111.asp (Maryland Department of Natural Resources)