Educating kids about sound environmental stewardship doesn’t have to be political, and in the end, everyone benefits.
From left: Katie Miller, Peter Krespan, Amanda Rahman,
teacher Kelli Lafferty, Charli Cornish and Jess Coleman
set up an incubator that will be used to hatch mallard
duck eggs. The project is part of their environmental
studies class at Alfred G. Waters Middle School in Middletown.
Photograph by Pat Crowe II www.patcrowephotography.com
To an exhausted parent, the five-year-old who comes home from school pleading for a compost bin might seem over the top. One might wonder: Is it worth educating kids about green living?
The answer, it would seem, is yes. Kelli Martin, education associate for K-12 education in science and the environment for the Delaware Department of Education, says lessons in green living help teach students about bigger concepts like ecology. In fact, Delaware’s ecology standards are taught from kindergarten through 12th grade as part of a science curriculum that trains students to process real-world problems—a skill they’ll need no matter what they do in life.
“The Delaware Science Coalition, a partnership of school districts, business, community and higher education, provides extensive training and materials to all teachers so that students across the state have rich, rigorous experiences in science,” Martin says. She adds that national organizations, including the U.S. Congress and the National Governors Association, hold Delaware’s science program in high regard.
Liz Applegate of Newark wants her young daughters to appreciate the earth’s resources, so she thinks it’s good to teach brand-new learners basic practices such as recycling. “Showing pictures of landfills and pollution can put it into perspective,” she says.
Parents who agree with Applegate believe it’s worth teaching kids to conserve earth’s finite resources. They appreciate the state’s incorporation of conservation lessons into a broader science curriculum. But how do teachers educate kids about sustainability while ensuring the material is age appropriate and keeping politics out of the classroom?
Delaware’s science curriculum is carefully designed for each grade level. “Kindergarten students observe trees in different seasons and begin to understand the interconnectedness of all living things,” Martin says. “Third graders explore the precious and unique nature of water and its role in physical, earth and life science.”
Eighth graders learn about populations, biodiversity and interrelatedness by studying horseshoe crabs. Garth Stubbolo’s students at Everett Meredith Middle School meet local scientists and conduct a horseshoe crab spawning census during their Green Eggs and Sand unit.
Alison Burris’ twins have learned about air quality, pollution, global warming and nature at their public schools in Newark. “In middle school, they had to go around the house and check out our electricity output—number of lights, computers, refrigerators, heater, air conditioner,” Burris says.
Bill Reidinger of Newark is hoping such lessons save him money on his electric bill. “My kids went on field trips as early as third or fourth grade to Ashland Nature Center and Fair Hill Nature Center,” Reidinger says. “Both of these places have good programs geared to elementary school kids.”
If the lessons are simple enough in elementary school and middle school, students remember them positively. Now a senior at the University of Delaware, Cory Gregory of Newark looks back fondly on the worm composting bin her teacher, Susan Carlin, kept in the classroom for lunch scraps.
Gregory’s friend Ashley Gordy of Seaford hasn’t forgotten the environmental lessons she learned from her third grade teachers at West Seaford Elementary. Her teacher had a leaky faucet that filled a bucket during the course of a school day. “She used this situation to illustrate the amount of waste that results from a single drip,” Gordy says. “I also remember Mrs. Moynihan telling us the importance of recycling.”
The teacher admitted to her students that she hadn’t recycled until she taught the concept to kids. “The lesson that really stuck with me was the fact that the teacher changed her lifestyle, not only because it was something she strongly believed in, but because she couldn’t ask her students to do something that she didn’t do,” Gordy says.
High school teachers face the challenge of educating students who are learning to think for themselves but are from different backgrounds and at different maturity levels.
“In education, you cannot ever tell someone how they are to think or what they have to believe," says Heather Hastings, an agriscience educator and Future Farmers of America advisor at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes. Hastings encourages her students to explore topics of interest, like environmentally sound farming methods such as crop rotation and waste management.
At Lake Forest High School in Felton, Mark Breeding teaches students about wildlife and wildlife management. He addresses the history of human land use, talks about career opportunities, publicizes
Teachers in Appoquinimink School District help students come to their own scientific conclusions. At Alfred G. Waters Middle School, Kelli Lafferty helps her students understand the environmental issues in the news each day. To avoid getting political, Lafferty says, “I teach them straight facts—what they need to know to make their own judgment. I look at scientific studies and help them understand the process of decomposition or the greenhouse effect so they can interpret the information.”
Lafferty is experienced at exposing kids to real-world issues. When she taught at Middletown High School, her class took on the issue of sprawl in central Delaware. In spring 2006, the Middletown High FFA joined with the New Castle County 4-H and University of Delaware Cooperative Extension on an open forum to address land use. The event drew people from the Middletown, Odessa and Townsend areas.
“Many were concerned with disappearing farmland and how developments were taking over the area, pushing mom-and-pop businesses under,” Lafferty says. “We talked about the impact these developments had on waste management, water supply and town resources. I think it helped the students realize that it does not take a lot to drastically impact our environment.”
Teacher Jenna Hall of Middletown High School tests water in the school’s pond with the Environmental Club and teaches her environmental science students to design sustainable homes and design models that show how different types of energy production work. Hall notes that while many environmental issues have become politicized, “the science behind them is just that: science. We discuss how science, technology, and society all interact and influence each other, but we try to concentrate on facts.”
Justin Benz, who teaches agriculture at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School in Glasgow, uses visual aids and hands-on activities to appeal to a variety of learning styles and developmental stages. “By having students analyze the evidence of the issue, students can formulate informed and valid opinions,” he says. “If they then look at that issue and draw a political stance, well, that is just part of the process.”
Other organizations make similar efforts to educate kids about green living without asserting a political agenda. Helen Fischel, associate director of education at the Delaware Nature Society, believes in empowering children with information so they feel they can make a difference. “Programs at the Ashland Nature Center, Coverdale Farm and Abbott’s Mill Nature Center are hands-on activities that engage children of all ages in the natural world,” she says. “In a society where many are technology rich and experience poor, first-hand experiences lead to a greater awareness.”
Joy Sparks, state program coordinator of 4-H Youth Development for the UD Cooperative Extension, says 4-H has always had a strong environmental focus. “Soil conservation techniques were taught 105 years ago as a part of taking the research from the land grants to the people,” she says. “In 4-H, we taught the children, and then parents adopted the practices. We try to not be political by basing our educational programs on research from the land grant universities, of which we are a part.”
UD Spanish instructor Suzanne Tierney-Gula remembers her son’s teacher mentioning Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” which the family watched together, deciding that small changes in their everyday habits, like running errands on foot instead of driving, would help them conserve energy.
UD student Natalie Emmons says the passion her ninth grade biology teacher at Ursuline Academy brought to discussions about the effects of aerosols inspired her to teach her own students about conservation. As the head kindergarten teacher at a day care last summer, “I was surprised at how little the kids knew about recycling and brought books to class to educate them,” she says. “I found them saying, ‘Look, Miss Natalie—I’m recycling!’ as they used the back of a coloring sheet to draw another picture, thus conserving paper.”