Does environmental education figure prominently in classrooms these days?

Does environmental education figure prominently in classrooms these days? By that I mean not just science but an understanding of key issues and environmental stewardship.

—Mary Swan, Framingham, MA

Environmental education has long struggled for legitimacy alongside more traditional disciplines within the liberal arts and sciences. But “environmental literacy” studies in the late 1980s revealed that schoolchildren lacked basic knowledge about the natural environment. This convinced the U.S. Congress to take action, and in 1990 they passed the National Environmental Education Act, forcing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to strengthen and expand environmental education nationwide through education and teacher training and the administration of grants to exemplary programs.

While many of the programs since developed by the EPA have been lauded as exemplary, a lack of funding has prevented many ideas from moving forward. According to a National Environmental Education Advisory Council report, between 1991 and 1996 the EPA received 10,000 environmental education grant applications totaling $300 million, but was only able to fund 1,200 totaling $13 million. Continued shortfalls at the EPA under the current Bush administration have forced further cutbacks.

With such a lack of federal resolve, the onus for teaching kids about the environment has fallen on local schools and individual teachers. According to the President’s Council on Sustainability, because environmental education is multi-disciplinary, it is hard for teachers to work it into their narrowly defined lesson plans. Also, most teachers are not trained in environmental subjects. As a result, non-governmental organizations have become increasingly involved with classroom environmental education efforts.

One such organization is the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), a network of volunteers that provides guidelines and resources for educators and parents who want environmental education for their K-12 students. According to NAAEE’s Mary Ocwieja, the group takes a “cooperative, non-confrontational and scientifically-balanced approach” to education about environmental issues. NAAEE’s website, EE-Link, lets users find resources on just about any environmental topic.

Another organization, the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, which was chartered by Congress in 1990, sponsors, a free website that calls itself “the best of the best” collection of environmental education programs and resources for K-12 teachers, parents and students. The site helps educators, after-school programs and home-schooling parents find up-to-date information on the most successful, well-tested and effective national environmental education programs available today.

According to NAAEE, their work and that of similar organizations is starting to pay off. Some 61 percent of U.S. K-12 teachers surveyed in 1999 claimed that they include environmental topics in their curriculum, with some devoting hundreds of hours of classroom time annually to environmental issues.

CONTACTS: NAAEE; Classroom Earth