The World on Their Shoulders

In 1992, the kids at Brookside Elementary School in San Anselmo, California began a project to restore habitat for an endangered California freshwater shrimp. Since then, they’ve restored miles of coastline in Marin and Sonoma counties, lobbied Congress on behalf of threatened species, and even appeared on CNN. The shrimp are one beneficiary; the others are the children themselves, who’ve learned an environmental lesson that they won’t soon forget.

Illustration: Jerry Russell

In Brunswick, Maine, the new energy-efficient high school is sited on a series of man-made marshes that not only keep pollutants out of Maquoit Bay, but also serve as living classrooms for Brunswick students.

It’s not just kids in rural and suburban areas who are getting away from textbooks and blackboards to learn lessons from nature. In urban Denver, students at Oberon Middle School helped transform an unused school bus maintenance garage into a thriving wetland, with a pond in the middle. “We’ll probably get more birds here now,” said 13-year-old Mike Smedley, whose work helping to plant 10,000 bullrushes has given him a newfound environmental authority. “If there are more plants, there will be more food and that will attract birds.”

This issue’s focus is on environmental education, which has seen tremendous growth in the U.S. as states make it an official part of the school curriculum, and teachers get trained in workshops around the country. The new programs will soon have a positive impact on American environmental consciousness, which is currently at a low ebb. A recent Public Agenda poll, carried out on behalf of the American Geophysical Union, found a declining interest in environmental matters—largely because of the complexity of the individual problems. “Everybody thinks [global warming and damage to the ozone layer] are real and bad things, yet they don’t know what to do about it,” says John Immerwahr of Villanova University, which led the study.

Environmental education can help, but not necessarily by simply filling kids heads with doomsday scenarios. As educator Chris Myers notes in our Conversations interview, children learn the most when they’re empowered to investigate environmental problems on their own. The best programs do just that.

Environmental education has its vocal dissenters. Co-authors Michael Sanera and Jane Shaw have the germ of a point when they contend, in their book Facts not Fear, that kids are being terrified into immobility by negative misinformation. “Some textbooks say that global warming is actually happening,” Sanera told me, “and that gets kids worrying about droughts, hurricanes, flooded cities, and so on. It may be true, and it’s legitimate science, but so is the evidence that disputes it.”

Despite what Sanera says, however, most of today’s environmental education is meticulously balanced, and aimed more at teaching kids about nature than scaring them. When I take my four-year-old daughter, who’s going to kindergarten this fall, into a stand of trees, she proclaims, “We’re in the woods!” her voice mixing equal measures of wonder and, because Little Red Riding Hood is a favorite book, fear. “I’m hoping that school, and the environmental lessons it has to teach, will turn that fear into fascination.

Jim Motavalli