Dear EarthTalk: 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, Mass.
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
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
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
teachers. According to the President’s Council on Sustainability,
because environmental education is multidisciplinary, 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 Web site, 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
ClassroomEarth.org, a free Web site 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
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
classroom time annually to environmental issues.
Contacts: NAAEE, www.naaee.org; ClassroomEarth, www.classroomearth.org.
Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.