The changing face of environmental education

Julie Johnson Gazette Contributing Writer
Published in print: Saturday, February 28, 2015
REBECCA REID "Hitchcock Center educator Helen Ann Sephton explaining the natural water cycle to students. Mimicking nature, a project meeting the Living Building Challenge has to supply all its water needs by captured precipitation or other natural closed-loop water systems, along with recycling its wastewater.

REBECCA REID “Hitchcock Center educator Helen Ann Sephton explaining the natural water cycle to students. Mimicking nature, a project meeting the Living Building Challenge has to supply all its water needs by captured precipitation or other natural closed-loop water systems, along with recycling its wastewater.

How do we equip ourselves and our children with the tools needed to sustain the Earth?

This is a challenging time for the field of environmental education. It’s no longer enough for environmental centers to help people learn about the natural world and the ecological systems that support life. The potentially devastating consequences of humans’ actions on the environment make it urgent for educators to seek out new approaches. These must be aimed at helping people understand the natural and human communities in which they live, their interconnection and interdependence, and the fact that we all have the ability to make contributions to change.

Central to this new way of thinking is the knowledge that humankind is part of nature, that there are limits to growth and carrying capacity, and that nature should be regarded as a model for designing cities, neighborhoods, housing, technologies and regional economies.

It’s also an exciting opportunity to build on successful teaching practices and on a growing awareness that, as citizens, we need to think about the world in an integrated way in order to promote greater environmental integrity, economic prosperity and social equity.

Together, these goals comprise the concept of “sustainability.”

We need to equip people with the practical skills, analytic abilities, philosophical depth and moral foundation to reshape how we live in this world.

We must help people to act on this information, to use their power as individuals and communities to engage in a process for change.

The intertwined goals of integrity, prosperity and equity are taking on an increasingly important role in the field of environmental education, shaping an evolving movement: education for sustainability.

What does this mean for you and your kids?

Education for sustainability involves an interdisciplinary curriculum, hands-on activities and place-based and service-learning approaches.

Each of these educational methods alone has merit, but there’s a real synergy when they are combined. Whereas disciplines once were taught in discrete units, they are now interwoven through the theme of sustainability and community. The unifying concept throughout is understanding how natural ecosystems — which have evolved and persisted over the eons — function.

Innovative designers today are mimicking nature’s adaptations to create sustainable human environments. Integrating the concepts of sustainability into our work as educators — into the heart of our curriculum — as well as into our institutional practices, culture and community partnerships is what gives us renewed energy — and hope.

One way of meeting this challenge is to have a facility that is a teaching tool in itself, and demonstrates firsthand the concepts that are taught there. It should serve as a new laboratory for the study of ecologically engineered, sustainable solutions for wastewater; solar energy; ecological restoration; ecological design; data gathering, analysis and display; landscape management; horticulture; and the art of communicating these things to the wider public.

Several environmental education centers are doing just this. The Hitchcock Center for the Environment, for example, is constructing a new building that meets the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a new standard for sustainability in building construction. In fact, one of the criteria for meeting this challenge is the educational opportunity it provides.

LBC buildings achieve net-zero energy through on-site renewable energy and energy-efficient design.

Net-zero water, another LBC goal, is achieved by recapturing and reusing rainwater and by using composting toilets. Construction waste is reused or recycled. Interiors are people-friendly and maximize fresh air and daylight. Building materials cannot contain any of the “worst in class” pollutants found in many construction projects. Even shipping distances for building materials are limited to a prescribed radius from the building site.

In these ways the “living” building mimics nature’s energy and water cycles and systems.

These buildings can demonstrate how the world works as a physical system and provide fertile ground for new ways of thinking and teaching. They show what each of us can do to effectively steward our natural environment and dramatically slow its depletion. They embody and demonstrate concrete, replicable solutions to environmental problems.

We know from experience that people not only want to understand problems but are hungry for solutions. For example, Hitchcock programs that show people concrete ways to save energy or reduce their footprint on the Earth are among our most popular.

Environmental education facilities designed around these principles and values teach people how we can begin to replace the extractive economy with one that functions on current sunlight, eliminates waste, and uses energy and materials with great efficiency. We can begin to recast the systems by which we supply ourselves with food, energy, water, materials and livelihood. We can all foster hope in a world of growing despair and anger.

It’s time for environmental education to teach and lead by example. We are at a turning point in history when it matters very much what we think and feel, but what’s most important is what we do.

Julie Johnson is Executive Director of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us

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