Environmental education is tricky.
I have known this fact for a while, but it’s become a constant consideration in my full time work as an environmental education intern at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During my time in Alaska working with youth in the field, youI have been a careful observer of the educators and their methods of…well, education! Of course, I have also participated as a leader in some of these activities, but it is my observations which are preparing me to be a successful educator.
For example, I have been witness to the most wonderful “ah ha!” moments when an educator finally breaks through to a kid. Eyes light up at a newly learned fact, a mouth hangs open at the sight of a wild animal in its natural environment, hands suddenly develop a mind of their own and no longer care about getting dirty or wet. You never can tell when or what will trigger these reactions, and it is something different for every kid, but the essential ingredient is a great teacher.
On Tuesday I got to work with the ANSEP (Alaska Native Science & Education Program, check them out here) middle school discovery day. One of the favorite activities of the day was an outdoor hydrology station which taught the kids how to be both bad and good engineers when developing along a river. The middle-schoolers were a bit timid when they first approached the water table. Ahen the group leader invited them to start putting twigs and pebbles into the “river” to make it a more realistic environment, a few brave kids stuck their hands into the cold water as others looked on (enviously I thought!). As the activity went on, and the kids were asked to build dams, bridges and culverts in their river, everyone got into the project and no one seemed to notice that their sleeves were wet and covered with dirt. But how could they while they were scrambling to save the town they had built together from a “ﬂooding” event?!
Photo courtesy of the ANSEP facebook page.
Kids learn by playing, by falling down, and by making a mess of themselves. This activity was successful because it was put on by an educator who cared enough to prepare a unique, hands-on learning experience. Oh yeah, and he didn’t treat the kids like kids. They were future engineers! I can’t stress this point enough because in my observations and experience this is one of the most important ways to connect with a young audience. Kids are not going to care about any issue if they aren’t engaged. When it comes to environmental education this means getting outside and experiencing the environment first hand!