Since its founding twenty years ago, the organization I work for, the Center for Ecoliteracy, has embraced a vision of future generations living in resilient communities, in harmony with the natural world. To realize this vision, we have discovered that it is important that students experience and understand how nature sustains life and how to live in light of that understanding.
One of the Center’s guiding principles is: “The real world is the optimal learning environment.”
David W. Orr, a member of our board of directors, has written: “We do not organize education the way we sense the world. If we did, we would have departments of Sky, Landscapes, Water, Wind, Sounds, Time, Seashores, Swamps, and Rivers. Instead, we’ve organized education like mailbox pigeonholes, by disciplines that are abstractions organized for intellectual convenience.”
At every level of learning, K through Ph.D., he believes, part of the curriculum should be dedicated to the study of natural systems “roughly in the manner in which we experience them….The idea is simply that we take our senses seriously throughout education at all levels and that doing so requires immersion in particular components of the natural world—a river, a mountain, a farm, a wetland, a forest, a particular animal, a lake, an island—before introducing students to more advanced levels of disciplinary knowledge.”
Like David Orr, everyone involved with our Center is a strong advocate of environmental project-based learning. While different people use the term in slightly different ways, project-based learning usually involves some combination of the following:
- curriculum structured around the knowledge and skills necessary to complete a meaningful and often complex “real-world” project, often in service to the local community;
- student initiative, leadership, and participation in defining problems and in selecting and managing projects;
- teachers as resources, fellow learners, and problem solvers rather than as dispensers of knowledge;
- attention to skills such as setting goals and priorities, managing time, problem solving, and working with others.
The opportunity for students to engage in real work in which their choices and actions matter makes learning matter as well. We add “environmental” to “project-based learning” because the lessons of the real world can be even more profound when the setting is nature.
Encountering nature in all its rich, messy reality is very different from reading a description or looking at a diagram in a book or on a screen.
For example, fourth-graders involved in a project supported by the Center for Ecoliteracy to restore the habitat of endangered shrimp learned that the shrimp were one strand of a web that included trees, grasses, insects, songbirds, creeks, estuaries, and the San Francisco Bay.
They began to understand the “shrimp problem” as a watershed problem. They also discovered that the problem could be addressed only by developing and collaborating with a network of people who sometimes see themselves as adversaries—ranchers and environmentalists, for-profit companies and public officials, as well as teachers, students, and parents.
The program evolved into STRAW (Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed), and has involved some 40,000 students over the past 23 years.
Projects that include immersion in nature can teach both patience and perseverance. Students engaged with nature experience often welcome rhythms and time scales unlike the frenetic pace and short-term gratification of a video game.
To their teacher’s surprise, the students in the Shrimp Project remained focused even after learning that it might take decades for their creek restorations to have a significant impact. They began talking about taking their grandchildren to see what they had accomplished.
Encountering nature in its complexity and wholeness can also help integrate teaching across disciplines and between grades—an antidote to the fragmentation and narrowing that often result from standardized testing and state mandates.
Nature, after all, does not do science at 9:00, social studies at 10:00, and math at 11:00.
Some teachers are understandably wary of having to add another responsibility onto overfull workloads, but tying subjects together in ways that make sense to students can make teaching more coherent and rewarding.
Environmental project-based learning often requires extra effort. In our experience, the payoff is worth it.
When students acquire deep knowledge of a particular place, they care about what happens to the landscape, creatures, and people in it. When they understand its ecology and diversity, the relationships it supports, and the rhythm of its cycles, they can develop appreciation and a sense of kinship with their surroundings.
Places known deeply are deeply loved, and well-loved places have the best chance to be protected and preserved for future generations.
Additional Reading and Resources