Environmental literacy summit in Allegany County

Allegany County (Md.) Public Schools hosted an environmental education summit near Lake Habeeb last week, including more than 160 educators from all 24 local school districts in the state of Maryland, Delmarva Now reports. The summit was funded by a math and science grant from the Maryland State Department of Education.

Written by Carrie Samis, the state liaison for environmental education on the lower Eastern Shore, the article quoted Gary Hedges of MSDE:

The summit and the regional meetings, scheduled to follow in the fall and spring, provide support to [school districts] as they develop and implement their PreK-12 environmental literacy program. By sharing strategies among [districts] and leveraging the resources available through various partners including parks, state agencies, museums, higher education institutions, extension offices, and other environmental education providers, school system personnel can move their programs forward by developing more robust curricula, and improving teacher professional learning experiences as well.

In September 2010, the Maryland legislature unanimously approved legislation, and in June 2011, the State Board of Education approved new rules that made the state one of the first in the nation to require environmental literacy for high school graduation. The law left it up to individual school districts how best to implement that requirement, and talking about how other districts are doing it is not a bad thing.

There was some concern a year and a half ago that the environmental literacy law had such a large loophole, allowing districts to determine how to implement it, that it might become a non-starter. However, summits like this one make it less likely that districts will slip through the cracks when it comes to providing an excellent environmental education for their students.

On the federal level, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey told Congress, as lawmakers talked about reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, he wanted to direct federal funding to support environmental literacy, right alongside federal dollars that would support American history, civics, the arts, geography, foreign languages and financial literacy. Senator Casey’s proposed changes were based on a bill that had bipartisan support, sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).

The biggest indication of growth for environmental literacy programs comes from the number of students who take Advanced Placement tests in environmental science, though. While the number of test takers and students who earn college credit from the exams continue to increase, the number of test takers in environmental science showed a huge increase from 2001 to 2011: 426 percent.

Another point to be made, underscored by the outdoors summit in Allegany County last week, is that environmental literacy puts the core science subjects—biology, chemistry, physics—into context for students, just like financial literacy puts math into context. Kids learn better when information streams into their brains in context. We have written about this before, in an article entitled “Maryland 3rd graders at a crime scene camp,” and it cannot be emphasized too strongly.

Show them that poster about the human body in a classroom lecture, which is completely out of context and has no value to them at the time, and the chances they’ll remember it aren’t very good. But put the information about the human body into the context of a crime scene, which they’re highly interested in, and that information gets remembered.

Kids love being outdoors as much as third graders love playing detective at a fictitious crime scene.

This is a model for learning that goes beyond what can be measured on standardized tests, because the approach to environmental science is interdisciplinary by default. It also incorporates discovering nature on its own turf, not the turf of a classroom or textbook, keeping our planet beautiful and splendorous, and cooperating with other human beings, such as those from other school districts, museums, government, and so on.

Laws are a little slower to come than innovation by educators, unfortunately, but it’s clear we’re on the right track, at least in terms of bringing quality education to teachers in classrooms.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.