Feature Article - October 2013
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Programming: Trails

Path to Nature
Programming Trends in Environmental Education

By Chris Gelbach


Nature Through Technology

Another growing focus is the use of technology to enhance environmental learning—something that the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) spotlighted this year during National Environmental Education Week, the week leading up to Earth Day. NEEF focused in part on the ways that environmental education can be used to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

"Many different corporations are focused on STEM, the government's focused on STEM, and it's really trickled down to the state park level and in some cases city parks," said Robb Hampton, director of the Public Lands Program for NEEF.

As technology and environmental learning become more intertwined, a variety of new digital resources are also helping connect students with the environment. These include a number of apps that allow people to actively participate in citizen science.

One example is Project Noah, which enables students to document local flora and fauna by uploading the pictures via phone or tablet. Then a global online community helps them identify their findings while also helping scientists track wildlife populations.

In another example, NEEF partners with an organization called World Water Monitoring Challenge, which allows volunteers to take note of their local water quality using water-quality kits and then reporting the data online. In 2012, more than 250,000 people from sites in 66 countries participated.

Similarly, BioBlitzes, which can be held anywhere from small urban to huge national parks, are even using technology for citizen science to make great discoveries. These 24-hour events allow volunteer teams to document the different species they come across in the park, sometimes with amazing results. A 2011 BioBlitz held in Arizona's Saguaro National Park had more than 5,500 participants, including over 2,000 registered schoolchildren. It found more than 400 species previously unknown in the park, including at least one species believed to be new to science.

Ongoing technology improvements have also spurred a renewed interest in nature photography. "With the continuing advances in digital cameras, it's so easy for so many people to get their hands of pretty good cameras and start taking pictures," said Dunning. "We see a lot of people trying to improve their photography skills."

The Morton Arboretum is trying to meet this demand through a growing array of photography classes, including offerings in smartphone photography and Photoshop for nature photographers. Miller is seeing similar interest in Peoria. "Because you can take hundreds of pictures in one sitting, it's much, much easier to come up with the perfect shot than it used to be," he said.

Teachable Moments

In Seattle, the park district is still seeing success through traditional nature walks, but focuses on introducing topics through story. It helps if the nature is breathtaking. "On our owl walks, if you're very quiet, it is possible to see an owl take out a mouse for dinner, and the interpreter naturalists are providing that context and the possibility for that to happen," Chin said. "And then people come back to the park or go to the parks that are close to them and are looking for owls."

Likewise, NEEF tries to create memorable learning opportunities through its National Public Lands Day. "It's about having the experience on the public land and learning why it's important to plant a tree or pull invasive species—why it's important to protect a particular habitat and how it affects not just the local area but the larger ecosystem," Hampton said. "So those messages are taught, but there's usually no curriculum. It's what we call teachable moments."

Local park districts and other facilities can create those moments in a variety of ways, whether it's by getting involved in events like Public Lands Day, doing things like holding BioBlitzes, or even offering nature photography or drawing classes. They can also get inspiration and program participants by reaching out to the growing array of environmental organizations that are popping up in every community.

In the end, while the tactics and programs may change, the ultimate goal of environmental education remains the same—to get people invested in taking personal ownership and responsibility for the environment and park system around them.

"We always look for that when we're developing a program," Miller said. "How is this program going to create that environment that's going to touch them in a very personal way? Those are the types of programs we all strive for."