Path to Nature
Programming Trends in Environmental Education
By Chris Gelbach
The term environmental education may cause some people to think of traditional programs such as Earth Day celebrations and nature walks to identify flora and fauna.
And they still remain programming staples at many parks. But environmental educators at park districts, arboretums and other nature-focused facilities are now also attracting new audiences through a variety of innovative programming approaches.
Training Environmental Stewards
As the focus on climate change, depletion of our natural resources and other environmental issues intensifies, more people are engaging with their local park districts and other entities to have a positive impact. In response, these facilities have bolstered their programming to better train these volunteers.
"One thing we've really been increasing our focus on is service-based learning," said Megan Dunning, manager of community education and outreach for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. "You've got folks who are ready to really step in and take action and make a difference in the environment—but they may not have the knowledge tools they need to facilitate them on that road."
The Morton Arboretum is addressing this need through its Woodland Stewardship Training Program, which teaches people about the maintenance and restoration of natural areas and woodland habitats in Northern Illinois. This includes classes on local flora and fauna, prairie conservation and management, wilderness burn crew training, pesticide use and other related topics.
In addition to training environmental stewards, this program has also proven beneficial to community engagement in maintaining the arboretum grounds.
"The volunteer work that's being done on the natural areas of our property has skyrocketed since that program launched," Dunning said. "It is really helping us manage our natural areas, and we're also seeing the volunteers in the forest preserves around the region. It's huge what you can do to empower folks who really want to get out there and do the work."
In Seattle, the city's parks and recreation department also trains a high volume of dedicated volunteers for its Seattle Volunteer Naturalists program. "The volunteers get about 80 hours of training over the course of an entire year, and they help us teach to school groups and teach the public programs," said Belinda Chin, environmental learning coordinator for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Chin estimates that last year alone, 50 or so volunteers gave the park district more than 10,000 hours of service teaching others about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound area.
Peoria Park District in Illinois has seen similar growth since it started its Volunteer Stewardship Network in 1992. In fact, the area has since seen the debut of a not-for-profit called Peoria Wilds that also plays a stewardship role.
"It's a different spin on a friends group," said Mike Miller, supervisor of environmental and interpretive services for Peoria Park District. "They're not necessarily building a nature center. They're building a cathedral—they're working in the parks and saving and maintaining the biodiversity of our park system."
Programming Gets Creative
As they strive to attract increasingly sophisticated audiences, environmental education programmers are trying more creative hooks to lure patrons in. "I've been in the environmental education realm for over 25 years," said Miller. "When I first came on, you could get 50 people coming to an early-morning bird hike at a nature center."
Environmental educators at park districts, arboretums and other nature-focused facilities are now attracting new audiences through a variety of innovative programming approaches.
Today, to get the same number of people can require some creativity. For instance, Miller and his colleagues tried to brainstorm a way to get more kids out in the woods communing with nature. "We thought, what kinds of kids' programs can we do to get maybe moms and their kids out in the woods? What if we had something where you could take your American Girl doll out on a hike?"
So they tried it—and the doll hike was a huge success. "We had 50 kids show up with their dolls," said Miller. "You couldn't have gotten that many girls out for a hike any other way. And what was interesting was, when you'd show the kid a butterfly, they'd show the doll the butterfly. And so it was a way they became not only participants, but also teachers. To an inanimate object, but it was important. Never be afraid to try new things, even if they sound a little odd."
Likewise, the Morton Arboretum recently hosted a sculpture exhibition called David Rogers' Big Bugs, which included 10 giant insect sculptures made of natural materials and placed throughout the arboretum grounds. A series of fun bug-themed workshops were held in support of the exhibition, such as Mantis Mania, which allowed kids to find out about the unique habits of the insect and make a camouflaged creation. The arboretum even had a program on edible insects complete with the opportunity to sample some culinary insects. "We got quite a few people to try the bugs," said Dunning. "They got a sticker saying they ate a bug at Morton Arboretum, and it was a lot of fun."
Ecology Goes Urban
According to the 2010 Census, more than 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas. Accompanying this population shift, environmental education is also moving from a traditional emphasis on nature areas to a focus on local ecology.
"Working in public spaces that are located in community—like the local public park—helps to expand people's sense of home," Chin said. "It gets away from the romanticizing that environment is beyond city boundaries. It focuses more on the continuum from urban to wild as a single landscape."
The Green Seattle Partnerships Urban Forestry Project is a hands-on community-based program that includes a curriculum for teachers that also includes a field component.
"The in-field experiences happen at places that are within walking distances of schools, which helps the schools out because they don't have to pay for buses," Chin said. "And you get into child development values such as sense of place. When children have sense of place, that helps build their self-identity and their self-esteem and their confidence."
According to Chin, getting children involved can also result in them bringing their families and friends to the parks, helping to further build community, while also enhancing public safety by putting more eyes on these parcels of public land.
The program is just one element of the larger Green Seattle Partnership, which includes thousands of community volunteers who actively work to restore and maintain Seattle's forested parklands.
Meanwhile, the Morton Arboretum is training urban environmentalists through its Openlands TreeKeeper program, which teaches Chicago area volunteers how to keep city trees healthy through mulching, watering and spotting harmful pests.
Also related to the urban ecology trend is an increase in programming focused on community gardening. In Seattle, Chin noted that team leaders in some local community centers have started above-ground gardening boxes that area youth plant and harvest, even taking part in a teen chef program afterward that includes a Food Network-style competition.
"We're working with under-resourced youth because they can be subjected to food deserts," said Chin. "And then the gardens become gathering places and you get to meet your neighbors and before you know it, people are also outside walking more, too."
At the Morton Arboretum, Dunning is seeing a similar spike in interest in urban agriculture in the popularity of certain horticultural courses offered there. "We are seeing people be interested in what they can do in small spaces, indoors, in containers—in creative ways they can bring more garden into whatever space they have," she said.
For example, this fall the arboretum will have classes on gardening 101, planting an easy-care garden, backyard fruit tree basics and winter containers. Dunning has also seen a growing interest in the arboretum's beekeeping programs, from honey and bee dinners to more formal classes like beehive tours and intro to beekeeping.
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.
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."
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