This post contributed by Terence Houston, ESA Science Policy Analyst
It’s been said that, for better or worse, the experiences from your early childhood tend to stick with you for the rest of your life and influence the adult you become. Policymakers, environmentalists and ecological scientists are wise to take this sentiment into account in their efforts to get average citizens to care more about the environment and inform policy as it relates to environmental stewardship.
Engaging policymakers and members of the public on the importance of environmental science is certainly vital in working to further understanding and appreciation of our natural ecosystems. Unfortunately, the “inconvenient truth,” if you will, is that most individuals we seek to educate already have long formed their predisposition as to whether or not they will be receptive to issues like recycling, maintaining the protective ozone layer, preserving endangered species or keeping down pollutant levels. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, our values are fairly well set; our basic ideology and what issues will be of interest and importance to us. Not so with children.
The Parks and People Foundation demonstrated this during an Oct. 22 Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) field trip, sponsored by the Ecological Society of America (for more information, see the Oct. 29 edition of the ESA Policy News).
During the trip, participants visited Franklin Square Elementary School in one of the more metropolitan areas of the city. Aside from some feathery remnants of a likely red-tailed hawk attack on a pigeon, one would assume the heavily urbanized setting was hardly conducive towards educating young people on ecological issues. The over-arching theme of the BES trip, guided by Morgan Grove of the USDA Forest Service, was to defuse this perspective by highlighting the benefits of studying the city’s unique ecosystem constituting urban forests, parks, wildlife, streams and the greater Baltimore watershed. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study is one of the National Science Foundation’s 26 Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects but has the distinction of being one of only two LTERs located in an urban environment.
At the elementary school, representatives from the Parks and People Foundation discussed their efforts to promote a Baltimore Green Schools Network. The briefing was rounded out with an awe-inspiring presentation by five young students from “KidsGrow,” an afterschool program designed for 2nd to 5th graders, who enthusiastically recounted their experiences learning about different ecosystems through the program. They spoke about the ecosystem around their school, of observing the insects and their population levels, and seemed to take pride in the fact that they now see more than a playground when they go outside—they see an opportunity to discover interesting life around them that they can study.
The benefits of such programs seem to extend far beyond an increased understanding of environmental science. Findings from Baltimore City’s Safe & Sound Campaign demonstrated an overall increase in student performance among KidsGrow students on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), which tests reading and math achievement. At Franklin Square Elementary, KidsGrow participants’ MSA test scores were mostly over 90 percent. Math test scores for grades 3-5 were above 87 percent. William Paca Elementary, another participating school, had a 46 percent increase in test scores from the previous year, the highest in the city. The study found that 49 percent of participants progressed in the area of science. Additionally, 79 percent of participants felt they were doing better in school overall.
Thankfully, efforts are underway to bring the successes of programs like KidsGrow to the national level. Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) has introduced the No Child Left Inside Act, a bill that creates a new environmental education grant program. The bill authorizes funding to support outdoor learning activities both at school and in non-formal environmental education centers, teacher professional development, and the creation of state environmental literacy plans. With bipartisan support in both chambers and a national grassroots coalition of 1,300 organizations, the legislative initiative does stand some hope of moving upon reintroduction in the 112th Congress, assuming it is not fast-tracked during this fall’s lame-duck session.
Initiatives such as these lay the foundation for inspiring not only the next generation of scientists and environmental stewards, but a public that is more inherently conscious of its natural environment and consequently more likely to be receptive towards initiatives that seek to maintain it.
Photo Credit: ESA File Photo