Students from preschoolers to teens in Maryland are learning to love the environment in classes on everything from sustainability to plant life cycles, part of a new trend of schools adopting a green curriculum.
The state mandates each high school student graduate with an environmental literacy credit. For Frederick County Public Schools, the curriculum runs from K-12 and is embedded in science and social study classes.
“The way that it looks at each of those elementary, middle and high schools are a little bit different because of the age of students,” said Eric Philips, curriculum specialist for elementary social studies at FCPS.
“The trend is growing,” said Sarah Kozicki, education program coordinator at the National Environmental Education Foundation.
Sharon Steger, a biology teacher at Middletown High School, engages her students in environmental education by taking her students on field trips to learn about the environment.
Recently, she took her students to Doubs Meadow Park to release trout she and her class have raised since January. Trout in the Classroom is an environmental education program for K-12 that allows students engage in stream habitat study and learn about ecosystems. Students got to jump in the Catoctin Creek and explore different organisms in the water, which is part of the Bridging the Watershed program by the Alice Ferguson Foundation. The program allows students to visit national parks in their area and collect data on water quality, runoff and sediment in the water and invasive plant species.
“It’s really good to educate these kids about what’s going on,” said Morgan Seeley, who works for Bridging the Watershed. “Because not only are they learning about the fish, but they’re also learning about our water quality and our water shed and the little benthic macros that live in (the stream).”
Kozicki said the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program, which recognizes schools and districts for reducing environmental impact, improving students’ health and providing environmental education, only in its second year, is helping teachers and students see the value.
“The environment is a topic that is compelling for students and can help prepare them to face complex 21st-century challenges and for green or STEM careers that will become more abundant,” Kozicki said.
Although teaching green isn’t the same in every classroom and some schools call it environmental education versus sustainability education, experts agree on the importance of providing some type of curriculum.
“No matter what you call it, I think that schools need to teach kids about human interdependence with other living things,” said Bonnie Tai, director of educational studies at the College of the Atlantic. “Students get to learn about their relationships with soil, microorganisms, water, plants, insects, fish, birds, et cetera.”
There are no national standards on what a green curriculum looks like, but the North American Association for Environmental Education has guidelines. For high school, it includes understanding an individual’s impact on the environment.
“As (students) go through their high school careers, there are various types of activities they can engage in,” Phillips said.
There’s a difference between teaching environmental education in a classroom and outside in a park.
“Students, I think, actually get more out of this experience than if we were reading it out of a textbook in a classroom,” Steger said.
Tenth-grader Andrew Klingensmith agrees.
“I learn better when it’s hands-on stuff, so other people probably do, too,” Klingensmith said.
As for early childhood education, the guidelines are similar to the guidelines for high school students, but it’s heavily focused on play exploration and the design of learning spaces, such as gardens.
Kindergarten teacher Molly Howard said it’s not teaching kids about global warming and air pollution but instead “we have kids learning to love the environment.”
Howard is a teacher at Mundo Verde, a public charter school in Washington that focuses on sustainability education through nature-based, hands-on activities — for example, visiting a park to discover its natural resources.
“That’s really the step that’s going to get them to be worried about other global problems when they’re old enough to internalize them and start to act on them,” said Howard.
Sometimes environmental education gets a bad name, said Howard, who holds a master’s degree in environmental management. But kids truly learn from proactive activities, she added.
“If you were to ask 20 kindergarten kids what they wanted to be doing, this is what they would say,” said Howard, “because kids are so curious at this age.”
The fact that environmental education is present at every level of education is proof that teaching green is a growing trend, said Christy Merrick, coordinator of the Early Childhood Environmental Education Alliance, which is part of the North American Association.