Environmental education in Rhode Island schools is proving to be an effective way of inspiring stewardship in young people, as seen through the efforts of schoolyard green spaces and gardens, and adding climate change in the curriculum. However, there are still boundaries being faced by those trying to provide access to environmental education to all groups of students.
Environmental education has largely focused on elementary and middle school student populations. Members of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA) voiced minor concerns about environmental education being incorporated into lessons at the end of middle school and throughout high school.
“I have found it easier to get access or to work with schools that are preschool or elementary … but when they get to middle school and high school, sometimes it’s a challenge when the teachers are specialized,” said Lisa Maloney, a Rhode Island Audubon Society educator and RIEEA board member. When classes begin to focus on a single subject with a specialized teacher, it seems less likely for environmental education to be incorporated into specific, set curriculum. Not to mention, younger students are more likely to go on field trips and takes classes outdoors for immersive experiences. “An elementary school teacher is much more likely to go outside for a half hour and think we can get ideas for poetry, we can talk about nature as science, and then they can think about fitting all those pieces together,” said RIEEA project manager Jeanine Silversmith. Specialized middle school and high school educators may have a harder time finding ways to make these connections within their disciplines.
Maloney states that although it’s a challenge, it’s a good challenge. The solution is to have more collaborative work among the different disciplines to provide environmental education. “I do think environmental education is very interdisciplinary, which is often the wonderful thing about it,” Maloney said. Within the school systems, interdisciplinary environmental education manifests as teachers and administrators working together to break down silos and provide holistic education for the students, something that could have positive impacts for students and faculty alike.
While there are challenges, there are also advantages to targeting these older age groups, one being a higher learning capacity as students progress through their schooling. Environmental education with younger age groups often entails simple connections to nature, which can be as easy as bringing lessons outdoors for students. But for Holland’s middle schoolers, the lessons can become more complex and in depth. “All the 8th graders have a pretty in-depth climate change unit at the end of the year, but it’s a history class so it’s more of policy, case studies, what’s happening around the world in different regions, how are they thinking about managing that in terms of going forward, mitigating, adapting,” Holland said.
As students reach these milestones and can form a more complex understanding of issues the environment faces, they can also turn to action. With parent permission, a decent showing of Moses Brown students attended the global climate strike in September of 2019. These types of actions can also lead to students further self-educating and advocating. Along the way, there are even populations of students that make connections to future careers. “When I think about environmental education with little kids, we’re not necessarily talking about careers, but when we’re talking about middle school and high school we get those connections to careers and that is really big,” Maloney said. As a Green Ribbon School, Moses Brown also shows that they’re working to help students make connections from their lessons in environmental education to sustainable jobs.
The sustainability committee at the Moses Brown School hopes to continue to focus on environmental literacy for students all the way from preschool through high school, with curriculum that builds upon their environmental learning through 12th grade. In creating this curriculum, Holland and the school’s sustainability committee aim to quantify what graduates should know, experience and understand as it relates to environmental awareness and climate change awareness. Mapping out a curriculum that tracks the experiences kids should have from nursery to 12th grade that relate to environmental education is the next step the school hopes to take.
As schools like Moses Brown continue to build upon their environmental education curriculum, RIEEA continues to work to break down boundaries and provide access to environmental education for all groups of students. With the current uncertainty of the COVID era, it’s also important to consider other ways environmental literacy can be formed outside of the school system, whether that be in the home or extracurricular activities. But with a basic understanding of environmental education that’s being provided within Rhode Island schools, students can begin to take their own initiative and make their own personal connections to outdoor spaces. Only through increasing access to environmental education and sustained connection and appreciation for the environment will we continue to see a generation motivated to create a climate stable future.