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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Higher levels of environmental literacy in K-12 public schools support student requests for more climate action across the state and connects them to local sustainability projects. 

K-12 students call for climate action, teachers take lessons outside

Although students’ local environments are different, being a part of the Earth’s ecological system is something that every student shares. No matter where a student attends school — be it northwest or southeast Wisconsin — all students inevitably interact with their surrounding environment everyday. 

More than a week ago, high school students from Milwaukee affiliated with the Alliance for Climate Education met with their legislators to ask for more sustainable policies during Conservation Lobby Day. 

More than a month ago, K-12 students from across Madison marched to the Capitol in the national Youth Climate Strike. 

More than a year ago, the Department of Public Instruction updated the required K-12 environmental literacy public school standards for the first time in 20 years to better integrate sustainability lessons holistically throughout the curriculum. 

Students across the state are taking action toward creating a more sustainable future.

“We will not sit idly by while the environment is destroyed by the inaction of our leaders,” Middleton High School senior Max Prestigiacomo said at the Youth Climate Strike rally. “We have the numbers, we have the courage and we have the science all on our side.”

While many agree there is more work to be done, Brad Hoge, director of teacher support at the National Center for Science Education, believes students are fighting for more information about their futures to make change. 

“There's this really powerful energy right now in the youth movement around the world in terms of students protesting and asking for action from climate change,” Hoge said. “They're asking about their futures and it's kind of the first generation that can see their future — it's going to be different than their current situation.”

The Environmental Literacy and Sustainability standards revised by the DPI in 2018 aim to prepare students, answer their questions and support action. 

Wisconsin is one of four states to include standards in this area and is additionally unique in its aims to blend the lessons outside of a traditional science class setting, according to Victoria Rydberg, an environmental education and service learning consultant for the DPI. 

The new standards have three broad themes — connect, explore and engage — which Rydberg said intend to give teachers a wider platform to expand environmental literacy lessons out of the typical biology setting into subjects like art, history and social studies.

“This is for all kids and all teachers, this is for kids who live on pavement and have no grass around them, and this is for kids who live in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest,” Rydberg said. “Environment isn't away, environment isn't something that you have to get on a bus and drive to, environment is where we live and learn everyday.”

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Current initiatives to get students outside

In attempt to connect students to their local communities, the DPI bonds classrooms with sustainability outreach programs, like the Wisconsin Green Schools Network, to support stewardship projects. 

In one of the program’s current projects, students work with a river near their school to improve the trout population, and another group is constructing storm drains to remind the community that anything that goes down the storm drains comes out in the local waterway. 

“You can't often make sense of what is happening globally if you do not understand what is happening locally, so starting with that sense of place is important,” Rydberg said.

Experts also point to data that shows a correlation between increased student engagement and time spent outside of the classroom. 

Taking students to accessible places like their local forest allows them to connect with their own place rather than something most haven’t experienced but is often taught, like the rainforest, according to Sandy Benton, Director of School Services for the WGSN.  

“When you start saying ‘Okay, it's time to wrap up, let’s go back in,’ the slow walk of students to line up and get into the building can be a bit anxiety-producing for the teachers who need to stay to a schedule, but it just brings the stress and anxiety level of the students way down,” Benton said. “You see at the end of the lesson that they are much more relaxed and mentally aware.” 

However, teaching outside — and about environmental literacy — can create complications for teachers who have hesitations about teaching outside of the comfort of their classrooms. 

Teaching teachers whose ideologies doubt climate change 

Benton explained WGSN partners with teachers to help co-plan lessons in order to decrease stress that arises if teachers are not used to an outside classroom routine.

While this helps reduce complications for teachers who are interested in implementing the new standards, it does not address those who have not been educated about climate change themselves or whose ideologies do not align with the science. 

Surveys from the National Center for Science Education found about 60 percent of teachers avoid environmental education lessons because they report having their own misconceptions or incomplete knowledge.

“[Incomplete knowledge] is kind of an innocent form of misconception … but in climate change there's also the ideology and teachers ideologies line up fairly similarly across the spectrum of the rest of the country,” Hoge said.

Data collected by George Mason University and Yale University's Center for Climate Communication found 20 percent of Americans actively deny climate change, with another 20 percent who have doubts about the legitimacy — meanwhile, 97 percent of scientists who believe climate change is real and caused by humans. 

Hoge pointed out that teachers, just like anyone else, can fall into this 40 percent, creating disconnects in the classroom when incorporating environmental education. 

However, Hoge is hopeful educating teachers themselves about the evidence behind climate change is the way to remove this classroom barrier, rather than fighting about opinion through debate.

“What we do with teachers is try to get them to look at the best evidence that is pretty, pretty incontrovertible, in terms of the only explanation for the evidence would be the human greenhouse effect,” Hoge explained. “As they work through that evidence, or they have their students work through that evidence, that becomes the only possible explanation and it's obvious how scientists would have come to that consensus.”

This fails, however, to address the relationship between students and their parent’s job security. Hoge said teachers must be considerate of students whose parents jobs may be impacted by climate change regulations — no teacher aims to make a student feel concerned about the economic stability of their parent’s job by teaching about fields like coal production, which release toxic emissions like mercury.  

Looking into the future of sustainability action, mitigation 

Many experts find the job market is increasing within sustainable businesses, and Hoge believes educating students would decrease anxieties. 

“There’s businesses that produce dirty energy that would emit mercury, and there’s businesses that wouldn’t emit that because they’re doing renewable energy,” said Gregory Nemet, a professor at the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. “Right now, there are a lot more jobs in renewable and clean energy than there are in dirty energy.”

Experts believe becoming more conscious about our choices will allow us to move toward a more sustainable future, and education is a first step.

“We know that we are impacting climate, we know that this is going on, and it will continue as long as we're putting carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. So now, what do we do about it?” Hoge said. “And that's where education comes in … people realize that, yes, this is a real problem, but there are solutions and we can do things about this.”

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