Educating the Next Generation: Learning by Doing

By Jess Halvorsen with contributions from Tilly Pick

I am a child of the eighties. When I was young, recycling was too, and as I recall, the major environmental issues we were all concerned with were addressing the hole in the ozone layer and saving the whales. Happily, we’ve seen great strides on both topics in the past 30 years, as we’ve seen the Montreal Protocol in force and many whale populations rebounding. We’ve also seen recycling expanded broadly across the country, even as we become a more digital and a more disposables-oriented society. Now, of course, we grapple with the pressing recognized environmental issues of today, from climate change to e-waste and invasive species, and we anticipate the issues of the future. It was therefore with thoughts of the future that I arrived to listen to the presentations at BASG’s May 2 event related to the sustainability education of youth. How will they be grappling with the many sustainability issues of today and new ones we have yet to discover in the next 25 years, and what will they need to know to do so?

Without a crystal ball, it’s difficult to say precisely what will be most useful to know in order to address the environmental crises of the late 21st century. However, the presentations all suggested, in different ways, that a crystal ball may not be necessary, and that when it comes to environmental education, success may depend less on the subjects covered, and more on the process itself. The idea was crystallized by an image contributed by Eric Magers from Manchester Essex Regional School District: a “DOT wall”. DOT stands for “Do One Thing”, and the DOT wall in the picture was covered with pieces of paper documenting single things that a person will do to help the environment, like a wall of environmental New Year’s Resolutions. The primary importance of the DOT wall is the D: do. Not in a way that commands action from students, but that creates opportunity for taking action, owning projects, feeling the impact of their work.

Many, many things are needed to be done in order to address our current and future environmental challenges, and we as professionals shouldn’t think of students as metaphorical caterpillars working on becoming post-graduation butterflies. Students, as current consuming, contributing, citizens of their communities and the planet, and as current and future decision-makers, should not wait to start doing something. Whether they are college students, such as those who are supported by PLAN, the Post-Landfill Action Network, or grade school students, such as those who participate in “e” Inc programs, they have positive contributions to make, and thrive when they are given the freedom to explore and pursue what they want to do most. They will learn useful skills in the process, on a range from theoretical to tactical, such as perseverance, partnering, research, community engagement, mechanical design, or container composting. And what unites all of these things, and where the value of the educational experience lives, is action. When today’s students are adults, whether they are sustainability consultants, bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, or chefs, they will take the lessons of doing and an environmental ethic with them. People who are willing to change, lead projects, create consensus, and forge “a new normal”–even if, and perhaps, particularly if, they are not environmental professionals–will be our leaders in the future.

What also strikes me is that one need not be a parent or a teacher to help a student “do something” (though of course it helps!) And encouragement and empowerment to action need not be limited to young people. Do you know a young person or perhaps an adult who wants to do something positive? Can you as an expert help him or her to make it real?

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