The Role of Environmental Science in Global Education
The following was written for a my class on "Critical Issues in Science Education" in the Fall of 1997.



Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and philosopher, maintained that he was not merely a citizen of Rome, but of the World.  Global educators seek to instill a similar philosophy in the students of this planet by communicating those problems and issues which cut across national boundaries.  Global education focuses on the interconnectedness of systems in many interrelated areas: ecological, economic, political, technological, religious, cultural, and educational.  As science teachers we have an tremendous role to play in delivering the message in many of the aforementioned areas.

Robert Muller (1989) describes how he sees the situation: A new phase of evolution seems to be approaching, similar to the Copernican revolution -namely, the realization that this world was not created for humans, but that humans were created as living, perceiving, active units (p. 286).

Because lack of instructional time is often cited as obstacle to incorporating global education into the tradition curriculum, the typical approach has been to integrate lessons into the existing subjects such as literature and language arts (Pinar, 1995).  However, the sciences are ripe for creating a more holistic view of the world by emphasizing principles of nature which are "universal" in application.  Students can recognize how environmental damage in one area is not isolated, it often reaches far beyond the boundaries of nations and comes back to haunt polluters and innocent generations to come (Pinar, 1995).  The depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, and pollution of the oceans are all examples of the problems tomorrow's students and their as yet unborn children will have to deal with.

Events such as Earth Day are opportunities to involve the class in civic projects for the school or in the community.  Case studies show that following a theme can be a highly successful staring point for formal, subject-based learning or a unifying element in topic work (Palmer, 1994).  Even such seemingly simple and "trite" activities as planting trees on the school grounds can be turned into semester or year-long educational tools.  Monitoring the growth of the trees through the seasons or under different soil conditions, fertilizers, etc. could introduce students to practical applications of environmentalism in a meaningful way.  Palmer and Neal emphasize that first-hand experiences of the environment are essential elements of teaching and learning.

One curriculum supplement suggests strategies for an interdisciplinary approach to environmental education. Educational exercises involving research, information gathering, and letter writing (such as to local newspapers, governmental officials, etc.) could be assigned in conjunction with language arts teachers.  Applications such as graphing (bar, line, and pie) and averaging could be coincide with lessons from student's math classes.  Social studies and geography skills are necessary to read maps and understand cultural and economic issues relating to the environment.

In addition, environmental science has the advantage over many other branches of science in that it has a prominent historical component.  While the voyage of the Beagle is an interesting story independent of its place in the history of biology, current events are far more likely to capture students attention than what might come across as dated tales in a classroom setting.  Palmer and Neal (1994) point out that key events in the past half century have increased our awareness as a society.  From Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb to Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to New York's infamous garbage barge to the Exxon Valdez to Saddam Hussein's oil fires in the Middle East, there will probably be no end to the topics which could be covered in an environmental science classroom.  Current events connect lessons to students' lives.  They are motivated to learn the science because it is something that relates to their daily experience.  A weekly class period could be set aside for a "current event" session in which students are assigned the task of bringing in articles from the newspaper (or other media, including the internet).  Students would present and interpret their articles then defend their position on the issue using the science covered in the course.

Environmental science engages students in its lessons by bringing in the moral implications for mankind's actions.  Students will be amazed to find that the world is not nearly so black and white as they thought it once was through activities such as debate teams and research projects.

DeBoer (1991) describes how socially relevant problems might be used as the organizing principles rather than the discipline itself.  Social relevance and calls for scientific literacy led to the creation of the science-technology-society approach in the 1970's and 1980's.  The move abandoned the "science for its own sake" approach and made science popular with non-college bound students.  The "easier" subject matter reportedly flooded schools with supposedly less able students. (p. 234)

Another way to connect with students is take advantage of opportunities for field trips to nearby industrial and waste management plants who welcome students with open arms.  The public relations sector of industry is more than happy to improve public perception by demonstrating that a positive (or at least a not terribly destructive effect) on the environment.

Furthermore, environmental science is the ideal course in which to utilize guest speakers from the community.  Nearly every unit typical covered in an environmental science class will provide the opportunity to bring in authoritative professionals from the petroleum industry, sanitation departments, and water treatment facilities.  These individuals can provide fresh instruction from the perspective of industry and explain how they deal with environmental issues daily in their jobs.

Meeting with these professionals and examining the issues could increase students' awareness that there is a fortune to be made in engineering ways of reducing waste and cleaning up emissions of large industry.  Even greater rewards will be reaped by those who can actually patent original means to turn waste into profit.  Today's students could have a significant role in turning the tide of pollution left by decades of apathy.

However, the National Forum on Technology and Science Goals state that the level of scientific literacy is not where it should be in order to conduct an informed dialogue.  They suggest that we work from the ground up in educating citizens that they may participate in this dialogue.  The Forum goes on to recommend that educators strive to engender environmental protection as a social value, to "create a country in which every private citizen has a public responsibility and feels that responsibility in a direct way." (412)

Numerous global approaches to environmental science emphasize this ethical element in their curriculum.  Palmer and Neal (1994) report that one of the three goals set in the 1977 Tbilisi Conference was to "create new patters of behavior of individuals, groups and society as a whole towards the environment." (p. 18)  One of the four "elements" of the Scottish Education Department's programme (sic) of environmental education is the Ethical element, that students are introduced to "the idea of personal responsibility for the environment and to the concept of stewardship." (p. 20)  This goes above and beyond the objective and morally neutral approach traditionally taken in the science curriculum.

Nebel and Wright's (1991) secondary environmental science text focusses heavily on ethical issues throughout each chapter.  They include "Ethics boxes" in which such hot button topics as AIDS and abortion are tackled from the point of view of their effect on our global community.  The authors credibly ask the question of whose religion is right in terms of what the ecological effect of birth control and the lack thereof would be to this planet.  It is clearly an interesting approach to what might easily be regarded dry science.

In short, environmental science should not be viewed as the "easy" credit for those non-college bound students who need one last science credit before they graduate.  It is training for "citizenship to the world" rather than just another Carnegie unit.  It may even induce them to impose some influence on economic entities to recognize their responsibility to the environment.

Environmental science is the one course in students will have in high school in which the synergy between biology and chemistry can be explored.  It is the most "real" science elective many students will ever have in that it is most directly related to their lives.  It teaches students to pass through their existence leaving as minimal an impact on this planet as possible through principles of conservation and recycling.

Our world is dominated by science, therefore science can not be left out of education.  Additionally, social relevance has become a standard by which we measure the quality of science education.  Deboer points out that it is widely believed that education in every culture and at every time should relate to the basic needs are purposes of that culture.


References
Allman, S. Audean, O.W. Kopp, David L. Zufelt.  Environmental Education: A Promise for the Future.  American Press, United States. 1981.

DeBoer, George E.  A History of Ideas in Science Education.  Teachers College Press, United States.  1991.

Bowler, Peter J. The Norton History of Environmental Science. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York.  1992.

Muller, Robert. (1989) "A World Core Curriculum." Social Education, vol 53 (5), 284-286.

National Research Council. Linking Science and Technology to Society's Environmental Goals.  National Academy Press, Washington, DC.  1996.

Palmer, Joy and Philip Neal. The Handbook of Environmental Education.  Routledge, New York.  1994.

Pinar, William F. Understanding Curriculum. 1995.


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