In Conversation With…features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. Elizabeth Schmitz is the executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council (KEEC), which recently released Land, Legacy and Learning IV, its 2015-2020 environmental education master plan. The master plan outlines goals for advancing environmental literacy throughout Kentucky, including in Kentucky schools.
Q: First, could you define environmental education?
A: It is a way of teaching students how to think, not what to think, using the environment as a context or a theme for learning. Environmental education is also defined in KRS 157.905.
Q: How has KEEC’s master plan, Land, Legacy and Learning, changed in the last five years?
A: The Kentucky Environmental Literacy Plan (KELP) has been developed and implemented. We are one of the few states that is in the implementation phase of an environmental literacy plan. The Education Department wanted KELP implemented to help with the new science standards.
However, environmental education is not just about science education. It is a way to teach across all disciplines. One of the things we hope to do is help K-12 teachers and administrators understand the benefits of using environmental education across all content areas for learning.
KEEC also has aligned our professional environmental education certification with the requirements for national accreditation. Another thing that has happened recently, in the same category as aligning national accreditation standards, is that my agency, with the support of the Environmental Literacy Plan implementation advisory team, has aligned the national guidelines for environmental education for K-12 learning with the common core standards. Our goal was to show teachers and administrators how you can use the environment to teach science and to teach math and to meet state learning standards in a way that is concrete and engaging.
Q: Your organization has helped develop an Environmental Education endorsement for teachers?
A: Yes, it is offered at five of the eight state universities and also at Midway College. Teachers can apply the 12-credit endorsement toward their Rank 1.
Q: How are schools implementing KELP?
A: KELP has seven overarching goals. We set up the plan to be like a Chinese restaurant menu, where schools or school districts can choose elements that seem most readily accessible or easiest to implement.
Q: Are there ways school board members can help advance environmental education?
A: They can advocate within their school district for development of district or school-wide environmental literacy plans that that school district can adopt and move forward with. We don’t have any schools that have developed their own environmental literacy plan yet and that is something I hope to accomplish in the next five years. I’d like to have examples of school- developed plans to share.
We would like for more school boards to become aware of the endorsement program for teachers and have them encourage their teachers to participate. Board members can also help advocate for students to go outside and learn and participate in outdoor learning experiences.
Q: Describe how those outdoor learning experiences can make a difference in learning.
A: Suppose you ask a student to write an essay as they sit within the four walls of the classroom. It might not have the same vivid detail compared to having them write as they sit outside under a tree or next to a wetland where they can see what is happening around them – the plants, dragonflies and water.
Q: What are the benefits, in your view, of environmental education?
A: A big benefit is the level of excitement, enthusiasm and engagement students display when the environment is used as a context for learning. Teachers tell me they see students working together who have never worked well together before; they see kids performing better than ever before. Environmental education can tap into the different ways that kids learn. It provides an opportunity for those who learn by doing to shine. Teachers say they have seen students thrive who struggled in the traditional classroom. Of course, as an educator in an environment of state-based testing, there is the real-world context of environmental education and how it helps students not only learn difficult concepts about science, math, language arts and social studies, but also to integrate those experiences and understand those concepts in a deeper way than if they were learning with pen-and-pencil exercises out of a book.
Q: Can you describe some ways that teachers are using environmental education across the curriculum?
A: One popular tool is school gardens. At Cane Run Elementary in Jefferson County, there is a pizza garden, a round garden bed divided into pie pieces. The teacher can use the garden to teach fractions or, in planting other sections of garden, she can have students figure out how many seeds go in a certain bed to teach measurement. At Kit Carson Elementary in Madison County, Vivian Bowles, who is the Kentucky Science Teachers Association’s Elementary Science Teacher of the Year, uses gardening to teach interconnections, which are a big deal in the new science standards.
Q: What might prevent teachers from implementing environmental education?
A: Sometimes they don’t want to teach about the environment because they fear it will be too controversial. Many think environmental education is about pushing a particular environmental agenda; it is not. We teach our environmental educators to help students explore the different sides of issues and then help them come to their own conclusions about them.
Q: Describe some ways your organization is helping teachers use environmental education in their classrooms.
A: A lot of teachers don’t feel prepared to implement the next-generation science standards. One thing we can offer is professional development that helps teachers feel better able to meet the intent of the standards and do so in an authentic, real-world setting through environmental education. We are developing units of study to share with teachers and are working with the Department of Education to make sure they are accurately correlated to the learning standards.
We use a lot of national educational curricula. Part of what we are trying to do is help teachers gain access to curricula that are already laid out and are easy to pick up and use.
Q: You also hope to create some peer groups, where teachers can discuss issues and challenges they face in implementing environmental education?
A: Yes, working with the Department of Education, we want to set up regional groups so environmental educators and K-12 teachers can come together and talk about environmental education. Part of our goal would be to have an online platform for continued discussion.
Q: One way to advance environmental education, you say, could be through partnerships with schools?
A: We are trying to leverage dollars by partnering with schools and school districts and other governmental and nonprofit organizations. If schools are interested in doing pilot projects and want to partner with us on grant applications or finding low-cost or no-cost ways to implement environmental education with our support, I would love to partner with them.
Q: Can you talk about the goal to expand the pre-K environmental program?
A: This falls in line with what is happening at the national level and in Kentucky. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) has rolled out guidelines for excellence in early childhood environmental education. Now that we have national guidelines available, we aim to provide training and resources to early childhood providers. The state affiliate of NAAEE, the Kentucky Association for Environmental Education (KAEE), is the lead for that goal; it received a grant from Toyota Motor Manufacturing for training educators and is rolling out those workshops.
Q: You have some 260 schools enrolled in the Green and Healthy Schools program, and one of your goals is to help those enrolled advance and earn their Green and Healthy Schools flag. Do you also hope to enroll more schools in the program?
A: Yes, KEEC supports the goal of having at least one green school in every county by 2030.
Q: Describe your goal to verify, through research, the success of environmental education.
A: We would like to partner with schools to get quantifiable, verifiable data about environmental education and how it is helping teachers meet their learning targets. If schools are interested in partnering with us or one of the universities that has a Center for Environmental Education, we are ready to take that on.
Q: What can schools do if they want learn more about how to implement environmental education?
A: They are welcome to contact me. I also have teachers at all grade levels who can talk to administrators and boards about how environmental education has helped them meet their goals for learning.