By Sara Windjue
What is environmental literacy? Why is it important? How are Door County schools doing?
Environmental literacy includes understanding how our world works, the impact we have on our environment, and how we can minimize that impact for the benefit of future generations. Environmental literacy means having a solid foundation of environmental concepts to make smart decisions throughout our lives. Environmental literacy makes sense, but it doesn’t happen automatically.
Luckily, environmental education is required in Wisconsin schools due to Wisconsin’s strong environmental history and legacy. State law requires that every school district develop a kindergarten through grade 12 sequential curriculum plan that includes environmental education objectives and activities. Teacher training includes understanding environmental education concepts and conservation of natural resources.
To assist, the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education (WCEE) at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources was established in 1990. The WCEE fosters environmental and social responsibility through the development, dissemination, implementation and evaluation of sustainability and environmental education programs in pK-12 schools and communities.
It’s important to remember that environmental education can take place indoors as well as outdoors. Spending time outside is important; students get fresh air, have space to run around, and learn firsthand about our natural resources. Inside, students learn how to use energy and water more efficiently in our homes, schools and communities, the importance of healthy indoor air quality and natural lighting, and how the waste we produce impacts the health of our environment.
Environmental education isn’t just learning about our natural resources. It includes how to be an involved citizen and make a difference in our communities. One program that allows students to take individual action and see collective results is the Cool Choices game. This game is available to the 300+ schools that have joined the Green & Healthy Schools Wisconsin program to reinforce their strong commitment to sustainability.
Cool Choices, a Madison-based nonprofit, has developed a fun, social and easy online game to help organizations and individuals adopt sustainable practices and get measurable results. During the last two years, more than 1,300 students from 46 schools have taken more than 30,000 individual and collective actions to save their schools and communities energy, water, fuel and money while reducing CO2 emissions that drive climate change. The actions taken through Cool Choices have prompted questions and encouraged discussions that help schools and communities become more sustainable.
Door County is doing very well!
For example: Gibraltar High School is the first school in Door County to become a Green and Healthy School. It is lucky to have Dave Tupa as a science teacher. In addition to teaching a wide variety of classes, he is the Ecology Club adviser. This club participates in the annual December Bird Count, the Strawberry Creek-Kewaunee River Aquatic Study, Earth Day and Arbor Day activities, builds and installs bird nest boxes, and partners with Door County Land Trust, The Ridges Sanctuary, Door County Invasive Species Team, Wisconsin Public Service, and Peninsula State Park on community environmental projects. Ecology Club members have built a greenhouse to grow greens for the school lunch program, placed recycle bins in all classrooms, and worked with the Varsity Letter Club to install a water bottle refilling station.
Southern Door County School District is another success story. Much of the environmental education is guided by a School Forest Education Plan funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Environmental Education Board. Southern Door has enlisted long-term volunteers Mike and Carrol Toneys, who lead nature hikes and oversee other educational activities in the school forest. They have helped raise funds for forest projects, including a nature center and sugar shack where students learn about the process of harvesting maple syrup.
Environmental education has been integrated across the curriculum at Southern Door including literature, art, history, physical education, and, of course, science. Hundreds of students are now more environmentally literate due to their educational experiences.
As recognized by the Wisconsin legislature in a bipartisan resolution this October, “Children who frequently spend time outdoors have significantly less stress, develop enhanced sensory perception, experience fewer attention difficulties and decreased rates of physical and emotional illness and obesity, and are more likely to become lifelong participants in Wisconsin’s rich outdoor traditions.”
Given this understanding, it is crucial that parents and our schools take the time to help children explore and appreciate nature.
Children who benefit from environmental education will return the favor many times over by helping us all lead more sustainable and healthy lives and by addressing environmental challenges like climate change in positive and effective ways.
Sara Windjue is an Energy Education Specialist , Wisconsin K-12 Energy Education Program (KEEP) at the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Her responsibilities include supporting technology and engineering educators in energy education, developing KEEP’s Building Science program, assisting schools interested in installing renewable energy systems, working with teachers to integrate energy education into their classes, and working with Cool Choices to encourage and motivate sustainable behaviors at the K-12 level through Green & Healthy Schools. She has a B.A. in Environmental Science and Biology from Adrian College and an M.S. in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].