Environmental Education a Key Focus In 1990’s ‘Earth Day’ Commemoration

By Robert Rothman — April 04, 1990 6 min read

Seeking to develop a new generation of environmentally aware schoolchildren, educators and environmental groups are making schools a key focus of attention in this month’s events commemorating the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.

In the past few weeks, national organizers of the event have sent to every school in the country curriculum materials suggesting activities students can perform in the classroom and at home.

Similar materials have been developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Wildlife Federation, and state education and environmental agencies, among other organizations.

In contrast to the “teach-ins” that characterized the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, which were aimed at making students aware of environmental issues, organizers note that the new materials generally focus on ways students can help solve problems such as pollution and contribute to energy conservation. The theme of the EPA’s materials, for example, is “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

“Since the first Earth Day,” said Marian Thompson, an adviser on Earth Day for the EPA, “we raised a generation for whom the words ‘environment’ and ‘ecology’ are part of their heritage.”

Now, she said, “we want to recommit ourselves to do what needs to be done throughout the 1990’s.”

If they are successful, predicted Abby Ruskey, curriculum coordinator for Earth Day 1990, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based organizers of the event, teachers will have helped nurture among students environmentally sound habits that will continue long past April 22, 1990.

“If we instill in kids at an early age an awareness of the problems, and the idea that they can do something about them,” Ms. Ruskey said, “the ‘rollover effect’ is going to be pretty profound.”

Heightened Awareness

Organized by the environmental activist Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day is widely considered to be the event that sparked the nationwide environmental movement.

On that day, millions of Americans joined rallies in support of environmental causes, held “eco-tours” of spoiled and unspoiled wilderness lands, and conducted “teach-ins” on environmental issues.

In the wake of such involvement, the federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency and the Congress passed landmark clean-air and clean-water legislation.

This year’s Earth Day celebration--also organized by Mr. Hayes--is played out against a backdrop of heightened awareness of environmental issues, noted Ms. Ruskey.

As a result, she said, students and teachers are eager for the materials that the environmental groups are providing.

“It has struck a chord that seems real live,” she said. “Kids are asking a lot of questions right now, and teachers want to do something with the future generation.”

“For us, it has been exciting,” Ms. Ruskey added. “I don’t think we expected the response we’re getting.”

The national organization’s materials, developed by educators from California, were mailed during the last two weeks in March to every public, private, and parochial school in the country, and to every science and environmental-education teacher.

Home Surveys

Each packet includes a lesson plan, a home survey for students, and follow-up materials, including a list of resources for teachers.

For grades K-6, the curriculum is designed around four major environmental issues: water, toxic waste, energy, and solid waste and recycling.

The lesson plans provide background on the issues that teachers can present in classrooms in preparation for Earth Day, according to Ms. Ruskey.

But the key, she suggested, is the home survey, which asks students to examine how their households’ daily practices contribute to environmental problems and to possible solutions.

“We hope that students, together with their parents, can see how the practices of their families affect the environment,"she said.

For example, among other questions, the survey asks children to examine whether their garbage includes non-biodegradable materials or items that can be recycled, and to gauge the extent of their families’ energy use.

For grades 7-12, the materials focus on transportation, in addition to the four areas in the elementary materials.

In addition, the secondary materials ask students in the home survey to perform calculations as well as observations, to add to its educational value. For example, the survey asks students to count light bulbs, estimate how often they are on, convert that estimate to energy usage, and translate such usage into cost.

The additional questions posed a challenge for the curriculum writers, noted Ms. Ruskey.

“We wanted calculations, but at the same time we didn’t want it so dry that kids couldn’t relate to it,” she said.

Aiming for the Mainstream

Ms. Ruskey also noted that the materials are aimed at the “mainstream” and have steered clear of many of the more controversial environmental issues.

“It was written to be nonconfrontational,” she said. “It was meant to be accurate and to broaden knowledge.”

She noted, however, that a New England electric company that helped underwrite the project questioned a passage that cited possible dangers associated with nuclear energy. Despite the firm’s concerns, however, Ms. Ruskey said, the company “decided to print the materials anyway.”

The organizers’ attempt to aim for the mainstream, she added, was also intended to make the materials relevant for students from all backgrounds. As a result, she said, they have been embraced throughout this country, and have been made available for use in Canada, Japan, Australia, and France.

“Wherever the curriculum has been used, it has been successful,” Ms. Ruskey said. “Kids really latch onto this stuff.”

‘Not Just Science’

Like the Earth Day materials, the curriculum being prepared by the EPA also stresses what students can do to help prevent pollution, according to Ms. Thompson.

The EPA materials, which are expected to be available in mid-April, suggest activities for classrooms throughout the curriculum, including music, art, and physical-education classes, as well as English, social studies, and science.

“We know how children learn, and what they learn,” Ms. Thompson said. “The environmental component is not just ‘science.”’

In addition to the curricular materials, the agency has also prepared a poster, which was distributed to science teachers, and a videotape and brochure on Earth Day.

Several agency officials will also spend April 22 speaking at schools in the Washington area, Ms. Thompson noted.

“That’s a departure from the norm,” she pointed out.

‘Wildlife Week’

Other national organizations, notably the National Wildlife Federation, have also created school-related programs to commemorate Earth Day.

Although the federation’s major Earth Day curriculum effort is aimed at the collegiate level, the organization also has prepared materials for elementary and secondary schools as part of its annual “Wildlife Week” events.

The school materials include teachers’ guides for elementary and middle schools that contain background information on pollution, habitats, and energy, as well as suggested activities on these issues.

To emphasize students’ responsibilities for solving problems, the materials suggest that they sign a pledge against pollution, write letters to political leaders, and conduct an “energy audit” at home.

Educators’ ‘Obligation’

In addition to the national efforts, several states and school districts have also prepared Earth Day-related materials and events.

In Connecticut, for example, the commissioner of environmental protection and the commissioner of education last week held a joint press conference to unveil a package of educational kits that will be distributed to 15,000 elementary and high-school science teachers throughout the state.

“Educators have an obligation to instill the knowledge and values which will prepare our youngsters to manage the earth’s limited resources,” said Commissioner of Education Gerald N. Tirozzi.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 1990 edition of Education Week as Environmental Education a Key Focus In 1990’s ‘Earth Day’ Commemoration