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How Should Schools Teach Kids About Sustainable Living?


What's the best way to teach children about today's environmental challenges? What are some of the creative things schools are doing around the country to teach kids about sustainable living practices? We speak to the Creative Director for the Center for Ecoliteracy about some of the innovative programs they are working on with schools across the nation.

Karen Brown will be giving a lecture on "Smart by Nature: Sustainability in the Classroom" tonight at 6:30 at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

What's the best way to teach children about today's environmental challenges? What are some of the creative things schools are doing around the country to teach kids about sustainable living practices? We speak to the Creative Director for the Center for Ecoliteracy about some of the innovative programs they are working on with schools across the nation.


Karen Brown, Creative Director for the Center for Ecoliteracy

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. It takes more than lessons in reading and arithmetic to get kids ready to be adults in the 21st century, that's why more schools are developing plans, lessons, and programs in ecological and sustainable living. It's called the green schooling movement, and a leader in that effort is the center for ecoliteracy. More than 400 communities are taking part in the center's smart by nature program, and here to tell us about it is my guest, Karen brown, creative director for the center of ecoliteracy. Good morning Karen.

BROWN: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: That's a great title. Creative director for the center of ecoliteracy. So do you come up with these plans and programs for schools?

BROWN: Well, my job really has tree parts. One part, of course, is -- might be in the field of what any creative director would do. Which is, I'm responsible for the look and the feel of a lot of the things in the center. Creates because it's part of our pedagogy, we try to model attractive or beautiful things that we think ought to be in classrooms. Then I also have the opportunity to do things like this, to go out and meet people, including educators and school administrators, and perhaps the most exciting or rewarding part of what I do, is to find projects or work being done in schools, sometimes by teachers, sometimes by the students themselves, and be able to showcase that work. Which is something that I'll be talking about this evening at the San Diego natural history museum.

CAVANAUGH: Right, you're going to be speaking tonight at 6:30 at the San Diego natural History Museum in Balboa Park. I want to invite our listeners to join our conversation. If they'd like to talk about ways of getting kids involved in the green movement, sustainable living, learning any ecology, or what they'd like to see happening in the schools, give us a call with your thoughts, at 1-888-895-5727. Karen, there's so much talk about the environment and.

Q. Green. One wonders if there's anything left to teach kids about sustainable living practices. What can the schools do to do that? Are kids already pretty well up to speed on the necessity of all this?

BROWN: Well, I would say it varies quite a bit around the country. But if there's anything that characterizes what we would call schooling for sustainability, it's the diversity of approaches 678 in fact, you could actually say it's a universe of methods and environments that support ecological literacy. You know, a big part of ecological literacy is understanding education that's place based, because every environment is so different, every ecosystem is so different. So what works in Maine is not going to work, for example, in negotiation. Or what can be a huge success in California might not be applicable in Wisconsin or Hawaii or some place like that. So there's actually four principles that we've distilled after about 20 years of working with schools, and for our book, smart by nature, we researched a hundred and 50 schools around the concern. All those approaches are different, but there's four principles that really stood out, that we think any school or educational community could use.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what are those principles.

BROWN: Well, the first one is that nature is our teacher, and by that, we mean to be observant of the ways that nature sustains life. Which is primarily by working in networks and communities. Also that the real word is the optimal learning environment, and by real world, we mean not just experience in nature, but all that hands on, project based, real time three dimensional kind of learning and activities that students can do, not pure academic learning be but real practical stuff or learning about the world in tangible kinds ways.

THE COURT: Give us an example, can you?

BROWN: Yeah, there's one thing that we'll be talking about tonight, which is a project that's just so good it's gone all the way around the world, basically. And it came from us, of all things, from a science teacher in England who was tasked with creating electronic scores in his will 62, and it's one of the kinds of things that I love the most in education, where the teacher is barely one step ahead of the students, he's learning right along with them. He had no idea how to do what he wanted to do, but he invented this wind turbine that kids can --

CAVANAUGH: A wind turbine.

BROWN: A wind turbine that kids can make, that generates electricity, and it's made out of recycled cans, and he got the idea by watching a hamster wheel that had been rigged to run a night light, right? It's such a traffic project, and the kids are learning again, by observing nature, network their turbines together, and they're remember charging batteries and seeing how much they can generate. Well, we liked it so much that we took it with us last summer we cohosted an all island conference there in Hawaii, and the teachers there were more enthusiastic about it than I ever could have imagined 678 it was like put the wind turbine on the table and stand back, 'cause they really wanted at it. And you could say, well, why? What was specific to the environment in Hawaii that this was such a winning project? Well, did you know that 90 percent of the energy in Hawaii is imported?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, no, I didn't, actually.

BROWN: Mostly from the form of diesel fuel.

THE COURT: Uh-huh.

BROWN: So when you turn on your light in your hotel room in Hawaii, you're burning diesel. Also something that's big in the news all the time right now in Hawaii is there's palettes of shrink wrap garbage piling on docks over there, there's no more landfill in Hawaii, they want to ship their garbage over here, and now we don't want it anymore either. So it's become a huge sanitation and political issue in Hawaii. So a project like this little wind turbine that generates electricity, draws from that same waste stream, right, that's piling up, because it uses recycled material, and it's small, so it doesn't tear up coastline or ridge line like the big turbines, and if preserves their environment. And it's so simple that even a child can make it? That really resonated with the educators there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I can see why. That's very exciting. I'm speaking with Karen brown, and she's creative direct offer of proof for the center of ecoliteracy. She has two more important pillars to the project to tell us about. But first I want to take a call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. If you'd like to call us what role do you think schools play in educates kids about sustainable living, and the number is 1-888-895-5727. Robert is calling us from Temecula. Good morning, Robert, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. And a very topical -- very topical for me, my family and my friends. So I'm very happy to see that you're covering this this morning. And Karen, welcome, thank you for coming to the show. You're very informative. I left my number with someone there, if you can call me afterwards, I'm working on a project that I think you might be interested in as well. My comment is I recently found out that the state of Washington has some -- a department of ecology that we don't have in California nor and Oregon, and I'm kind of wondering, because I recently went up the coast, all the way up to cab da, spent a few days in Oregon and Washington, and their freeways, roadways are extremely clean. In comparison to California's, to be honest with you, is somewhat embarrassing, when I hook at our roadways, it seems that people have more respect for the ecosystem up there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you think we need one of those departments here in California?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, you know what? It's very possible and plausible to have it here. I'm just wondering why we don't have that. Because we profess to be one of the best nations -- one of the best states in the country, as far as protecting resources, but yet we don't have a director of ecology. So what are your comments on that?

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, thank you Robert.

NEW SPEAKER: You're welcome.

BROWN: Well, I think that would be wonderful. And something that we're working on, really, in education, specifically, is what constitutes leadership. It's a great idea to have anything that we really care about, be represented at all levels of governance, and at the same time, we want to make that as local as possible. And one thing like an example like the wind turbines, it's something everybody can have. Because you don't need a lot of structure, everybody could have these on top of every telephone pole, and on top of their roof, and things like that. Also at the center we consider what constitutes good leadership sometimes really it's just about creating the conditions. So that creativity can really thrive in the group. So I think what you're talking about is great, I can't tell you why such a thing doesn't exist, but I would support it also. And what I do want is a generation of leaders, if we can possibly produce that, rather than isolating the function just at one level of government.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, because if you have a good idea but you don't have the leadership to put it into place, it's almost like not having a good idea in the first mace. You were gonna tell us about the two --

BROWN: Two more. One is that sustainability is a community practice, which is a little bit what I've just been referring to, it's not a solo act. And this something that I think is a lot in the dialogue all around the country right now because we're talking so much about what are individual said responsible if, and what's the government responsible for? And in our national character, there's so much about being an individual, right? Stand on your own two feet, pull yourself up by your boot straps, we have entrepreneurs and pioneers and all of that, and I don't think there's any way we can or should lose that from our national character. But at the same time, in looking toward sustainability, we really do have to look at what makes whole systems survive and thrive, and it does have to do with learning how to collaborate more cooperatively.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's very interesting.

BROWN: And the last is that sustainability is rooted in a deep knowledge of place. I think we talked about that, but kids spend about 98 percent of their time in doors these days, and it's very hard to care about a planet that you never see.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. I'm speaking with Karen brown. She's director or the Center of Ecoliteracy, we're about talking about the center's smart by nature program, and Karen will be giving a lecture here tonight at the San Diego natural history museum. Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727: Susan is on the line from Santee, good morning, Susan, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. And thank you for this very important topic. I'm a professor of geography at Cuyamaca college, and we are in the process of starting a project hopefully this year call would the tree frog project. We are doing place based learning, and we are restoring tree frog habitats on our college campuses, and El Capitan high school in Lakeside. And I'm so I'm just thrilled that you're here, you know, talking to us about this project, and the importance of place based learning. Our students, we're gonna be focusing on not just the tree frogs but water resources management on the campuses too in terms of storm water pollution.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And thank you, Suzanne, and in the process, getting out of doors, which is one of those things that you're talking about. Karen, what are some of the challenges that educators can face, when they're trying to teach today's kids about sustainability, and green ideas?

BROWN: Well, you know, one of the biggest challenges they face is really a generic one right now, which has to do with how standardized tests work, and all of that kind of stuff in school, it's probably the number one thing we hear about from teachers is how to teach, almost in entity of the standards, because right now, particularly in peculiar schools, teachers be spending a lot of time just preparing for their test, and then administering the test. And project based learning is one of those things -- you don't just fill in a little thing with a no. 2 pencil. So there is a big structure right now around testing and standards that can be difficult. I think here's what I think is great about it, though, and why sometimes it's easy. Is particularly, in the lower grades, kids respond so quickly. All you really need to do is put the seed in the cup on the window sill, and when they see that come up, part of that miraculous nature unfolds for them, and the questions start throwing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I thought you were using a metaphor. But you're not.


CAVANAUGH: You're talking reality, put the seed on the window sill.

BROWN: And so there's something with urban schools where there might not be -- even if they any out doors, they're on paved surfaces or something lick that. Somehow, even with no billion, everybody can afford a packet of seeds, right? There's a way to start to expose children to how nature functions, and what some of those aspects are.

CAVANAUGH: Ivez is calling us from San Diego. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. Good morning, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. I just wanted to make a comment. About project based learning. There's a local -- well, tell actually, it's international, but it's a program called Microsociety, and it's where they educate kids, it's endorsed by the principal, where young kids get to learn how to do real life jobs and tasks like running banks and counting money, running shops, and it's like a little program where they have, like, a certain period, and they actually exchange microsociety money. It's a really neat program. But a couple of years ago, I sat on the panel, as a local sustainpability expert talking with different things that we can introduce to these principals that participate in this program, and one of the ideas was teaching them about running little green businesses, so they actually learn about farms, solar companies, they learn about various other types of things. And it was really a lot of fun. The educators really picked up on it, and a lot of them took it back to their schools, to implement it in the microsociety program.

CAVANAUGH: Ivez, thank you for telling us that. I want to get Karen's reaction.

BROWN: I knowledge it's great. And if you have a chance to come by tonight to the museum and hear the lecture, there's a really fabulous example that I'm gonna be talking about. Probably one of the best garden programs in the country, which is Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast Maine. Those kids have a lot of business going on with their gardening. They not only sell to the local organic co-ops in town. But they have a seventh grade economics program, that's built all around agriculture. And those kids are trained how to use quick books and excel, and they get to go with their teachers with a business idea and sit down at a community bank and be counselled, yeah, on real -- footage if you had been 12 or 13 and you got real financial counseling with someone telling you, this could be viable. And this may be something the community would want to invest in. So by the time you're 18 or 22, you're ready to launch a business, you've already had ten years of business background, absolutely fantastic. All in organic agriculture.

CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls, and I'm speaking with Karen brown, she's creative director for the center of ecoliteracy. Katie is on the line from pal mar. Good morning, Katie, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thanks for taking my call. I'd like to first agree with the gentleman before that said that other states are obviously a lot more involved in their ecologies, and have their State Departments and all that kind of stuff. I've lived in about nine different states, and this state really is not a leader, at least in my mind. I just wanted to comment on the fact that I think that if the children are going to learn from anyone, that it starts with the parent business, because they can learn all kinds of programs in school, but if their parents are not reinforcing that at home, in everything that they do, it's just not gonna work. And so I don't want to 5252 the program or anything, but I think that you gotta start educating the patients and showing the parents and all the citizens through a department of eshingcology am just what the program should really be.

CAVANAUGH: Katie, thank you for the call, and how are you parents involved in these programs? Do they get involved through the school school sometimes?

BROWN: Well, sustainability is a community practice. Of that's one of the principles. So yes. Quite a bit they are, and in fact, it's sometimes a two-way street, where we have had parents who have been the founders of ecocouncils in the school, who participate and volunteer and are very active in the schools, and then we've also -- I've also talked to so many parents who say I have to recycle all the time now, and they can't understand fight this, and can't fight now, because my kid came home and said, mom, we gotta change everything we're doing. So it's a collaboration, and a conversation that can go on with the teachers in school, the administrators issue the parentsa eight hope, and the kids.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I started this out by asking you whether or not kids need to hear anything more about sustainability. Because it seems everywhere you turn, there's another encouragement to go green in one way or another. But I'm wondering if borrow eye class like this, if that message actually sinks into the kind of lifestyle that most kids lead today.

BROWN: And I'm sorry, communication like --

CAVANAUGH: Well, what I'm saying is, they see these messages to go green all over the place, but are they actually living green, today's young kids? Today's generation?

BROWN: Well, it depends on where you're talking about. Some are. And there's also some children who might not have the opportunities to consider a lot of options in their lifestyle. One of the stories I want to talk with tonight is what's going on in New Orleans. There's a group there called kids rethink New Orleans schools. That's really one of the most fantastic programs we've ever seen. But how kids have reacted first to Katrina, then the BP spill. For them, the core value that they're working on is dignity. Because New Orleans has really been devastated by what has happened to them. But it is really absolutely fascinating to see -- the way the kids framed it in their own language is what they. Is dignity for each other and dignity for the planet. And they've actually evolved one of the most tremendous ecological programs we've seen, completely out of something that you might call the social justice path.

CAVANAUGH: And we've also seen, I think here in San Diego, a lot of emphasis on the idea of brimming ecology and sustainability into lurch programs in school.

BROWN: Yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And into gardening in school. How much of a role does that play in teaching ecoliteracy?

BROWN: That plays a huge role. Of the center is very, very active with food. We have a book called big ideas that's based on the bench marks from the American association for the advancement of science of and it is -- all about integrating food, culture, and the health in the environment. Using food as a lens for studying all of these things. We're also very active in school lunch. We spent about 15 years in school food. So our rethinking school lunch guide is available, it covers ten different dimensions for how to change lunch in school, and that's a free down load from our website. We also were recently funded by the Tom cat charitable trust to do a feasibility study on the Oakland unified school district for both revamping nutrition circuses, but how to teach food and ecological understanding related to food in public schools.

CAVANAUGH: Well, if our callers were any indication, there are an awful lot of people that would like to join you tonight. Let me tell them how to do it. Karen brown will be giving a lecture on smart by nature, sustainability in the classroom, that's tonight at 630 at the San Diego natural history museum, and I would imagine anyone's welcome?

BROWN: Anyone's welcome.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay, Karen, thank you.

BROWN: Okay. Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Karen Brown. She's creative director for the Center of Ecoliteracy. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days.

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