Aug. 12, 2011

Cornell to lead national environmental education program

Cornell has been selected to lead a national, five-year, $10 million Environmental Protection Agency environmental education professional development program.

Every five years, the EPA's Office of Environmental Education requests proposals to lead its national environmental education training program. This year Cornell's Civic Ecology Lab was selected, with funding of around $2 million per year for five years.

Traditionally, environmental educators have focused on pristine, natural environments while teaching in schools, nature centers and outdoor education centers. More recently, a new tradition is emerging in cities, with community development, environmental restoration and social justice groups also teaching environmental education, largely to minority and urban youth. Cornell's "EECapacity" project seeks to link these two types of educators through workshops, online courses and other means, and to create opportunities to exchange ideas, practices and resources.

"Most young people today are going to experience the environment in urban neighborhoods," said Marianne Krasny, professor and chair of the Department of Natural Resources and the project's principal investigator. "In the largest sense, we are trying to redefine environmental education practice within the reality of an urban society."

Across the country, thousands of urban programs use environmental education to reach young people. For example, the community garden movement offers a way for people to steward and create natural settings and ecosystem services in empty lots. Community gardens also provide opportunities for young people to learn about the environment, while working alongside the elder gardeners in their communities. In New York City, oyster restoration projects, where youth and adult volunteers create artificial reefs for oysters to grow, provide similar benefits and opportunities for environmental and civic learning. Krasny refers to community gardening, oyster restoration, community forestry and similar community-based stewardship as civic ecology practices.

"Those are the kinds of practices we are trying to bring into the fold of environmental education," said Krasny.

Through a series of workshops, EECapacity will bring educators together from traditional and nontraditional urban backgrounds to exchange ideas and resources, and form social networks. From there the project will see what innovative ideas emerge. "We are not going to dictate practices," said Krasny. "We want to create an exchange of ideas, and expect that the educators will come up with innovative practices and apply them in the world."

Additionally, there will be a research component to test the notion that diverse groups of educators, given opportunities to share practices and ideas, will develop innovative environmental education practices.

Among more than 30 collaborators, major partners include the North American Association for Environmental Education and its State Affiliate Network; Environmental Education Exchange; Akiima Price Consulting; the Association of Zoos and Aquariums; Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Green Guerillas Youth Media Tech Collective; Institute for Learning Innovation; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's People's Garden Initiative.