George Lucas Educational Foundation

Finding a Place for Environmental Education

Finding a Place for Environmental Education

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Harvard Education Letter just published a piece entitled, "The Greening of Environmental Education". ( It is a great piece and well worth the read, if for no other reasons than to inspire yourself and back your own project wish list with sound reasoning. However, we don't all have the leniency, support, or resources to have such programs in our schools. I'm curious: What can a teacher do to incorporate environmental education into the daily, weekly, monthly routine? Are administrators/parents in your areas supportive of including more science inquiry related to the environment? Is there a perception of environmental education being "hippy tree hugging"? If so, what can we do to rebrand it?

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Center for Ecoliteracy's picture
Center for Ecoliteracy
Nonprofit dedicated to education for sustainable living.

An excellent article! Thanks for sharing it, Jason. It really manages to articulate the primary goals of environmental education and how teachers can successfully fulfill them - both inside and outside the classroom. Sadly, it's true that EE is often dismissed as "hippy tree hugging," liberal "brainwashing," or an unnecessary luxury item in the school day. But at its best, EE truly engages students and improves academic performance with its emphasis on hands-on learning, independent analysis, interdisciplinary thought, productive problem-solving, and a sense of awe and discovery about the surrounding world. We can change misconceptions by constantly documenting and communicating its ability to do all of these things through real-life stories that inspire and resonate with the general public.

This is what we hoped to accomplish in writing our most recent book, "Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability." We set out to illustrate how sustainability is actually put into living, breathing practice at public, private, and charter schools nationwide. We wanted to show how vital, evolving, diverse, and dynamic this kind of education can really be.

A teacher can do a great deal to incorporate EE into the daily, weekly, monthly routine... but he/she cannot do it alone. Our book shows how teachers, administrators, parents, and students are coming together to embrace positive solutions and reform school food, campuses, communities, and curricula. Examples include a year-round organic garden in student-built greenhouses at Troy Howard Middle School in wintry Maine, a simple switch of lunch and recess that turned lunchtime into a teaching opportunity at John Muir Elementary in Berkeley, and the design of a green campus (and curriculum) that literally breaks down the boundaries between indoors and outdoors at Willow School in New Jersey. All of these case studies (and many more) prove that EE is essential for current and future generations! Learn more at

Laurie Schoeman's picture
Laurie Schoeman
Director of NY Sun Works


Our organization has been working with parents in the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and also more recently in East New York in Brooklyn. We've seen a large cross-section of parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds and we have the impression that they all would like to see more environmental science in the classroom.

The example of The Willow School in NJ is a wonderful demonstration of a school integrating their natural environment into their curriculum as a teaching tool. However, because our organization deals with urban environments, we have to find a way to bring nature to the kids.

New York Sun Works, our nonprofit org, has done this by building rooftop greenhouse laboratories on the roofs of schools here in NY, and we are trying to build many more. These greenhouses also come with a tailored environmental science curriculum. I really applaud the work of the Center for Ecoliteracy in trying to make similar curricula available to schools who do not have the resources to build a
"green" laboratory or to buy special equipment.

Many teachers might believe that because their school lacks the funding for special science equipment, that they are unable to incorporate certain topics into their classroom. However, there are a large variety of organizations that offer free lesson plans that require almost no materials at all. These can be as simple as getting the children to connect more with the natural world. For example, tracing the sun's path through the sky every hour with a paper and pencil, or counting up all of their phones, TVs, and other appliances in order to determine their household's Carbon Footprint or energy usage. It's simple! But teachers need to be provided with the lesson plans, and also they must be able to carve out time between their many other required topics.

The EPA maintains a database of environmental education lesson plans and curricula at:

In many states, the Department of Education's requirements are such that teachers are scrambling to help their kids meet the standards. We have to make environmental and sustainability education a greater part of those standards!

I think the "tree hugger" idea is starting to dissipate a bit (or is reserved only for those individuals who are truly over-the-top environmental evangelists). Going "green" is viewed as business savvy--the wave of the future. We now just have to translate that mentality into education.

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