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Bodzin helps school-aged children fight environmental illiteracy

Alec Bodzin

“Are our schools doing a good job preparing our children to be environmentally literate? When our kids read in the newspaper about issues pertaining to energy use, global climate change, and pollution, do they have a deep meaningful understanding about these issues or just some superficial awareness?

These are the questions that worry Alec Bodzin most. An associate professor of teaching, learning and technology in the College of Education, Bodzin fears that today’s society is creating generations of environmentally illiterate citizens. He has the facts to prove it.

A recent Roper report shows that Americans believe they know more about the environment than they actually do. The facts paint a startling picture: 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water; 120 million think spray cans still have chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in them even though CFCs were banned in 1978; another 120 million people think disposable diapers are the leading problem with landfills when they actually represent about 1 percent of the problem; and 130 million believe that hydropower is America’s top energy source, when it accounts for just 10 percent of the total.

Bodzin notes that there have been times in history when environmental concerns have prompted stronger public interest, such as during the 1970s when concern over DDT, a very toxic insecticide was used to kill mosquitoes and other insects, prompted the United States to ban its use.

“We experienced an environmental revolution, but we got complacent,” said Bodzin. “Now concerns surrounding oil and climate change are raising environmental issues again.”

So how do we educate the public now that its interest is piqued? “We have to do it in schools, and we have to start at the elementary level,” said Bodzin, whose research focuses on investigating the design and implementation of inquiry-based environmental science curriculum. His work is also part of Lehigh’s Environmental Initiative, a broad interdisciplinary program of research, education, and outreach designed to address the full spectrum of environmental problems facing society.

“American schools at all levels need to do a much better job preparing our students to be environmentally literate,” he says. “Students completing elementary school need to know more than a basic awareness of ecological concepts in order to pass a high-stakes test. Our K-12 schools need to provide each and every student with opportunities to acquire knowledge, values, attitudes and commitment to protect and improve the environment.”

A more comprehensive approach is needed

Since the “No Child Left Behind” law focuses primarily on reading, writing and mathematics, Bodzin notes that many students are actually receiving less science instruction than they did before the law was enacted. And while the integration of environmental topics into the traditional school disciplines is an excellent place to start, it’s only scratching the surface.

“A more comprehensive level of environmental literacy goes beyond awareness and personal action,” says Bodzin. “It involves a deep knowledge and understanding of environmental concepts and skills that are at a much higher level to understand environmental issues, some that are quite complex.”

Bodzin is hoping bring these concepts to light through a number of projects aimed at providing resources and opportunities for both teachers and students to gain crucial environmental knowledge through school-based curricula.

Through a NASA Explorer School grant, Bodzin is working with the eighth grade at Bethlehem, Pa.’s Broughal Middle School to introduce environmental studies into the curriculum. Students will have exposure to lessons in energy, global climate change and environmental issues such as land-use change.

During a recent project, students canvassed the school’s South Side neighborhood, using GPS devices to map out the sewers in order to determine where rain water flows. “By exposing kids to these activities, we’re able to integrate science, social, political and economic studies,” said Bodzin.

Bodzin has also been instrumental in developing the LEO EnviroSci Inquiry, a Web site designed specifically for curricular enhancement of existing Environmental Science components of an elementary, middle school, or upper secondary science curriculum. Teachers can access activities and lesson plans related to geology, weather, environmental issues, watershed and data collection.

“Reading about the environment promotes literacy. Reading and ‘doing’ promotes environmental literacy,” says Bodzin. “For environmental literacy to be realized, all K-12 students need to be actively engaged in interdisciplinary environmental education curricula that emphasizes student-directed scientific discovery of their local environment.”

--Tricia Long

Posted on Wednesday, November 07, 2007

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