The Nature of Environmental Education
by Elena DeLacy, The Current American River Conservancy
I remember it very clearly – I was in fourth grade, and on a nature hike in the American River Park-way near Effie Yeaw Nature Center. I was on a field trip with my class, and the naturalist who was leading the hike was skilled at pointing out the little details that most people would miss. I spotted several small foamy blobs on the riverside vegetation and inquired, “What’s that?”
“Oh, that’s what spittlebugs do in the springtime,” replied our hike leader. I was immediately fascinated by these tiny plant-sucking nymphs which encase themselves in foam. I’d been camping with my family in several State and National Parks and in the National Forest since I was an infant. I’d played in many forest streams and explored tide-pools along the California coast with my sister. However, this formative experience along a trail in the middle of Sacramento was different somehow. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion and interest in the study of nature.
My story is not unique. Many people who consider themselves environmentalists or who work in natural resources management have had similar “A-ha” moments in nature. In 2014, an experimental study examined the impact of a citizen science program on middle school students’ science performance and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career motivation. Results of the study supported hypotheses that students would report higher motivational beliefs regarding science and show higher levels of achieve-ment, which then influence career goals. In a world where it is increasingly difficult to engage students in classroom lessons, environmental education offers an experiential way for both students and teachers to connect their appreciation of the natural world to academic achievement.
Sparking passion and interest in the environ-ment through outdoor education is an important part of American River Conservancy’s mission. Environmental education is critical to help learners of all ages develop skills for addressing ecological issues and increasing the capacity for current and future conservation efforts. Modern society’s increasing disconnect with nature is seen as a leading contributor to growing environmental problems across the world. Essentially, the less connected we become to nature, the less we feel responsible for its conservation so the further we degrade our environment. Environmental education is essen-tial to developing connectedness with nature, which in turn delivers many physiological, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual bene-fits for people.
ARC’s environmental edu-cation program has been experi-encing a renaissance in the last year. It’s been a slow process, due to the impacts of the pandemic on the availability of schools to book and participate in field trips. We’ve had to modify delivery of some programs (such as the Cali-fornia Naturalist Certification Course) to include virtual learning to ensure our staff and enrolled students are safe and healthy. We’re even building a new Education Center at Wakamatsu Farm that will help extend and expand our ability to offer high quality environ-mental education pro-grams to learners of all ages.
ARC has committed to expanding our education staff this year as well, which will help increase our capacity to reach more students and improve their love and understanding of nature. This commitment to environmental education is a reflection of the overwhelming need in our community for this type of engagement. ARC also has a small but mighty team of environmental education volunteers, as well as program and hike leaders who enrich our education programs with their knowledge and passion. Our education programs rely entirely on program fees and finan-cial support from our community of donors and members. If environmen-tal education is important to you, please consider volunteering your time or giving generously to support this vital work in our community.