Lee Botts is is an activist who has worked for more than 30 years both inside and outside government to address crucial national environmental problems. Currently, she is president of the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center at Lake Michigan, a public/private partnership between the not for profit Learning Center and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which provides innovative education programs for elementary and high school students.
One of the difficulties of environmental education for children is that it’s so easy to overwhelm them with all of the problems there are. How do you avoid that?
We don’t come at it from the prospective of “Here is all this pollution, isn’t it awful?” That’s what overwhelms people. What we’re really trying to do here is involve students in figuring out things for themselves, by giving them opportunities to make observations about their environment and to think about what those observations might mean.
Can you give us an example?
“The Frog and Bog” Program is a basic core program for fourth, fifth and sixth grades. It was developed largely by our curriculum consultant, Elma Thiele. Its objective is to teach basic ecological principles governing biodiversity and to foster appreciation for the natural resources of this region.
The program involves two hikes, in which the students have opportunities to make observations about the fourteen distinct ecosystems within this national park. On the hikes, the students are given assignments that are designed to get them to notice and think about the differences between these ecosystems, and what elements of the environment might be responsible for these differences.
We also include a little bit of history and social studies, because we want the kids to understand that this region is noted for its great biodiversity. They learn about Henry Chandler Cowles, who is known as the father of ecology in North America. He did his research right here in the Indiana Dunes. Every child keeps a journal. At the end of the hikes, the students have time to write about what they have seen.
One of the assignments is to pick out a certain place, observe what is unique or different about that place and report back to the group in the evening around a campfire. The game is that the other students are to guess what the special place was. It’s a lot of fun for the students and it seems to be a very effective program.
And do you have anything for older students?
We do have a program for high school students, but to explain it I should give you a little more background about this region. Because of the diversity and the ecological change that occurs in this area, continuous research has been going on for 100 years – ever since Henry Chandler Cowles first published his research in the 1890’s. In our high school program, we make students active participants in this research.
We do this by having teams of students monitor ecological change. They also participate in stewardship activities. We have teams of students make observations – about what is happening with the river water quality, what’s happening with habitat, for example – and record the data. Our aim is to enter all the data that is collected by all the high schools into a long-term database. A research agency, which is part of the US Geological Survey, is located at the national park and is helping us to develop this database. Our plan is to make this data available to the public.
Part of the program involves information exchange among the participating high schools, using electronic communication. We also have the students interact with volunteers from public resource management agencies, private industry, environmental organizations and so forth, so that they get an understanding that there are many different ways that one can work for protection of the environment.
Do you find that your approach appeals to students and teachers?
Definitely. To date, we have had around 4,000 students come through all of our programs.
Why do you think the program is so popular?
We try very hard to make coming to the learning center more than just an exotic field trip. We work very hard to link it to classroom teaching and learning. A teacher is required to come for a workshop before she can bring a class here. We provide them with what we call a “traveling trunk” about a month before the class is scheduled to come. We ask for ten to twelve hours of preparation in the classroom. And our curriculum helps the schools meet the new science education requirements in all three states that our center serves.
One last question: Why should we give students these kinds of opportunities?
Because if they don’t understand how the world works, how can they possibly make good decisions? And it’s vitally important that they do make good decisions about the environment when it comes their turn to do so.