Concerned about the environment? So are most of the young people in school today. This week, the Director of Education for World Wildlife Fund, Judy Braus talks about some of the programs and resources that WWF has developed to help students discover how they can make a difference.
What is World Wildlife Fund?
World Wildlife Fund is an international conservation organization with a mission to protect biodiversity around the world. We work in more than 100 countries, and have offices in probably 40 countries.
Biodiversity is a very all-encompassing conservation issue. To preserve biodiversity, we work on protecting endangered species of all kinds and ecoregions around the world. The threats to biodiversity worldwide include climate change, deforestation, over-fishing and toxic chemicals that affect the environment.
How does environmental education fit into this mission?
We all depend on the environment for our survival and for a quality of life. We would like to see environmental education integrated into teaching at all levels, and into all our formal and informal education. Whether we are adult voters or we are preschoolers, it’s an important part of our learning as global citizens.
Thinking about what kind of environmental education we want to have for our kids means more than just knowledge. It also means developing the skills necessary to be a good citizen, and being able to help people take appropriate action.
Environmental education is really teaching kids how to think, not what to think.
What is WWF hoping to accomplish through its programs?
We’re trying to help people better understand the issues that WWF is working on, and environmental issues in general. We always try to include things that empower people and show them how to get involved.
With issues like climate change or deforestation you can feel somewhat helpless, but everybody actually has a role they can play locally or nationally or globally. Many of our projects encourage service learning activities in the community, to help people see what kind of a difference they can make.
We work with many, many partners, both in the US and around the world. We work with zoos and aquariums and museums and nature centers, as well as educational organizations. We produce educational materials and we do a lot of professional development. We have a number of different programs that target different audiences.
What are some examples?
We have programs that focus on biodiversity education — what is biodiversity? Why is it important? Why are we losing it, and what you can do about it?
We are partnering with Disney’s Animal Kingdom for our third annual National Biodiversity Education Leader Institute. We’re bringing people from across the country, and actually around the world, to look at biodiversity and go back into their communities and actually create change locally.
We’ve been working on two traveling exhibitions to get people to understand biodiversity in a creative way. In June, they are going to start traveling in to different sites around the country, such as science centers, zoos, an aquarium or a museum.
We’re partnering with the National Geographic Society on a project called Wild World. WWF scientists, working with partners around the world, have identified more than 200 of the most outstanding and threatened ecoregions around the world that need protection. These ecoregions, which we call the Global 200, represent a sample of biodiversity and the ecological processes that actually make life possible.
In January, we sent ten maps that featuring this “Global 200” to every school in the country. The map has the Global 200 on one side and the terrestrial ecoregions of the world on the other. We’ve also worked with National Geographic to develop the Wild World web site, where you can click on any ecoregion and get information about it. We also have a joint contest going on with middle students where they are comparing their local ecoregion to another ecoregion somewhere else in the world.
Do your programs focus on any particular grade level?
Of course, we think that education is important at all levels. K-12 is critical, pre-school is critical. But as our niche we chose middle school, which we thought was left out of the environmental education mix. Middle school is critical because this is a time we often lose students — but it’s also the time when students are really thinking about what they can do and the issues they can get involved in.
What about the teachers?
Teachers have a tough assignment — they have a lot to teach and they don’t often have the time or resources they need. Given the constraints in many school districts, I think it’s very difficult for some teachers to be able to fit in creative ways of doing environmental education. For example, we’d really love to see people use the community more, have larger blocks of time to go outside or to actually explore issues. It’s very hard to get into issues when you’ve got 45 minutes and the bell goes off, so I think teachers are being asked to do things that are sometimes almost impossible.
On the other hand, there are teachers who have really been able to incorporate environmental education in many creative ways, from outdoor habitats and gardens on school grounds to monitoring water quality in their area, to building parks or cleaning up vacant lots. If the topic has to do with something like ecosystems or geography, they are able to build a lesson plans using current events and some of the curriculum materials developed by WWF or other organizations.
What kinds of lessons do you like?
I think students need to have their eyes opened to different points of view. In some cases, I think teachers are a little nervous about talking about controversial issues, when in fact that is how people learn. By listening to what other people think, they get a better understanding of what they feel themselves. So we encourage education that challenges kids to think and question.
You might start off a unit with some question or puzzle or hands-on experience. Something to get kids excited. Then you might have some kind of exploration or experiment that gets into a little bit more depth, making sure that you process the experience and have kids think about how they might apply what they have learned.
The content is actually less important than methodology that allows kids to explore and think for themselves, to come up with research questions and to really get engaged in learning. That is critical.
Of course, it’s also good to have information sources, so that educators don’t have to do all the work themselves. There are a lot of educational materials out there that are terrific, that have activities, games and puzzles that allow kids to think and explore.
Has technology helped forward your work?
Technology is offering a lot of exciting possibilities, but I still am careful to say, “What is your education goal and how can technology help you do it?”
We have been experimenting with a number of things including distance learning activities and trying to keep people connected on the web. The web site opens up so many opportunities for people who might not know much about us as an organization. The Wild World web site, for example, allows kids to get information on one site that might have taken them a lot of research in the past.
We also have something called the WWF College. It’s a virtual leadership college for WWF staff; we’ve worked with another department here to do a distance learning module and are learning more about this type of e-learning.
Many young people are concerned about the environment. What led you to a job in this field?
I have always been involved in social issues. My parents took us hiking with park naturalists every Sunday when I was growing up in Cincinnati. While other people went to church, we went out on hikes. I think it was that appreciation of the natural world that made me want to make a difference in the environment. I was a little activist, out campaigning and working on issues.
Now I work with some of the smartest and most committed people in the world, and that makes my job very exciting and stimulating. It’s very challenging to try to solve the problem of how we can protect the environment and still make sure that people have a quality of life. People that work at WWF feel that they are part of a bigger picture, that they are really trying to leave the world a better place. I don’t think anybody here is in it for the money.
How can teachers acquire your educational materials?
Some of them are free, some are sold through our publisher, Acorn Naturalists. Information is available at our website: http://www.worldwildlife.org/
It’s great to have an opportunity to talk with you about environmental education.