Last week I traveled to beautiful Madison, Wisconsin for the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) annual conference. The week was full of illuminating sessions on the most pressing issues facing environmental education. There was also a lot of cheese curd consumption.
One of the most exciting things about the conference was the significant focus on climate change. During the opening ceremony, NAAEE leadership discussed climate change as one of its focal areas, which will inspire future research and professional development opportunities offered by NAAEE. The audience was also galvanized by the opening keynote speaker, famed academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist, David Takayoshi Suzuki. Mr. Suzuki talked about the relatively new phenomenon of the polarization of the issue of climate change as well as the heart behind what environmental education strives to do—cultivate stewards of the planet and safeguard our most precious resources, many of which we could not live long without, such as clean air, water, and soil. Looking at this issue from a 30,000 foot view really helped frame the larger purpose of environmental education; you could tell by the standing ovation Mr. Suzuki received at the end of his speech.
After this inspirational kick-off, the conference continued to showcase high-quality sessions. Some of the most memorable sessions I attended included one on a comprehensive literature review on what works in climate education. In this session, the presenters shared out some of the main challenges in climate education, such as it being a topic that is invisible, distant, uncertain, debated, and hopeless. After going over 1,000 peer reviewed journal articles and narrowing down the articles that met the standards for academic rigor, the researchers found some fascinating takeaways on combating these challenges. These included much of what the Institute has found in our own research, such as focusing on climate change impacts on local ecosystems, using inquiry-based activities, and involving individuals in community-based climate action projects.
Another session that really stuck out was a workshop on creating a climate education toolkit. The beginning half of the workshop was focused on looking at excerpts on climate change from science textbooks, paying special mind to the language used. It revealed that even in California some of the language used in public school textbooks gave the impression that human-caused climate change isn't agreed on by the vast majority scientists and that the consequences might not be bad. In the second part of the workshop, we were split into smaller groups and were able to brainstorm a framework for our ideal climate education curriculum. This provided a valuable opportunity to think through what essential elements some educators are hoping to incorporate into their lessons. In our group, we identified that we want climate science curriculum to discuss the scientific consensus around climate change, the scientific processes/methods that scientists use to get to their conclusions, science reasoning skills, basic information on climate processes, and more.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality and the content of the presentations. I was no less impressed with the dedication of the environmental educators who attended the conference in order to walk their talk and educate themselves. Leaving Wisconsin, I felt energized and confident that we have a brigade of intelligent, passionate, and highly motivated educators that care deeply for the work they do.