An abundance of online tools can help educators inform and instruct students about environmental issues.
- By John K. Waters
It has been 41 years since the late Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson launched the first nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment known as Earth Day. The event was actually a national "teach-in" about environmental causes, and it is widely considered the spark that ignited the modern environmental education movement. Within months, President Nixon passed the National Environmental Education Act, and a new subject was introduced into the curricula of K-12 schools across the country.
Four decades later, educators have access to a wealth of online resources for green teaching and learning. Some are intended specifically for K-12, others are educational resources without a K-12 focus. All of them are worth considering. Here are some examples of what's out there.
Classroom Earth : Designed for high school students and teachers, Classroom Earth provides a ton of content that can be included readily in daily lesson plans. The site was created by the National Education Foundation, which was established by the 1990 edition of the aforementioned National Environmental Education Act, in partnership with The Weather Channel.
The site's stated aim is to "enhance and strengthen environmental education in high school classrooms nationwide" and to encourage "the inclusion of environmental education into all high school subjects-- from biology to art-- and make it easier for teachers to access best practices online."
Classroom Earth is well designed, lively, easy to navigate, and constantly updated. It offers several types of resources. The "In the News" section collects environmental news articles; "Where in the World" offers geographically based environmental information, plus resources for incorporating geographically based topics into school lessons; and the "Resource Library" is packed with videos, sample lesson and unit plans, and links to other websites, which users can browse by traditional high school course (social studies, mathematics, etc.) or topic (climate change, energy, recycling, etc.).
Teacher support is plentiful. The main menu bar includes a link to a "Teaching About the Environment" page, which includes a number of useful guidelines and best practices. Another link, "Professional Development," leads to a list of programs, classes, and continuing education. The website also invites teachers to contribute to its evolution through comments, rating tools, and shared success stories. A "Grants" page offers guidance for securing funding for green education programs.
A Walk in the Woods : Aimed at urban-dwelling students in grades 3 to 5-- city kids who rarely get away from the concrete-- A Walk in the Woods provides a clickable virtual trip through the woods, complete with shifting photos of woodland details, sound effects, and voiceover narration in both English and Spanish.
Developed by the Urban Programs Resource Network of University of Illinois Extension program, this simple site might serve as a starting point for the environmental education of kids who encounter very little "green" in their daily lives. As the site states, this virtual walk "brings the woods to them."
Along with the virtual walk, the website includes a "Nature Notes" section, which provides a kind of scrapbook of the students' virtual trip, with labeled photos of some of the things they encountered on the walk (acorns, chipmunks, mushroom, lichen, etc.). There's a nice index that provides out-of-order access to sections of the walk. And a resources page offers a useful list of links to web pages aimed at roughly the same age group, specializing in animals, birds, trees and flowers, and insects and bugs.
The website's teachers' guide simply identifies the statewide learning goals of the state of Illinois, but also provides a nice list of activities that might enhance a teaching plan-- things like having students collect leaf and bark samples and holding a scavenger hunt for seeds and acorns.
EEK!-- Environmental Education for Kids : Aimed at students in grades 4 to 8, this lighthearted site has lots of good content. The purple home page is bright, but clean, with appealing graphics and simple point-and-click navigation.
Billed as an "electronic magazine for kids," the site was developed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and includes links to other resources offered by the DNR for preK-12 educators, including lessons on a range of topics, from climate change to Wisconsin's own Millennium Tree.
A standout feature of this website is its "Teacher Pages," which guide educators with site navigation instructions, tips for getting students up and running on the site, and a list of subject-specific activities supported by the site for science, math, language arts, and social studies. There's also a news section, a calendar of teacher events and workshops, and list of additional resources.
Another noteworthy feature is the site's "Get a Job" section, which gives students brief summaries of environmental jobs to which they might aspire, such as forester, air quality specialist, lakes protection manager, park ranger, fish health specialist, warden, endangered species researcher, park planner, water quality specialist, or a naturalist. It even provides lists of secondary institutions where students might pursue those goals.
The Ecological Footprint Quiz :This online quiz asks students the topical question, "How big is your ecological footprint." Some of the 27 questions in the quiz will be easy for students to answer, such as "What country do you live in?" and "How many people live in your household?" Some will challenge them to think about things they might not have considered before, such as "What energy sources do you use in your home."
Most of the questions-- including this last one-- are multiple choice; the trickier ones also provide a default answer that is the average for the country/region where the students live. For example, to the question "If your house uses electricity, what percentage is generated from renewable hydropower, wind, biomass, or solar sources?" the quiz provides the answer "8.9%" for those living in the U.S. The site displays a "quiz results" popup window so that students can see how their results compare to the national average as they take the quiz.
Created by the Santa Fe, NM-based Center for Sustainable Economy, the quiz is designed to estimate the amount of land and ocean area required to sustain one person's consumption patterns and absorb that person's wastes every year. It measures carbon footprint, housing footprint, and goods and services footprint, which together form the student's ecological footprint. The result is displayed in the number of planet Earths we would need if everyone had that footprint.
The test questions are probably too advanced for elementary or middle schoolers, but they could be effective at the high school level to generate a wide-ranging conversation about our personal impact on the environment.
PowerUp : This freely downloadable, 3D, multiplayer game takes students to the planet Helios, where environmental disasters threaten to destroy the world. The planet's atmosphere is choked with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Extreme weather threatens almost every ecosystem. Fossil fuel plants are pumping tons of poison gases into the air. And dense clouds of carbon based emissions called SmogGobs seem almost alive. Players join a group of brave volunteers working together to save the planet. They're challenged to carry out missions to supply solar, wind, and water power before severe storms wreak havoc.
PowerUp is one of the oldest environmental science-themed educational games. It was launched in 2008 by IBM as part of its TryScience initiative, with input and advice from the Tech Museum in San Jose, CA, and the Bakken Museum in Minneapolis, not to mention 200 students between 12 and 16 years old. Since then the interface has been refined and the graphics upgraded to modern standards.
The game is a bit engineering-focused, as the students must build solar towers and repair wind turbines. But there's also plenty of environmental science in the mix. The website provides both a parents' guide and a lesson plan. The teachers' guide includes a sample assessment rubric and other resources for facilitating effective project based learning.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Teaching Center : You won't find any games or quizzes on this teacher-focused site, but plenty of useful background information, lesson plans, and classroom activities for teaching about the environment. There's also information about workshops, conferences, grants, and awards.
Here, the EPA has organized a list of onsite documents and links to other sites to provide educators with "basic and clear information to assist you in teaching your students about the environment.
The site design is relatively frills-free-- essentially, it's a well-organized collection of teaching resources-- but there's a lot of meat on these bare bones. The overall content is divided by topics, such as "Air - acid rain, indoor air pollution, ozone, radon," "Ecosystems - ecology, endangered species, global warming, habitats, watersheds," and "Waste & Recycling - garbage, household, hazardous & solid waste, landfills, superfund cleanups, trash," among others.
Under those topic headings, the EPA has collected articles and tools aimed at specific student age groups. Under "Air," for example, you find the "Noise Pollution for Kids" marked for grades 6-8, "Ozone Depletion" marked for grades 9 to 12, and "Mixing Ratios or Parts per Million, Billion" marked for teachers. Along with articles, collections of related articles, and PDFs, visitors to this site will find tools like the AirNow local air-quality map of the US.
This site also links to The EPA Kids Club, the Student Center, and the High School Environmental Center, all of which are also worth a visit.