FETC 2010 Keynote Coverage

Good Science, Great Technology Will Drive Student Engagement

Ed Begley Jr., from the Planet Green series Living with Ed

It's up to America's teachers to get the country's youth involved in critical environment issues. But that's not going to happen if teachers aren't delivering the message in a way that engages students, according to Ed Begley Jr., who delivered the opening general address at this year's FETC conference in Florida. "We have to speak in a language young people understand. And that language," he said, "is technology."

The Critical Need for Environmental Awareness
In his opening keynote address at the FETC 2010 conference Wednesday in Orlando, FL, Ed Begley Jr. led with a joke: "I've been doing this for a long time," he said, referring to his life as an activist for sustainable living. "And I can promise you, it was not cool in 1970, not at all cool to be riding around on a bike. My bellbottoms kept getting caught in the chain, the wind resistance from my Afro really slowed me down; it was a different era in 1970."

"But," he reflected as the laughter died down, "we've certainly come a long way. And you are the heroes out there, our educators ... our teachers and administrators who support environmental education and are embracing new and exciting technologies" to help solve the problems we face today.

Begley--an actor, author, environmentalist, and host of Discovery's Planet Green series Living with Ed--promised to speak more about how he became interested in environmental activism and the quest to live a greener life, but only after addressing a critical question: "What's really at stake? And why are a lot of people embracing good environmental stewardship?"

What's at stake, according to Begley, is a range of environmental issues that, in spite of our differences, most of us tend to agree on. "We face serious problems with air pollution," he said, citing examples from Houston to Los Angeles to Mexico City to Beijing. "I think we can all agree with that.... And we face big problems with water pollution, [as well as] threats to a host of wildlife species." The threats are real, he continued, and most of them are not controversial.

Begley shared the story of an event in the late '60s that changed the way he viewed environmental issues forever. "One of the reasons I got involved in this in 1970 was because of something that happened a year earlier," just outside of Cleveland. "Back in 1969," he said, "the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Now, I don't know about you," he quipped, "but I think it's bad when rivers catch fire. It's a bad sign." So bad, in fact, that he was inspired to do something about it, he said. So he went out and bought an electric car. And that, he said, was the beginning of a decades-long journey into living a more environmentally responsible life.

Some 40 years later, in spite of continuing problems and challenges, Begley confessed, "I am standing before you today hopeful.... I am convinced that we have the capacity to solve these problems. Why? Because we already have."

Begley went on to say that while it's true we haven't completely fixed any one of the issues he discussed, we have come a long way in addressing many of them on a variety of levels. As an example, he shared the statistic that, since 1970, the city of Los Angeles has quadrupled the number of registered cars on its roads and yet has been able to cut the amount of smog in half. "That's an incredible success story. And how did we do it?" he asked. "With good technology that works."

Technology, he argued, has become an equalizing force in an otherwise divisive--and, at times, controversial--realm. "Good technology that's good for the environment," he said, "is also good for business;" a point Begley conceded is critical when trying to convince people to embrace sound environmental practices. "In fact," he continued, "I should mention that everything I've done that's been good for the environment has also been good for my bottom line."

From solar outdoor ovens to solar water heaters to reclaimed rainwater to composting and gardening, reducing his impact on the environment has had the positive side effect of ultimately reducing the impact on his wallet. It doesn't have to be complicated, he insisted. "You start with the low-hanging fruit, with the stuff that's cheap and easy" like light bulbs and weather stripping, "and you work your way up from there." And it can work in the classroom the same way it works in the home.

Begley encouraged the audience to get involved in the process by engaging their students with the available technology and promoting the hard scientific research that backs it up. "We have to speak in a language young people understand" if we are going to reach them and make an impact in their lives. "And that language," he said, "is technology."

The point of all this, Begley argued, is that we are making a long-term investment. "We are all in this for the long run. That's why you are teaching young people: you are making an investment in the future," an investment in your future and theirs.

Controversies and Inconveniences
Begley concluded his opening address by fielding several pre-selected questions form audience members, delivered by Discovery Education's Scott Kinney.

Discovery Educator Louis Carroll asked, "What is one convenience that you have not been able to give up?" To which Mr. Begley immediately answered, "Flying." While Begley said he tries not to fly, he admitted that there are times when it is unavoidable. When he must fly, Begley buys a carbon-offset program to mitigate the impact of his travel on the environment. The carbon offsets that he buys put new green energy in the grid. "I plan to eliminate that at some point," he joked, "by just being beamed from place to place."

In response to Becca Stanley's question, "What do you feel is the most pressing environmental issue we're facing today and what advice would you give our youth to solve this issue?" Begley admitted that global climate change is, in his view, a serious issue. "But," he continued, "it is also a controversial one." So one way to address this, he said, is by doing the non-controversial things that we can all agree are important, like lowering our pollutants to clean the air and water and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. "It's like buying an insurance policy" in that you are cleaning up the air and--if you do it right--you'll put some money in your pocket. Then, in the event that all the arguments for climate change are correct, you have done a great deal to mitigate those pollutants' effects. If the arguments happen to be wrong, on the other hand, well, you have still cleaned up the air you breath, which everyone can agree is a good thing.

In terms of advice for students, Begley insisted that the best course of action is to expose kids to "good" peer-reviewed science from reputable agencies like The National Academy of Sciences, NOAA, and NASA, keeping away from opinion in favor of factual, evidence-based research. "And then," he said, "let them make their own decisions. After all, education is the key."

Lee Culver asked Begley, " In light of the recent global warming controversy scandal, what would you say to those who are doubting the facts?"

"Just stick with good science," Begley said. "Stick with peer-reviewed studies. That's all." Begley urged the audience to trust the Ph.D.s that make this type of research their life's work and to stay away from environmental Web sites and radio talk show hosts when looking for information.

A final question was asked by Katie Cercy, who wanted to know, "How do we convince school district to conserve by using online digital content instead of traditional textbooks?"

"You know," Begley replied, "It's a process." There is certainly a place for the printed page, he continued, but as much as we can get these materials out digitally, we should. Begley admitted that we are not going to eliminate paper completely but insisted the savings that can be realized by moving to digital media are tremendous and should be embraced.