Conservation and Education

by Gil Newton

Photo by Alison McMurry

Over the last several years the need for an environmentally literate population has increased. With such complex issues as climate change, nitrogen loading, the reduction in biodiversity, and coastal erosion, it is clear that a basic understanding of ecological processes is essential before deciding on the enactment of environmental policies. The best policy is always based on the best science.

I have devoted my life to environmental education for all ages, but particularly for young people. An understanding and appreciation of the natural environment is imperative if children are to one day make intelligent decisions on ecological issues. The Barnstable Land Trust is an organization dedicated to the proper stewardship of natural, open spaces. But if this is to continue we must teach the next generation the values of preserving this natural trust.

And to do this young people need direct, hands-on contact with the outdoors. Experiential learning engages the student on research studies that often integrate ecology, geology, economics, politics, government, technology, and communications. The absence of outdoor education can lead to unfounded and irrational fears and prejudices about the natural world.

Still, young people have a great curiosity about the world around them including their backyards here on Cape Cod. A teacher has an excellent opportunity to use that innate interest to help students learn important concepts that should last a lifetime. In my classes I work initially with the feelings students have about animals with which they are familiar. My goal is to build an appreciation for wildlife that goes beyond the emotional level and into a greater understanding of the complexities of environmental issues we face today.

Photo by Matt Moynihan

In the class discussions about animals, I find that students respond with interest and enthusiasm, but certain prejudices emerge very quickly. The popular animals are those that are most familiar to the students such as dogs, cats, horses, whales, seals, dolphins, goldfish, squirrels, robins, butterflies, skunks, sparrows, raccoons, and lobsters. The unpopular ones such as insects, spiders, rats, ticks, bats, snakes, and alligators are either unfamiliar to the students or these animals have a reputation for being dangerous or a nuisance. Some students are afraid of all insects, spiders, and snakes in spite of the fact that only a few species may be harmful. Some are afraid of harmless and even valuable animals such as horseshoe crabs. And of course everyone has a strong opinion of great white sharks! Knowing how students feel about these and other animals helps us launch our discussions and studies of each one’s ecological role. For example, views about insects change very quickly when the students learn how important many of them are as pollinators for our food crops and their role in the food web.

One thing is absolutely certain and that is young people are more likely to protect something that they understand or have had a positive experience with the species. This is where direct studies and contact with nature is so essential. And this is where the BLT is so important by preserving open space, natural areas, and conservation land. These parcels become living classrooms and laboratories for students of all ages to explore and enjoy. Not only are they valuable for ecological reasons such as groundwater protection and erosion control, but they provide a wide variety of local habitats in which to learn, understand, and eventually preserve for future generations.

Gil Newton leading a walk at Crocker Neck in Cotuit May 2018 Photo by Lillie Peterson-Wirtanen

My students often ask what they can do as individuals to correct environmental problems. And it is important to offer various solutions to any problem discussed. It is too easy for kids to despair about their future if taught a series of gloom and doom predictions. We must share our optimism with students, hope for their future, and faith in rational thinking and scientific research.

I’ve had students develop long-range plans for Cape Cod by examining solutions to over-development, groundwater protection, the preservation and enhancement of wildlife populations, the reduction of solid wastes including plastics, and the overall economic impacts of regional planning issues. My thinking is that the best way to initiate a positive attitude towards the environment is to begin in our own backyards. We spend many hours of class time outdoors and on field excursions to local forests, salt marshes, and the shoreline. I have told them many times that they need to develop an “ecological eye” and to increase their observations of the systems we visit. it is interesting to note that it’s these kinds of experiences that not only increase student retention of important content, but in many cases has encouraged them to pursue careers in related fields.

Photo by Alison McMurry

This is our natural heritage and in conservation lies our survival. The BLT supports numerous walks throughout the year led by those with the knowledge and passion of the natural world. Environmental educators need to explore these beautiful conservation lands with their students and let them discover the values and significance of these properties.

One of the greatest rewards for an educator is to hear from former students who describe how their outdoor experiences have influenced their thinking, attitude, and even career choice. I can safely predict that the interest and participation in environmental studies will continue to increase among young people. Consequently educators will be continually challenged to meet these needs by expanding and integrating outdoor activities with their curriculum. We have a responsibility to prepare our children for the world that lies beyond the school walls.