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Susan Smartt

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Ditch the Textbooks, Head to a National Park

Posted: 03/ 1/2012 5:43 pm

On Monday, Feb. 27, there was a rare example of government agencies banding together to effect change in environmental education. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced a new agreement to develop programs that use our national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands to connect young people to nature, build environmental literacy, and support experiential learning outside the classroom.

The Departments of Education and of the Interior finally recognize that preparing young people for the 21st century workforce requires a bipartisan, interdepartmental approach. This refreshing and new approach will open doors and help develop careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Their joint strategy supports kids learning in the field, in America's best classrooms, our national parks. All I can say is hallelujah! This is exactly what I've been advocating for all along!

The National Environmental Education Foundation recently produced a compelling infographic that shows how STEM careers will explode over the next decade. We're simply not doing enough to prepare our kids for success in the workforce and the economy of tomorrow, or to solve the environmental challenges we face. Our National Parks present a great opportunity to help us reverse these trends. Our national parks also provide excellent outdoor laboratories for young people to learn and be inspired to build a more sustainable world. Without a complete and balanced education about the environment and human impacts on it, our kids will be ill-prepared to face the challenges to come.

We must change our approach to science education by integrating traditional textbook and lab study with field-based experiential learning. Until Monday, there was no unified effort between government agencies to ensure that hands-on, experiential science education is a key part of children's lives. Again, hallelujah!

Last year, NatureBridge and researchers from Stanford University's School of Education partnered on a research project to assess the current state of environmental education. One of the major barriers we uncovered was a lack of collaboration among key stakeholders including government agencies, nonprofits and philanthropic community.

Each of these organizations strives to connect, inspire and empower people to understand their impact on the environment. Working together, we can create solutions that will improve the quality of environmental education, expand its reach, embrace diverse communities and influence our society to care for and protect the natural world.

I'm already seeing this collaborative approach take root within the nonprofit community. No one organization or department can tackle the issues of environmental education and literacy alone. I applaud Secretary Salazar and Secretary Duncan for taking this significant first step. Our national parks offer life-changing learning opportunities. The traditional classroom setting can't compete with the valleys of Yosemite National Park, the peaks of Olympic National Park or Yellowstone National Park's Old Faithful. With this vision in mind, please join me in applauding this effort to build new pathways of learning for our children and generations to come.

 

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