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Partnerships gone wild: preparing teachers of young children to teach about the natural world.

As our environmental landscapes continue to shift, schools face the rising challenge of providing engaging environmental education programs for their students. These programs must be multi-faceted and foster environmental awareness and understanding while facilitating action. As children are spending increasingly less time outdoors interacting with nature and more time interacting with media to learn about nature, and as urban structures continue to consume the natural areas, the need to re-examine how we train educators to address environmental education increases (Hudson, 2001). This article describes how one large, urban university teacher preparation program addressed the issue of preparing teachers of young children to be effective environmental educators through an integrated partnership called Strengthening Awareness and Valuing the Environment (SAVE). This partnership involves the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) College of Education and Human Development, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.

The first goal of SAVE is to increase preservice teachers' knowledge of, and interaction with, the city's abundant and available natural areas. The second goal is to influence preservice teachers' perceptions of the environment by using systematic, hands-on professional development experiences in environmental education. SAVE not only increases preservice teachers' knowledge about the existence of the natural areas, it also helps teachers discover how environmental education and available local natural areas can become important components in their teaching for effective student learning about the natural world. Preservice teachers should understand that "experiences outside the classroom are an important instructional strategy for engaging young children in direct discovery of the world around them" (North American Association for Environmental Education, 2004b, p. 3), and to bring this knowledge into their teaching practice in the future.

Environmental Literacy

The way we educate young children today about the environment will have a great impact on the future quality of life for generations to come. Environmental issues are complex, and so we need to begin sensitizing young children as early as possible to humans' influence on the natural world. Understanding this delicate balance between humans and their environment begins with developing environmental literacy. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) describes an environmentally literate citizenry as individuals who understand and think in terms of systems, and who are capable of making well-informed policy decisions rooted in the belief that "humans can live compatibly with nature and act equitably towards each other" (2004a, p. 2). The three broad goals for environmental literacy, as outlined in the NAAEE Guidelines for Learning (2004a), include:

* To foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas

* To provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment, and skills needed to protect and improve the environment

* To create new patterns of behavior for individuals, groups, and society as a whole towards the environment. (p. 2)


Thus, teacher education programs need to focus on developing environmentally literate teachers who are able to think in terms of interdependence and recognize the impact of this interdependence on their lives, as well as on the lives of all living things.

Effective Environmental Education

The NAAEE guidelines (2004a) identify several key principles of environmental education, which include an understanding of systems, interdependence, the importance of where one lives, the integration and infusion of concepts across the curriculum, the use of real-world experiences for understanding, and the need for such lifelong learning skills as critical thinking and decision-making. Effective programs in environmental education for young children incorporate these principles in activities that develop problem-solving and communication skills, and blend media-based information with information gathered through engaging experiences that occur outside of the classroom (Bogner, 1998; Dettmann-Easler & Pease, 1999). In referring to Piaget's conception of how children acquire new knowledge in the context of environmental education, David (1974) explains that environmental learning involves "not only the assimilation of information from the environment into the learner's behavioral repertoire, but also an appropriate change within the learner, an accommodation to the requirements of the environment" (p. 694). This thinking supports activities that immerse young children in their natural environment, where they can experiment, ask questions, hypothesize, and draw conclusions. In addition, a growing body of research shows that children who are frequently immersed in natural settings are healthier; are more social and independent; are more advanced motorically; have improved cognitive, reasoning, and observational skills; and exhibit more imaginative and creative play (Fjortoft & Sageie, 2000; Louv, 2005; Malone & Tranter, 2003; Rivkin, 1990; Wells, 2000; Wells & Evans, 2003).


Preservice Teachers' Environmental Literacy

Environmental literacy may begin in the home, but is also supported and developed in the school setting. Teachers of young children play an important role in establishing a foundation for environmental literacy that is interactive and fosters positive attitudes and behaviors related to the natural world. In order to accomplish this, early childhood educators themselves must have a high level of environmental literacy. Environmental literacy depends on the learner's ability to question, analyze, and interpret environmental issues; understand the processes and systems that make up the environment, including human social systems and influences; and define, learn about, evaluate, and act on environmental issues, ultimately taking personal and civic responsibility.

Research has demonstrated that adults often have the same misconceptions or stereotypical beliefs as young children do about the environment (Palmer & Suggate, 1996). For example, their perception of what constitutes the environment may be limited to their immediate surroundings, they may think that the environment only consists of living things, or they may believe that they (as humans) are not a part of the environment (Desjean-Perrotta, Moseley, & Cantu, 2007). In addition, many new teachers of young children may be part of a generation that grew up lacking local natural experiences, much like many of their students. Shepardson, Wee, Priddy, and Harbor (2007) believe that "curricular emphasis must be on the local environment expanding to other environments" (p. 344). Teachers may have some knowledge about distant environments through the media, but lack experience with their local natural environments. One study showed that most teachers primarily use "built" settings, such as the classroom, zoo, or museum, more than natural areas, such as nature centers or city parks, to teach about the environment (Young & Simmons, 1992).


Past studies suggest that teachers consider providing nature experiences to be important, relevant to the school curriculum, and something their students would enjoy (Young & Simmons, 1992). It is often assumed that teachers have a clear understanding of environmental systems, and that this understanding forms the basis for their environmental education curriculum. However, this is not always the case (Desjean-Perrotta et al., 2007). Most teachers are concerned that they lack the necessary skills and knowledge to teach environmental education to young children (Young & Simmons, 1992). Thus, the problem of preservice teachers lacking both an awareness of local environments and the effective knowledge and skills to teach about the environment provided the impetus for the development of the SAVE environmental education program.


Project WILD's Connection to SAVE

As a component of the SAVE program, UTSA draws upon Project WILD, a daylong professional development workshop that highlights the environmental education curriculum. Project WILD, an international environmental education program, is based on national environmental education standards put forth by NAAEE. Research has demonstrated that this type of daylong training is effective at improving preservice teachers' knowledge of and/or attitude about environmental education. Crosby (1991) found that participation in a Project WILD workshop significantly improved preservice teachers' attitudes toward teaching science and environmental education.

In Texas, Project WILD is sponsored by the state's Parks and Wildlife Department, and is one of the most widely used environmental education programs among K-12 educators. The mission of Project WILD is to provide wildlife-based conservation and environmental education that fosters responsible actions toward wildlife and related natural resources. Project WILD assists learners of all ages in developing awareness, knowledge, and skills related to the environment, as well as a commitment to its protection. The project uses developmentally appropriate and meaningful activities that can be integrated into any school curriculum or program. University faculty in the teacher education program discovered, through a pilot study, that preservice teachers' perceptions of the environment and environmental education were far from the ideal that was outlined in the NAAEE guidelines for teacher professional development. To address this deficiency, the faculty decided to include formal training in environmental education, thus integrating Project WILD into the teacher education preparation program as the cornerstone of SAVE.

Implementing Project WILD

In accordance with the goals and mission of Project WILD, the 6-hour Project WILD training workshops take place in one of the five natural areas managed by San Antonio's Parks and Recreation Department, in cooperation with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. All preservice teachers receive a full day of Project WILD training as part of their course requirements for a methods course in teaching math and science to young children. Twelve faculty who teach methods courses in the teacher preparation program have completed the Project WILD facilitator training. These facilitators conduct the workshops in conjunction with staff from San Antonio Parks and Recreation and volunteers from the Alamo Master Naturalists Association.

The preservice teachers receive instruction in the curriculum, methods, and content found in the Project WILD K-12 Curriculum and Activity Guide (Project WILD, 1992). The day's agenda is centered around the conceptual framework of environmental literacy development: awareness of and concern about the environment, skills and knowledge needed to protect and improve the environment, and appropriate action towards the environment (see Figure 1). They also receive six continuing education units they can apply toward the state-mandated professional development hours required of all Texas teachers. In addition to preservice teachers, inservice teachers in the university's multiple area partnership schools are invited to attend any of the one-day trainings offered, which are offered over a four-day period in both the fall and spring semesters.

Because we believe that effective professional development consists of more than a one-time workshop, we follow up the training with class assignments in which the preservice teachers are required to use Project WILD activities during their field work in the public schools. In their assigned elementary classrooms, they practice guiding children through the Project WILD activities as part of their instruction in environmental education. The preservice teachers receive feedback on their use of these activities from their instructors and mentor teachers. Students also develop and teach additional science lessons that integrate environmental education, using effective teaching strategies taught in Project WILD.

Benefits of Project WILD Preservice Teacher Training

Project WILD training has proven to be successful in meeting the original goals of the SAVE program. Based on a short post-training survey, many early childhood preservice teachers have identified, through open-ended responses, that the training benefited them in several ways. Participants said that they gained a new awareness of natural areas, increased their knowledge of natural areas as resources for general use, developed a personal understanding and appreciation of surrounding natural areas, and gained an understanding of the connections of environmental education and the natural areas to the curriculum and to the children.

Based on the original goals of SAVE, the training has helped preservice teachers to become aware of, and to interact with, the natural areas around San Antonio. It also has influenced their perceptions of the environment and their understanding of the important role these local areas play in teaching young children about the connection between themselves and the natural world. Responses to the evaluation surveys shed light on the fact that 52.4 percent of the preservice teachers surveyed had never been to any of the city's five natural areas that are supported by the Parks and Recreation Department. Hosting the Project WILD training (in partnership with the city's Parks and Recreation Department) has been a successful way to help preservice teachers become knowledgeable about surrounding natural areas. Prior to the training, 84 percent of the preservice teachers had not experienced the particular natural area where the Project WILD workshop took place, and 7 percent of the preservice teachers were not even aware of the existence of any of the valuable natural areas available in their own community.

Preservice teachers who participated in the Project WILD workshops overwhelmingly indicated on the survey that they wanted to return to the natural areas. Many indicated that these areas were places they would use in the future to get exercise and recreation, and to be connected with nature. They also reported their intent to take students to the areas for field trips and learning opportunities, and would teach their own young children about nature and wildlife, using these natural areas.

The most effective professional development incorporates continuous improvement efforts based on developing needs assessments (Desimone, Porter, Birman, Garet, & Yoon, 2002). A limitation of the Project WILD program is that training is implemented only in a single semester. In response to this limitation, SAVE is gradually using the Project WILD training as a springboard, to be followed by opportunities related to professional development in environmental education in additional courses. The Project WILD curriculum is discussed over the remainder of the training semester, and the students have various opportunities to implement Project WILD activities in subsequent field-based courses.

Implications for Teacher Education

Environmental literacy is grounded in the belief that if we begin early to develop within children a deep understanding of nature and the interrelationship of systems within nature, they will be capable as adults of creatively and responsibly solving complex environmental problems. Positive attitudes about the environment are formed in early childhood and depend on frequent interaction with the natural environment (Cohen, 1992; Cohen & Horm-Wingerg, 1993; Phenice & Griffore, 2003; Sobel, 1990).

The goals for environmental literacy may be more easily accomplished if we begin environmental education programs with young children, who do not yet have pre-established environmental habits or ideas. In order to reach these goals, it is imperative that we, as educators, provide them with a rich curriculum, such as the one endorsed by Project WILD, that fosters an awareness of the natural world surrounding them and that provides them with many opportunities to explore that environment. This endeavor begins with early childhood educators understanding and implementing environmental education in their schools and child care centers. Teachers who embrace the goals of environmental education will be able to positively affect young children's emerging perceptions and beliefs about the environment (Anderson & Moss, 1993).

Engaging early childhood preservice teachers in programs such as SAVE is an effective way to solidify this commitment to environmental education. SAVE meets the guidelines set forth by NAAEE (2004a) with regard to implementing strong environmental literacy learning and teaching that are integrated into educational programs. In order for university programs to effectively incorporate environmental education, Powers (2004) has outlined four necessary components that must be present: 1) teaching and learning outdoors, 2) sharing environmental education resources, 3) modeling effective environmental education strategies, and 4) involvement of the local community. The SAVE partnership emerged as a way to meet all of these components completely in our early childhood teacher education program. Additionally, by focusing on preservice teachers' environmental education training, the effects will extend beyond the university classes and into the public school system. By ensuring strong environmental education programs for early childhood teachers, who will ultimately be teaching the young children in schools and child care centers, we are creating environmentally aware citizens across the generations.

As a result of SAVE, future early childhood teachers will have an increased understanding of the interdependence we share with the environment and increased knowledge and skills pertaining to environmental education. Children will have teachers who are knowledgeable about environmental education, are prepared to teach about the natural world in their classrooms, and are excited about utilizing the surrounding natural areas.


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Courtney Crim is Assistant Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, Blanche Desjean-Perrotta is Associate Dean, Teacher Education, and Christine Moseley is Associate Professor, Department of Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching, University of Texas at San Antonio.
Project WILD Workshop

8:30 - 8:45 Registration
8:45 - 9:30 Introductions / WILD Bingo
9:30 - 10:30 Oh Deer!
10:30 - 11:30 Wildlife Is Everywhere!
 (Hike through the Natural Area)
11:30 - 12:00 Hike through WILD guide/WILD game show
12:00 - 12:45 Working lunch: Group assignments
12:45 - 3:30 Group Presentations: Each group will guide
 participants in one of the following
 activities for the large group:

 Environmental Awareness
 Animal poetry
 And the wolf wore shoes
 Environmental Knowledge
 Quick frozen critters
 How many bears live in the forest?
 Environmental Action
 What did your lunch cost wildlife?
 Litter we know

3:30 - 4:00 Habitat Lapsit Evaluations

** Description of activities are available in the Project
WILD resource book.
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Author:Crim, Courtney; Desjean-Perrotta, Blanche; Moseley, Christine
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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