Teaching environmental education has been part of our curriculum at the Rishi Valley School well before the subject was made mandatory for all students as per the orders of the Supreme Court. Earlier it was both an optional subject at the ICSE and ISC levels, as well as part of curricular learning that students experienced from the junior classes onwards in various subject and non-subject contexts. Environmental Education has now been introduced into the ICSE/ISC curriculum as a compulsory subject since 2005-6 with a wide range of well-meaning objectives from understanding, caring for and nurturing our environment, to developing skills, analytical abilities and leadership qualities in tackling environmental issues. In this article, I will try to show that a meaningful approach to environmental education lies more in developing school-specific environment-related activities, with a built-in environmental ethic, rather than treating it as another subject, with a syllabusfor an examination.
Many students and teachers currently view this subject as an additional burden on them. The syllabus is repetitive and this makes it less interesting to the students. For example, in Class 10, Unit 1 (Restoring Balance in Ecosystems) and Unit 3 (Pollution) have several topics in common. Similarly Unit 1 and Unit 4 (Striving for Better Environment) have topics in common. Between years too, topics are repeated. Topics of immediate relevance that concern the day-to-day life of the students do not get discussed. Often environmental education emphasizes the problems but not much discussion goes into the possible solutions. The students also have to complete a case study and a project to fulfil the internal assessment requirements. When put together with a lot of similar such requirements in all the other subjects, this can be quite stressful to them. The examination at the end of the year tends to be more like a quiz and very often emphasis is given to fanciful terminology and irrelevant details. The spirit of the subject is lost in this futile exercise and it becomes just one more subject to study and secure pass marks. Hence environmental education loses out on the relevance it was intended to highlight. From the teachers’ point of view too, this additional subject takes more classroom time and there is a lot of pressure on the academic timetable.
Many schools do not have the necessary staff to handle the subject and often the existing teachers have to bear the responsibility. The subject itself is so vast, encompassing several facets from pure science to humanities including economics, commerce and sociology, that any one teacher may find it difficult to do justice to it.
In my view, a more fruitful approach would be to involve students at all levels in environment-related activities and also incorporate environmental themes while teaching other subjects. This would enable students to see the inter-relations between various subjects and develop a conceptual grasp of the issues. For example in the case of economics and environment, we may examine issues such as how we can increase economic growth without bringing about an ecological disaster; or in history, we could study how past civilizations have collapsed due to environmental neglect. Attempts in this direction already made in some subject curricula have shown that students develop a more situated appreciation of environmental issues. For example, we have tried to incorporate a biodiversity and conservation ethic into our history curriculum and published books such as Our Tribal Ancestors; Shepherds and Farmers, used as history textbooks at Class 7 level. These texts present an evolutionary perspective that links together all human beings with each other and other life forms, and raise awareness of the impact of human technological developments since the Stone Age. Economic applications at Class 9 level includes a study of the environmental implications of economic development. More can be done by way of incorporating various units into the existing subjects without creating a feeling of being over-burdened. Eco-literature could be studied in English and regional languages. Changing agricultural practices, impact of the Green revolution and current issues of seed preservation and food security, may be included in the geography syllabus. Various forms of chemical pollution and the safeguards required may be discussed in chemistry, while biodiversity and ecology could find a more central place in biology. For those keen on pursuing environmental science as a career, it could continue to be offered as an optional subject in Classes 11 and 12.
Having made some general recommendations I will share, in the rest of this article, several practical ideas for schools and teachers. Though some of my examples are specific to Rishi Valley School — where I have been involved in environmental education for several years — I feel that these could be applicable in any school. With some thought given to it, I am sure each school could come up with original, context-specific activities that may enrich the learning process of the subject.
A fortnightly wall newspaper was launched by the students of Class 11 in December 2006 through March 2007. This wall newspaper was collated and put up each fortnight by a group of students, and everyone in the class got a chance to participate. The contents included: a round-up of environmentrelated news for the fortnight gathered by the group from various newspapers and magazines; local campus notes of environmental significance, including 58 weather records of the campus; cartoons, quotes, book reviews; glossary of environment-related terms; as well as editorial tips and suggestions for an environment-friendly lifestyle. This project became a success with students and allowed a lot of self-learning to take place. Students were also able to keep in touch with the latest developments in the subject around them as well as in the country and the world. It also gave them opportunities to read books and magazines in the library on a regular basis and share the information gathered with the rest of the school.
Addressing a local environmental crisis
An opportunity for rich learning may occur when the school or its neighbourhood faces an actual environmental crisis. This may be related, for instance, to increased noise pollution, garbage build-up, or water problems. In 2004-5, our school went through a severe water crisis. Since we had had successive years of deficit rainfall, things were looking ominous. The situation was discussed with the students and staff, and several decisions to drastically cut down on the consumption of water and monitor the situation were taken. The Student Council then debated the issue and decided to raise the general awareness about water conservation in the school. Several posters were put up at strategic locations; monitoring, reporting and repairing of leaky taps was taken up; and strict monitoring of water consumed by the households and hostels on the campus was initiated on a weekly basis by students, who went around reading the water meters that had recently been installed. The readings were displayed and erring staff and hostels were warned about their exceeding the permissible limits. As a result of these measures, the water consumption on the campus was brought down significantly and students were left with a heightened awareness of the preciousness of water. This drought provided a unique opportunity for students as well as staff members to gear themselves to face the challenge and we succeeded in our efforts at averting a major crisis.
Educational trip to an eco-friendly community or campus
There are, today, a number of NGOs and other concerned groups who are exploring alternative lifestyles and establishing sustainable communities. Schools would do well to identify such communities in their vicinity and expose students to the practices and values that underlie these. Close to our school campus is a village that has been declared as ‘smoke-free’ since the entire village uses solar cookers and bio-gas to meet its energy demands. A visit with the students to the village, spending a few hours with the villagers who were hospitable and willing to share their experiences freely, was an eye-opener. We were taken into the houses of the villagers which were clean and spartan. They explained to us the working of the solar cookers and bio-gas plants. They showed us the way they use the slurry from the bio-gas plant along with other organic wastes in vermi-composting and how the compost then is used in the fields instead of artificial fertilizers and how this has proved economical as well ecologically friendly. They explained the role of drip irrigation in conserving water. The students learnt the amount of firewood saved, the health benefits that result due to smoke-free kitchens and households, and incidental benefits like vermi-compost. All this learning took place, in situ in the most natural way, without being made into the drudgery of a classroom lecture and notes. The students then shared their experiences with others in the school through an assembly presentation. Similar walks are also organised on the school campus itself where we have several eco-friendly technologies at work — such as bio-gas, solar water heaters, parabolic solar cookers and organic farming practices.
Reducing the Plastic menace
Managing and disposing plastic waste is a big on-going problem, whether it is in an urban environment or an isolated rural campus such as ours. The chief source of plastics we found was from packaging of foods that were brought in. Initially we involved the students in litter-picking, where the plastics in the campus were removed periodically by students and teachers. Plastic bins were then installed to collect plastics generated and attempts were made to send much of this to a recycling facility in the nearby town. Some houses (hostels) displayed the amount of plastic generated by the residents each term, and students were made to realize the quantity of waste generated by them. More recently, a food policy was announced that banned bringing in packaged food items from home and instead the school provided the children with snacks freshly made in the kitchen or sourced from local suppliers. This helped reduce the problem to some extent but it needed constant reminders, especially to the parents. Children were also involved in making paper envelopes which reduced the amount of polythene covers used in the hospital and dining hall stores. Items found to have too much of polythene packaging were substituted with those that had lesser amounts. For instance all the packaged and branded biscuits and chocolates as well as ball pens and gel pens were replaced by locally-made biscuits and chocolates and fountain pens, respectively. The senior students were also involved in the discussions and were a party to some of the decisions taken. The problem still exists but we hope with constant reminders and discussions, the amount of plastics can be further reduced. The educative value of such practical efforts and policy shifts is that it raises awareness of our own lifestyles and habits, and the impact these have on the environment, in a more direct way than a classroom discussion would have.
Running an environmental campaign
An interesting way of educating children on environmental issues that affect them, while getting them to articulate these and seek reforms, is through running a campaign. I will briefly share two examples of initiatives that students were encouraged to take.
The first has to do with excessive packaging that has become the trend among manufacturers of confectionary products. We had noticed that Britannia — a company that purports to be eco-friendly and lends its name to the ‘Save the Tiger’ campaign--had increased the plastic and metallized packaging content of its popular biscuits (which are among the few available in our tuck shop). The students in my class were encouraged to write a letter to the company, and then get it signed by the whole school. Despite initial hesitation and even cynicism (‘Who will answer our letter?’), the students took it up. In order to persuade other students and staff, they had to research the topic and make a convincing case about the harmful effects of plastics and the alternatives available, which was then presented at an assembly. A carefully worded letter was then drafted and signatures of all students and staff collected. The letter that was sent off to the Britannia Company officials did not initially draw a response; but it was then published in the ‘Letters’ section of Down to Earth magazine (November 15, 2002 issue). In April 2003, the school received a letter from the Britannia Company referring to the letter published in Down to Earth magazine, commending the children for taking an active interest in the area of environment improvement. They also sent a list of environmental initiatives taken by their organization including packaging. The students then really felt that they had driven their point home.
Subsequently in March 2006, another batch of students took up the issue of a proposed canal that would destroy the last-known habitat of a highly endangered bird — Jerdon’s Courser, known to occur only in Andhra Pradesh. The letter was sent to the chief minister of the state and was signed by all the students and staff of the school. (Several other organizations like the Bombay Natural History Society and environmentalists and naturalists too were sending in petitions to defer the decision of allowing the canal to go through the habitat of the birds.) Though we did not get any reply to the letter, the children were elated when they read in the paper a few weeks laterof the government’s decision to realign the canal.
I feel that the exercise of going through the various stages of a campaign had several sides to it. It promoted educational values since they had to be thorough with all aspects of the issue for which they needed to read and research. The students also had to develop good communication skills since they had to face the audience in the assembly and answer questions put to them. But most importantly it gave them a feeling of satisfaction and hope that it is possible to influence the decision-makers or at least communicate one’s views to the people who mattered through the medium of letters.
Themes for project-work
Rather than making projects into an academic exercise to meet ICSE requirements, we could strive to get students to take up projects that are immediately relevant to them, of interest to them and those which can be pursued at home during the vacation. Some of these topics could be about actual local issues. In the course of their research they could interview officials of the government departments, NGOs, scientists or corporate managers. They could also make visits to sites and gain first-hand experience. Some students prefer to do hands-on work and could construct working models of solar cookers, windmills and such like. A few could gather data through observations of the amounts of waste generated and electricity/water consumed in their colonies; they could photo-document environmental issues in their neighbourhood/cities. Some students could even run campaigns in their apartment blocks to reduce plastics or water consumption or to segregate wastes, and document these as their projects.
Using the resources in the internet
There are several good environmental websites to supplement our classroom and outdoor activities. Though there are sites that give excessive, redundant or biased information, with a little patience one can unearth good sites, which not only give information that teachers need to look at (to supplement the meagre information given in the textbooks and to update themselves on certain topics), but also contain ready-made worksheets, printable handouts, and interactive websites that make learning fun. I would like to particularly mention here two interesting websites that we use often. One of them is the www.myfootprint.org, based on the concept of ‘ecological footprint’. This website asks the readers to answer a set of questions on the web and based on this calculates his/her ecological footprint. The website also gives the background information on what an ecological footprint means and also gives useful suggestions on how one can reduce the size of one’s footprint through various practical actions.
A second interesting website is the site hosted by the Michigan Technological University: http://techalive.mtu.edu/meec_index.htm. This site has 19 modules on environmental issues under three broad categories: Water, Energy Resources, and Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Each module has several interactive pages which use animation, games, review quizzes, activities, all attractively designed to engage the attention of students. I feel some of these units could be used as a substitute for a field visit (when facilities are not available) or supplement it. Though the units are strongly biased towards the needs of students of the Michigan area, quite a lot of general concepts are presented in these modules that are useful for students in India. We have used these units to allow students to grasp concepts as a self-learning exercise and many children found them interesting and useful.
Outdoor activities and field-based programmes
Annual treks to the Himalayas and Nature Camps to places like Sikkim, the Western Ghats, besides shorter trips where camps are organised in forest areas, are very valuable in placing students in direct contact with the grandeur and beauty of nature. Class excursions to areas where NGOs are working either for sustainable development in tribal areas, or for environmental restoration work (e.g Navadarshanam near Bangalore, ACCORD in Gudalur, Gram Vikas in Orissa, Neyveli Lignite Mines, Pichavaram Mangroves) give students a first-hand feel of the means of addressing various environmental issues. Project Tiger reserves where eco-development activities are helping integrate local communities with the conservation of forests and protecting the wildlife are other sites for a rich exposure.
At our school, ecology related activities like weekly bird-watching sessions have been another means of sensitizing students to the processes in nature. Students are also involved in monitoring and charting butterfly populations on the campus. They also assist in making bird counts of water birds during the annual Asian Waterfowl Census programmes. They were also involved in monitoring and gathering details of wetland areas for the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON), Coimbatore. Interactions with ecologists and environmentalists and discussing issues
Whenever possible a school could invite ecologists, environmentalists, experts as well as officials, to share their experiences with students through talks, slide-shows and workshops. In this manner, over the years students at the school have come to meet people as diverse as Shekar Dattatri, Vandana Shiva, Anna Hazare, Dr Suhel Quader, Gopi Sunder and Mr Narayan Reddi, among several others. Engaging students in debates and encouraging them to listen to different perspectives on environment-related issues and alternative points-ofview is another means of getting students to think about contemporary issues such as the bio-diesel, nuclear energy and GM food crops controversies.
We must abandon the false concept of life on Earth, rather than the more appropriate concept: life of Earth. The Earth is not a non-living planet with some accidental life upon its surface; it is a living planet of which we are an inseparable part.
- Elisabet Sahtouris
Environmental education must indeed echo this truth and bring about a change in the lives of students as well teachers. Rather than making it another subject to be learnt to secure marks, the students should view this learning as something fundamental for the survival and sustenance of life on the planet. Environmental issues must be viewed holistically rather than as fragments. If we can incorporate environmental consciousness in all our subjects deliberately, bring in context-specific learning activities and learn, ourselves, to lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle, there would be no need to teach it as a subject for an examination.