Visiting Students Share International Perspectives on Environmental Education

By Mark Protti Gazette Contributing Writer

Sometimes we come to appreciate what we have by hearing what people outside our everyday lives say about it. At the Institute for Training and Development (ITD), which I co-direct, I often experience this as my staff and I bring together students and professionals from around the world to learn about American institutions and exchange ideas.

As an environmentalist I was particularly aware of my own appreciation last October when ITD hosted 21 university students from six countries for a six-week Institute on Energy and Environment, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. The institute combined lectures with Five College professors and formal presentations with site visits to environmental organizations and public resource management agencies throughout the Northeast.

The participants were selected through a competitive process in their home countries, so the talent and enthusiasm ran high. Bringing such students together in a convivial setting for sharing, discussion and reflection is a powerful recipe for new learning. Not only did they gain through their interaction with Americans, but they also benefitted by sharing their experience and perspectives with each other regarding the people, communities and institutions they visited.

While in Amherst the participants visited the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and spent an afternoon helping conduct a children’s program. They were most impressed by the expertise and contagious enthusiasm of the instructors and the depth of the kids’ engagement.

Recently, I asked the students to reflect upon their experiences and share insights about environmental education here and in their own countries. Here are some of their responses.

Vera Biryukova from Russia:
“It’s amazing that the Americans pay so much attention to bringing up their children [environmentally literate] even before they attend school. I find it reasonable, because in childhood our minds are flexible and willing to absorb new knowledge, ideas and skills. It’s also significant that environmental studies [in America] are held by non-profit organizations run by compassionate enthusiasts. Despite being optional, these classes seem to be in demand.

In comparison to the American system, in Russia environmental education has just started emerging. It’s remarkable that it’s beginning at the university level and not in the primary schools. There are few environmental education organizations working with children and existing ones are still not very popular . … It looks like we started to build a pyramid from the top rather than from the foundation—we do have higher education dealing with ecology but we’re lacking basic environmental studies at the primary level.”

Naveed Tramboo from India:
“The atmosphere of the U.S. is very open, meaning that all kinds of opinions are heard . … The system of learning is not limited to classrooms; they put a lot of stress on practical work also. For instance, our small visits to any place were not just a sojourn for recreation, but it involved a continuous learning by observing the environment around and introspecting as to how the different elements coordinate with each other to form a balanced system. This makes the learning process a lot more interesting and consequential.”

Thomas Pollin from France:
“Throughout western Europe there are many ways for children to learn about the environment. Some children are fortunate enough to grow up in families that spend a lot of time outdoors but most kids learn through mandatory environmental education classes in school

The French education program for elementary school indeed provides global knowledge about the environment, not only through academic lessons but also through recreational activities.

We consider it important to create a dialogue between generations about this topic. Secondary school students or associations go to primary schools and organize fun outdoor activities to explain natural processes such as the water cycle.

The way children’s awareness about the environment is raised in France is quite similar to what I observed in the U.S. The best method to capture children’s attention and create interest is to make them participate in fun activities on site, so that they feel at ease while assimilating knowledge.”

The most valuable outcome of this international exchange may be the students’ continued dialogue and shared efforts toward global environmental education and protection. I was heartened to learn, for example, that they had collaborated on a multi-national effort to create an education campaign for reducing energy consumption in Brazil. These students are sure to be the future leaders in their fields and I hope their time in Amherst is only the first of many more exchanges to come.

Perhaps Raphael Barros, from Brazil, said it best:
“As the environment and energy have impacts and importance that go beyond national borders, the opportunity to debate and study these topics in an international context is enhancing and significant. Experience has surely shown that common goals and interests for the better of all should be stronger than the national aspects, and that what connects us is more powerful than the differences we carry socially, culturally or economically.”

Mark Protti is a former member of the Hitchcock Center board and co-executive director of the Institute for Training and Development in Amherst.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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