September 1997, Volume 4, number 7
by Mary-Beth Baptista
How would you like your child to be friends with Joe Camel? No? Then how about the Exxon tiger, or the utilities' Louie the Lightning Bug?
As the new school year draws near, wise-use advocates and "green" groups are wrestling over the balance of environmental education materials in the classroom. In a time when environmental education is becoming both a controversial and mandatory part of the public education curriculum, the Sierra Club is creating programs that expand on school lesson plans by taking city youths into the great outdoors.
A 13-year-old participant in the San Francisco Bay Area Inner City Outings program put it this way: "What I liked about the camping trip was the freedom of the wilderness. I liked the silence of nature and I never thought I'd say this, but I sort of liked the hiking, too."
Founded in the San Francisco Chapter in 1971, the Club's ICO program conducts as many as 1,000 outings annually for about 14,000 participants across the country. Volunteer leaders trained in recreational, outdoor and safety skills create adventures for people who wouldn't otherwise have them -- including low-income youth of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, hearing or visually impaired individuals, and the physically disabled. Outings include day hikes, backpacking, car camping, canoeing, white-water rafting, bicycling, and cross-country skiing.
"During the outings we stress to the children that diversity is everything in nature, and that every species -- no matter how large or small -- plays a vital role in the ecosystem," said Tammy Mills, volunteer leader for the Cincinnati ICO Group. "We emphasize uniqueness in the natural environment as a way to educate children about the need to protect biological diversity, but also as a way to strengthen their self-esteem and to highlight the importance of diversity and uniqueness in society."
The ICO program is an educational tool that strengthens the ranks of the environmental movement by introducing young people to the outdoors. For example, Mills is developing simple lesson plans for ICO groups that will give students the basics of environmental education in a balanced, pro-active manner.
But some industry representatives and environmentalists are debating where the true "balance" lies. Wise-use advocates say classroom materials produced by environmentalists are filled with scare tactics that turn children into "eco-fanatics." The Club, of course, disagrees.
With materials like "Facts Not Fear: A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children About the Environment," polluters "inject their industry slant, introduce their pseudo-science, generate confusion, downplay threats, side-step issues and discredit researchers and public interest groups," said Trista Claxon, chair of Sierra Club's National Task Force on Environmental Education.
"The wise-use movement has spent huge sums of money throughout America to manipulate public opinion about environmental protection," Claxon said. "Parents and concerned citizens need to get involved in the school decision-making council, local parent-teacher groups, contact other environmental organizations and the local Environmental Education Association in their district to prevent profiteers from advancing their anti-environmental agenda beyond Capitol Hill and into American classrooms."
"We have been successful in the fight to keep Joe Camel and tobacco science out of the classroom," said Larry Freilich, the Sierra Club's Southeast field representative. "It's essential that we keep other wide-eyed industrial mascots out of environmental education."
In 1996, the North American Association for Environmental Education published professional guidelines for instruction and materials. But "wise-use" activists are not happy with them. On Capitol Hill, free market advocates have succeeded in inserting demands for "balanced and scientifically sound" instruction and materials into the pending reauthorization of the 1990 National Environmental Education Act, scheduled for a vote in early September. The Sierra Club, along with several public interest and education groups, endorses the 1996 NAAEE guidelines.
"The Sierra Club Environmental Education Committee has developed a curriculum that is balanced and scientifically sound, and focuses on historical and social studies issues," said Harold Wood, coordinator of the Club's John Muir Education Project. "The Sierra Club in California has been successful with its John Muir Day Study Guide which helps teachers implement a provision of the state education code encouraging schools to study John Muir as an environmental role model every year on his birthday."
The study guide weaves environmental concepts into curricula for social science, economics, political science and human concerns. The group has recently launched the John Muir Youth Award Program to get children to learn about wild places and take action to protect them.
The Sierra Club, through its ICO and environmental education programs, nurtures leadership skills and promotes intercultural communication, and draws people of wide-ranging ethnic groups, cultures, and abilities into the battle to protect our environment.
For more information on the Environmental Education Committee or the John Muir Education Project, contact Harold Wood, (209) 739-8527;
John Muir Education Project
Sierra Club Environmental Education Committee
P.O. Box 3543
Visalia, CA 93278.
For more information on protecting environmental education and to receive an activist kit, contact Trista Claxon, (606) 278-4126;
2137 Georgian Way
Lexington, KY 40504-3061.
For more information on Inner City Outings, contact Megan Matthews, (415) 977-5628;
or visit http://www.sierraclub.org/outings/;
Sierra Club -- ICO
85 Second Street, Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105.
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