Environmental Diary

In 2003, Gov. Jennifer Granholm called for the development of an environmental curriculum for Michigan schools. The result is Michigan Environmental Education Curriculum Support, the $1-million product of a three-year collaboration between the state Departments of Environmental Quality and Education. According to DEQ officials, the curriculum has been field tested by some 120 teachers in nearly 200 classrooms statewide. As both a scientist and educator, I was asked by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, publisher of Michigan Education Report and the MichiganScience journal, to assess the lesson plans and supplemental materials that comprise MEECS.

Considerable debate exists about the value of environmental education. Critics assert that research demonstrates serious biases in texts and curriculum materials, among them oversimplification, distrust of technology, misinformation concerning waste management and overly gloomy scenarios. They also contend that environmental education is rife with lessons in political activism that turn youngsters into tools of environmentalists.

In contrast, advocates contend that environmental education inspires students to take personal responsibility for environmental preservation and restoration, as well as to acquire the skills necessary to weigh issues and to make informed decisions.

For purposes of this review, the Department of Environmental Quality provided MichiganScience with the MEECS materials.

ECOSYSTEMS AND BIODIVERSITY

This unit is composed of 10 lessons divided equally between ecosystems and biodiversity, intended for grades four through six. As I found with the majority of MEECS materials, the lessons are more teacher-directed than oriented toward student discovery. For example, in three pages of instructions for this unit, teachers are repeatedly directed to "show," "tell" and "explain" the information to students, all of which fosters passive learning.

The introduction of the nutrient cycle is certainly appropriate for these grade levels. The unit also conforms to state standards for teaching the patterns of interdependence and interrelationships among living things, habitats and ecosystems.

LAND USE

The Land Use unit is intended for grades four through six. The lessons include observing, measuring and classifying land use in Michigan and analyzing changes in land use over time. This may sound straightforward, but the value of the exercise is limited by the fact that students are led along a designated path to reach a specific conclusion. For example, Lesson 2 asks students to view an aerial photo and identify whether the land use pictured is "human or natural." Such a question casts human activity as outside of nature and, therefore, inherently destructive. Students are being told what to think rather than being allowed to draw their own conclusions.

This scripted approach also plants fear in students over land use in Michigan. The message is that land used for parks and wildlife habitat is good, but land used for housing and commerce is bad. There is not a single mention of private property rights in the unit; the curriculum instead endorses government control of land use and natural resources. Also left unaddressed are the inevitable tradeoffs associated with all land-use decisions.

The unit also suffers from empirical flaws. In Lesson 5, for example, students are presented with a line graph illustrating a decline in farmland, which is described as "urban sprawl that is consuming Michigan’s agricultural land at an alarming rate." Students are told to ignore any increases in farmland over the past 57 years. The numerous reasons for a decline, such as greater agricultural productivity, are not addressed, nor is the fact that thousands of acres of farmland have been converted to woodlands.

AIR QUALITY AND WATER QUALITY

These units — intended for middle-school grades — share a theme, which readers might reasonably think would focus on the quality of the two resources. In the MEECS curriculum, however, the common theme is global warming; the two units combined feature no fewer than 105 references to "global climate change."

The lessons do address various uses of air and water, and the changes that occur as a result of both natural and anthropogenic (human-caused) factors. However, the emphasis is clearly placed on human impacts and global climate change. For example:

"Scientists know for certain that human activities are changing the composition of Earth’s atmosphere ... It is well accepted by scientists that greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere and tend to warm the planet. By increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, human activities are strengthening Earth’s natural greenhouse effect."

Such content is inappropriate because it assumes that the science is settled on the causes of climate change when it is not. The curriculum also fails to inform students that the climate is constantly changing — and always has throughout time.

ENERGY RESOURCES

This unit — intended for middle-school students — is focused on comparing energy use in the early 1900s and today, including how energy resources have changed and how people can employ more "renewable" energy to minimize our "environmental impact." Students are presented with examples of "dramatic" increases in our energy consumption without any objective context with which to calculate both the costs and benefits of energy use.

The current of pessimism running throughout the MEECS materials is particularly evident in this unit. It presents a litany of complaints about conventional energy, including how fossil fuels foster "dependence" on other countries and create waste in their production. It ignores the costs and benefits of renewable energy, which robs students of a complete understanding of our energy challenges.

One lesson directs students to keep a record of their energy use and reflect on ways to reduce it — the presumption being that energy use is inherently wasteful. (See graphic this page)

Not only do these questions presume that energy use is wasteful, they imply that recycling, public transportation and locally produced goods are always more beneficial than the alternatives. Students would gain much greater insight if the lesson required them to also analyze the energy needed for recycling, for example, or the benefits of agricultural imports.

CONCLUSION

Science instruction should develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students. Real-world applications enable students to understand the relevance of what they are learning. Further, active learning promotes intellectual growth. As noted earlier, the MEECS curriculum relies heavily on passive instruction, which doesn’t foster independent learning or critical thinking.

Our students would benefit more if allowed to explore issues without indoctrination. Let them draw their own conclusions on such issues as land use, climate change and the use of nonrenewable fuels.

Every MEECS unit is prefaced with statements underscoring the balanced and science-based nature of the materials. However, the materials are not balanced. They promulgate a viewpoint, one that clearly favors centralized control and decision-making over scientific investigation and public debate.

Charles Bacon, Ph.D., is professor of physics and chemistry at Ferris State University and coauthor of ‘DO SOMETHING: The Art and Practice of Project-Based, Active Learning’ and ‘A Guide to Connect Learning to Performance.’