How Do You Teach Kids to Live Sustainably on an Island?


What's being done to teach environmental education to kids like these? Photo credit: maveric2003 via Flickr/Creative Commons

Environmental education is playing a bigger role around the globe as we all learn more about our environmental surroundings. As with all environmental solutions, there's no one-size-fits-all recipe for effective environmental education around the world; there are just too many cultural, social, and environmental variances to make it work effectively. Add in some wrinkles like educators face in the Galapagos -- that they live on one of the most biodiverse (and protected) places on the planet, and that it's an island -- and it's a whole new ballgame. Part of our visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) was spent finding out how that's done.
Water issues, like how the ocean currents affect the Galapagos' weather and climate, are a big part of environmental education here. Photo credit: Collin Dunn at CDRC

First, back up 14 years. Sandra Tapia, CDRC's Education Specialist, wanted to integrate more environmental education into the public education system in the Galapagos, which is overseen by the government on Ecuador's mainland. So she started developing a curriculum that was focused on not just teaching kids about sustainable living and the environment, but about sustainable living and the environment on an island. It's easy to see why it's so different: Islands are smaller land masses, but still have to provide all the goods and services required by the population. Unless it can be grown or produced on the island -- not something that happens a whole lot in Galapagos, since 98 percent of the land is reserved in Galapagos Islands National Park -- it has to be shipped in, and then the waste has to be shipped out (more to come about that in another post).

"Vivo en una isla"

So, teaching sustainability is much more multi-faceted than just saying, "Hey kids, please recycle." Sandra came up with three main focus areas that needed to be addressed in order to create a well-rounded environmental education: Human Development; Natural Resources; and Management of Biodiversity. The goal of it all was a simple one: To live well on small islands.

The idea behind the three-pronged approach is this: Islanders have to understand that there's a limit to tourism and a limited amount of natural resources to use; they can't simply rely on both ad nauseum. There just isn't enough space for everything -- people, waste, you name it. It needs to be taught from a young age now, because many people are still around that can recall early human habitation on the islands. Most grandparents are among the early immigrants to the islands, and, in that sense, they are really pioneers, and that's where the human development component comes in so strongly: Teaching subjects like history are very instructive for aiming for sustainability, since there's still a lot of living history from when the Galapagos wasn't quite so busy with tourists and residents alike.

There's a different program for each grade from 1 to 7, so the students get started early and follow though far enough that (theoretically, at least) they'll have the knowledge and habits to carry through to adult life. And, in many circles, it's been very popular. The curriculum has been so well-received that plans to integrate it on the mainland as well, though slightly modified. It's easy to understand why: The mainland has water, waste, and energy issues (in different circumstances) that will need to be addressed by the next generation of leaders and residents. It's best to get them started right away.

That's sort of where the rosy picture ends, at least for now. Though the project has been under development for 14 years -- it first started as a club on the island of Santa Cruz, where CDRC is located, because they could reach the small population of students that way -- it hasn't been fully integrated into the islands' schools, so the program's effectiveness remains a bit scattershot. And, though the Galapagos has a small resident population (about 30,000 -- the first official census in many years is taking place later this week so the country will finally know for sure how many people live there), it's encountered some bureaucratic resistance at a variety of levels. As in the U.S., it's often a matter of budget and time, and both of those things are as limited as some of the dwindling resources on the islands.

It's a very idealistic program, which all the American teachers thought was great, but, given the restrictions on educational resources, we had to ask: Is it realistic? Maria has been at it for 14 years, and she thinks it can be done. She told us that if you only look at the macro picture, the wide angle, it may seem impossible, but if you capitalize on every micro-level success -- which, in this case, would be another new school or island on board -- then they can all add up to make a difference. Does that sound familiar to anyone else?

24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along with them to report on the trip's experiences and lessons -- check out what the teachers are blogging about at the Toyota International Teacher Program Wiki.
More about the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)
Middle School Teachers Pioneer New Globally Focused Environmental Education Plans

Tags: Galapagos