Eco-logic: Four Winds brings environmental ed to the students

 [Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 2/24/11] 

In the 2010 edition of Four Winds Nature Institute’s annual newsletter, Director Lisa Purcell shared some of what she heard in a series of statewide dialogues that prompted people “to imagine successful community-wide environmental education and describe what they would see when they walked down their street.”

She goes on to paint a vivid picture of a sustainable, engaged, and environmentally literate community of all ages.

“Preschoolers filling their pockets with special rocks and acorns. Fourth-graders harvesting carrots in the school garden. Middle school classes identifying insects in a nearby stream. High school students creating a guide to local farms as part of a service-learning project.

“In our workplaces, people carpool regularly, and energy conservation is a priority. Colleagues join brown bag lunch workshops on bike maintenance and home weatherization, trash is sorted and recycled, food waste is composted for the community garden.

“Our towns have bike and walking paths connecting homes to schools to shops to parks. Neighbors share resources like canoes, rototillers, and lawnmowers. Markets carry locally grown vegetables and meats.”

High hopes, perhaps, but many communities, schools and businesses are in fact leading the way to a greener, more sustainable future. One definition of sustainability comes from the notion that, as humans, we must be mindful of how our actions and treatment of the earth affects not just us, but how those actions affect subsequent generations — an acknowledgement that we have a responsibility to the future.

Since 2006, Four Winds has been working to ensure that those future generations are given an education that instills those notions of stewardship and community-based environmental literacy by integrating environmental education into the classroom and bringing the classroom outside.

Based in Chittenden, the institute is comprised of just eight staff members, but its adult volunteers number more than 1,500. While still relatively young, Four Winds can trace its roots back to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s Environmental Learning for the Future program. Purcell and many of Four Winds’ volunteers have a long history with ELF, which has been educating children for more than 30 years.

Each month, the staff and volunteers in Four Winds’ Nature Program work with almost 16,000 students (grades K through 6) at more than 100 schools around Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts to lead workshops for teachers and instructors that demonstrate how to integrate natural science and environmental education concepts into existing curricula.

The institute strives to get students to see the everyday world with new eyes. Through observation, problem solving, data collection and experimentation, students learn to engage nature with knowledge and curiosity.

During these monthly workshops, educators learn how to integrate concepts of environmental literacy and natural science in ways that complement existing science curricula and fit with current educational standards. The results are dynamic, hands-on lessons that the teachers themselves can apply and use with confidence.

In addition, Four Winds staff and volunteers visit classrooms around New England every month to provide materials, resources and presentations for specific units.

For example, a team might come to a school to with feather sets —which are federally controlled — to allow students a unique opportunity to gain firsthand experience with scientific materials.

Knee High Nature, another Four Winds program designed for early childhood, works with teachers and childcare providers to explore what science looks like for a 3-yearold, and help them learn what they can do outdoors with pre-school-aged children.

Purcell noted that children are especially inquisitive at that age.

“They are little scientists,” she said. “They have lots of ‘I wonder’ questions.”

The foundation for Four Winds’ programming is derived from the book “Hands On Nature,” which is a compiled curriculum that serves as a handbook for volunteer instructors.

The book was first published in 1986 though VINS’ ELF program. The second edition, published in 2000, was edited by Purcell.

Always looking to reach more students, Four Winds offers donor-funded start-up scholarships available for up to $600 to schools interested in launching the Nature Program.

Another project, Linkages for Environmental Literacy, is working with 14 teachers at different schools in the Upper Valley to develop inquiry-based environmental education units.

Teachers submitted proposals for support for a unit they are required to teach. Four Winds, then, matches the teachers with local content specialists who will lend their unique area of expertise to augment the unit with real world, hands-on experience.

This year, units are being designed around watershed studies, forest ecosystem health and solid waste among others.

“It’s a significant shift,” Purcell said. “We assist the teachers in what they need,” which she finds more effective than simply providing them with lesson plans that are wedged into existing units.

Purcell hopes efforts like this are just the beginning of what the future of environmental education will look like in Vermont and, possibly, the rest of the country. Working with the Vermont Statewide Environmental Education Programs and the Vermont Dept. of Education, Four Winds is developing a “road map for environmental literacy,” which will formally integrate environmental education into K-12 curricula statewide.

While Purcell admits that the plan is still some time away from implementation, she is confident that they will be ready to move when the time comes, having already created models such as Linkages which can be easily replicated.

Beyond the classroom, Four Winds remains committed to its mission of fostering community-based environmental literacy. In 2010, the institute took to the road holding a series of statewide dialogues asking people to “envision a sustainable future.”

The dialogues were not just pie in the sky visions of what Vermonters should do; there was also the compilation of a very tangible inventory of what communities, businesses and individuals around the state are already doing.

In the coming weeks, Four Winds will be publishing a report of sorts summarizing the dialogues though story sharing, action steps and replicable projects. (You can find the document at www.environmentalliteracyvt.org.)

Purcell noted that a twist on that question is getting people to realize that, in their daily lives and jobs, they sometimes are already doing their part for the environment.

She cited companies that have idling policies for their truck fleets as an example of a bottom-line issue that has environmental benefits.

“The more people can recognize their role in this, the better,” she said.

Purcell has been involved in environmental education for much of her life. Despite her dedication, she wonders if, as a planet, we are doing enough.

Yet she is not one to be discouraged. “You can’t wring you hands and roll up your sleeves,” she said, recalling a favorite quote.

It is with that optimism that Four Winds keeps looking forward to future generations and educating those leaders and decision makers of tomorrow.

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