Thinking is the Key

The Australian Association for Environmental Education conference is overflowing with great conversations about how to improve what we do as educators.  There is so much ground to cover, I think I’ll be writing about it for many months yet.

For now, I’d like to talk about the plenary session given by Professor Sam Ham from the University of Idaho this afternoon.  Looking around the packed auditorium I could see the audience were hanging on his every word.  He is such a fantastic communicator, which makes what he says even more powerful, since good education has good communication at its core.

Sam led by illustrating that as environmental scientists, managers and educators we are essentially different to the majority of other people on this planet.  People who are passionate about environmental issues are in the minority – we are not the norm in society.  Consequently, if we try to motivate others toward behavioural change by using things that would inspire us, we will be unlikely to reach the majority of people, and really only be preaching to the converted.

He went on to say, however, that most people are capable of doing the right thing (by our particular standards), but they will only do it for their own reasons.  The trick is finding out what those reasons are.  That’s where good survey techniques are important, but that’s an issue for a future post.

Perhaps the most important thing (to me anyway) that Sam said was that it won’t be what we say to them that will make them act, but it will be their own thinking that does.  Hence, we must get them to think, and find out the answer, for themselves.  The notion of constructivist learning is not new, but never-the-less it is often overlooked, especially in community education.  We have to get better at encouraging our audiences to think their own thoughts and find for themselves the motivation to act.  That means finding what is relevant to them.

That brings me to an earlier workshop by Grahame Collier from T Issues Consultancy.  He was discussing how to reach challenging people and groups.  The people that are disengaged by traditional community education campaigns.

One thing Grahame did was to showcase a few successful examples.  Some were quirky, such as the Shit on my Shoe campaign to encourage UK dog owners to pick up their dog poo, or Dog Breakfasts to protect threatened Hooded Plovers on South Australian beaches by inviting dog owners to a breakfast bbq and in the process talk to them individually about keeping their dogs on leads around Plovers.  Others were more sedate, but used a peer from that sector of society to champion the message, or used the personal approach of having face-to-face conversations about what it is that matters to them.

One great example that Sam used was encouraging walkers to stay on the path in sensitive forest areas of the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.  It wasn’t environmental or safety reasons which ultimately motivated them to stay on the path (in fact, even people who strayed off the path already held these beliefs).  In the end what mattered to most visitors to these areas was seeing the best view and getting the best photos.  So by reinforcing the notion that the path went to the spots with the best views, the rangers were able to change visitor behaviour considerably.  Only good research about your target audience can find what is most relevant to them.

Ultimately, people will not change their behaviour unless they want to.  Our job is to make the message relevant to them, and encourage them to find the answer for themselves.

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Nature Play

Day one of the Australian Association for Environmental Education conference found us on the eco-education tour.  We visited CERES and the Port Phillip Eco Centre, but more on those in a later post.

I want to begin with the Royal Botanical Gardens of Melbourne and its Children’s Garden.

The Children's GardenThis is a fantastic nature space for children of all ages to explore and have fun, and in the process learn to appreciate nature.  It is more informal education, rather than a formal one, but the children love it, by all accounts.

It is a safe place, completely walled in with one child proof gate, but it also has several distinct spaces within the garden, including a bamboo forest, pond, tea tree grove, rock garden, open grassed area, vegie garden, shelter, tree fern garden – the list goes ever on.

I really like the concept that children are encouraged to just play, using their own imagination and explore what nature has to offer.  It is an extremely important aspect of  every child’s life and will encourage the next generation to have a connection to nature that so many of us are missing in the modern world.

If you can get here to check it out for yourself, do so.  It’s well worth the visit.

Well done to the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, and hopefully more such spaces can be developed in community gardens, schools and backyards all around the whole globe.

Garden Features

Garden Path

Boab Trees

The Pond

Entrance to the Bamboo Forest

The Magic Pudding

Designed for Kids

The 10,000 Year Old Tree Stump

Australian Association for Environmental Education Conference

I recently joined the Australian Association for Environmental Education so I can learn from other educators who’ve been down the same path.

I’m delighted to be attending the biennial conference next week in Melbourne – Creating our Next Courageous Steps.  It will be a four day bevy of environmental education ideas, covering all fields from pre-school to vocational and tertiary education.  Community education isn’t left out either.  In fact, if its to do with environmental education, it’ll be discussed at the conference.

AAEE Conference Banner
I’m particularly looking forward to tomorrow’s eco-education tour to CERES, the Port Phillip Eco Centre and the Royal Botanical Gardens’ Landscapes for Learning initiative.

There’s also some great workshops on how to encourage community and students to connect to nature, a look at marine education, wetlands, forest classrooms, engaging businesses, indigenous education and using photography and film-making to engage students.  These last two are a particular passion of mine.  There’s loads more of course, but instead of me banging on about it, just check out their program online.

I’ll post some detailed articles examining some of the things discussed, so watch this space.

Animal Ambassadors Spread the Environmental Message

As educators, we often struggle to engage our audience in meaningful learning.  Environmental educators are no different.

It’s easy to engage the keen audiences, the ones that ask lots of questions and are generally eager to learn about conservation issues.  It’s the ones that are only marginally interested that take lots of effort.

Nicolette with a Squirrel Glider

Photo courtesy of Mauricio Payan Luna

I was fortunate to have Adrian and Tamara from Animals Anonymous give a presentation to my TAFE students the other day.  They brought with them their wonderful cohort of native Australian animals.  Adrian Sherriff has been using animals as a catalyst to teach people of all ages about environmental issues for years.  Nearly every person I’ve seen is fascinated by wildlife, especially when it’s something they often don’t get up close to.

One might call these animals exotic, but they aren’t.  They are exotic in that many people don’t know anything about them, yet they are native to Australia.  It always disappoints me that most Australians know more about African animals than our own.

Adrian is on a mission to change that, but he also does more.  He talks about many contemporary conservation issues, and people listen.  They are enthralled.  The wildlife are a big part of that.  I’ve seen three of his presentations now, but on the most recent occasion he brought a Rufus Bettong, Long-nosed Potoroo, Tawny Frogmouth, Green Tree Frog, lots of lizards and a Carpet Python.  I think the stars of the show, however, were the baby Carpet Pythons.  Everyone loved them.

Having native wildlife running around the classroom is a great way to engage your students in discussions about biodiversity issues – whether it be ecological adaptations, habitat loss or something in between.

Tamara from Animals Anonymous with the Carpet Python and Brayden

Photo courtesy of Chanthamany Siliya

A Bearded Dragon foot

Photo courtesy of Mutsumi Katayama

Mauricio with a juvenile Carpet Python

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Solomon

Mutsumi and a Bearded Dragon

Photo courtesy of Nicolette Solomon

Marine Leaders are Stars of the Sea

Congratulations must go the Marine Discovery Centre for winning the state round of the Schools First Awards.

The Marine Leaders project run by the Centre is a fantastic initiative engaging school students in marine and coastal conservation.  Not only do they learn about marine ecology and environmental issues, but they also actively participate in conservation programs.

The Marine Discovery Centre

Some of the aquaria (photo courtesy of the Marine Discovery Centre)

The practical nature of their learning really helps students to understand life in our oceans and why land based activities impact on the marine environment.  Too often in our community what goes on under the sea is out of sight and out of mind, but these students are starting to turn that around.

The facilities are full of excellent learning activities, but I’d have to say the aquaria with live fish are my favourites, especially the Sea Horses.

Well done to Tim Hoile and everyone that works and volunteers at the Centre.  Kudos also to the Star of the Sea School who supported the development of the Marine Discovery Centre 15 years ago.

Good luck with the national awards in November.

Tennyson Dunes Open Day

The Tennyson Dunes Group is holding their spring open day, giving tours of the wonderful Tennyson Dunes, on Sunday 16 September 2012. It’s guaranteed to be a great day out.

This is community environmental education at it’s finest. Professor Chris Daniels and Associate Professor Victor Gostin will both be there to give guided tours, each highlighting the dunes in their own special way.

Tennyson Dunes 2012 Open Day flierThe Tennyson Dunes are the most significant coastal dunes on the Adelaide Plains.  They are the largest of only three pre-European remnants and the only ones to still have the original tertiary dune system.  Threatened species of plants and animals abound and they are the only place you can see what Adelaide’s coastal dunes might have looked like in Colonel Light’s day.

Come along and see why the Tennyson Dunes Group is the winner of the 2011 Premier’s NRM Community Engagement Award.  Not only will you experience a great tour, but you’ll be able to see the environmental education initiatives of the group (including excellent interpretive signs created by the Marine Discovery Centre), support local volunteers, and most importantly, learn about Adelaide’s fantastic coastal ecology.

Why is environmental education important?

Environmental education comes in many shapes and sizes.  From vocational training for conservation professionals to community awareness campaigns, it serves to not only encourage environmental protection but also arm people with the skills and knowledge to achieve it.

TAFE Field CampIf you’ve ever been on a tour of your local council reserve, picked up a pamphlet on organic veggie gardening or watched a wildlife documentary you’ve participated in environmental education.  And that’s just as important as what goes on at the other end of the spectrum where TAFE students learn how to measure water quality or office staff participate in sustainability in the workplace.

There are many environmental threats these days such as ocean acidification, habitat destruction, over population, biodiversity loss, weed invasion, pollution, just to name a few.  However, by far the greatest threat is ignorance.  Ignorance of how our food is made, where our waste goes, why it matters and what to do about it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that people are generally bad.  Most of us want to do the right thing.  We just don’t know how.

As far as I can see, there are three ways to change the world and save Planet Earth:

  • money (and I don’t have much of that)
  • politics (call me a cynic but the calibre of our politicians lately leaves something to be desired) and,
  • education.

Only one of these can tackle ignorance.  Only one can bring the other two along for the ride.  Only one can encourage lasting change in the community.

Education.

In this blog series I hope to share my experiences, learn from other environmental educators and, most importantly, spark a few debates.  So, if you’ve got something to say, don’t hold back.