Environmental Education: Park Programs Inspire New Leaders

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In the fight against climate change, the creative minds of our children are our greatest resource, and parks our sacred grounds. While parks and recreation departments across the nation are primarily known as recreation centers for health, wellness, and entertainment, these agencies also play a vital role in protecting natural lands and raising the public’s environmental IQ.

Educators traditionally took students to parks for recreational picnics, play dates, and field trips, activities that typically have little to do with the environment. That’s why Broward County Parks and Recreation (Broward County, Florida) created the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) in Parks program — to change the way teachers see parks. The program encourages them to look past playgrounds and picnic tables and view parks as “living laboratories” — ideal locations for environmental education.

Parks as Living Laboratories 

At Broward County Parks, staff, students, teachers, and community members have seen the positive effect of using parks as an environmental education venue. The program brings science, environmental consciousness, and hands-on learning directly into curricula, with the goal of inspiring future environmental leaders.


Broward County Parks manages nearly 6,300 acres of park land. With proper training and staff resources, portions of this land are used for environmental lessons on many topics: students learn about invasive species removal, studies of animal carcasses, the effects of weather on animals, the implications of erosion, Earth’s landforms, the lasting effects of pollution. Some of these educational activities adopt an experiential learning model, requiring students to analyze facts, feelings, findings, and future courses of action. This model uses state and federal education standards as a springboard for broader, more effective environmental education lessons that appeal to classroom teachers.

middle school students observing specimens at nature center

Awesome Olsen Middle School students observe crab specimens at Anne Kolb Nature Center as part of the Broward County Parks “STEAM in Parks” program. Photo: Attiyya Atkins

Lessons Outside the Classroom

Education isn’t confined to the classroom. That’s why parks throughout the country need to consider marketing their spaces as open-air environmental research centers.

The positive implications are far-reaching. For example, several students at Awesome Olsen Middle School in Dania Beach, Florida, attended a daylong excursion to nearby Anne Kolb Nature Center, a 1,500-acre coastal mangrove wetland, as part of the STEAM in Parks program. The group included two sets of students and teachers: a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) class, and a class that participates in the Global Scholars program, a supplemental international environmental education curriculum.

At the nature center, students took a guided trail walk to identify animals in their natural habitat, to understand the impact of pollution and human waste on animal survival, and to learn the importance of water conservation. At the end of the excursion, students could differentiate land crabs, mangrove crabs, and fiddler crabs. They learned the characteristics of black, red, and white mangroves, as well as how they filter our water, protect the coast, and provide a home to many small creatures. The students also saw the negative ecological effects of trash trapped in the mangroves.


Watch a short video about this educational outing:

Students Gain Environmental Insights

The event’s success can be measured by the progressive attitudes of the students. Several of them entered an essay contest for Water Matters Day, Broward County’s annual water conservation celebration. The essays allowed the students to dig deeper into issues affecting our water supply, with four of them winning the contest. Here are a couple of insights from their essays:

  • “We have a global issue with the amount of water that we use, so we are encouraged to think of ways in order to save water,” wrote London J., of Awesome Olsen Middle School. He went on to suggest that people conserve water by showering instead of bathing, and by eating fewer meat products.
  • Another student, Daniel V., also of Awesome Olsen Middle School, wrote: “We know we have a ‘carbon footprint,’ but we need to be careful about our ‘water footprint.’” He also urged people to conserve resources by using rainwater to water their lawns.

STEAM in Parks furthers students’ awareness of and appreciation for their environment by putting them in the thick of things. With the support of teachers, programs like this help students learn to value parks and natural resources, which in turn creates a more environmentally conscious populace.

middle school students learn about the spiny lobster in nature center classroom

At Anne Kolb Nature Center, students learn about the spiny lobster. Park Manager and Environmental Educator Joanne Howes leads the discussion. Photo: Attiyya Atkins

Resources for Environmental Education Programs

Are you interested in setting up environmental education programs in your local park system? Check out the following resources.


Dr. John Pipoly and Attiyya Atkins of Broward County Parks and Recreation will speak about parks, students, and climate change in two sessions at the NRPA (National Recreation and Park Association) Conference in September 2019. You can register to watch the live streaming of their sessions:

About the Author

Attiyya Atkins is a public communication specialist for Broward County Parks & Recreation. She is passionate about environmental education, park conservation, and climate change research. In her spare time, she like to read and spend time outdoors with her family.

 

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