The Wild Center’s four-day immersion program draws thinkers and optimists
By Izania Gonzalez
In the woods of Lake Placid at the North Country School is a house with lakeside and High Peaks views accommodating 18 people attending the Summer Institute for Climate Change Education, a partnership of The Wild Center and the Finger Lakes Institute. Down the road is the renovated barn where they will participate in presentations and workshops. The bucolic natural setting is intentional. Immersion is often the best way to learn.
The group of educators represents classrooms, museums, cultural institutions, science centers, aquariums, and nonprofit organizations including the Smithsonian Institute Museums, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 4-H Camps, as well as elementary, middle, and high schools.
At the end of the summit, they all hope to leave with best practices for reaching young people on the topic of climate change. The focus for these educators will be to return to their venues with ideas for keeping youth voices at the center of the climate discussion and giving them tools they’ll need to make change happen. Central to the discussions will be equity and justice and appealing to student interests.
In short, they want to empower their students but need help to know how.
The summer institute for educators is born out of The Wild Center’s Adirondack Youth Climate Summit for students, now modeled in eight countries and 26 states. Educators were looking for ways to incorporate climate change into their teachings, says Jen Kretser, The Wild Center’s climate initiatives director.
The Wild Center partnered with the Finger Lakes Institute for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant awarded in 2020. Their partnerships with NOAA, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Office of Climate Change, the North Country School and other organizations makes the four-day summer institute possible.
This is the program’s fourth year, but only their second in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The educators hear from various speakers on how to broach the topic of climate change, install adaptable activities, and draw on resources available to students. They work toward presenting a plan they can take back to their classrooms or institutions.
None of the attendees are new to the issue whether through school initiatives or in their current curriculum.
Siobhan Starrs, an exhibition developer at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, created her museum’s climate change exhibition. She is here to discover ways to get youth more involved, identifying viable activities she can adapt for the museum.
Let the kids lead the way
The Wild Center draws from its past youth summits to offer experienced young leaders to talk with them. Elise Pierson, a climate intern with The Wild Center now at St. Lawrence University, got involved with Climate Smart Communities while at Lake Placid High School. The program, run by the DEC, awards municipalities a certification depending on the quality and quantity of climate initiatives they implement. Pierson, and other high schoolers, introduced the program and related climate initiatives in Lake Placid.
Pierson advocates for young people to get involved in their communities and recognize local priorities to find connections that help get people to listen. She stresses making a plan that calculates benefits, logistics and drawbacks.
The focus of the institute is that the youth do not have to do this work alone. Partnerships work to dispel the idea of the youth being left to fix the messes of the past.
Suzanne Williamson, a Florida high school teacher, reflects on her newfound understanding of her students’ involvement, “I think for the first time I am trusting them that they know the direction they want to go, and giving them the support they need to make it into something.”
Make it personal
Two teachers, one from a low-income/high minority community and another from a wealthy private school, compare experiences. Regardless of status, their students claim to not care about climate change; it doesn’t apply to them. They are more concerned with other problems.
Elodie Linck, The Wild Center’s youth climate coordinator, responds, saying you cannot make them care, you must appeal to them.
Dealing with the climate crisis is more than attending protests and sorting recycling. The group discusses integrating art, science, and education. Examples flow: allowing students to make spoken word poetry, perform citizen science projects or learn about cool new technology like light rails.
“Entry points” becomes the phrase of the week as presenters discuss how to make climate change appealing — finding the angle in something a student already finds intriguing.
Employees of the Adirondack Watershed Institute demonstrate an activity that is inexpensive and can be done with children of a range of ages. They use the location’s lakefront to test the water for pH, turbidity and temperature demonstrating a hands-on activity to use with students.
The real work begins as they break into groups to create curriculum plans and brainstorm.
“I would love to incorporate water; because of our proximity to the lake, I think it would make it applicable to the kid’s brains and make them appreciate what they’ve got more,” says one teacher.
“I was thinking a school-wide initiative, if we could grow our own stuff and share within districts – school lunches are something the kids complain about all the time,” says another.
“We could do schoolwide recycling, schoolwide composting.”
A poet speaks, calculating that if the universe existed 24 hours, humans would have inhabited Earth a mere 3 seconds. Nature Sciences Professor Curt Sager, of Paul Smith’s College, adds that scientists call this time the anthropocene, or the age of human influence on the environment. “We’ve become a force of nature on par with volcanoes and ice ages,” he says.
The educators are compelled to do something about climate change now. They recognize a heavy responsibility and endless issues related to the subject.
Linck reminds them they do not have to teach everything, it’s impossible to cover it all. Ensuring the students walk out with a general understanding and a sense of hope is what’s important. Climate change is not going to be cured overnight, educating our youth is about empowerment.
There is hope
Final presentations are filled with self-reflection and ideas to change the framework of the existing curriculum. One woman from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology noticed that her school already teaches human impacts on birds and can alter that by including the human role in climate change.
Two elementary school teachers created their final lesson plan around identifying animals and their adaptations. Over multiple days, students could learn about different animals, their climates and how they survive. Once they’ve grasped the idea of a fish needing gills, teachers ask students to consider what happens when the fish’s environment is changed. After considering how rising temperatures or low water levels can affect life, they are asked what they think needs to occur for the fish to continue to thrive.
Attendees draw community asset maps and hang them in the barn. They walk from map to map, remarking on what people added that they forgot to add to their own. They are thinking about what the community values, which local organizations would partner with them, where to crowdfund, where they can find children who would be interested in climate work, and more. They have been told they do not have to go it alone so they are drawing their community connections.
Another necessity in their curriculum plans will be identifying solutions — and celebrating any successes to keep discouragement at bay.
“Think of how we can do what is right as a force of nature,” Stager says.
After four days, the educators depart with ideas for activities, online resources and the connection of like-minded peers. They leave with an action plan and the know-how to see it through. They look forward to next summer’s institute to find out what’s working.