WHAT SHOULD WE TEACH SCHOOLCHILDREN ABOUT ECOLOGY?

by Whit Gibbons


August 14, 2005


America's children are better educated about environmental issues and the science of ecology than ever before. With this education comes hope that the next generation will be able to manage the earth's habitats and its natural inhabitants in a proper manner. Aside from parental guidance, most of the credit for new environmental awareness comes from teachers. The beginning of the school year is a good time to let children develop a sense of ownership about the natural world, which belongs to all of us.

Teaching about the sanctity of all species, even those not officially recognized as endangered or threatened, is a worthwhile educational effort. Preserving native species and their natural habitats requires public awareness and appreciation, environmentally sensitive land managers, and trained research ecologists. Without proper public support, funding is difficult to obtain for training students in ecology or for implementing wildlife management programs. And the first step is to instill in today’s children the realization that these natural resources are critical for a healthy future--their future.

One approach for engendering environmental awareness of native species among schoolchildren is an adopt-a-wildlife-species program in which students select a species found in their state. The species might be one on the federal or state endangered species lists. Or it might be an animal or plant of interest for other reasons, such as being the state tree, flower, or bird. A properly planned program could develop in students (as well as teachers and parents) a broad understanding of wildlife and habitat issues.

A wildlife adoption program at a school could lead to some fascinating projects; even the process of choosing the species could bring an awareness of regional wildlife. Imagine a campaign with posters, speeches, and letters to the school newspaper as students justify why a particular species should be chosen. Such a program could have application across the curriculum. Science classes are an obvious forum, but projects could also involve journalism, art, and library research. Term papers for language arts class could be based on the biological background, geographical range, and historical record of particular species. And a social studies assignment could be to study how the Endangered Species Act became law, how it is implemented today, and what the political threats are to its continued existence.

For schools interested in developing such programs, the first step is to identify the species that are candidates. To find out which species are protected by a particular state, students can obtain a list from the state's fish and wildlife (or game) department. The exact name of the agency varies by state but is called the Department of Natural Resources in many. To find out what species in their region are federally protected, students can obtain a complete listing of all endangered and threatened species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, www.fws.gov/endangered/. Students will need to determine the status of a particular species, as one may be federally protected in one state but not in another. For example, the gopher tortoise is federally threatened in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but is only protected at the state level in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

Some schools instituting an adopt-a-wildlife-species program have asked students to pledge to help with the management and protection of the chosen species through a fund-raising campaign. Collection jars were set up in homerooms where students could contribute spare change. The states’ natural resources departments encouraged such a program, and the money collected by the students was used in some identifiable program appropriate for the species. Such funds will never be adequate to support the nongame wildlife efforts needed for any state, but the program and process could help instill in students an awareness of the public’s role in preserving wildlife, and a personal sense of responsibility for wildlife and natural habitats.

Students who become involved in adopt-a-wildlife-species programs will increase their awareness of how local, state, and federal land management activities and political decisions affect habitats and wildlife. We need to encourage such awareness, particularly over the next few months as Congress deals with proposed modifications to the Endangered Species Act.



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