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Everything You Can Learn in Environmental Studies

Everything You Can Learn in Environmental Studies

John Muir, conservationist and “Father of the National Parks,” wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This concept of interconnectedness is central to environmental studies, an educational approach that meets learning standards while emphasizing the relationships between natural and cultural systems. I love environmental studies because it offers an invitation to learn through experience, build practical skills, learn outside, and cultivate an inquiring mind. With our 400-acre campus at Kents Hill School, we are uniquely positioned to be a model of infusing environmental studies into a traditional college preparatory program. 

Experiential Learning

Our campus includes a large forest, two lakes, and a robust network of trails, all of which are accessible from our classrooms. I know because I’ve timed the walk from the door of my science room in the Dunn Science Building to the beginning of our trail network. It takes five minutes at my pace, or closer to ten minutes when bringing a full class along. This location allows us to learn about natural systems through direct experience. On any given day in an environmental studies class, students might be learning how to identify native tree species, spending solo time at a sit spot, collecting data on seasonal changes for the GLOBE project, or observing the layers of a forest soil profile.

Building Practical Skills

Environmental studies incorporates many other disciplines including biology, chemistry, economics, sociology, politics, and more. With this wide scope of focus, there are many opportunities to build practical skills that will serve students well in future careers. In Environmental Studies class at Kents Hill, students might learn to manipulate digital spreadsheets to convert data collected from field studies into graphical representations, use a field sampling method to determine the composition of a soil sample, or use a mobile app such as iNaturalist to share observations with a global network of observers.

Spending Time Learning Outside, in Nature

At its heart, environmental studies emphasizes a direct connection with the natural world. Environmental studies theory suggests that at a young age, the most important thing to do is connect with the natural world. Conservationist and writer Rachel Carson wrote in reference to early childhood education, “It is not half so important to know, as to feel.” As students are studying the natural world, building skills, and meeting learning objectives, they are simultaneously building a relationship with this place, Maine. After spending time in an environmental studies course, students will know the pleasure of a sunny day in late summer, appreciate the seasonal cycles as they closely observe the changing color of the leaves, feel the sting of ice and sleet while making climate observations during a snowstorm in January, and experience delight at the first signs of spring as they take to the woods to record the process of bud burst. When coupled with solid learning objectives, these physical sensations and experiences help to solidify knowledge, resulting in “sticky” learning. That is, the type of learning that jumps out of a textbook, and becomes a part of who we are.

Cultivating an Inquiry Mindset and Following Your Curiosities

A leader in environmental studies, the state of Wisconsin has created a set of educational standards to serve as guidance for curriculum development. Under the overarching theme of “Explore” standard five states: students investigate and analyze how change and adaptation impact natural and cultural systems. In a practical sense, this means that students in Environmental Studies at Kents Hill will spend significant time developing research questions and exploring content through their own investigations. This spring's Sustainability class is an excellent example, as we have just begun to explore the question “how do local actions solve global problems?” In order to explore this question, each student has chosen a sustainability role on campus that will actively engage them in finding answers to that big question. Students will be helping to recycle electronic waste with our Director of Technology, recycling ceramic materials with the Art Department, or working with SAGE Dining Services to monitor food waste and develop solutions. Through practical experience, students will be able to generate authentic answers to these powerful questions. 

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