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The Environment, Problem-Based Learning, and Youth

Do you know a child who has a deep interest in problem-solving, can apply critical thinking skills, holds an advanced sense of idealism and justice, or can persevere when working in an area of strong interest? If you know someone who has any of these traits, then they may flourish in a problem-based learning experience involving an environmental issue.

There are numerous problems for students to consider: habitat change that threatens wildlife, plastics in the ocean, air and water pollution, trash taking over the planet, just to name a few. Upon learning of these issues, students may feel overwhelmed and may become disheartened that they may not have any influence. Here are some tips to making this learning experience a success for the students, and by connection, our planet!

1. Find an environmental issue that is of strong interest and start locally.

During the Texas Association of Environmental Educators (TAEE) 2021 Conference, I had the privilege of moderating a panel of young people who are deeply passionate about specific environmental issues. More than just activists, they are what I call “actionists,” and have dedicated their talents and efforts to actually making significant positive change in the world in the few short years they have been at it.

They all had the same advice when asked how to get started: Find what makes a difference to you. For Canadian Kehkashan Basu, founder of Green Hope Foundation, it was making sure there is education for sustainable development for all. Juan Bazaldua of Mexico City is working in the area of sustainability and renewable energies. And Megan Chen from Delaware, founder of The Urban Garden Initiative (TUGI), began with an interest in promoting sustainability through urban gardening.

Once that passion area is identified, the next step is to create a solution with local impact. Each of our young environmentalists stated that finding problems and implementing solutions at the local level was crucial to making a difference. Far from being abstract, students can see the problems in their community and monitor success of any plan they implement. Whether the youngster decides to move forward and replicate their actions on a larger scale is up to them. Locally, they have made a difference and have witnessed it firsthand.

2. Gather Resources

There are many resources to draw upon for whatever environmental issue that is to be pursued, many of them free. A great place to start is on the education page of the EarthX website. The Teacher Resource Library and Virtual Field Trips are great places to get background information on a variety of environmental topics. The Be the Change Challenge! offers information as well as ideas for projects in the Make a Difference section.

The National Wildlife Federation has several free resources should your students be passionate about wildlife. Students may wish to create a habitat that encourages wildlife to flourish through their Certified Wildlife Habitat Program. There is plenty more information as well as opportunities at this site and many others. Just initiate an internet search in the topic area of interest and you'll find lots of information readily available.

3. Assist in the Problem-Solving Process

Lead students through the problem-solving steps. There are a variety of identified processes out there, but generally they follow the same actions. You can find one that I like here, but there are many others. Be sure to match your students’ passions as well as their talents as they search for solutions. The fine arts are great places to encourage artistic talents in the youth in order to bring about awareness of their chosen issue.

Be sure to hone in on the implementation phase, especially focusing on measurable success, monitoring and making adjustments. This is a crucial but often neglected step in the process.

4. Highlight your students’ work.

If at all possible, explore ways to publicize your students’ solutions. Not only will this bring a sense of achievement for your students, but you never know when a community member will want to team up with the students to expand upon their solution.

Problem-based learning is a great way to involve students in real world problems. What better way to give students a sense of meaning as well as a voice than by having them use their talents to make a positive change for the environment.


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