As I am writing this post, I am on the bus heading towards the San Luis Valley. Sleeping college students surround me, and I am reminded of all the pictures that were taken of me asleep in the van the last time I was on a CC field trip. The further away we travel from Colorado Springs the more snow that covers the landscape. I look out the window as we pass by snowy hills, mountains, and plains. The views are striking and it is clear that we are quickly approaching a rural Colorado. I begin to reflect on the first few days and the mini field trip that we had on the second day of the class.
A few things I have learned about the environment throughout my life: temperatures are rising, ocean acidification is increasing, icebergs are melting, biodiversity is decreasing, water sources are becoming more and more contaminated and learning about the environment is awfully good at making people feel depressed and disheartened about the future. I have talked to a handful of environmental studies majors who reported that at some point throughout their college career they felt overwhelmingly hopeless about making a difference on environmental issues.
One of the first readings of the course provoked a lot of thought for me as an educator. William Cronon, an author and professor, shares his reflections concerning his teaching. He gained insight that by the end of the course he taught, although he had done an excellent job at teaching all of the concepts and content, most of his students felt despairing about the prospects of the Natural World, and for inflicting that emotion he had failed. Cronon’s reflection reminded me of a study that I read during my time at TREE semester. The study explored why young people’s knowledge and values about the environment are often not reflected in their actions. The results showed that a significant factor in predicting a value-action gap is the amount of hope that the person feels regarding the future of the environment. Forward thinking will lead to forward improvements. The more hopeful our young people are, the more hopeful our planet is.
There are different ways to teach environmental education that vary in the information, skills and emotions that are “transferred” to the student. Environmental history (a large part of this interdisciplinary course), for example, is a dense discipline with lots of storage, however it only becomes useful if it is taught in a way that empowers students to become part of the history and to create change to benefit the future. In order to create a relationship between young people’s ideas about action and the environment, teachers, such as my professors and myself, must present environmental issues to their students in a promising fashion that illuminates the role that humans, culture and time have had in the progression of environmental history. Instead of viewing nature and humans in a dualistic view that emphasizes the incompatibility between the two, it is important to acknowledge the complexity, and dynamic/ever-changing relationship between the two. If students do not feel like empowered participants of history, change will never occur.
On Tuesday, my professor, Tyler Cornelius, inspired me, as he was able to teach us about environmental history using an approach that allowed the class to socially construct our own knowledge about the intricacy of the Colorado Springs landscape story. We drove up Gold Rd. towards Cheyenne Mountain and stopped at a viewpoint at high elevation. The viewpoint provided us with a sight that I would have only been able to describe as beautiful before taking this class. However, I arrived to the location prepared to analyze the picture from the eyes of an environmental historian. The view that I examined closely resembled the one of this picture. We all bundled up before dismounting the bus and then took 20 minutes to make observations on the landscape.
Each one of our personal histories shaped the way that we viewed the land. By noticing simple observations such as color and shapes (nothing that a child could not do), we were able to see ideologies that subsist in the land. We were essentially putting all of out efforts to think like children; using simple evidence to inquire and learn about the world we live in.
As a class, through discussing everyone’s observations and hypotheses, we were able to identify problematic situations in a holistic manner, acknowledging all the historical factors without casting blames. With my freezing cold hand, and the wind blowing in my face, I stared below at Colorado Springs and finally felt that I understood the city and natural environment that I sometimes call home (and sometimes am very hesitant to call home too!). I practiced the skill of viewing landscapes from the eyes on an environmental historian by making observations and deductions that illuminate the interconnectedness between different factors and ideologies acting on the land. I am practicing these skills right now, attempting to make sense of all the mountains and towns I see outside my window. Honing my inquisitive curious mindset, just like a child, as I search for the meaning hidden behind all the different colors that create these scenic images that are passing in front of my eyes.