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The Guide to Saving the Earth

Here's how to raise a generation that cares.

By Ankita Rao

Photo: Meiko Arquillos

They know about melting ice caps. They’ve choked up over disappearing polar bears. But too many kids “can’t identify the birds at their own bird feeder,” says Mike Sustin, Ohio environmental science teacher.

Climate and renewable energy are hot topics for a hot planet—from the President’s “green” stimulus plan to the local produce on the kitchen table. But do students care enough to compost? Will they trade in video games for a garden shovel?

Teachers are proving that environmental education can be lots of—dare we say it?—fun. Plus, it’s saving schools thousands of dollars by cutting down on energy use and waste.

How I Built a School Greenhouse

A master’s degree in environmental literacy makes Susy Ellison a science pro, but it’s her dirt-under-fingernails approach that has students learning and eating from their own greenhouse at Yampah Mountain High School in Colorado. Supported by environmental education grants, Ellison and her students constructed the 22-foot diameter greenhouse dome in a week. Then they went to work building beds to grow spinach, lettuce, peppers, basil, and tomatoes. “It’s teaching without textbooks,” Ellison says, and a big Thanksgiving dinner incorporating the school’s own produce was proof. Ellison’s methods are particularly helpful to students enrolled in school programs for teenage mothers and students learning English.

Show, don’t tell. “I am a tree hugger and I am a dirt worshipper, but I am also a science teacher, so it has to be data driven,” says South Florida teacher Bertha Vasquez.

In her middle school, students test water for mercury poisoning and conduct field studies in Everglades National Park. At home, they complete home energy audits that show clearly the ecological and economic value of saving energy.

Make connections. A century ago, a Japanese tourist came to rural Washington state, snapping photos of the land along the way. Now Tonasket School teacher Scott Olson leads his students to the very spots the camera was held to survey changes in the land.

Supported by grants, the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area project isn’t just science, but a look into the heritage of Tonasket. And, for students who don’t always see opportunity in their remote community, Olson says the project gives them a sense of responsibility and belonging.

“They’re part of something, and what they do matters,” he says.

Get green for going green. Everybody likes money, right? At Vasquez’s school, energy bills were cut nearly $40,000 through recycling programs, air conditioning control, and more efficient lights. And—bonus!—75 percent of the savings is returned to the school by the district.

If you’re trying to institute change at your school, “talk money savings,” Vasquez advises. “Everyone speaks that language.”

The future is theirs. Early environmental education can open doors to careers in government, law, health, and of course, education. And it can also lead to jobs in renewable energy and environmental policy, which have surged in popularity and demand as climate change and adaptation have made headlines.

Mike Sustin, a former “nature kid” himself, has watched his students go on to study natural resources and natural history in college. He says one became a Yellowstone park ranger, and another plans to fight forest fires.

Vasquez’s students have taken their issues all the way to the Capitol, where they urged adoption of green technology, and to a Model United Nations conference to debate green economy.

In Tonasket, some of Olson’s students have considered working for the forest service, possibly in their own backyard. The opportunity to work in their hometown is important for supporting the community.

“The more empowered they feel, the more active, positive choices they make,” Olson says. “They’re creating their future so it’s more what they hope it to be.”


That’s the grade that most kids say their government deserves on its response to global warming and other environmental issues.

Source: 2009 Environmental Report Card from Scholastic.

Top Three Things To Buy Organic

Experts say buy organic, but your bank account says otherwise. How about a compromise? While you need not worry about low-pesticide produce like bananas and avocados, you should take a look at the worst offenders. By following the guidelines of the Environmental Working Group, you can reduce your exposure to pesticides by 80 percent. Bonus points if you buy them locally and in season! To see the complete list, visit: The Environmental Working Group Web site.


Don’t let these fuzzy little fruits deceive you: Non-organic peaches deliver more pesticides to your belly than any other fruit or vegetable. Buy them during the summer for maximum palate potential.


An apple a day keeps the doctor away—unless they’re laden with toxic chemicals. The teacher’s favorite gift ranks second on the list. Peeling helps, but also strips valuable nutrition.

Bell Peppers

These tasty vegetables might be the star of your fajitas, but they also make a scene on the shoppers’ guide. Keep in mind too, that pesticide exposure is worse for children.

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