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Environment and Education: “Going Green” expert Shari Wilson on environmental education

Environment and Education: “Going Green” expert Shari Wilson on environmental education

by Janina Schmidt -
Number of replies: 0

Shari WilsonEducation for sustainable development one of the core goals of Going Green, but what does this mean? And what factors are involved in the process? During the 2014 “Going Green” project, our expert Shari Wilson gave us an overview of what environmental education can be.Shari is an ecologist and environmental educator as well as owner and principal of Project Central, LLC, a consulting firm that works with schools, neighborhood organizations, government agencies, and others on projects related to education, the environment, and healthy communities. Here's our interview with her:



Apart from the interview at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Going Green participants had further questions for Shari Wilson: 


What do you think is one of the best ways to start sustainability projects at the local level? 

Shari Wilson:

In my experience, the best way to begin is to start small and involve as many people as possible. Persistence is also important. For example, if you see that a park has a lot of litter in it, a campaign to get people to throw away their trash instead of leaving it on the ground might be a good idea. I worked with a school in Armenia on this sort of project. The students did a one-day event at the park where they handed out fliers about littering. Many people said they agreed with the students, that littering was not a good thing to do. The students were disappointed, however, when they found many of their fliers on the ground, and no real improvement in littering in the weeks after their event. After they talked with their city government and asked for more trash and recycling containers, and signs reminding people not to litter, they noticed an improvement. The students also returned to the park frequently and talked to people about littering. When people saw that the students cared about the park enough to keep coming back, their attitudes began to change.

With sustainability projects, we are essentially asking people to change their behavior, often for reasons that are not easily seen and for results that may be abstract. All of the trash on the ground goes somewhere, right? Either someone picks it up or somehow it goes away. What difference does it make whether my trash goes into the water system or is properly recycled or taken to a landfill? Those are questions you have to keep trying to answer, while making it easy for people to change their behavior by locating plenty of trash cans and recycling container nearby, in our littering example."


How did your 14 years of NGO experience change your ideas about community or grassroots initiatives? Did your experience re-shape the way you view grassroots organizing?

Again, Shari Wilson: 

"Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that partnerships make the difference between successful projects and unsuccessful ones. Developing relationships and listening to what others think takes time and patience. Finding agreement on how to approach a problem is not always easy, but it is important to get as many people and organizations involved as possible, even those that are not in agreement with how you think a project should proceed.

One example I recall is when I was leading an effort to develop a park in my community. The land was owned by the city, but there were many competing views regarding how the property should be used. I had heard a lot of rumors about how difficult the park opponents were to work with, but they were keeping the project from moving forward so I had to meet with them. I learned that some of them had concerns about security and others wanted the area used for a boat ramp so they could fish on the river. Once they were invited to join the group, we were able to work out their issues and accommodate everyone. To alleviate the security concerns, park rules do not allow camping overnight. And we were able to find room for a boat ramp that now receives a tremendous amount of use."


What is one of the best examples you have seen of sustainability projects in the schools?

Shari Wilson's answer to this:

"Schools that have the most successful projects are those where sustainability is part of the school culture, meaning that following sustainable practices is part of the normal way the school always works. I have often seen successful recycling or gardening projects begin at schools, only to disappear when an enthusiastic teacher or parent leaves or loses interest.

Starside Elementary School in De Soto, Kansas is a great example of a school that started small, with a recycling program, and has now incorporated sustainability into its character education program. Starside has a school culture that promotes consideration of the environment and provides students with opportunities to learn how to take care of plants, animals, and the earth. Besides recycling, Starside now has lunchroom waste recycling, compostable lunch trays, landscape composting, worm composting, a small solar turbine, gardens (both vegetable and wildlife habitat), and school policies stating that these programs will continue and are part of the school’s curriculum. The policies ensure that the programs will outlive the administrators and teachers that began them."



You mentioned in your interview with 'Going Green' that you encourage students to 'dig deeper' and be more skeptical. Where and how does that begin?

Shari Wilson:

“Anyone who has been around young children knows they are full of questions and curiosity about the world around them. Somehow that ability to question and desire to learn more disappears once they progress in school. The United States is returning to a more inquiry-based method of teaching through the implementation of new education standards. This means students will direct more of their learning, and teachers will serve more as facilitators than lecturers and experts. This is a big change for most teachers and all students, but it will provide in-depth learning that is more relevant for the students. The way most teachers begin the process is to ask an “essential question” that the students will answer. The answer will require research by the students, and often they will come up with different answers to the same question.”

Our former blogger, Alex Magaard, asked:

My younger sister is interested in potentially starting a community garden in our hometown of Wayzata, Minnesota. Do you have any advice for her with where/how to implement her project?

Shari Wilson responded:

“That’s wonderful news! Gardens are a great way to get different community members together, and to teach younger people how to grow their own vegetables. The skills you learn through gardening are like those you learn to ride a bike: once you’ve done it, you always remember how, no matter how much time passes between experiences. Gardening, like bike riding, is empowering; you can grow a vegetable plant anywhere, as long as you have a pot and some sun.

I see from the City of Wayzata’s website that they already have a Gardens Initiative, where volunteers help take care of the city’s gardens. Why not contact the people in charge of that project, and ask if they would help start a community vegetable garden? The City may even have some land that it would be willing to contribute for the garden. I also noticed on the website that Wayzata has curbside leaf pick-up, so there is probably a composting site somewhere.


Another great group to get involved with gardening is the Master Gardeners organization. These are volunteers who have taken a considerable amount of training and offer help and advice to people with gardening questions. Often they are older people who have a lot of experience gardening and love to help others, especially kids, learn to garden. Why not see if there is a Master Gardeners program or something similar in Wayzata?

A local school may also be interested in starting a gardening program. In my experience, school gardens almost always turn into community gardens because people in the community want to help. A wonderful book on how to start a school garden is “How to Grow a School Garden: A Complete Guide for Parents and Teachers” by Arden Bucklin-Sporer and Rachel Kathleen Pringle. It has all kinds of examples and guides for starting a garden. Even if you don’t involve a school, this book would probably be helpful to anyone starting a community garden. Another good resource is the Kansas Garden Gate website, http://www.kansasgreenschools.org/green-schools-garden-gate.

Good luck—let me know how it goes!


We are very grateful to Shari Wilson for her willingness to participate as an expert in the "Going Green" project and her detailed answers and explanations to our students' questions!

Janina Schmidt obtained her B.A. in teaching Economics and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Leuphana University Lüneburg in 2014. After earning her Master's degree (expected 09/2017), Janina intends to teach ESL as well as English for Specific Purposes with an economic focus at vocational schools. As a student assistant she supports the educational management of the Teach About US initiative.

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