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Experts: Give children a greener education

By Zhang Chunyan and Daniel Assab | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2015-08-23 14:43

Varied, tailored teaching methods called for to prepare youth to tackle emissions challenge

As greenhouse gases build up in the Earth's atmosphere, the planet is getting warmer. Extreme weather conditions, drought and rising sea levels are already affecting the environment and people's livelihoods.

People worldwide contribute to climate change every day. Experts all point out that it is important to educate children to know about climate change and let them know how to reduce carbon emissions in daily life.

Experts: Give children a greener education

Children in Hangzhou take part in an environmental awareness activity to learn about the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. Provided to China Daily

Kenny Webster, head of learning operations at London's Science Museum, believes there are two main reasons why teaching children about climate change is so important.

"The first is that the true impact of climate disruption is going to affect our children and our grandchildren. It is vital that they are informed of the reasons and mechanisms that have led to mankind developing the situation in the first place," he says.

"The second is that it is most likely that it will be our children who find the solutions to living with or reversing the effects of climate disruption that we have created for them."

Webster also notes that in the UK there are fewer children choosing to study science, technology, engineering and math subjects at university, and this is creating a skills gap.

"While it is indeed a global problem, each country must do its part toward finding a solution."

In China, although environmental education is now part of the curriculum and interest in the subject is growing, more needs to be done to fully engage children in the environmental issues they will inherit.

The World Wide Fund for Nature is the world's largest conservation organization and was the first international conservation organization invited to work in China. Yi Yong, program manager of public education at the WWF, believes China's environmental issues are now going through the toughest stage.

"If we expect future generations to have environmental awareness and take action in conservation, then we need to begin today to pay greater attention to environmental education," he says.

Yi says environmental education needs to be tailored for the age of the child: "In nursery and early primary schools years, environmental education can simply be observation of nature. In later primary school years analytical thought can be introduced to prepare students in secondary school to face greater problems and seek methods to solve them.

"These methods should emphasize teaching out of the classroom and practice in society, rather than conventional methods of teaching. But in China today the collaboration between formal and informal education is limited," Yi says.

"Most are confined to formal education in the environment, and only explore the topic once or twice a term. Some creative projects encourage students to use science and technology to solve environmental problems, such as water conservation and clean energy use, but concern about real environmental issues is still relatively small."

Yi believes more needs to be done in China to teach children about the environment. "A real system of environmental education still needs to be strengthened. Environmental education needs to be more interactive, heuristic and exploratory, as well as more often take place outside the classroom.

"Environmental education should also be relevant to the students' lives, learning what is happening in today's society and exploring the root causes of these problems. Solutions should not be seen as limited to technology. Instead, children should be encouraged to use communal and management methods to tackle these problems, such as research, debate and realizing mutual interests. The learning process is often more important than the outcome," Yi says.

In the United Kingdom, environmental education is finding its place in the school curriculum, and many are taking it a step further to give children a greater opportunity to learn about the environmental issues that affect today's world.

The Science Museum showcases a range of exhibitions on climate science and sustainability, and the subject is one of the museum's strategic themes for the next 10 years. In addition, the museum also provides climate science learning programs, as well as temporary exhibitions and art installations.

However, Webster points out more needs to be done to teach children about climate change.

"Currently, many people do not actively engage with the concept of climate change because it involves people having to do things that they do not want to do, such as change their behavior."

Nevertheless, Webster believes greater familiarity with the subject will allow people to see the benefits of sustainability and actively encourage it.

Peter Littlewood is the director of Young People's Trust for the Environment, a small environmental charity with a massive reach that uses a largely online platform to provide environmental educational materials for schools.

Littlewood thinks small measures taken by children at home and in their daily lives can help them come to terms with climate change and their role, but at the same time hopes the United Nations Climate Change Conference this year in Paris will help work toward reversing climate change on a greater scale.

"Hopefully they will come up with some good targets and ways forward," Littlewood says. "Children are an important part of that, because after all they are the ones that are going to inherit the mess."

Some experts say that environmental education does not always have to take on such conventional methods.

Julie Brown, education manager for Practical Action, an international development charity, explains that the organization uses scientific experiments that schools would normally cover as part of the curriculum, but instead sets them within global context as a method of teaching children about climate change.

One of the ways they found most engaging was to teach students about climate change by asking them to solve a specific problem in the developing world that climate change has made worse. Brown believes raising children's awareness and understanding of how a change in behavior, along with appropriate technology, can lead to a reduced threat of climate change.

In Beat the Flood, a combined challenge and competition, students empathize with children in Bangladesh whose homes can be lost in floods. The children had the opportunity to build their own model of a flood-proof house.

In a similar challenge, they were asked to come up with a solution for Bangladeshi farmers whose crops can also be lost to flooding. The students were pleased to see their idea of rafts to grow crops on is actually what some Bangladeshi farms already use.

It is clear more engaging methods of environmental education are needed to further help the next generation realize their part in protecting the environment, experts say.

Friends of the Earth's campaign, Run on the Sun, helps to share this responsibility between adults and children by together pushing for greater use of renewable energy in schools to save money on electricity bills.

Anna Watson, senior campaigner at the organization, believes this is a method that empowers children to tackle an issue that directly concerns their lives.

"It ties in with the fact these children are not responsible for climate change, but they are the generation that is going to be faced with dealing with the consequences," Watson says.

"It is our obligation to inform children about it, and then they will start to be able to express a voice on what they think about it so we as adults can listen to that," she adds.

Scientific findings clearly indicate that a changing climate has, and will continue to have a significant impact on human life and natural systems.

Experts stress that children the world over need to be educated about climate change, through all kinds of school science curricula and education platforms.

According to David Bull, UNICEF UK director: "It is clear that a failure to address climate change is a failure to protect children."

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