Jour cinq

Day 5: Koussan

We rounded off the trip with the first school sponsored nature walk through Koussan. Gabriel, the headmaster, a teacher, and a few helpful locals rounded up the roughly 80 secondary school students (ages ranging widely from 12 or so to around 18) and led them to the shriveled dam. Once they arrived, the students were tasked to silently observe their surroundings, noting all that they saw and heard. They were then taken through several games that sought to teach the concept of food webs, as well as how bats use SONAR to navigate in the dark. Jono and I mostly observed from a distance, and around the time the students, who were lined up facing the small pond of water that remains of the dam, were asked to close their eyes and listen, we entered into a discussion on the efficacy of this type of education.

Obviously we are both proponents of environmental education, and also recognize children as the critical demographic. What we started to question was by what method can you best disseminate information, as well as what you should teach that will actually foster a change in attitude towards nature. One interesting point that Gabriel sought to hone in on was the fact that the kids did not mention humans when describing what inhabited their surroundings. It was an oversight he anticipated, knowing as he does that they see people, and themselves, as separate from nature. Changing this perception is something he is actively working towards, and something I think is most critical to changing attitudes. But is it enough to have children stand by a dam and point out the soil, water, birds and cows? Even if they do have enough insight to recognize people in that landscape, is being able to memorize humans as part of an ecosystem, when they don’t even know what an ecosystem is, that useful? Is a walk that just shepards children to a central location, ignoring the opportunities to learn along the way, the best approach?

Children playing environmetally educational games. (Photo credit Jono Gilbert)

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t the most enthusiastic outdoorsman in my youth. I preferred an afternoon spent organizing my beanie-babies or doing a cats-in-bags puzzle. But my family had different ideas for free time. As a child in Oregon, my mom was always taking me on hikes, or to the hot springs, or even to the local and very overgrown Lithia Park, which teemed with ducks and migratory geese. My grandparents were even worse, insisting on detours to birding hotspots on the journey between my southern Oregon home and their Bay Area one, dragging me against my will to the to cold California coast. Then, just before adolescence set in, I moved to a beachside town in Florida. The beach became my savior, my sanctuary. The land and water was bursting with exotic and exciting wildlife, from the manatees and otters dotting the canals and alligators that lined it’s banks, to the nesting turtles and dolphins that surprised me during many an ocean swim, and that’s not to mention the birds. Slowly, imperceptibly, the enthusiasm of those around me and the wonder of my own experiences seeped through, and rather than declaring myself a pre-law major, as I had intended for many years, I entered into environmental science.

I feel like there is something to be learned from my journey. Taking someone predisposed to environmental apathy and bombarding them with passion for the world around them, and recognition of their place in that world, ultimately transformed them into full-blown conservationist. While my case doesn’t have universal application, it may demonstrate that unrelenting exposure, coupled with passion and education, is one way to change attitudes.

As we watched the kids play a version of marco-polo that pitted bats against butterflies, we were unable to pinpoint a cohesive answer on how to best educate. Definitely Gabriel’s intention to reinforce humans as a part of the environment is critical, but what else can we do, and how can we best do it? These are the questions we need to address. Naturally, many aspects are context dependent, coupled with the fact that changing people is possibly the most challenging task to take on. But there must be a way. And we must do everything we can to discover it.

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