Celebrating Earth Day: Creating Passion for the Environment Through Fact-Based Education

MarisaBluestone
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Today, April 22, communities around the globe unite in celebration of Earth Day, a testament to our collective commitment to protect our planet. This annual event draws attention to the pressing environmental challenges that face humanity and the natural world. Earth Day is an important reminder of the fragile beauty of our planet and the urgent need to safeguard it for future generations. It’s also an opportunity to teach about the impact that students can have.

In an era where information is as abundant as it is accessible, it’s more important than ever that we anchor our understanding of our environment in solid, scientific facts. This is just as true for an article we read on the internet as it is for a high school environmental science textbook. It’s especially crucial in environmental science, where understanding the facts is key to comprehending the complexity of the issues involved. This is why, just ahead of Earth Day, I spoke to professors Andrew (Andy) Friedland and Rick Relyea, co-authors of Environmental Science for the AP Course, 4e about their experiences in teaching environmental science.

Educational Impact through Experience and Engagement

Many people initially encounter the natural world through their childhood exploration, yet they often rely on their teachers and textbooks to understand its complexities. For Friedland, this combination of experience and education in school was where he first discovered his passion for the environment. 

As a student, he and his class helped clean up litter and clear walking paths at a wetland near their school, visiting it many times ahead of Earth Day. During these visits, they didn't just tidy up—they immersed themselves in the ecosystem. They identified tree and shrub species, learned about the natural history of those species, and even crafted interpretive signs that described the flora and fauna prevalent in the wetland. This approach not only allowed Friedland and his peers to explore and learn about the plant life around them, it also allowed them to participate in knowledge sharing by creating signage to communicate what they learned with others. 

This and other experiences with the environment inspired Friedland and Relyea to nurture within their students the same kind of curiosity, wonder and confidence to contribute to positive changes in their own environments. This also meant helping their students realize success on the AP® Environmental Science Exam and inspiring them to want to learn even more about the world around them.

“In looking at environmental science textbooks when we wrote the first edition of our book, we were struck by the fact that many students in environmental science classes experienced a sense of gloom and doom about the state of the planet. One of our goals was to provide a more balanced view of environmental issues and to identify the opportunities where steps could be taken to improve a diversity of environmental problems,” Relyea said. 

A Balanced Perspective on Environmental Issues

quote 1 earth day.pngFrom scientific notation to biodiversity, their textbook explores the environment from a fact-based perspective, while at the same time conveying the authors’ passion for the world around them. A fact-based approach, such as the one in Environmental Science for the AP Course, promotes objective learning, allowing students to form their own opinions based on evidence. The approach has always been to avoid telling students what they should think about climate change, or any other environmental topic, but rather to look at the data for themselves and come to their own conclusions. 

Friedland noted, “our book emphasizes objectivity and neutrality about environmental science: we don’t tell students (or teachers) what to think about the environment; we tell them how to think about the environment and give them the tools to understand, assess and evaluate environmental topics and problems.”

For example, when bringing up a topic like nuclear energy, there can be strong feelings about how and whether it should be used. The book does not pass judgment   telling the students whether something is good or bad   but instead describes the pros and cons of nuclear fuel to generate electricity. It describes how it is a “clean” energy source in the conventional sense (e.g., no emissions of particulates, sulfur, or nitrogen oxides and perhaps most importantly,quoye 2 earth day.png carbon dioxide) but it does leave behind radioactive waste. 

“We strive to have students learn how to evaluate data and think like a scientist. When they do so, they will understand how our planet is changing, how human activities have contributed to these changes, and how we can work together to mitigate these changes,” Relyea said.

Earth Day is Every Day

Friedland wants teachers to know that every day is Earth Day. “There is nothing you can do to improve human sustainability on Earth if you do it only on one day a year. The actions and impacts of human beings need to be minimized on a daily basis if we are going to lower overall human impact on the planet.”

Through their comprehensive textbook, they offer not just a compilation of data and research but help guide us through the complexities of ecological balance, human impact, and the path to sustainable living. But more than that, their title offers hope for the future. 

“There are lots of reasons to be hopeful,” Relyea said. “With the will of the people, we can reverse many of the impacts that have been caused by human activities.” 

Their work exemplifies the spirit of Earth Day — educating, inspiring, and empowering individuals and communities to base their environmental actions on sound scientific principles. Let this Earth Day be a reflection of our resolve to choose the path of informed, impactful environmental stewardship.

 

Friedland is the Richard and Jane Pearl Professor Emeritus in Environmental Studies at Dartmouth College and has served on panels for the National Science Foundation, USDA Forest Service, and Science Advisory Board of the Environmental Protection Agency. He has authored 80 peer-reviewed publications. Relyea is the David Darrin Senior ‘40 Endowed Chair in Biological Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has authored more than 200 scientific articles and book chapters and presented research seminars throughout the world.