Rural Action commits to provide outdoor learning experiences to at least 3,750 Appalachian children and train 150 teachers to integrate environmental education into their classes throughout a five-county region. Rural Action's Appalachian Green Teachers Project (AGTP), a cornerstone of its Environmental Education Program, has the expertise to identify, promote, and exemplify best practices in environmental education that get results. It also has the skills to work with teachers in a rural context where school districts have limited financial resources and are spread across a wider geography than urban schools. Rural Action delivers hands-on programs to students that involve them directly in conservation, rather than simply teaching them about it. With a full-time environmental education coordinator, three AmeriCorps members devoted to environmental education, volunteers, and strong ties to other youth organizations and schools in the region, Rural Action is in a position to impact education.
The AGTP has a three-part strategy for environmental education impacts:
1) Provide teachers with adequate resources and training necessary to incorporate outdoor learning and environmental issues into their classes.
2) Provide students with extra-curricular opportunities to learn more about their local environment and to interact with the natural world on a regular basis.
3) Connect students and community volunteers with 'citizen science' projects that enable them to participate in real science programs locally
AGTP supplies students and teachers with ecological knowledge as a foundation for decision-making, and empower the next generation with tools such as water-quality monitoring, leadership skills, critical thinking, recording observations, and expressing their relationship to the landscape. Rural Action believes that, because of Appalachian Ohio's natural heritage and its limited financial resources, finding a way to sustainably manage natural resources in the region is essential to moving the region out of persistent poverty.
The Appalachian Green Teachers Program will facilitate at least four training sessions for K-12 educators over the next year (October, January, April, and July), reaching at least 150 teachers. Rural Action plans for 80 percent of these teachers to integrate environmental education into their curricula by the following school year. Rural Action's AGTP will also facilitate hands-on lessons throughout the school year for at least 50 teachers and their students. These lessons will involve pre- and post-tests to measure student learning and will also support teacher learning targets. The lessons are hands-on, experiential, and designed to impact students' environmental stewardship ethics. Rural Action will train students to build trails, interpret natural history, monitor water quality, restore prairie and stream ecosystems, and monitor target taxa such as amphibians or butterflies.
The Appalachian Ohio region is blessed with natural beauty, a strong sense of place, and exceptional biological diversity. The Alleghany Plateau of Central Appalachia, where Appalachian Ohio is located, is the second most biologically diverse temperate forest in the world. However, the region is marked by a long history of extractive industrial use including coal mining, timbering, rock and gravel mining, and recently, industrial development through shale and gas. Because of the boom and bust nature of extraction and the failure over time of the region to capture the wealth it has created, deep and cyclical poverty exists.
The region struggles to manage its assets for the benefit of all and one pathway out of poverty may be to better manage its natural resources. Effective education and conservation can set the stage for sustainable use of natural resources and other development ideas like ecotourism, sustainable forestry, and local agriculture. In this regard, place-based environmental education is crucial as a foundation for social, environmental, and economic justice in southeast Ohio. However, a study by the National Environmental Education Fund found that only 12 percent of adults nationwide can pass a basic quiz about environmental issues. As complex natural resources issues like shale development and disease vectors from a warming climate continue to characterize Appalachian Ohio, environmental and scientific literacy grow ever more important.
Science scores in Appalachian Ohio school districts are low. Working to alter this trend, Rural Action's Environmental Education (EE) program developed the Appalachian Green Teachers Project (AGTP) which has led outdoor lessons and field trips for elementary students. By tailoring these hands-on lessons to meet Ohio Academic Content Standards and to multiple learning styles, students in one class achieved an 86 percent passing rate on the state exams, far surpassing the state average of 73 percent. In addition, students became more closely tied to the ecology in their backyard. By working closely with schools and teachers, Rural Action's EE program is able to impact student learning and their stewardship ethic.
Additionally, recent studies show that children who spend more time outdoors are healthier. Active time outdoors reduces the risk of diabetes, combats obesity, and improves mental health. Rural residents are more prone to medical disorders such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and have higher suicide rates than urban areas. The need for activities that build mental and physical health for rural students, therefore, is even more crucial.