FOR kids like seven-year-old Kenneth Vellmer from Troy, Ohio, the environment has real meaning. ``If we don't think about it,'' he says, ``we'll have to move to another planet.'' Young people - from preschoolers to college students - are responding to increased discussion and instruction on environmental issues. Prompted in part by the 20th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day this past April, many schools are teaching students to be environmentally conscious.
For example, Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kan., offers Environmental Education I and II as science courses. Students in the classes work with elementary pupils who come from other schools in the district. The high schoolers use the school's unique 23-acre outdoor lab to help teach the younger kids and serve as role models for them.
Last year, a group of students initiated an activist student club, Let's Improve Future Environment (LIFE). They started a paint recycling project, lobbied the city council to give more attention to environmental issues, and organized various events for Earth Day.
H. Dean Jernigan, a science teacher at Shawnee Mission South and advisor to LIFE, views the high schoolers he works with as more serious about the environment than any generation before them. ``They are starting to see the real effects of the destruction,'' he says.
David Gochis, an 18-year-old graduate of Shawnee Mission South, took both the environmental education courses, worked with the elementary school students, and joined the LIFE club. He views taking care of the environment as a responsibility. ``If you want to live a normal life, you better have a place to do it in,'' he says. After studying the environment and getting involved in LIFE, David now plans to get a civil engineering degree with a masters in environmental engineering from the University of Kansas.
More and more young people like David appear to be translating what they are learning into action. ``Action-oriented'' environmental education is definitely on the increase, says Robert Howe, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education in Columbus, Ohio.
``Young people are more attuned to environmental issues than their parents,'' says Joan C. Heidelberg, executive vice president of the North American Association for Environmental Education in Troy, Ohio. ``The kids are being bombarded with it, and it's sinking in.'' She sees young people censuring their parents' environmentally destructive actions and encouraging their elders to participate in recycling programs and other environmentally conscious activities.
Today's young adults have been categorized as apathetic, uninformed, and self-absorbed. Two national studies recently presented a portrait of the 18- to 29-year-old population as indifferent toward the world around them.
But the younger portion of this generation is showing an enthusiastic interest in issues such as the environment. There is ``a rapidly growing tendency toward activism,'' says Alexander Astin, a professor of higher education at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Astin has conducted a survey of college freshman since 1966. The project includes questions on their past participation in demonstrations and protests and future plans for protest and political action. According to the survey, the percentage of young people who have protested and those who plan to protest in the future is higher than ever - higher even than those surveyed in the last half of the '60s.
``A very sharp increase in direct action has taken place in the past four years,'' Astin says, noting that the Reagan years brought on the lowest levels of activism. Students in the survey cite environmental destruction as the most popular issue for protest.
``There has been a sense of helplessness ... in the '70s and into the late '80s,'' says Marc L. Miringoff, director of the Fordham Institute for Innovation in Social Policy in Tarrytown, N.Y. ``We're seeing signs of this beginning to turn around.''
The adolescent population - 10- to 15-year-olds - seems poised for identification with the cause of saving the earth. These youngsters have been surrounded by environmental concerns voiced by the media, their teachers, and politicians. All this seems to have seeped into young people's consciousness.
From her experience teaching sixth-graders at Bel Air Elementary School in New Brighton, Minn., Gail Carlson says that the children in her classes are most worried about death and environmental destruction.
``It's kind of hard not to really realize what's going on,'' says Angela Burkhardt, one of Mrs. Carlson's students last year, speaking of the many environmental news reports she has seen in her short life.
``You turn on the news and it's talking about the hole in the ozone, change the channel and it's talking about the smog in a certain city, and then turn to another station and it's telling you about all these things that are endangered. It's just really not good,'' says 12-year-old Mitch Kaufman of New Brighton.
``This [age] is an opportune time to get the kids involved if you want to engage them in meaningful participation in the community,'' says Sue Rosenzweig of the Center for Early Adolescence in Chapel Hill, N.C.
``If they're apathetic, it's our fault,'' says Ms. Rosenzweig. ``Where would they get it from? They don't grow up that way. I don't think we can lay it on their shoulders.''
The adolescents of today may turn out to be the most active and involved group of youngsters since the 1960s.
``The environmental movement is a good bridge between individual concerns and social ones,'' says Dr. Miringoff. ``The environment is one thing that's concrete,'' he says. ``It's the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe. Each person does all three of those things so they feel an immediate sense of investment in it.''
Miringoff sees cycles of participation among young people. In the early part of the century, the Progressive Era witnessed activism in regard to issues of child labor and job safety for women, he says. In the 1930s, economic rights and union organization got people involved. In the 1960s, youths responded actively to the issues of civil rights and the Vietnam War.
``There are no laws, but it seems as if it's a generational thing,'' Miringoff says. ``I think we're due for another recycling of this.''
THE impetus may be coming from an increased focus on environmental education. In the last five years or so, there has been a substantial increase in teaching about the environment, Mr. Howe says.
``Environmental education is not a standard subject in most schools; it's an infused subject,'' he says.
Education on the environment usually shows up in science classes. But many teachers are beginning to inject an environmental twist into all kinds of subjects. ``You can interface environmental education into anything you are teaching,'' Ms. Heidelberg says.
But some teachers complain that there is no time for studying the issue. ``One of the problems historically has been finding time in the curriculum for environmental education,'' Howe says.
More education about the world's natural surroundings takes place at the elementary level than the secondary level, according to Howe. ``You can integrate things easier at the elementary school,'' he says. ``You aren't worried so much about kids taking tests on things you're going to cover.''
Howe views the active involvement of young peole in environmental issues as a positive development as long as they are well-informed. ``I am concerned that there is a good knowledge base taught in the schools,'' he says, ``to help people try to get good information before they go out and become activists.''
Many people who grew up in the '60s are encouraged by what they see happening now. ``The '90s,'' says Miringoff, ``will bring a sense of caring about what's going on around you as opposed to caring about what's going on inside you.''