Environmental education goes global

Long-established Shelburne Farms program in Vermont sends out ripples worldwide.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Youngsters attending Adventures Camp (ages 3 to 6) enjoy two sheep at the children's farmyard.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
At Shelburne Farms, an environmental education hotbed in northern Vermont, kids hunt for insects and worms to learn about nature.

A generation ago, kids received “environmental education” mostly through guided walks at local nature centers. Today’s “education for sustainability” is a global as well as a local phenomenon – a web of collaborative programs leaping over political boundaries, engaging adults as well as children, and bringing the needs of people into the environmental equation.

Shelburne Farms, an environmental education hotbed in northern Vermont, is a good example of the changes. In 1970, after the first Earth Day, the owners of the 1,400-acre estate built on Lake Champlain during the Gilded Age opened an environmental summer camp.

As it grew, Shelburne Farms began to team up with kindred organizations in Vermont and later across Europe, Central America, and Asia. Its teaching manual, packed with hands-on activities for children, has now been translated into eight languages and is used in 16 countries. Current projects reach into Italy, Hungary, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and China.

A summer visit to Shelburne Farms shows how it practices what it teaches: When families hop aboard a wagon for a tour of the property, the tractor pulling it is powered by 20 percent biodiesel fuel. As the wagon winds its way through the sweeping landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, rows of organic hay lie in a field not mown until after ground-nesting birds hatch their chicks. Forests in the distance are managed to maximize the use of each tree harvested and to ensure that wildlife habitat remains as undisturbed as possible.

Visitors get off at the farm barn, which houses educational centers, offices, a bakery that uses local flour, and furnituremakers that use sustainably grown lumber. In the two-acre courtyard – where children romp among chickens, goats, sheep, and other farm animals – a lunch wagon serves local food on compostable plates made from cornstarch and vegetable oil.

A group of older children move livestock from one pasture to another for rotational grazing and discuss how people still, in a sense, “live off the land.” Other groups of summer campers explore woodland, pond, and shoreline habitats.

Students aren’t the only ones learning about the environment at Shelburne Farms. So are teachers, who come from as far away as Hawaii and Korea. Joe Brooks, director of Community Works, which cosponsors a week-long summer teaching institute here, says that teachers call the experience “life-changing”: “One participant told us this was the first teacher institute she’d attended that talked about what really mattered.”

Mr. Brooks thinks that the host site has much to do with that. “When people come here, they feel they’re part of something bigger,” he says.

The Spannocchia Foundation, which operates a working farm on a family estate in Italy, has looked to Shelburne Farms as a model since the former’s inception in 2003. Spannocchia hosts adult educational groups, offers on-site environmental education for local schools, welcomes agritourists, and conducts organic farming internships.

Erin Cinelli, the foundation’s executive director, has seen a shift in environmental awareness among the people visiting Spannocchia. “Ten years ago, visitors came to Tuscany to see art,” she says. “Now they want to understand what’s going on with agriculture and the environment.”

In February, Spannocchia welcomed New Englanders to a symposium on sustainable local food systems and their role in maintaining the rural landscape and culture.
“Food is a unifying theme,” says Megan Camp, vice president of Shelburne Farms, which has helped develop school programs that connect children with farmers in their communities. Kids learn what foods are available locally, experiment with recipes, conduct taste tests, and help school cafeterias plan menus using local foods.

This level of engagement has its counterpart in the Learning and Ecological Activities Foundation for Children (LEAF), a program started by the municipal government for the town of Nishinomiya, Japan. Students in the city’s public schools receive “ecocards,” which ecofriendly businesses stamp when a purchase is made. After a certain number of stamps, students earn the title “Earth Ranger.” The program brings together children, parents, businesses, and government in a way that affects Nishinomiya’s environmental policies. Businesses “are one of the indispensable sectors needed for a community to pursue sustainability,” says LEAF board member Haruo Soeda.

One of Shelburne Farms’ international partnerships involves helping China deal with the environmental and social consequences of its tremendous economic growth. Factory managers in the industrial province of Guangdong will be trained in resource efficiency and environmental health through a series of workshops conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) in Montpelier, Vt. The institute, which has enjoyed a relationship with Shelburne Farms since the ISC was founded in 1991, has mobilized civic participation to solve environmental problems in 20 countries around the world.

Recognizing that this community-based model of energy efficiency would be more effective if coupled with enhanced understanding of ecology, the ISC invited Shelburne Farms to implement a plan to train Chinese elementary and middle school teachers in education for sustainability. They also involved South China Normal University, connecting the work it was doing in environmental education with ISC’s energy-efficiency programs. Shelburne Farms has also brought LEAF into the project. The four partners aim to share best practices among educators through visits.

Ms. Camp is excited at the idea of bringing Japan and China together in this project. She sees education for sustainability as giving people a new collaborative lens through which to see the world, with young people in the forefront. “The world is coming to have a more integrated perspective,” she says. “Young people think in a more integrated way than we did.”

George Hamilton, president and cofounder of ISC, agrees. “Kids get it,” he says. “They get thinking about addressing problems, question the ways things have been done, and say, ‘Why can’t we do it this way instead?’ Schools are at the heart of change in communities.”

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