Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques

jacobsonRating: ★★★★★

Susan K Jacobson, Mallory D McDuff, Martha C Monroe. (eds). 2015. Conservation Education and Outreach Techniques.2e. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978 0 19 871669 3.

I suppose I was lucky. I joined a college in the 1970s where outdoors education was possible and all you needed was a plan. I designed a wildlife conservation courseĀ  and ran it for almost 25 years, overcoming funding issues (found a sponsor), lack of tools (found a supplier), lack of location (got a Medieval wood that needed restoring) and a diverse group of students (from those who would later be world leaders in conservation to those who just liked a bit of fresh air! Slowly gaining knowledge, I crafted a this course that aimed to train students up to conservation volunteer standards. Sadly, that’s all behind me now and a new generation are looking for ideas.

The need for support of conservation has never been greater but there is a real risk that the numbers just won’t add up. This is not a new issue. Starting back in the 1970s with ground-breaking syllabi in Environmental Science, there has been an uphill struggle to attract the numbers to make conservation mainstream. I am aware that many could argue that we have won this particular battle – membership of environmental organisations is still increasing and their reach is becoming increasingly global. However, I don’t think numbers are the real battlefield. Sure, they are important but what is needed far more, I think, is the underlying personal morals and philosophy that supports action – membership fees are not enough.

There is an increasing argument that children need the outdoors, not just as a place to be but as a place to explore and feel – to connect with nature in a way that lifts ideas. Students gain benefits from being outdoors. Even a simple search of online resources will yield a significant number of results the vast majority of which will point in the same direction – outdoors is best. Sadly, in a world of decreasing outdoor opportunity, this is dwindling. Put bluntly, the next generation of conservation supporters and workers will come from this generation of students. If we fail to train and enthuse, we should not be surprised if conservation is not valued.

There’s a vicious circle here. Less outdoors > less experience > less support > education > fewer opportunities for teachers > less outdoors. I was at a conference once when a senior leader stated he supported virtual fieldtrips because it meant that soon, no student would need to leave the classroom! That’s both wrong and sad. So, what can we do about it? Here’s where this text comes in. All you need is this text, a little imagination and a chance to follow the ideas through. It’s premised on the idea that teachers are willing to enthuse students but they need to see the range of ideas that are possible.

Now in its second edition, this text goes through the wide range of conservation education ideas and gives practical advice, checklists and references. We start where I should have started – with a plan! Not so much a pedagogical plan (I had that) but a marketing plan, a way of drumming up support and finding funding and people. In fairness, I was only looking at one institution, this text is aimed at conservation groups around the world in both formal and informal education and conservation settings. The central point here is that you need to face conservation like any other business project – find a product, a market and a message! From this initial message, the next stage is to focus on the type of learning we are going to carry out. Much of this chapter is looking at the main theories of education such as experiential or activity learning. Much of this is familiar in education courses but the central message seems to be that you need to plan how you are going to work in the field. If we do this successfully, we will have started to change the behaviour of students – being immersed in a situation is the start of understanding it.

From this point, we move away from education per se into the practicalities of running a programme. The first chapter in this set looks at the development of conservation education in schools. This is often seen as the poor cousin of the curriculum, an adjunct to Biology or Geography; rarely as a serious course like Environmental Studies. Here, the committed NGO or local conservation group can lend a hand. Teachers are often time-poor so any help is welcome. The next contribution looks at the ways in which conservation can come alive. The range is stunning. There’s the traditional idea of getting hands-on with nature (the old “nature study” of the curriculum in 1960s UK – underpinned by work led by the forerunners of today’s BBC Wildlife Unit). Then there’s the less obvious ones like storytelling, role-playing and games. If we are looking at immersing students in the environment then both art and music need to be considered (especially as it was the art of people like Watkins – and later Ansel Adams – that led to an early appreciation of wildscapes e.g. Yosemite). The last part of this aspect of the work is the need to make a real and lasting connection between conservation and the student. The central argument here is that conservation will work if it is grounded in something the student perceives as important such as a community garden or restoring a local park. It seeks to embed in the mind of the student not just a way completing a task but of making conservation something that improves well-being and quality of life. Students taught this in primary school are often the most vocal in environmental projects in secondary school!

The last five chapters form a group focussed on the need to spread the word! The focus is on the conservation group and message but this could be just as well aimed at the subject within a school. Having built conservation courses over many years, the problems outlined here are all too familiar. It really comes down to a simple set of ideas – you need to get the message out there and you need people to buy-in to your project(s). The former is just marketing – telling people what you can do and, more importantly in this day, what you can offer them and how it would enhance their interests, life etc. The latter demands you create a connection that people can find or visit in some format. Let’s take each in turn. Marketing is what you need to do to make people aware of your project. Typically, volunteer groups are poor at this (as are most teachers!) because their minds are focussed on something for which money is not the key object. However, as organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are all too aware, the message is the medium (check out their websites!). They would be nowhere near as influential if they had not gone down this route. What’s interesting, but not made so much of here, is that what works for organisations, works for teaching and subjects. Get students to design networks of information. Get them to market species to see who would get the most “votes”, “likes” or whatever! To do this requires high level written skills and so it’s appropriate that we have a chapter looking at how to influence people (again, imagine how this could work with a class). In modern times, technology is a given but the various routes do need to be explored in more detail. Websites need to be interactive and exciting to viewers raised on this medium; social media needs to be harnessed for good (again, see Greenpeace). The final part of the puzzle must be to give them something to see. Here, you need to make sure your conservation area lives up to the hype.

There’s much to like here. As a straightforward guide to building up projects in conservation, it succeeds in being broad in its scope and focussed in its intent. It’s more of an encyclopaedia thanĀ  a book – something you dip into rather read straight through. However, it has a far broader scope. It’s a handbook on how to promote anything, how to get your message across and the sort of ideas you need to pull people to your cause. It would be an excellent primer in courses as diverse as conservation science and education. This deserves the widest readership.

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