First Steps: We Hit the Ground Running

by Lew Crampton
[EPA Journal - September/October 1991]

On October 1, 1991, the provisions of the National Environmental Education Act of 1990 became effective. We at EPA are authorized, for the first time in our 20-year history, to launch a wide-ranging initiative to stimulate and support environmental education and environmental educators.

Depending upon the Congressional appropriations process, the Agency should be in a position to put its resources where its heart has been by providing grants and fellowships to promising environmental educators.

As relative newcomers to the field, we've spent much of the past year gearing up to implement the new law and learning from people who were already active. My charge to the staff in our new Office of Environmental Education has been to listen to anybody who would talk to us to ensure that our program is aimed in the right direction.

To make certain that EPA is listening and building partnerships and alliances, we are creating a formal advisory council to assess the national scene and help guide us on our way. The members of this council will be respected individuals from each of our constituency groups. Their advice will serve to ensure that our programs are on target.

Although the provisions of the new act did not go into effect until just recently, Bill Reilly had already supported a series of internal moves that enabled the new Office of Environmental Education to hit the ground running. As an example, the Agency invested in the development of a clearinghouse of detailed information on those environmental education products and activities which EPA has sponsored.

We intend to have the prototype of this clearinghouse available for review and critique early next year. After we determine that it does, indeed, meet the needs of environmental education professionals, the operation will be expanded to include all environmental education materials developed by the entire federal government.

Again, our emphasis is upon producing a selective, truly useful, and effectively used clearinghouse. Likewise, we will be designing the system so that as much of the information as possible will be available through networks such as ECONET and the Alliance for Environmental Education's network of Environmental Education Centers.

Another initiative is a periodical called Education Notes. Our office is distributing this periodical to almost every elementary school in the nation. The intent and content are straightforward. We went to give teachers the kind of information and tools they can use immediately. From personal experiences to poetry to games, each issue of Education Notes will be filled with the kind of practical information that resourceful teachers can apply to increase the environmental component of their daily curriculum.

Another initiative is an important conference on developing partnerships in environmental education in Washington on November 19 through 21. At that conference, we will gather together representatives of key interest groups in environmental education to both learn from them and get their reactions to our plans.

For example, the new Environmental Education Act calls for EPA to allocate several millions of dollars for grants in support of environmental education activities nationwide. To date, we have issued preliminary guidance on how to apply for these grants. Before this guidance goes final and, more importantly, before any grants are awarded, we expect the information we gather at our November conference to guide us in crafting an effective program. The hundreds of small grants to be awarded each year should help to unlock the tremendous creative talents of educators nationwide and help stimulate the growth of a more environmentally aware, and responsible, citizenry.

Of particular emphasis in our initiative will be an expanded, aggressive internship and fellowship program to bring hundreds of additional teachers and students into positions with federal agencies and laboratories where they can develop and fine-tune their environmental education expertise. Here our emphasis will be upon minorities, Native Americans, and others who may currently be underrepresented in the environmental and teaching professions.

People have asked me: Why are you getting all excited about this? What can teaching kids about living life gently when it comes to environment really mean? What makes you think that all this can make a difference when it comes to solving some of the most complex technological and scientific problems of our age? Well, I've been in this field as a regulator and enforcer for over 10 years, and I've seen education work.

Two years ago, a young student was at the White House to receive an environmental youth award from the President. Not satisfied just to receive his award, in front of all the cameras, reports, and microphones, he asked the President if the White House had a recycling program. Today there is a recycling program in the White House.

Bill Reilly, Hank Habicht, and the 17,000 people of EPA have great expectations for our environmental education program. For this reason, it is important that we reach an understanding about what environmental education entails.

I don't mean that we need to spend time word-smithing any particular definition of environmental education--the job's too big and too important to get bogged down in such details. What we do need to achieve at the outset is an understanding of where each of us is coming from, to clarify the scope and mission of each major player in the environmental education field, and to get on with the job.

To succeed we need to develop a new definition of the three Rs--Roles, Responsibilities, and Relationships. In terms of definitions, my tendency is to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Of course, we want to support environmental education activities which are proven effective. Yet we also need to stimulate progress by supporting imaginative ideas which may sound strange but may yield great benefits. Just as the strength of an ecosystem, or a nation, is in its diversity, so the strength of our environmental education initiatives will be in their diversity.

But diversity also needs a context that provides overall direction to where we are going and how we intend to get there. I am sensitive to our need to plan strategically and to keep our energies focused on positive and progressive programs. This is clearly an area where all of us must work together.

Change for change's sake doesn't appeal to me. But the need to reform our educational system is so great that changes are not only inevitable, they are essential. We fully intend that our environmental education activities will encourage and engender positive change and will be closely linked to the America 2000 strategy set forth by the President and the nation's governors.

We prepare the coming century through environmental education, through fostering environmental literacy. With more and more voices clamoring to be heard, it is important that basic assumptions and vocabularies are widely shared and respected throughout American society, if not the world. With more and more local initiatives needed, it is important that individuals have the knowledge to make wise choices.

Educated consumers can become environmental stewards; they can demand--and get--environmentally safer products with less packaging, and more recycled and recyclable products.

Informed citizens can take the initiative, as members of their communities or members of conservation groups, to address the daunting problems ahead of us. Like reading itself, environmental literacy is fast becoming an essential competence; almost certainly, it will be central to any successful strategy to grapple with the enormously complex issues of the next century.

At EPA it is our hope that by the turn of the millennium, every citizen will be fluent in the principles of ecology and will have a working knowledge of the basic grammar and underlying syntax of environmental wisdom.

Crampton was EPA's Associate Administrator for Communications and Public Affairs, which included the Office of Environmental Education.