It can be hard for a third-grader to grasp the concept that not recycling now can mean big environmental problems later, but Carleton College junior Jen Goldman and sophomore Susannah Stevens know that environmental lessons are best learned at an early age. With that in mind, they developed Kids for Conservation, a program where Carleton student volunteers teach environmental lessons to Northfield third-grade students through weekly interactive lessons and projects.
"We want to instill environmental values and responsibility in kids," Stevens said. "One side benefit is that this is a great experience for volunteers, who could go on to do something really important for the environment."
The two students developed a pilot program of three lessons last winter, which has now grown to six lessons per term in each of seven third-grade classrooms in Northfield. With the third program director, sophomore Adrienne Hacker, Goldman and Stevens designed units that would each build on the last. This past fall, about 30 volunteers taught about connections and systems, like the water cycle, ecosystems and habitats. This winter, they have brought those broad lessons closer to home by focusing on Minnesota natural history. They will teach about ways to conserve natural resources this spring.
Each week, a team of volunteers is responsible for planning lessons and teaching them to the other volunteers. Lessons usually combine short lectures with visual demonstrations and hands-on activities. During one lesson about water conservation, Goldman nonchalantly brushed her teeth at the back of the classroom, with the faucet on the whole time.
When the kids wondered what she was doing, she pulled a bucket out of the sink and showed them how much water is wasted in the few minutes it takes to brush teeth.
In another lesson, students divided into teams of ecodetectives, and went around the school looking for water and energy waste and improper recycling.
"It makes kids more conscious of what they’re doing," Goldman said.
In addition to being teachers, the Kids for Conservation volunteers also are trying to be role models—instead of using cars or College vans to get to the elementary schools, they use bikes. Many have participated in other environmental groups, and illustrate their lessons with personal experiences. Stevens spent a year as an AmeriCorps volunteer teaching conservation to elementary students, and Goldman is working on a major in biology with a concentration in environmental and technology studies.
Elementary teachers have been receptive to the Kids for Conservation volunteers. The lessons help the teachers fulfill their science requirements, and since the volunteers teach in teams of four, they are able to give students more one-on-one time than their classroom teachers can.
After less than six months, Kids for Conservation has become one Carleton’s most popular service programs. During fall term, volunteers put in a total of more than 700 hours. Recently chartered by the Carleton Student Association, the group can now afford to purchase more instructional materials, and can buy props for more involved demonstrations.
"An experience like this gets kids excited about the environment, and that is something that can be built on later," Goldman said.