For the last few hundred feet, the trail steepens, making our hike through the woods markedly more difficult. Slowly, one step at a time, we make our ascent along the tree-lined path, pausing occasionally to catch our breath and rest our stiff muscles. It is the end of a long field day at Hopkins Demonstration Forest in Oregon City, Oregon. My students and I spent the day determining tree height and diameter, assessing the health of trees by examining their crowns, and measuring field plots to better understand the structure and density of the forest. Now, sweaty and red in the face, we were hiking back to the bus to head home.
Living in the information age has made it easier than ever for students to study anything that interests them. However, studying the world from a computer screen creates a disconnect between the learner and the subject being studied, not to mention the ease with which misinformation can be presented as fact. For students living in an urban setting, this problem can become even more challenging when it comes to understanding the environment.
Many of my students don’t spend a great deal of time outdoors, and even less have visited the variety of natural areas that Oregon has to offer. As an educator, my job is to help young people better understand the world and their place in it. When it comes to environmental education, this requires an understanding of the interconnectedness of people and our environment. But without those direct experiences with nature, this can’t happen. How can my students care about something that they do not know?
Aldo Leopold said,“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” My goal is to help my students develop a relationship with their natural environment and community, by providing them with opportunities like the one described above – by immersing them in nature. It isn’t always easy to develop and plan field and community experiences, but I can’t expect my students to care about important issues like climate change or biodiversity loss without them. That is why I have made the commitment to do what I can to help this generation see, with their own eyes and through their own experiences, what is happening to our planet. To let them know that despite the barriers and difficulties we face in meeting the challenges confronting our planet, ultimately, the climb is worth it.