Greening the curriculum

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's plan to add environmental education to the curriculum of public elementary, middle and high schools is a welcome move toward making all students more aware of our responsibility to care for the planet and the impact our choices have on it.

Many important public policy debates — from climate change and conservation to man-made disasters such as BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — turn on scientific principles everyone should be familiar with in order to make informed decisions. Environmental literacy has become a necessity for citizens in a democracy.

To be sure, some form of environmental literacy is already being taught in many Maryland schools. Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, for example, offer units on weather, geology and other environmental topics as part of their regular courses in biology, chemistry and earth science. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that kids in such programs today are far better informed about the linkage between environmental change and human activity than their parents were at a similar age.

Ms. Grasmick, at the urging of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is seeking to expand the success of such programs so that all the state's students, including those in heavily urban jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Prince George's County, get the kind of consistent, high-quality instruction that will help them become more responsible stewards of the natural environment from both a local and a global perspective. She envisions a curriculum in which students learn to understand how the interactions of the Earth's biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere influence weather patterns, climate zones and the distribution of life, and where students develop projects that protect, sustain and enhance the natural environment.

At this point, no one can be certain exactly how individual schools and school districts will implement the changes needed to fully incorporate environment literacy into the curriculum. The state school board, which approved the new requirement Tuesday, stopped short of making environmental literacy a requirement for high school graduation, and high school students won't have to take any extra courses; the material will be woven into existing school science programs. The new regulations also stipulate that environmental science topics be incorporated into all elementary and middle school curriculums as well, so that students learn about environmental matters throughout their school careers.

Critics will complain that the program will be a means to indoctrinate students with liberal politics. But there is nothing political about learning the science behind the natural processes that govern the Earth and the effects of humanity's interaction on them. It's the question of what needs to be done about those effects that is political, and a solid grounding in the science will help Maryland's students to provide good answers when they are adults.

The state board's action grew out of a 2008 initiative of Gov. Martin O'Malley called Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature, which was co-chaired by Ms. Grasmick and state Department of Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. Working closely with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a conservation group that works to restore damage done by pollution and overfishing in the bay, Ms. Grasmick came up with new curriculum requirements that bay advocates had long been pressing for. And although the Chesapeake Bay Foundation had lobbied for even tougher environmental literacy requirements, a spokesman for the organization acknowledged that the changes represented an important step forward.

That will depend, however, on how committed individual schools and local school districts are to making the needed changes. The state is requiring school superintendents to certify every five years that the new requirement is being met, but ultimately success will depend on the willingness of school principals and teachers to create strong programs that capture students' interest and motivate them to apply what they learn in their everyday lives.

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century will be to jealously protect this fragile globe of air and water, ocean and dry land, remembering always that it is still our sole purchase on an indifferent universe. Environmental literacy is neither a luxury nor an idle pastime but an essential body of knowledge we will need to preserve the planet we call home for future generations. That's a lesson all Maryland students should learn, and they can't start too early.

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