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Environmental Ambassadors for Conservation

Number 21 - December 2000
T.Balcazar, E. Linares & E. Herrera

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Introduction

Mexico City is one of the most populated cities of the world with nearly 20 million inhabitants. This population has a tremendous impact on the environment, and a large issue is that in urban areas the limited contact with nature has made children unaware of today’s environmental problems.

One of the more important fields to have a major impact on conservation, is education. Affolter (1997) considers that education, mostly for children and young people, is extremely important because these will be the people that will contribute to a greater extent to support plant conservation in the future. Experiences with nature received at an early age represent the most important factor in personal development in relation to the environment (Palmer 1993; Tanner 1980 both cited in Wilson 1997). Among the fundamental teaching fields that play an essential role in plant conservation, are horticulture and ethnobotany (Linares 1999). Hence the importance of initiating children at an early age in plant conservation practices as a scientific and practical discipline.

In order to support our aim of conservation we need to encourage children and young people to become familiar with plants, organising practical actions and awakening their need to know more about them.

Concerned for nature conservation awareness, the Ministry of Public Education asked the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) to develop and conduct a course for fourth to sixth grade elementary school children that could increase their awareness of the significance of the environment and its conservation. This course began by training a group of children between 10-12 years old interested in environmental problems. The children were selected by their schools according to the following criteria: their interest in environmental care; their performance, their ability to take good notes, their personality, and their ability to establish relationships and be creative.

The following stage of this project was carried out during the 1999-2000 school term at a school that had previously participated in this programme. The programme was broadened to include activities for children from pre-school age (4-5 years old) to children from the first to sixth grade elementary school (6-12 years old) as well as their parents and teachers. Since other authors, such as Hewitt (1997), had reported that students who initially had low interest in responsible behaviour towards the environment may modify their attitude, we also included children with low school performance and low self esteem hoping to raise their environmental awareness.

As part of the programme we held exhibitions and conducted educational activities, such as workshops, that included practical sessions of observation and experimentation.

Objectives

The project’s objectives were to:

  • Train the Environmental Ambassadors to develop the different activities described in this study, thereby enabling them to reproduce or adapt these activities in the future to their own schools to help their youngest friends.
  • Assist the students to acquire knowledge, competence, and teamwork skills, and develop attitudes and values expressed through a responsible relationship with the natural environment, and develop suitable habits for the preservation of the environment.
  • Motivate children of pre-school age and first grade elementary school to get to know the plants through practical and appealing activities.
  • Motivate parents and teachers to support children in their environmental activities as a part of their everyday lives.
  • Motivate children to show their initiative by creating and designing their own environmental programmes.

Environmental Ambassador Activities

Training as teaching assistants:

The workshop 'Recognising Plants Through Their Smell' was aimed at the youngest children (4-6 years old). They had to use their senses in order to recognise some native and introduced plants, with a characteristic smell, that were of frequent use. The aim was for children at an early age to recognise aromatic plants and therefore to motivate them to develop concern for the conservation of some of these plant species. The plants observed were old spice (Pimenta dioica), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), vanilla (Vanilla plannifolia), lavender (Lavandula officinalis), pericón (Tagetes lucida) and rose (Rosa sp.). Children recognised the anatomy and structure of these plants, and made identification cards and a little aromatic bag.

The workshop 'From the Test Tube to My House: Insectivorous Plants and African Violets' targeted children 8-9 years old. With the help of a researcher using insectivorous plants and African violets, children were introduced to the techniques of plant propagation by means of tissue culture and its relevance to the conservation of natural resources. Later, using laboratory material such as petri dishes, dissection tweezers and distilled water bottles, they performed activities involving the transplantation from in vitro culture medium onto soil in a small pot. After the activity the children were able to keep the small pot and care for their plant.

Training as an interpreter under supervision: The Nochebuena Exhibition

The aim of this exhibition was to teach children the importance of this Mexican plant that is widely cultivated around the world and has many different varieties. They were taught the anatomical characteristics of the inflorescence in order to distinguish the different varieties, as well as its cultural aspects and how to cultivate. With this information the Environmental Ambassadors, with the assistance of the trainer, prepared a script that they themselves could use to interpret the exhibition to their friends, teachers and parents that visited the display.

Changing the Landscape of My School: A Green Roof with Vegetables Workshop:

This workshop was created to show children an alternative for cultivation in places where there are no green areas. This involved using the school roofs as a ‘garden’, while at the same time, improving the appearance of their school. In other countries, such as South Africa, great success has been achieved in the improvement of life quality by conserving and promoting their environment for the benefit of the communities through horticulture programmes in schools (Ashwell 1998).

During the 'Green Roof' programme, children aged 10-12 were trained to perform sowing, watering, fertilisation, covering of the roots, pest control and the harvesting of three vegetables: radish (Rhaphanus sativus), beetroot (Beta vulgaris) and carrot (Daucus carota). They carried out observations and wrote daily notes recording the changes that they observed in their crops. They relied on their teachers’ supervision as well as on that of the school environmental coordinator.

In Mexico, these kinds of programmes are unusual and the teachers rarely allow them to run for longer than one month. However, this programme was unique, the children were very motivated and the teachers allowed the children to water and follow the development of the plants for four months.

Activities as autonomous interpreters:

The final exhibition - At the end of the school year children organised, designed and mounted an exhibition in coordination with their teachers to show their friends and parents their achievements during the past year.

Results and Conclusions

Throughout the project it was observed that the activities carried out by children stimulated their observation capability and gave them assurance to pose questions and give simple explanations, as well as possible solutions, to problems of resource conservation.

The creation of a green roof with wooden boxes was a real innovation. We managed to teach the children an orderly working method to attain results in the short and long term, and they carried out all the activities to guarantee the success of their project.

We confirm that children were able to pass on their knowledge and experiences to other children, parents and teachers by means of the different educational activities. We observed that children at an early age felt great admiration for their older friends (Environmental Ambassadors) thus motivating them to learn more about environmental and conservation topics. We gladly observed that parents, watching their childrens' enthusiasm, actively participated in supporting them in the creation of their own vegetable growing at home.

We also observed that the teachers were enthusiastically involved in the activities. They reinforced the treated subjects and enriched others e.g. in Spanish, children did a composition on the plants they observed; in Mathematics they put into practice aspects of measures, time and space; in Natural Sciences they reinforced their knowledge on environment; and in Social Science and Geography they looked for possible cultivation zones in Mexico according to the climate and kind of vegetable crop.

With regard to responsibility and attention, it is important to point out the achievements of the children with a previous low school performance and low self-esteem. These children showed significant changes, becoming more responsible for their crops and modifying their behaviour. We found that they became more involved, and their interest increased as well as their self esteem. This attitude change was observed after their participation as interpreters of information with their younger friends and parents as well as with the authorities of the Ministry of Public Education.

Through organising, designing and mounting the final exhibition themselves, as well as the achievements reached during the school activities, the children demonstrated to their friends and teachers that they had the capacity and ability to communicate to a larger group their concern for the environment and its conservation.

We consider that these results show the objectives have been met. We will continue during the next school term to assess the Environmental Ambassadors' activities during the third part of the project, and in addition this first group of Environmental Ambassadors will help us to start the programme in other schools.

Des Ambassadeurs Pour la Conservation

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Durant les deux dernières années, le Jardin Botanique de l’Institut de Biologie de l’Université autonome de Mexico a soutenu un projet pilote en collaboration avec le Secrétariat d’Etat à l’Education, afin de former les enfants des écoles primaires sur des thèmes touchant à l’environnement et à la protection de la nature. Ces enfants reçoivent le titre d’ambassadeurs de l’Environnement.

Les ambassadeurs sont formés et leur rôle est ensuite de partager et d’enseigner aux enfants plus jeunes ce qu’ils ont eux-même appris et de mettre en place leurs propres programmes au sein de leur école. L’article décrit quelques-unes des activités menées par les ambassadeurs: ateliers, expositions qui sont proposées aux enfants, du niveau pré-scolaire (4-5 ans) à la sixième (12 ans). L’évaluation du programme pilote a révélé que les enfants peuvent être des éléments clef de la prise de conscience environnementale et de la dissémination de l’information pour la conservation des ressources naturelles.

Los Embajadores Ambientales Para la Conservacion

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Durante los dos últimos años el Jardín Botánico del Instituto de Biología de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (J.B. IB-UNAM), ha apoyado un programa piloto, en colaboración con la Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) para capacitar a niños de educación primaria, en temas ambientales y de protección de la naturaleza. Estos niños son conocidos como ‘embajadores ambientales’.

En este artículo se explican las actividades que se han desarrollado con estos embajadores ambientales en su colegio, capacitándolos para que puedan compartir y enseñar a otros niños más pequeños lo que han aprendido y logren implementar sus propios programas de acuerdo a las necesidades de su escuela. Aquí se presentan las experiencias de tres talleres y una exposición, en los que participan niños desde nivel preescolar (4 a 5 años) hasta sexto grado de primaria (12 años); se analizan los resultados, avances y problemas a los que nos enfrentamos y que han permitido constatar que los niños son elementos clave en la sensibilización y multiplicadores de la información para trabajar en pro de la conservación de los recursos vegetales.

 
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