From enemy to friend: How environmental education turns fear into fascination

Amber-colored winged bug on a green leaf.

A Brood X cicada on a leaf (Bill Nino/Unsplash).

Growing up, my family viewed the outdoors as a place to be burnt, bit, cut, drowned, and bruised. The slathered sunscreen and squirted bug spray of my childhood convinced me to fear nature. However, environmental education transformed this fear into fascination. When children receive an environmental education, it connects them to nature and empowers them to apply the knowledge to their conversations and interactions.

My earliest environmental memory doesn't involve the environment for long. One Mother’s Day, my family visited Salisbury Beach in New Hampshire. Surprised with the destination, I reluctantly left the car and slowly approached the water with our bag of supplies. While I unloaded, my brother inched his way into the water, but seconds later, a wave swept him up. I was in such shock that I just stood in the sand, taking a mental photograph of my mom saving my brother from almost drowning. I didn’t understand why people would visit a place that could hurt them. The 15-minute visit was my family's first and last trip to the beach.

It was not until a seventh-grade field trip that I interacted with the ocean again. At a marine science center in New Hampshire, a naturalist guided the class to the coastline and introduced us to the species of the intertidal zone. She carefully picked up and presented a sea star, mollusk, and seaweed. I was enamored with the sight of these creatures. After the display, the naturalist encouraged the class to explore the rocky shore. I stayed back and watched other classmates mount the rocks as the endeavor seemed risky, but their fun was contagious and I descended the coastline onto the rocks. During my travels, I slipped, fell onto the rocks, and ripped my leggings. The incident taught me that marine rocks are slimy, so the marine inhabitants must be adept at moving in these conditions. By the end of the day, I couldn’t wait to tell my family about the marine environment and the bruise I brought back as a souvenir.

Zoe Getman-Pickering, an entomologist and postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University, uses environmental education to energize students. For Getman-Pickering, who studies how insects interact with the world, environmental education was a matter of timing. This past spring, the Brood X cicadas emerged in Washington, D.C. for the first time in 17 years. Getman-Pickering and her colleagues knew that students would interact with cicadas in an unusual way during the emergence. This generation of students had likely never seen cicadas before, especially in the sheer volume expected. The team wanted to combat the negative, alarming language shared by the media and parents about the event. Getman-Pickering, with other biologists and an educator, created Friend to Cicadas, an online set of materials for elementary students about cicadas. The materials included a workbook, talk, illustrations, and haiku competition that intended to educate the students and empower them to share the information with their communities, explained Getman-Pickering. 

The team centered the materials around the details of the cicada emergence that captured public attention. As Getman-Pickering explains, student comprehension and enjoyment were key. The team completed iterations of the workbook, editing drafts based on teacher and parent feedback. Once finalized, the team released the materials online, as in-person education wasn’t feasible because of the pandemic. Though adapting lessons to a digital platform was challenging, it meant that more students could access the materials. In fact, the materials reached approximately 10,000 students, said Getman-Pickering. Even though the team couldn’t work with students directly, they gauged the students’ understanding of cicadas through haiku poems written by the students.

Haiku poems represented the educational effectiveness of the project overall. The materials transformed environmental fear into fascination as the poems conveyed a variety of feelings about cicadas, ranging from mesmerization to curiosity, explained Getman-Pickering. With a portrayal of cicadas as interesting and friendly, it alleviates “a lot of fear (that) comes from lack of understanding or lack of knowledge, lack of familiarity,” said Getman-Pickering. Even when she thought she finished the project, the students proved her wrong. They continued to send questions about cicadas to the team as their fascination extended beyond the workbook. Friend to Cicadas combats fear with fact and empowers students to help others become a friend to cicadas, too.

Researchers across the country and around the world find that young students are communicating with others about environmental issues and developing a personal connection to nature thanks to environmental education. Research on flood education materials for British elementary students suggests that children can learn about flooding and preparedness and share this information with parents at home. Students also learn about nature by spending time in it. At a residential outdoor environmental education program in Pennsylvania, researchers found that student participants strengthened their relationship with nature during their experience. When provided with the information, students can make progress in their journey from avoiding to appreciating the environment.

I’ve made a friend in the environment, too. I no longer resist the outdoors. I have immersed myself in understanding it, especially so I can help others do the same. During my college experience, I interned at Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy to educate elementary schoolers about the park and its history. As the teacher of the information, I realized that students are willing to understand that people relate to nature. They just need a guiding hand to show them how and their curiosity will lead the rest of the way.

Though environmental education may be taught in school, its effects extend beyond the classroom. Equipping students with this type of knowledge allows them to strengthen their connection to nature and become a messenger and steward of environmental issues. It was this information that changed my perspective from a child that avoided nature to a young adult who understands its value and wants to continue sharing it with others. Researchers like Getman-Pickering discern this significance and want to help young students develop an appreciation for nature and even a sense of environmental advocacy. Because today’s young people will inherit a plethora of environmental crises, they must be prepared to handle them. As Getman-Pickering said, “It sounds cliché, but the children are our future,” and environmental education prepares them for that future.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.