'Ecology Explorers' bring environmental education to low-income communities

Monday, August 4, 2014
by Iti Agnihotri

It's 4 o’clock in the afternoon. About ten three- to eight-year-olds sit around a table. They are listening to Ecology Explorers intern Alexis Roeckner. She is presenting a lesson about sustainability. Roeckner holds up a picture and asks: ”What is this?” Voices ring out left and right. Sometimes they are funny interpretations of the photo. From the back of the group, one quiet voice says, “It’s for wind.” All faces turn toward him. He’s one of the smallest boys in the room. It is the right answer. Roeckner says the object in the photo is a wind turbine. She then explains its function to the energetic children.

For Roeckner this is just another teaching moment in the Homeward Bound after-school program. Yet this is not a typical after-school program. Homeward Bound helps support to low-income families. Some of the children are homeless. Some have just left a bad home environment. The after-school program is located in a community where children live with their mothers. It is one of Homeward Bound’s efforts to provide education to children in this community. The community isn’t well served by other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. That’s in part because the community’s population is very mobile.

Ecology Explorers is a K-12 education program. It is run by the Central Arizona-Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research (CAPLTER) project. CAPLTER started working with Homeward Bound in fall 2013. Ecology Explorers interns give lessons to groups of 10-15 children four times a semester. They are overseen by Ecology Explorers staff member Gina Hupton.

During the fall, lessons focused on urban ecology and temperatures. The spring lessons ranged from the water cycle to pollution and the environment. Hupton explains that the lessons were meant to help with future learning. They also help the children understand and appreciate their environment.

Lauren Gault agrees with Hupton. She is an Arizona State University student working with Ecology Explorers. “Young children still find much of the scientific world to be magical and mysterious,” she says. That’s why teaching them about science early and often is important. It makes science more fun.

The benefits of the Homeward Bound program extend to ASU students. Roeckner, for example, is considering career education. She now has valuable experience in environmental education. Gault is majoring in conservation biology and ecology. She would like to focus on research, policy and education. She knows the power of science education. It can shape a sustainable future.

Ecology Explorers will continue working with children at the Homeward Bound after-school program. However, it will likely be a different group of children. Families often leave the program after mothers find employment and housing. It will be another chance for Ecology Explorers interns to educate the next generation of citizens about the environment.