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Do jellyfish poop?

EPIC’s Environmental Education Program

 

By Laura Bijnsdorp

 

In November 2014, I was hired to run the Environmental Education (EE) Program for Environmental Protection In the Caribbean (EPIC). Growing up, I had volunteered with the various environmental foundations on St. Maarten including Caribbean Foundation for Sustainability, PRIDE, St. Maarten Nature Foundation and EPIC. It is an understatement to say that these foundations are conducting much needed work on the island, and I was excited to have the opportunity to be part of their efforts on a daily basis.

 

EPIC’s annual EE program offers free educational presentations for schools, clubs and community groups. EPIC officially started its EE program in 2007, which was led by Rueben Thompson with support from various international volunteers since.

 

EPIC’s educational presentations and excursions cover a number of topics, including St. Maarten’s biodiversity, environmental challenges, waste management and the wildlife and ecology of St. Maarten's wetlands. We also encourage interested groups to make specific topic requests so that our program fits into their curriculum or the specific needs of the participants. This year, two recurring requested topics were global warming and information on sargasso seaweed. Together with Binkie van Es, we also conducted a workshop for teachers on using birding in schools.

 

THERE ARE MANY reasons that EE should be implemented more in our schools and community. EE connects us to the world around us, teaching us about both natural and built environments. It raises awareness of issues impacting the environment upon which we all depend, as well as actions we can take to improve and sustain it.

 

EE helps people see how social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political issues are all connected. It encourages students to figure out the different sides to an issue to understand the full picture. This promotes tolerance of different points of view and different cultures. We encourage students to ask questions and investigate, thereby enhancing critical and creative thinking skills.

 

EE also is easy to incorporate into other subjects such as science, math, language arts and history. It often makes the subject more hands-on and shows how they can be used in everyday scenarios.

 

MANY OF OUR educational activities get students outside and active. This is another benefit that I have personally found very important. During our EE excursions, we expose students to nature and allow them to learn and play outside. I have noticed such excitement and surprise from students that I take to beaches, ponds or forest areas. Going for walks through valleys, hikes in the hillsides, a swim at various beaches and camping out in remote areas were a given in my family. But for many other families, it’s not. Not everyone takes the time or has the opportunity to experience nature. These excursions foster sensitivity, appreciation and respect for the environment.

 

It’s promising to see that during the programs, most participants are interested and engaged. Though there are also always a few who are harder to reach and make me wonder: “How can I make you care?”

 

THAT IS WHY I think EE is so important. It makes people care more. It is hard to care about something if you don’t know its value. If I don’t know why plastic bags are detrimental to my environment, then why shouldn’t I throw them out of my car window? Yet, if I get the proper information, I might change my mind about doing that again.

 

For example, we might teach that items like plastic packaging, bags and bottles are thrown away every day and end up in trash sites as well as in forests, creeks, rivers, seas and oceans around the world. First, these are an eyesore and not a good image for a tourism-run country such as St. Maarten. Second, plastic is not biodegradable. In reality, most plastic does not ever disappear, but becomes long-lasting "plastic dust".

 

When items like plastic bags break down, they readily soak up and release toxins that then contaminate soil and water, as well as harming animals that ingest plastic fragments. Every square mile of ocean has an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it. That is why over a million sea birds, whales, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine creatures die from plastic debris that ends up in our oceans.

 

If you know this, how you throw away a plastic bag all of a sudden has more weight, you realize its value and impact. The logical thing then is that you will reduce, reuse and make sure that plastic bag is disposed of properly or not use it in the first place.

 

MOST ENCOURAGING is to notice that after many of my EE presentations, students themselves take initiative and ask how they can take action to improve the environment in their own community. It shows them that they also are responsible for their surroundings, have a voice and can make a difference.

 

We offer our programs to all ages. The youngest age group I taught this school year was five-year-olds. You might think that is too young, but it isn’t. We watched an informational video on recycling, did games in which teams had to race to sort various trash kinds of, and made drawings and coloured pictures on the same theme. It is amazing what kids can absorb! What I enjoy most about teaching students is their complete lack of inhibition. They will tell and ask you anything.

 

They tell bad, good, sad and funny stories about their parents throwing their trash out of the car, about the fact that they are going to be environmental superheroes, about the time that they found a bird and tried to help it before it died, about their grandmother who kicked someone for throwing a plastic plate on the ground.

 

AND THEY ASK cute questions: “Are there tigers in this forest? Do jellyfish poop? Why are the birds hiding in the trees?” And ask questions that we as adults don’t seem to ask enough: “Why can’t we swim in our ponds anymore? Why do people litter if it kills our animals? If environment is so important to us, why don’t we take care of it?”

 

My response: “Why don’t you take the first step?” Environmental Education programs don’t just educate, they shape people that will take action, influence change and make the world a better place. On an island where it is obvious that protecting our natural environment has not been made a priority, environmental education plays a key part in changing this.

 

Though the program has come to an end for this school year, EPIC is seeking funding to continue offering this service. Schools and other interested parties can sign up for the program, which starts again in September. Contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or surf to www.epicislands.com and facebook.com/epicislands.