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Oct. 05, 2012
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine

Preschoolers explore conservation ideas

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - It's been said children will inherit the Earth. Slippery Rock University and its Robert A. Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research believe it's never too early to begin teaching healthy-planet lifestyles so they have an earth to inherit.

More than 40 preschoolers from the SRU/SGA Child Care Center are participating today in an "Exploring Energy" program at the Macoskey Center. The program combines fun activities such as flying kites and cooking s'mores in a solar oven with lessons about nonrenewable and renewable resources.

"Participants will have the opportunity to explore energy through the mining of fossil fuels such as coal. They will use wind to power their own kites, harness the power of the sun to race cars and will even use their own energy to make apple cider," said Dustin Hall, an SRU graduate student of environmental education and parks and resource management from Sidney, Ohio, who serves as the Macoskey Center's sustainability education coordinator. "They will even see the famous Macoskey Center chickens."

For the lesson about mining fossil fuels, children will build six dioramas out of sand, plastic animals and plant material. Pieces of coal will be hidden within the piles of sand.

"Children will be digging with their hands through the sand to find the coal," Hall said. "This will show them that coal is underground, and the way to get coal can be quite destructive."

The overall goal of the program, Hall said, is to teach children about sustainability, give them ample opportunities to explore the outdoors so that they develop an affinity for nature and help them see that their own actions have consequences.

The program perfectly aligns with SRU's commitment to sustainability. President Cheryl Norton recently signed the Climate Action Plan outlining various methods to make SRU carbon neutral by 2037. "Reaching for 2025 and Beyond," the University's long-range strategic plan, cites environmental stewardship, sustainable practice and design and alternative energy as institutional priorities.

Hall said children would work with toy racecar kits that come with two small solar panels. They will build racecars and install the solar panels, shifting the angles of the panels to control the movement of the cars.

"Children are our future, so teaching them sustainability is essential to the well being of our planet," said Hall said. "It is important to teach children that everything on this Earth is interrelated and demonstrate how their behaviors and actions can have an effect on the environment. By teaching children the importance of sustainability, we are empowering them and showing them that they, too, are capable of making a difference."

Fran Bires, director of the SRU-administered McKeever Environmental Learning Center at Sandy Lake and interim director of the Macoskey Center, teaches Earthkeepers and other environmental stewardship programs to children in grades K-8. He said environmental issues, in particular energy, are critical for all people to understand, even young children. McKeever is a public service institute of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

"Just like our children of today are inheriting the national debt, they will be burdened with energy issues in the future," Bires said. "Children form their environmental attitudes and habits at a very early age."

According to researchers in the field of nature education, preschool is a great time to teach youngsters that their actions on the earth make a difference, he said.

"They need to learn and understand the connections between what they do in their daily lives and the impacts of those decisions on the natural environment," Bires said. "It is important to focus on simple things they can do in their own lives. We can't get too complicated. They can also educate their parents, and perhaps even change their parents' habits, since their parents' habits have already been formulated."

One example, Bires said, is children have taught their parents about the importance of recycling and that recycling has a broad purpose.

"Simple things youngsters can do include turning off the lights to help save the polar bears. Why? Because burning coal, heats up the earth and causes polar icecaps to melt. And polar bears are having a difficult time getting enough food to eat. At his point in their development, it doesn't need to go much further," Bires said.

Robert Snyder, SRU associate professor of elementary education/early childhood, said environmental awareness is a key component of standards-based education for young children.

Pennsylvania Learning Standards for Early Education include understanding the importance of natural resources; understanding how human activities may change the environment; and participating in activities that preserve the environment, he said.

SRU created the 83-acre Macoskey Center in 1990 to promote regenerative partnership with ecological systems. It supports sustainability-focused initiatives and research.

The sustainability education team at the center designed "Exploring Energy." The team is led by Hall and includes Natasha Hardina, a public health major from Wexford, Jason Olson, a park and resource management major from Starbuck, Minn., and Josh Zivkovich, a park and resource management and environmental geoscience major from Gibsonia.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.