Should Environmental Science be Mandatory

Political agendas are all too frequently inserted into the public school system. Mandatory courses are pushed as a cure-all, ensuring that all students will be exposed to the current hot topics, all the while displacing other valuable courses that lack the politically mandated stamp of approval. While it is important that children be taught the habits of good ecological stewardship, this should be a process that extends throughout their schooling. A skill that is touched upon continually over the years, with connections to all areas of education, is certain to be remembered and implemented with greater success than a single class that disinterested students can sit, cram, and subsequently forget.

In many states, the fear of declining science scores has led to a push to make more science courses mandatory. Chemistry is now a required high school course in many states. A push exists for Physics to follow suit. These are the heavyweight courses of physical science, and truly do have scientific value. The problem is that not every student has an interest in physical science. Nor does every student need a strong background in the physical sciences. (This author teaches both subjects passionately, and does not wish to discourage students from exploring them, but would not force his personal interests upon students who are drawn in different directions.) With elective sciences available, a student might pursue an interest in forensics, anatomy, astronomy, or yes – environmental science. The student is far more likely to be attentive and to benefit from long-term retention if the subject is of their own choosing. Meanwhile, a student who has an aversion to a certain subject area (and some will hate environmental science just as surely as some hate physics, biology, or any other course) can avoid an unpleasant experience that will have no impact on their life other than to reinforce an existing dislike, or create one where it did not exist before.

When new mandatory courses are added to the curriculum, it also has the negative impact of forcing other courses out. Most often the casualty is in the realm of arts or language – the “non-essential” courses. For students who have a future in the arts, or who will need to interact in the global, multi-lingual community, this is a terrible sacrifice, and one that is lamented regularly as schools shed music, art, drama, French, German, Latin, and other “expendable” classes. (Spanish tends to remain unscathed, but the number of years that can be devoted to it still diminishes.) This is the problem with mandatory classes – particularly those fostered by a particular lobby. They represent the idea that everyone should have the same knowledge, skills, and even beliefs, and seek to make that the case through the public education system.

Ecological stewardship is a worthy cause, and does have its place within schools. Schools begin by instituting programs that reduce waste (especially in the lunchroom) and recycle paper, cans, and any other available materials. There is room to make students aware of how the environment is impacted during any number of their classes throughout the years. Certainly it can be addressed in science classes, easily lending itself to discussions about ecosystems, habitats, the water cycle, and other topics covered at various depths each year. Social studies is also an appropriate venue for discussion, as the need to keep the planet livable has a tremendous relevance to modern human societies. English classes can read the news, and current environmental debates are excellent sources for writing topics. In short, exposure to the concepts of environmentalism can be made a part of the educational system without ever having to institute a single course. In reality, presenting the material in this fashion will promote a greater degree of retention and increase the likelihood that it will translate into action. A single class is far more easily forgotten. (How many people actually remember the high school chemistry they were forced to take, outside of those who went on to work in chemistry-related fields?)

While exposing students to Earth-friendly principles is a worthy goal, the best means to do so is not another mandatory class. Let the lesson be one of demonstration and discussion throughout the school experience. Make the lesson memorable and meaningful – something that stands not alone as a single class, but intertwined as a part of daily school life – and then life beyond.