Back in the 1980s, Peanut was a small red-eared slider making her way around somewhere in the wilds of Missouri. At the same time, someone decided it was acceptable to toss a six-pack ring out of a car window. Peanut managed to find it and get herself stuck in a ring. She never managed to get out.
Over time, her body grew with her mid-section conforming to the size of the ring. This caused a deformity that altered her anatomy, kept her from moving properly, and put her at risk of predation. She was eventually found and cut free from the constraints of the plastic, but the damage was done. Blessedly, she went on to live a happy life as an ambassador for the Missouri Department of Conservation and anti-litter campaigns around the world.
I remember sitting in a class where a teacher told us of Peanut and her plight. He told us how her ordeal was caused by a bad decision to throw the plastic on the ground rather than disposing of it properly. We discussed how a single piece of trash can harm wildlife. The image of Peanut’s misshapen body and the teacher’s message stuck with me, and now some 30 years later, I still cut each ring before putting the holder in an appropriate disposal. Conversations such as this fostered in me a curiosity about the environment and living things that I carried with me to college, where I pursued degrees in biology and environmental science.
This is a perfect example of our goal as teachers of environmental science in the K-12 sector. We want students to understand how their decisions and actions directly affect the environment. We want the students to develop skills to address the environmental issues that they will be facing throughout their lives. We want students to start thinking of ways to take action to keep the environment sustainable for future generations.
This is what we do at the Environmental Studies Center in Mobile, Alabama. It is our goal to educate students and citizens alike in environmental issues and stewardship. Our students come to us from all across the Gulf Coast, and we serve all grade levels from K to 12th grade. We explore coastal ecology and issues that impact our ecosystem. We take them outside and get them to really look at their surroundings.
We work to stimulate curiosity in our students, to do things that take them out of their comfort zones and to question things they read or hear in an attempt to combat false information. We play with them, make them laugh and expose them to cool stuff. After all, science is cool. We do the same for the community that tours our grounds or that join us at one of our outreach shows, exploring coastal ecology and issues that impact the health of our ecosystems.
By starting students out as young as possible and exposing them to good environmental habits, we hope that they will continue doing them throughout their lives and be much better at preserving our planet than the generations before them. It took one teacher to get my attention and foster a lifelong love for science and nature. Maybe, there will be a few students who can say the same thing about a trip to the Environmental Studies Center.
Perhaps, one of them could be a researcher or a teacher for Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant. Perhaps he or she could even be writing a staff blog for us one day!
(Tracy Jay is the director of the Environmental Studies Center, which is part of the Mobile County Public School System. She also is a member of the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium's education team.)