School Lessons: Creating young environmentalists

The small central Massachusetts town of Ayer, population 7,300, has become a learning laboratory for young environmentalists, thanks to a collaboration between an AMC volunteer and an AMC staff member.

Barbara Dyer, an AMC member for 20 years, has served as Worcester Chapter chair and in other positions; since 2009, she has been the family trips chair for the chapter. Dyer is also a teacher who brings her appreciation for the natural world, and her knowledge of it, to her students.

When her own children started school, Dyer started thinking about the students in her technology classes in Ayer's middle school. She enjoyed teaching them how to use the Internet, video cameras, and editing software, but she also wanted to counteract some of the trends that were keeping her students from spending more time in the outdoors. She started setting Internet research assignments about the natural world: research a national park; research an animal; research your local green spaces. At the end of the unit, Dyer took her students to the White Mountains, where they participated in AMC's A Mountain Classroom environmental education program. Ayer students continue to participate in this program each year.

AMC Chapter Relations Manager Faith Salter, who also lives in Ayer, heard about Dyer's "nature and technology" effort around town that first year. Many of the parents had never been to the White Mountains themselves. As Salter remembers it, they "just wanted to be sure all the students returned alive." When the children came back to Ayer safe, and also excited about their outdoor experiences, word started to get around.

Dyer wanted to continue connecting students with the outdoors beyond middle school. She began teaching a separate elective at the high school that she calls Mountain Classroom. Teenagers in Dyer's class don't end their course with a three-day trip to the White Mountains. Instead, they take twice-weekly hikes nearby, expanding their understanding and appreciation of the natural world at their doorstep. Dyer says, "Many of them had no idea that a 22-mile rail trail goes right through Ayer."

In 2009, Dyer invited Salter to speak to her middle-school classes. Salter explained climate change—what it is, how it happens—using examples from everyday life. She compared the greenhouse effect to what happens inside a car on a sunny day: the heat can't pass back through the windshield (the atmosphere), which makes the inside of the car (the planet) heat up. She offered suggestions for how to "meet the climate challenge." Both Salter, the presenter, and Dyer, the teacher, wanted the students to understand that they could change the trajectory of climate change—that they could, as one of the presentation's 20 slides said, "Take small steps and make big changes."

That first experiment created new opportunities. Salter's son asked if he could give the climate change presentation to his kindergarten class, so Salter modified the slide show for a younger audience. She looked at the two presentations, for grades K-2 and 7-12, and thought it only seemed right to fill in the gap and create a version for grades 3-6.

A Girl Scout leader who'd heard about Salter's classroom visit asked her to give the climate-change presentation to girls who wanted to earn environmental leader badges. By the end of the year, Salter had shown the slides to more than 400 people, with children and teenagers nearly half of that number.

In this one town, we might see a model of how environmentalists are created. Five years after Barbara Dyer first signed her middle-school students up for AMC's A Mountain Classroom, Salter hears strong support for Dyer's program at every turn. The Ayer Education Foundation has awarded it several grants; AMC's Worcester Chapter has helped Dyer's students attend A Mountain Classroom. Students hear about the program long before they reach sixth grade, and enter Dyer's technology classes already primed to have the experience of their lives.

From that broad foundation, the students in all of Dyer's classes, across six grades and two schools, are able to understand, and then meet, environmental challenges.

Dyer makes community service a component of her classes. Her high-school students have spearheaded the school's recycling program, from presentations to the school committee on the benefits and cost savings of recycling all the way through implementation. Her middle-school students helped create a naturalist guide for a nature trail that connects to the school grounds. The guide, not surprisingly, included photos—these were kids in a technology class, after all—but it also included habitat information collected by the students.

Last year, some of Dyer's middle-school students were out working on another local trail when they met Salter. One of the students asked, "Aren't you the climate-change lady?" Salter replied that she was, and then repeated the question she'd used to end her presentation, "Tell me one thing you learned."

Rapid-fire responses came back. Turn off lights when you're not using them. Recycle. Tell other people what you know. I can do something to help.

Learn more
- AMC’s A Mountain Classroom program helps students in grades 5-12 gain a deeper understanding of the natural world. AMC has worked with thousands of students from over 75 schools across the Northeast. To learn more visit
- Read about another high school’s experience with A Mountain Classroom.
- AMC Chapter Relations Manager Faith Salter has recently revised her three climate-change presentations, drawing on an advisory committee of scientists and environmental educators. She’s created a full package of materials around the presentations for AMC volunteers, parents, teachers, scout leaders, and others to use. The package contains handouts, planning documents, and background information to answer questions that often come up in discussions. The entire package is available for download here (PPT, 8.6MB).

Photos by Barbara Dyer.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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