Environmental Education, Science

The Birds & The Bees: Preventing Local Extinction

The Birds & The Bees: Preventing Local Extinction

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2017 Issue

Teaching students about birds and bees is crucial to their survival—and this isn’t a topic only for health class.

Students need to learn how to protect birds and bees from extinction. When most North American children think of endangered species, they often picture majestic animals that often live far away or create stirring footage for documentaries, like pandas, tigers, or polar bears.

While these creatures may help students become interested in their protection, exquisite posters of pandas may not be enough to sustain that passion. This is largely because of geography. Most North American children don’t live near the natural habitat of pandas, tigers, and polar bears. This limits how much direct interaction they can have with them. “There’s really not a lot that schoolkids in North America can do to help the cause of the white rhino or panda rather than organize a fundraiser and give money to an organization that works with them,” says Randal Heide, the executive director of Wildlife Preservation Canada. The not-for-profit works exclusively in Canada with species facing a critical risk of extinction. It focuses on activities like animal husbandry and releases into the wild. Heide compares the organization to specialist surgeons in the ICU who are called upon when a patient is close to death.

Many of the species that students should be concerned about saving aren’t living in the tundra or munching on bamboo. They fly around local gardens. They feast on common plants. Students may not really like or appreciate them, but they need them. They’re species like birds, bees, and butterflies.

Conservationists recommend teachers focus their attention on helping students protect these species. Focusing on birds, bees, and butterflies is practical. All species, human and otherwise, are connected. But this interconnectedness can be difficult to visualize when focusing on species that live in vastly different regions of the continent—or across the ocean.

Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, directly impact students. They can see where they live and why these creatures are important. Without these insects, people would face starvation. Butterflies and bees “pollinate our food. On a purely mercenary basis, that’s the benefit to us,” says Mike Bingley, the acting director of education at the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Helping these creatures that are so crucial to our lives can be simple. Large wildlife management plans are needed to protect polar bears and not insects.

“You can actually create habitat for a monarch in Southern Ontario,” says Sarah Winterton, director of the Nature Connected Communities program at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Canada. WWF Canada provides many resources to help educators teach students about protecting endangered species. A campaign in early 2017 encouraged students to raise money for polar bears by walking and collecting toonies. Those initiatives are important and students should learn how people in southern parts of the country impact the North. Many species that need protecting, however, live in urban centres—where most students live. “You can’t create habitat for a mammal, a big mammal that might be at risk, in your backyard,” explains Winterton. But they can grow milkweed for monarch butterflies to eat. “It’s just the practical level of what you can do.”

Teachers may be in the perfect environment to encourage students to protect different birds, bees, and butterflies. More schools are incorporating gardens and green spaces into their property. (WWF Canada awards Go Wild School grants each year to help classrooms and schools with environmental conservation initiatives. In 2015, 40 schools across the country received grants. More than a quarter that year were given to help schools with initiatives involving gardens, outdoor classrooms, or creating more green spaces at schools.) Gardens and outdoor classrooms can be designed to help endangered species grow and thrive.

Schools can start by ensuring garden plants are native to their location. The biology of a plant species depends, in part, on where it lives, says Winterton. Planting native species can provide food for species that need it. Milkweed, for example, is crucial for monarch butterflies to survive.

Students can also plant gardens that provide habitat for birds and animals. They can make places for animals to hide or have water sources available. Shrubs also provide food for pollinators. Creating gardens that provide food for students and animals turns the space into a “two-for-one lesson,” says Bingley. The gardens teach students about food security and growth, as well as species.

Gardens don’t have to be large. Winterton encourages schools to design vertical gardens. Shrubs and trees don’t take up a lot of space. Oak trees can provide lots of habitat, she says, even though they take a long time to grow.

Creating a garden and working in nature can help students learn to love nature. Conservation works best when students are interested because they love the nature they see, not because they’re scared it’s about to be destroyed. “We need to get kids to really love the natural world before we start getting them to start thinking about how something they love may not be there,” says Bingley. This means students need to spend time outside.

“Taking somebody outside doesn’t automatically mean that they’re going to be a conservationist,” Bingley says. “But when they do surveys of people who become conservationists, there are none that didn’t go outside.” This is something all teachers can incorporate into their classes—even those who don’t teach subjects like geography and sciences where connections to the natural world seem automatic. Math teachers can ask students to estimate the height of trees, Bingley suggests. One of his high school physics teachers regularly took students outside for lessons. While Bingley did not become a physicist, he still clearly remembers those lessons.

For teachers in densely populated, urban settings, however, this may be more difficult. It would be “ideal” to take students to parks and wetlands on a regular basis, says Mike Farley, a teacher at the University of Toronto Schools in Toronto. He has taught geography for 15 years, and takes his classes to conservation sites. But after more than two decades living in Toronto, he acknowledges the city can “make it difficult to maintain that deep connection to the environment.”

He’s harnessed the power of digital games to help him teach environmental conservation. Farley has used games in his classroom for years. He started ChangeGamer, an organization that introduces teachers to educational games and provides them with curriculum they can use. He’s used this method to teach about challenges birds face during migration, how to conserve wetlands and oceans, and even lake eutrophication, the process in which chemicals in a lake become unbalanced, causing too much algae to grow, and robbing wildlife of oxygen. “If you can make a game about lake eutrophication, you can make a game about anything,” he said.

But games accomplish more than just making dense scientific information interesting. They immerse students in the material they’re learning, often by forcing them to make decisions. This helps connect them to the situation, even if they’re physically removed from it. This makes the lessons “stick” in a way not provided by other teaching methods— however valuable they are, Farley says. “When you’re forced to be put in that decision-making role, and you’re in the hot seat, you tend to take things a lot more seriously in terms of trying to make decisions and trying to understand what is going on,” says Farley.

Games can also provide students with a space to explore solutions to problems. Springbay Studio, a Toronto-based game company, creates games all about environmental protection. Its iBiome-Wetland and iBiome-Ocean games teach children about the environment by allowing them to create different wetlands or ocean ecosystems. Players need to use the rules of biology to build their ecosystems well, says Jane Ji, the company’s president. Players can add new species, but not take them away, so they see how changes to species impact the environment.

iBiome-Ocean, released in early 2017, includes an added element. Players are asked to consider how their use of items like water bottles, cars, and air conditioners impacts marine ecosystems. “The point is not trying to blame anyone,” explains Ji. “The point is everyone is part of the problem, and everyone is part of the solution.”

Teachers need to keep this focus, whether students encounter wildlife through digital games or in-person experiences. They should demonstrate practical things students can do at school or home to preserve the environment and endangered species, like using organic fertilizer or keeping cats inside to protect birds. Even adults who work in preservation can feel discouraged or view the future in catastrophic ways. It’s important to remind students of animals who have been saved from extinction. Hope needs to be emphasized.

Students have grown up hearing about how bad things are, and how they may even grow worse. This may cause them to despair and become apathetic—to believe they can’t make any positive impact. Bingley compares the approach teachers should take to Martin Luther King Jr.’s methods during the American Civil Rights Movement: encouraging change by reminding people of their goal, of the good place to where they are headed. “We really need to make sure that, we, as educators are doing that,” says Bingley, “probably in everything we do, but especially as we’re teaching conservation.”

Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.