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About the ESP Program
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About ESP

Students in Action Environmental Studies Program (ESP)
Grey Highlands Secondary School
By John P. Burton

"This class has done more for me than you know." - ESP 96 student

"Overall, this class has changed my total outlook toward people, school, and life." - ESP 96 student

"I was amazed at the patience and camaraderie demonstrated toward the students, while on the other hand, they would not tolerate any nonsense." - Grade 4/5 Teacher

"It was a great pleasure to see former students turned around showing a caring attitude, discussing how their priorities changed because of this course. It occurred to me everyone should take your course!" - Kindergarten Teacher

"Student leaders had a strong environmental ethic which came across as genuine and was noticed by my students." - Grade 5/6 Teacher

"The ethics you have developed in yourselves and the sense of team that you share is very evident as one spends time with you." - Grade 5/6 Teacher

The Environmental Studies Program, or ESP as it is known, offers students the opportunity to earn four credits at the Grade 12 level that are taught through environmental immersion. This program blends traditional academic studies with practical outdoor skills that allows students to develop a more comprehensive picture of our complex and dynamic world. Students spend approximately 75% of the regular school day out of the classroom learning first hand about the environment. These students also stay together the entire school day with one teacher, something normally unheard of at the senior high school level. Classes are not limited to the school property as most high school classes are, they often involve travelling to remote locations, anywhere from the Bruce Peninsula to Temagami in Northern Ontario. A student's sense of responsibility, not only to themselves but to their classmates, their teacher, and the environment, is heightened during this program. This program also inspires students to make personal contributions with respect to the environment, school, local community, country, and the world.

Grey Highlands Secondary School, situated in Flesherton, Ontario, is a rural school located approximately 150 km northwest of Toronto. Of the 900 or so students who attend the school, 95% are bused as the school receives students from a large area of about 30 km radius. Students generally live on farms or in small towns of less than 2500 people. Most students come from families long established in the area that are typically European in Ancestry.

ESP Background:
Due to the large distances that students travel to get to school, extracurricular activities that are normally held after school are limited. The majority of students have to "catch their bus" immediately after classes are dismissed. It was recognised that offering a field trip based school program primarily during regular school hours would provide students with opportunities to participate in out-of-classroom learning experiences that otherwise would not be available to them. With this recognition came the inspiration to develop a 4-credit package of senior level courses taught through environmental immersion.

The Environmental Studies Program began in February of 1993 and since that time, over 600 students have graduated from the program (as of 2008). These students have travelled extensively throughout Southern and Northern Ontario, learning first hand about the environment, putting theory into practice. They are involved in many learning activities including: winter and summer camping skills, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, tree planting, First Aid and CPR training, map and compass training, GPS, hiking and trail maintenance on the Bruce Trail, rock climbing, a two week canoe trip to Temagami, and instructing elementary students in environmental studies and outdoor recreational activities.

The program brings a "bit of the classroom" from Grey Highlands as students participate in numerous "classroom" lessons while in the bush. For example, during the canoe trip, students participate in an extensive canoe instruction course which focuses on all aspects of wilderness canoeing, from learning how to paddle a canoe, to portaging, navigation, leadership, group dynamics, cooking over open fires, and camping skills. Other lessons taught during canoe trips include those pertaining to forestry and water quality. Students examine old growth forests, learn tree identification, forest ecology, and forest harvesting techniques such as clear cut versus selective cutting logging operations. Water quality studies include conducting tests on the water chemistry of remote northern lakes to determine similarities and differences to those lakes studied in southern Ontario. The water is tested for such parameters as dissolved oxygen levels, temperature, pH, turbidity, carbon dioxide, alkalinity, phosphates, and nitrates. The biotic communties living in these study areas are also examined.

Students return from this canoe trip with a greater sense of self worth and a deeper understanding of the environment. This field work greatly enhances the curriculum and the student's understanding of the concepts and relationships traditionally taught within the confines of a typical environmental science classroom. Students are able to see for themselves and more fully understand the connections that occur in the real world by observing them first hand rather than in isolation within an artificial environment such as a classroom.

Environmental Ethics:
Ethics can simply be described as having moral values or good moral behaviour. Environmental Ethics therefore would involve a person displaying good moral behaviour or values with respect to the environment. Students in this program are not only taught the importance of environmental ethics, they quickly develop a heightened awareness and understanding of what this may mean to others and ultimately to themselves. For example, every teacher or instructor with whom the students come into contact all have different perspectives, and through example, help students begin to develop their own personal version of this principle. It is extremely important that these role models maintain a very high personal standard when it comes to environmental ethics. By setting an example, students soon see the standard you expect of them through your own actions. Double standards can do a great deal of harm as the student might become confused wondering why you are exempt of these expectations where as they are not.

Students conduct indepth investigations on a wide variety of topics dealing with the environment and then follow this research up with real, first-hand experiences. As a result, they soon recognise the connections that exist between their own behaviours and the environmental impact of those actions, both good and bad. In addition, students also develop an environmental ethic as they begin to feel part of the solution and not part of the problem. All of the activities included in the curriculum are tied directly to the environment. Connections are explored so that students can experience the "whole process" (Horwood, 1995), by participating in a wide range of activities designed to assist in environmental protection.

Activities that Promote an Environmental Ethic:
Students have participated in many activities that foster an environmental ethic. One example of this is the Earth Day activity that the class participated in the past. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) organises the annual CN Tower Stair Climb held in Toronto to help raise awareness and money for the protection of Canada's endangered spaces and species. To date, the students in this program have raised over $5000 in pledges and have been awarded first prize for the high school with the most in pledges in a single year. Students have the opportunity to speak directly to the people who work for this environmental agency, including the president of the WWF, and gather information from the various displays set up at the event. Many of the environmental issues being discussed back in class are also investigated by the students on this day.

Additional activities promoting environmental ethics include implementing a school-wide recycling program. Students are responsible on an ongoing basis for the recycling program operating at the school and work in conjunction with teachers, students, and custodians in order for this to be successful. They have analysed the entire recycling process and have made changes in order to increase the overall efficiency of, and involve as many people as possible in, the overall recycling process. As a result of their efforts, the school is currently the top school in the County with respect to the volume of recyclable material recovered. The students also pick up litter from local roadways, the Bruce Trail, and annually cleans campsites and portage trails in the Temagami area during the annual 13 day canoe trip. All litter that is collected is sorted into recyclable material and garbage. When visiting wilderness areas, students take the initiative to leave these areas cleaner than the way they found them.

Putting Theory Into Practice:
Another aspect of this program involves students teaching what they have learned to local elementary students. Each year, students in this program teach approximately 1000 students ranging from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 8. Over the past 4 years, the students in this program have taught over 4000 elementary students, sharing and passing on their own enthusiasm and personal environmental ethics they have developed during the course. The elementary children spend their entire day at the Flesherton Hills Environmental Education Centre which offers environmental and outdoor recreation programs taught by the ESP students. Here, they instruct elementary students in activities such as initiative tasks, co-operative games, and Project Wild activities that teach students about plants and animals and how they interact with humans and the environment.

The students also lead interpretive hikes, and share their own ideas on the stewardship of the earth. In doing so, ESP students are provided with opportunities to apply what they have learned directly in the program and share these with elementary students. It also helps to develop their own leadership skills and gain self-confidence in speaking to and instructing others. Not only do the ESP students learn what it means to be global citizens, they share this with younger students.

Instilling Environmental Ethics Through Volunteer Work:
The students learn the value of volunteer work by participating in many projects that benefit the local community. As mentioned, the students pick up garbage along many local highways and especially in those areas noted as tourist attractions such as the Beaver Valley and several other scenic sites in the local area. An environmental ethic soon develops in these students as they begin to realise the responsibility they have to ensure that these areas remain in their natural state and unspoiled. Rather than having the attitude that "it's not my garbage", these students begin to look at the whole picture and can see the implications of not cleaning up a site. Indeed, many students have shared their own personal accounts of visiting a particular wilderness location and having found it to have been abused with litter, they have taken the initiative to spend their own time cleaning up that site.

Perceived Learning Outcomes, Envisaged And Not Envisaged:
•       it provides opportunities for students to apply the knowledge and skills they have acquired in the regular school program
•       it enriches the curriculum by providing experiences which cannot be duplicated in a regular school setting
•       it provides new dimensions within the curricula by providing experiences not traditionally associated with high school
•       it provides students with opportunities to acquire, develop, and learn academic curriculum and scientific skills in an out-of-classroom setting
•       it provides students with opportunities to develop a greater understanding of humans and our impact on nature through practical hands-on experiences
•       it provides students with opportunities to acquire, develop, and practise the skills of outdoor living and outdoor recreation
•       it stimulates personal interest in the out-of-doors and a desire to use the outdoors wisely and independently
•       it provides real experiences and a deeper understanding of the complexities involved in the decision making process pertaining to environmental issues and values

Program Goals:
•       to educate students to become responsible global citizens; -to expose students to new recreational activities
•       to develop environmentally-friendly life style changes that students will incorporate into their daily lives
•       to have students become personally involved and take ownership in an environmental project which serves to rehabilitate the natural environment for the benefit of the community
•       to assist students to develop a new outlook of themselves, their peers, and to the environment, and their interactions with it; change student's attitudes toward learning and the environment
•       to educate young people about the importance of nature and the environment in general
•       to have students recognise that one cannot always place a dollar value on nature
•       to develop in students a concern for the great demands that humans have on the environment
•       to develop in students a questioning attitude toward the practice of using the environment to serve our own needs
•       for students to educate others in all aspects of environmental science, and outdoor recreation
•       for students to assist as many elementary teachers as possible by offering outdoor learning opportunities to elementary classes that those teachers are unable to offer themselves

Concluding Statement:
As one can clearly see, the students who enrol in the Environmental Studies Program learn far more than what is typically taught in a high school class. They learn more than just theory; they learn to make connections between the classroom and the real world, and they do this in everything that they do. They begin to recognise the impact that they as individuals have on this planet and they explore ways in which they can minimise this. As the course proceeds, students begin to make personal changes in their own life styles that reflect this heightened sense of awareness with respect to the environment. In doing so, these students have developed their own set of environmental ethics, ones they have developed on their own, ones that they will have with them for the rest of their lives, ones that can't be taught in a classroom.

References Cited:
Horwood, B. 1995. Energy and Knowledge.
In Pathways: The Ontario Journal of Outdoor Educators. May/June.

John Burton developed and teaches the Environmental Studies Program at Grey Highlands Secondary School in Flesherton, Ontario. The program is just beginning its 19th year. John also teaches science and geography. He is a graduate of Lakehead University where he received an M.Sc. in Sedimentary Geology and a B.Ed in Science and Geography. He has extensive canoeing and wilderness experience including leading canoe and hiking trips in places such as Baffin Island, the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Northern Ontario. John has also instructed white water canoeing and kayaking in the Banff area and guided rafts in B.C. He is currently a canoe tripping instructor with the Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association.

Last Modified: Jul 02, 2009
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