The Great Mountain tool to help
youth learn about the environment
By Jennifer Pencek
In Tracey Power's play The Great Mountain, a young girl discovers the transformative power of nature and the importance of courage. Local environmental educators hope the Center for the Performing Arts presentation leaves audience members learning the same lessons.
Performed November 4 at Eisenhower Auditorium by members of Toronto's Red Sky Performance — Canada's leading company of world indigenous productions in dance, theatre, and music — The Great Mountain, inspired by the Northern Plains aboriginal story Jumping Mouse, features three actors portraying multiple characters.
Young Nuna hears things she doesn't understand. Realizing Nuna has inherited the ability to hear the spirits of rushing rivers and soaring mountains, the girl's grandmother entrusts her to a river boatman who guides her to where a glacier is melting and the spirit of a great mountain weeps. Does Nuna have the power to answer the mountain's cry? Do young people recognize their capacity to address environmental issues?
Local groups are trying to make the answer to the last question a resounding "Yes."
"I think children are naturally curious, and if issues are presented in the right way with positive encouragement, they become empowered in their decision making," says Michele Crowl, assistant director of education at Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania in State College. "I think productions like this can tell an interesting story to kids but also remind the adults in the room of the power in getting kids excited about learning and excited about the world around them."
Discovery Space — a hands-on science center geared toward children ages 2 through 12 — seeks to educate children about the environment with an exhibit called Pennsylvania's Backyard. Children crawl in a faux beaver lodge and watch a video of beavers working in nature. Surrounding the lodge are two preserved beavers for display, along with books and information about the animals' tracks. The outer wall of the exhibit is part of the center's puppet theatre, where children and adults can use puppets to talk about animal habitats and daily activities.
"We have found that kids are very engaged when they can relate to the program topic," Crowl says. "For example, when the program is about animals, kids get excited. The same thing goes for programs about the weather and the environment because kids are in contact with it everyday."
It's not just children, of course, who can show love and responsibility for the environment. Connie FileSteel, a Penn State doctoral candidate in educational leadership, says it is "everyone's responsibility, young or old, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be cognizant and good stewards of our environment."
FileSteel, an enrolled member of the Assiniboine and White Clay tribes from Fort Belknap, Montana, says while American Indians are sometimes stereotyped as "earth-loving fanatics, automatically crying when we see someone abusing the Earth," land base is important to American Indians as it pertains to their identity as a First Nation People.
"Within that land base exists several geographical sites that hold a cultural significance to the tribe in terms of oral tradition, creation stories, language, values, and spirituality," she says. "The American Indian people are a people of respect for all of creation because we understand everything is all interdependent upon one another and with one another."
Teaching "respect for all of creation" isn't limited to American Indians. Penn State's Eberly College of Science Outreach Office's Science-U uses weeklong day and residential summer camps, along with extended "mini-camps" during the year, to interest, challenge, and excite diverse populations of children and expose them to environmental studies and other areas of science.
"Young individuals have a lot of passion for many things," says Michael Zeman, director of outreach and science engagement for the Eberly College of Science. "Providing an opportunity to develop it or cultivate it helps them recognize the breadth and depth of their passion. One hope I have is that science campers and theatergoers leave those respective venues changed, shifted, directed toward a goal, and with new focus on how to make a difference."
Science-U offered a series of summer 2012 camps focused on environmental education.
Ecology: The Wild Wonder of Your Own Backyard featured ecologists-in-training spending a week traveling to various locations in Centre County learning about the unique ecosystems, flora, and fauna of the region. Daily hands-on creature features gave campers the opportunity to learn to identify fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Campers learned about pond scar, fish spawning, invasive species, electro-fishing, tree growth, water acidity, and appreciated additional "wild things" Centre County has to offer.
Science-U also offered Energy Science 2.0: The Next Generation and Engineering a Sustainable World, both camps that focused on how people can change daily habits and routines to improve the environment. Young people learned about global citizenship, created public service announcements, and taught peers how to reduce energy use.
"The community at Penn State, including campers and their parents, students, and faculty, agree that providing immersive and engaging hands-on opportunities for young people increases interest and passion in a content area," Zeman says. "Learning about the environment is reinforced by being in it, looking under rocks, climbing mountains to see what's on the other side, and holding different species in your hands."
To learn more about educating young people about the environment, visit Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania at mydiscoveryspace.org or phone 814-234-0200. Go to Science-U at www.sciencecamps.psu.edu or call 814-865-0083.
The Great Mountain
Red Sky Performance
2 p.m. Sunday, November 4
University Park Student $8
18 and Younger $15
McQuaide Blasko Endowment sponsors the presentation.