By Marian Brown and Mark Cosgrove
When the Sustainability Project at Southern Illinois University
at Carbondale (SIUC) was launched in July 1998, the project team
arrived at several objectives, which included conducting a campus-wide
environmental audit, reviewing purchasing practices, and identifying
research opportunities. Initially, the team reviewed existing
programs, curricula and research which fit in with the sustainability
agenda. This article discusses the environmental education programs
offered by SIUC's Touch of Nature Environmental Center, and how
the Center's staff has incorporated sustainability issues into
a wide variety of program offerings. Touch of Nature serves over
22,000 people each year, from K-12 students to senior citizens,
educators, special populations, at-risk youths, and, of course,
the SIUC community.
Touch of Nature is located eight miles southeast of the SIUC
campus in the rolling hills of Southern Illinois. The 3,100 acre
facility is bordered by a 700 acre lake, Giant City State Park,
and the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the
Shawnee National Forest, providing over 300,000 acres of public
lands for observation and study. Established in 1949, the Center's
programs have expanded to include:
- Therapeutic Recreation - for youths and adults with physical
and mental disabilities
- Underway/Wilderness Adventures - designed to challenge the
physical and mental capabilities of each participant and to
develop group cohesiveness
- Spectrum Wilderness - for young people having serious difficulties
in school, at home, or in the community, and for people making
the transition from institutional care to independent living
- Environmental Ed-Ventures - with a focus on ecological concepts,
local natural history, natural areas in Southern Illinois, and
The Environmental Ed-Ventures programs range from a few hours
to two weeks in length, and involve pre-schoolers through senior
citizens. Programs teach about natural resource utilization, water
management, land management, and the complexities of the human
relationship to the environment. Participants gain perspectives
on nature and on themselves that can lead them to develop a strong
environmental ethic. Solutions to environmental problems and appropriate
actions are typically addressed. Often, the programs serve as
people's first introduction to these concepts.
Touch of Nature also provides environmental education for teaching
professionals and students. The Center hosts regional and national
conferences, including Project Wild, Plan-It Illinois and Project
Learning Tree. The Project Wild workshop is primarily attended
by science and environmental studies teachers from statewide school
systems from K-12. Project Wild is defined as an interdisciplinary,
supplementary environment and conservation education program for
educators. Key staff at Touch of Nature are trained to instruct
the workshop and certify participants who successfully complete
it. The same program is also offered through the University's
Department of Curriculum and Instruction with assistance from
Touch of Nature staff and facilities.
Plan-It Illinois is a statewide initiative also aimed at primary
and secondary teachers in science and environmental studies. It
determines much of the form and content of Environmental Education
in the schools of Illinois. The program is administered at Eastern
Illinois University and conducted at Touch of Nature, where Center
staff assist with the instruction.
Touch of Nature's Project Learning Tree is recognized as one
of the premier environmental education programs for students.
Learning Tree provides K-12 students with opportunities to investigate
environmental issues and encourages them to make informed, ethical
decisions through hands-on, interdisciplinary activities. Project
Wild, Plan-It Illinois and Learning Tree are each weeklong residential
In the fall of 1998 the Center hosted the Midwest Environmental
Education Conference. Sponsored by the Environmental Education
Association of Illinois, this five-day conference provided a wide
range of environmental education concepts and hands on learning
opportunities to 250 environmental educators and environmentally
minded citizens from an eight state area. Among the 70 educational
workshops offered were: Understanding Sustainability; Readiness
of Pre-Service Elementary Teachers to Teach Ecological Issues;
and Environmental Action Options in the Classroom and Community.
In the spirit of experiential learning, participants practice
waste reduction, reuse and recycling. No disposables are used
by food services, and participants are asked to scrape their plates
for subsequent composting. For groups attending short courses,
such as school children on a field trip who bring in their own
meals, the waste generated is analyzed to illustrate ways to reduce
or eliminate it. Participants see for themselves how their consumption
decisions affect waste generation and how to reduce that waste
through purchasing choices, recycling and composting.
Touch of Nature staff practice what they preach. The Center has
a comprehensive recycling program and food is composted where
possible. In addition, staff reuse paper printed on one side,
and make their own notepads out of used paper. All printed material
is 100% post-consumer recycled content paper, using soybean inks.
OBSTACLES TO ACHIEVING SUSTAINABILITY
The Touch of Nature Environmental Center is striving to become
a model for the "environmentally sustainable community."
Achieving that goal, however, presents interesting challenges.
Foremost among these is the food service operation, which is contracted
to an outside vendor. Since the Center provides conference services
and catering for special events, such as weddings, receptions
and parties, eliminating disposable dinnerware is a hard concept
to sell to cost-conscious customers. The Center is examining the
feasibility of eliminating disposable service at a cost of some
lost business. Another challenge is convincing the food service
vendor to participate in the composting program. This would include
food preparation waste as well as post-consumer waste. While the
Center can mandate sustainable practices with their own programs,
conferences and special events raise the question of who should
bear the cost - the Center, the food service vendor, or the customer?
Other challenges for the Center include incorporating the sustainability
agenda into programs such as therapeutic recreation. Participants
in these programs have a wide variety of physical and mental disabilities,
so concepts and behaviors must be introduced in creative ways.
Touch of Nature hopes to convert its operations to renewable
energy sources in the future. The facilities, which include cabins,
bunkhouses and lodges, could use some types of renewable energy,
such as solar, to supplement or replace traditional fossil fuel
derived sources. In addition to achieving more environmentally
friendly energy consumption, this would save money in the long
run and help the Center improve facilities and programs.
Marian Brown is the Associate Director of Operations at SIUC.
She is responsible for custodial service, grounds maintenance,
recycling, fleet operations, Printing/Duplicating Service and
Campus Mail Service. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or by telephone at 618-453-8179. Mark Cosgrove is the Director
of Touch of Nature Environmental Center. He also holds a degree
in Environmental Science and has over 25 years of experience in
environmental and experiential education.
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