The City as Classroom:  Questions for Mary Leou on Environmental Education

Mary Leou, a clinical professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, is director of Steinhardt’s Wallerstein Collaborative for Urban Environmental Education.  Since its founding in 2000, the program has promoted environmental literacy and sustainability within NYU and the urban community of New York City.  The Collaborative has offered professional development opportunities for more than 2,500 New York City teachers and NYU students, and brings services in environmental education to K-12 students in all five boroughs.  We spoke with her about how she uses the New York City environment to enhance teaching and learning.

What is environmental education and how does it benefit teachers and students?

Broadly speaking, environmental education is an area of study that helps students understand our environment; it’s ecology and the interconnectedness of all living things — what I call “eco-knowledge.”

Mary Leou, director of Steinhardt’s Wallerstein Collaborative.

Environmental education enables us to acquire content knowledge as well as problem-solving and critical thinking skills to work towards sustainable solutions though civic engagement and environmental stewardship.

You direct Steinhardt’s master’s program in environmental conservation education.  What’s special about this program?  

Our environmental conservation education master’s program is a 37-credit interdisciplinary program that prepares students for professional careers in the field of environmental education in a variety of settings including non-profit organizations, cultural institutions, government agencies, as well as formal and non-formal settings of teaching and learning. Our students are equipped to design programs for K-12 audiences, conduct program evaluations, design curricula, and also advocate for environmental policy.  The program is closely affiliated with NYU’s Wallerstein Collaborative for Urban Environment Education established 17 years ago with funding from the Johnette Wallerstein Institute.  The Wallerstein Collaborative promotes environmental literacy and sustainability within NYU and the larger urban community.  It serves as a  “demonstration laboratory” for environmental education where I encourage students to be innovative and creative in developing programs and projects that serve our urban community. The collaborative has supported numerous students by providing them opportunities for internships, research, program development, and evaluation. Our program is distinct in that it is grounded in the social sciences and focuses on education.

You have taken your students on trips as varied as a recycling plant and the Hudson River’s tidal bed. What do students take away from these field trips?

Building a pollinator garden with P.S. 18 students, teachers, and parents in Queens Village as part of a service learning project.

I believe that experiential learning is a powerful way of learning. Many of the courses I teach involve hands-on field experiences because students need to be exposed to the variety of resources available to them in New York City in developing as professional environmental educators.  I use the city as a classroom for investigating environmental issues that range from habitat protection, water quality, to recycling and everything in between!  My students learn how to use non-formal resources as tools for teaching about the environment. These field experiences help students better understand the complex urban socio-ecological environment we live in.  I also like getting them involved in service learning and citizen science projects where they are actively engaged in environmental work such as oyster reef building or water quality monitoring of the Hudson.

How did you become a hands-on educator?  What prompted you to become an environmental educator? 

Exploring tidal flats in Plumb Beach with fifth graders from P.S. 48Q in Jamaica Queens.

I have always been attracted to nature and the outdoors. As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors even though I grew up in Brooklyn. Fort Greene Park, Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden were some of my favorite places.  It all started to come together for me after taking a course in geology at Columbia University that was field-oriented.   I realized that teaching about the environment was critical and that the outdoors lent itself to this type of teaching.  I fell in love with environmental education in Inwood Hill Park where I began teaching earth science and urban ecology to public school children.  There I found the students were more attentive and engaged than in the classroom.   Also, as a parent, I spent many summers on the North Shore of Long Island fostering a sense of wonder in nature and “discovering” wild places with my children.

Horseshoe crab monitoring in Jamaica Bay is part of NYU Steinhardt’s citizen science program, a partnership with NYC Audubon.

Frankly I cannot imagine myself being any other kind of educator!  To this day, I enjoy the classes that I teach because I am continually learning and growing. Our world is rapidly changing, and so is our environment and the problems that we will face. If I want my students to be hands-on educators I have to model that for them.  You can’t just read the theory without applications in the real world.

What makes New York City a great city for environmental education?  

New York City is one of the most amazing outdoor classrooms in the world!  We have over 27,000 acres of parkland, wetlands, and the Hudson River Estuary to explore and use in teaching students of all ages about urban ecology. Cities are complex socio-ecological systems that provide both opportunities and challenges for teaching and learning about environmental issues such as waste management, air pollution, open space, water quality, human health, environmental justice, and the potential impacts of climate change.  It is a rich landscape for testing out our ideas while inspiring creativity, and innovation.  At the same time it deepens our “eco-knowledge” about place.

This is what makes NYC such a vibrant place; it continues to challenge us every day in how we can create a more resilient, sustainable city that will meet the needs of a growing population while maintaining the integrity of our natural areas. My approach to environmental education is grounded in place-based theories of teaching and learning which can be applied to any community or city.

Is there another city you would like to explore?

I would love to study other cities or even smaller communities where I can apply the same principles of place-based education in learning about places and creating educational opportunities for sustainability.

New places are always of interest to me regardless of whether they are close by or abroad. I have been working with pre-service teachers from Aruba for the past several years as part of long term project on education for sustainability and I have also taken NYU students to Greece as part of the Dean’s Travel Colloquium called Humans and Nature where we explored the impacts of tourism on the economy, culture, and the environment.  This fall, we hosted a group of students and faculty from the University of the Aegean at NYU as part of an International Environmental Symposium where our students exchanged ideas about environmental education and preservation with them. These experiences have given me a more global perspective on environmental literacy and sustainability.

Learning about food webs with students in Alley Pond Park, Queens.

What are you learning from environmental education these days?

The recent impacts of Hurricane Maria on people and the environment underscore how vulnerable and underprepared we are to deal with natural disasters and how much more we need to do.  I am currently working with my students on a relief effort to Puerto Rico that will provide solar powered equipment and water purifiers to three high need communities. This student-led project has given me new directions in my work and has inspired me to think more holistically about the world and our role in it and what it means to be resilient.  There is always environmental work to be done in all parts of the world!

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