US Rio+2.0 Breakout Session on Environmental & Conservation Education

Below are the notes from the US Rio+2.0 conference hosted at Stanford last week. The notes are from the Education: Environment and Conservation breakout session.

US Rio+2.0
Breakout Session
Education: Environment and Conservation


Prof. Anthony D. Barnosky: Professor and Curator, Department of Integrative Biology at University of California Berkeley

Wali Modaqiq: Deputy Director General (DDG), National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Dr. Khalid Naseemi: Chief of Staff & Spokes Person for National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Julie Noblitt: The Green Ninja — Climate-action Superhero

Prof. Robert Siegel, M.D., Ph.D.: Associate Professor, Microbiology & Immunology Human Biology/African Studies at Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences

Dr. Beth Stevens: Senior Vice President, Corporate Citizenship Environment and Conservation at Disney Worldwide Services, Inc.

Madam Anyaa Vohiri, M.A., J.D.: Executive Director, Environmental Protection Agency of Liberia

Olga Werby, Ed.D.: President, Pipsqueak Productions, LLC.

Mostapha Zaher: Director General (DG), National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Our breakout group was partly the result of the conversation started the day before in the Environment session. Some of the members of our breakout group were present in that session as well. The main discussion the day before focused on the need for eduction: we have to give the people the reason to support the drive for conservation of environment. There are a lot misconceptions and mythology surrounding environmental science. Big media (movies, TV, etc.) has not done enough to change pre-conceived notions, and we can work with them to advance the cause of environmental education.

Saturday breakout session picked up the conversation from the day before.

Here are some of the themes that came up again and again:

1. Community Focused Education

Environmental education can’t be always directed top down–teacher to student; government agency to community. 

In the schools, we have to start early: elementary age students. 

Since parents often volunteer at the schools and classrooms of their young children, early grades provide a unique opportunity not only to teach the students, but also the parents. As parents help their children at school, they are getting “second-hand” education. In some communities (San Francisco as well as rural Afghanistan), parents never received formal science education. By teaching environmental science and conservation to young children, we also have an incredible opportunity to teach and engage adults.

So we want to develop curriculum that is teacher-focused, student-focused, AND parent-focused. We want to move information from kids to the broader communities in which they live. 

2. Culturally Appropriate Curriculum

There are subject areas which are deemed politically and religiously controversial. Sex education, family planning, even history education pose problems in some communities. In particular, rural villages in Afghanistan would have problems teaching some of these topics. So all educational materials have to take into account cultural differences and preferences in order to be adapted into the educational systems and to be supported by the local communities.

Madam Vohiri talked about the need to connect with the community, with people in the villages. She wanted education that would change the local perceptions.

Mostapha Zaher talked about Afghanistan being an agrarian society, with deep connection to the land and the environment. He pointed out that Afghanistan has 700 years of history. And materials created need to be respectful of that history and that culture. 

Fortunately, environmental education is one of the subject areas that fits in well with both religious and historical needs — protecting the environment is not a controversial subject.

Professor Siegel pointed out that we have to be careful when we talk about embedding cultural practices into environmental education. What worked to protect the environment 100 years ago is not working today. The population is much greater. The rate of pollution and the pollutants themselves have changed. Professor Siegel told an apocryphal story:

“He and a group of scientists trekked into the deep tropical forests of Papua New Guinea. After sharing a feast with local population, the scientist tried to collect their garbage (plastic wrappers and such) to take it out of the jungle and dispose of them appropriately. The local people insisted on dealing with garbage themselves. They took the wrappers, wadded them up, and through them as far as possible into the forest.”

The moral of the story: what worked for small groups and bio rubbish, doesn’t work for large populations and modern garbage. It is dangerous to fall back on methods that local communities were resorting to protect their environment in the past. We have to teach new ways of thinking about conservation and the environment.

Mostapha Zaher described a few problems that he is facing in Afghanistan. Most of the agricultural land has been contaminated with land mines and is currently unavailable for planting. The small percentage of agricultural land that can be cultivated has to produce a high-cash crop in order to feed the local community. Thus puppy crop is popular. While Mr. Zaher doesn’t believe that the local Afghani population has a drug problem, he sees the problem that opium export causes other communities.

The other problem Mr. Zaher mentioned was poaching. In particular, he talked about the skins of snow leopards fetching as high as $2,000,000 each on the black market.

The moneys from poaching and drug trade is being used to support terrorism.

As a group, we discussed affordances — you can’t push to stop poaching and opium production without providing other means for the local population to feed their families.

In Afghanistan, the government is very serious about environmental education. The government produces TV spots on conservation; writes in dailies, weeklies, and monthly publications; and the president personally gives a televised address twice a month to the whole country about the need for environmental conservation.

Mr. Zaher pointed out that his agency, National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), has been able to accomplish in 5 years what took other countries 10 or even 15 years.

Afghanistan hopes to reduce the post war violence through education.

Most important point: public environmental education has to reconnect to local traditions and culture.

3. Use of Technology for Education

Both Mr. Zaher and Professor Barnosky brought up mobile phones as a tool to deliver education.

There are 26.7 million people in Afghanistan, there are 17 million cell phones. Most of the population 12 years and older has a cell phone. Afghanistan has almost no infrastructure for land line phones–it has leapfrogged directly into mobile technology.

An example of Bhutan — the cell phone reception in most of that country is better than around Stanford! But…a person might need to walk 2 days to get his phone charged.

Overall, everyone agreed that cell phones as a technology to deliver curriculum is an important tool for advancement of environmental education.

4. Curriculum Content Ideas and Examples

Julie Noblitt is developing a set of materials based on The Green Ninja — a superhero who saves the environment through conservation. Some of the materials can be seen at

Ms. Noblitt talked about the importance of good stories — stories are memorable and trigger emotional memories as well providing moral underpinnings to the environmental science. She pointed out the need to move from curriculum to behavioral change. Compelling storytelling is one way of doing that and The Green Ninja is an example.

Dr. Stevens raised the issue of effectiveness: how do we measure the effectiveness of a particular environmental education curriculum?

We discussed gaming as an educational tool. Mr. Mostapha Zaher told us that gaming is not what the youth of Afghanistan spend their cell phone time on. The “game” in his country is dating — the use of cell phones to find a suitable marriage partner. Again, we got back to the idea that all curriculum materials have to be culturally viable.

Prof. Siegel mentioned iNaturalist. This is a project that allows anyone to take a cell phone photo of a natural object and send it up to a “cloud”. The phone tags the geo-location of the object. The iNaturalist participants from all over the world help identify and name the object in the photo. 

iNaturalist allows kids to do real science — the focus is on “authentic” activities. We want to equip kids with the tools to do science — to discover ideas through exploration: don’t teach evolution — make the discovery of evolution inevitable by giving the community tools to assess data.

I brought up the Cost of Chicken project. The project is ran by high school students in San Francisco. They are using Ushahidi platform to collect geo-temporal data on the true costs of food: the price, quality, place of sale, place of origin, etc. Some food is expensive, some is sourced from far away countries. Kids discover the ecological consequences of their family food choices by collecting the data themselves. India, Greece, Russia are some of the countries where kids are participating by collecting data points.

Here are the URLS:

(Note: the kids that started this project are my sons, Tim and Nick Werby)

I also mentioned Supermarket Science — a project we, Pipsqueak Productions, ran in a local elementary schools in San Francisco. The idea was to use parents as volunteers and local resources to teach hands-on science. As an additional benefit, immigrant parents were learning about the scientific method along side their children.

Roots of Peace was an organization I’ve brought up to the delegation from Afghanistan. Heidi Kuhn is a local social entrepreneur from Marin County. She works with kids to raise money and to help remove land mines in Afghanistan. She helps local communities plant grape wines. Heidi gives economic and educational opportunities to local communities and links them to communities back here at home. Her organization can be found at

5. Conclusion

While we covered a lot of ground in 45 minutes, there’s still a lot of work to do. Environmental education has to be culturally specific and focus on the needs of the population which it targets. There are small and large projects. Some can be launched right away, some take time. Some are already in progress: The Green Ninja and the Cost of Chicken. With a little support and ingenuity, we can get a lot accomplished before Rio +20.