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Guest Blog by Bethany Ricks: Coming Home to NMEA

Posted By Lisa D. Tossey, Saturday, March 07, 2015

Northwoods“Getting to know home is the most human and necessary of occupations.” But what is home? Is home the “ground at our own feet," as Wendell Berry says? Or is home the entire planet? Is home somewhere in between?

I was thankful to attend the NMEA conference in 2014 as an Expanding Audiences scholarship recipient. I am a graduate student in environmental education, working in the northwoods of Wisconsin. My time in the northwoods has been disorienting, a vast change from my years as a marine educator in Minnesota, South Carolina, and Oregon. Returning to the world of marine education for NMEA 2014 felt like a homecoming, and made me wonder what my parallel worlds of marine education and environmental education can learn from one another.

One of the striking themes of NMEA was how globally-focused we are as marine educators. Coming from my graduate program in environmental education, which focuses narrowly on local ecosystems, returning to the global focus of marine education was a relief. However, both global and local approaches have their flaws. How can the marine education and environmental education communities learn from one anothers’ approaches?

In my experience, marine education is necessarily global. When I was teaching about gray whales on the Oregon coast, it was impossible to only discuss gray whales’ time in Oregon; we also needed to discuss their lives in Alaska and in Baja California. Climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and bycatch: these are all global issues. In fact, the Ocean Literacy Principles reflect a global vision of marine education:Canoe paddle

  1. The Earth has one big ocean with many features.
  2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.
  3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
  4. The ocean made Earth habitable.
  5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
  6. The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.
  7. The ocean is largely unexplored.


Our global vision of marine education is useful, but it can be exhausting if not tied to local experiences. The Earth is huge, and any one person is small; how can any of us really make a difference? How can I care, when the problems feel abstract? Perhaps one way to combat this feeling is to develop caring for a nearby, familiar place.

LichenWhen I began my graduate program in environmental education, I experienced some culture shock as I learned about environmental education methods that were incredibly locally-focused. I found myself crawling on my knees along a meter of string, noticing everything along it, from lichen to leaf litter to insects. I found myself identifying local trees, local soils, and local birds, without much thought to the bigger picture. I was exploring my own backyard, but I had no idea how that backyard fit into the world.

The methods have helped me to know this one place, but not how this place fits into the world. To “watch a spider construct a web; observe a caterpillar systematically ravaging the edge of a leaf; close your eyes, cup your hands behind your ears, and listen to aspen leaves rustle or a stream muse about its pools and eddies” may help one to fall in love with one’s little corner of the world, but not how to protect it. For that, the global view of marine education helps: this little corner of the world matters to me, and it is affected by forces both near and far. This is summed up nicely by John Muir Laws:

Love of nature is the spring from which stewardship flows. In contrast, disconnection from nature leads to apathy in the face of all environmental problems. A useful way to define love is sustained, compassionate attention.

DragonflyLike all the best learning experiences, NMEA left me asking questions. How can we all bring a little more global perspective to our locally-focused programs, and a little more local perspective to our globally-focused programs? How can we help people care through local focus, while giving them the tools to act on issues, both globally and locally? What does home mean to me? To my students? I am still wrestling with these questions, months later, and I am thankful for the experience that spurred them.

All photos courtesy of author Bethany Ricks, a 2014 Expanding Audiences scholarship recipient. Learn more about the scholarship here > 

Tags:  conference  scholarship 

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