Conservation Education and Activism: Dr. Dennis Liu of the Half-Earth Project on Arming Students to Help Our Planet
This article was originally published in Psychology Today, March 22, 2021
By Jenny Grant Rankin Ph.D.
If the school was burning down (and—in non-COVID days—we were inside), we would never persist in teaching our usual lessons without acknowledging the devastation and danger around us. Yet, our larger environment faces devastation and danger every day. If we aim to prepare students for their future, yet we teach all year without acknowledging the environmental demise that impacts that future, we do our children, teens, and this planet a disservice.
Meanwhile, educators are more overwhelmed than ever before. Adding lessons on greenhouse gases or deforestation can sound like “one more thing.” Fortunately, the topic of our planet’s future is not as unwieldy as it might sound; it can even be incorporated into the lessons, skills, and character development we already teach. As we empower students to speak up and become advocates for the health of our planet, the task is much easier and more practical when we connect with organizations ready to help.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis Liu, Ph.D., who is the Vice President of Education for the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and a nationally recognized expert in science education. Dr. Liu runs the Half-Earth Project Educator Ambassador program for the Half-Earth Project and recently gave our Mensa Gifted Youth Program group a riveting presentation on biodiversity and conservation. Here Dr. Liu shares insights on how we can educate youth and inspire them to make a difference.
Jenny Rankin (JR): Please tell us about the Half-Earth Project. How did it come about, and what is its goal for our planet?
Dennis Liu (DL): The Half-Earth Project was inspired by E.O. Wilson’s book of the same name, published in 2017. The book is the culmination of Ed’s lifetime of discovering and studying species and his efforts to conserve them. Conservation works, but Ed had the insight that people need a big goal—of course, based on science and evidence—but a big, transcendent goal that we could pull together to reach for.
The science says that if we protect half of the land and ocean’s surface for the rest of nature, that will be enough to reverse the extinction crisis and preserve the natural functions that we all depend on. Globally we are at about 15 percent, so our goal is to provide leadership, science, tools, and education to get to half.
JR: I’m so impressed by the Half-Earth Project’s youth outreach. Our Mensa Gifted Youth Program students loved the interactive and engaging presentation you gave us! How do youth play into the Half-Earth Project’s efforts?
DL: Our engagement with young people is essential at so many levels. First off, the problem we want to solve, to save biodiversity on our precious planet, is huge, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It requires a prolonged and dedicated engagement, so we want to help prepare young people to work on this.
Also, as we’ve seen with stars like Greta Thunberg and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, young people can take action and make things happen. They can influence their parents and families, and communities, and the larger social and political realm. Politicians respond to citizen pressure. To paraphrase Ed from his book Letters to a Young Scientist, he says to young people, “We need you, join us, stick to it!”
For students at the high school, college, and advanced training levels, we need more engagement with the problems and questions of biodiversity on our planet. We want everyone to be thinking about biodiversity and how they might engage with helping to save it, so that includes people who like computers, who like poetry, literature, arts, and of course science and math in its many diverse disciplines. Our Half-Earth Map and other tools need people with all kinds of skills and interests. On a more personal level, I love working with teachers, some of the most underappreciated people in our culture, and I love seeing the spark in a kid who learns something, who realizes something cool, who starts to see the world in a new way, who sees that their questions, work, and ideas matter.
JR: I love how you point out that people with all sorts of interests can contribute. Students like Greta Thunberg and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez show us that youths don’t need to wait until adulthood to make a difference through activism. In what ways does the Half-Earth Project convey this lesson to youths?
DL: I mentioned Greta in the previous answer, and she inspires me, including honestly making me feel guilty for what’s happened on our watch. She is a great example to us all, but I also like to make the point that it’s not up to Greta or any of the other kids to fix this. There’s a long line of previous generations that are responsible.
We, adults, have the current resources and power and need to fix it, and young people’s ability and energy are part of the solution. I also like to point out that not everyone can or should be a Greta. Learn from Greta not to be afraid to take action and speak up in your own way. You may not become famous, you may not be as bold, but you can make a difference. Maybe we can help you explore the best fit for you. You don’t have to be Greta to participate and make a difference.
JR: Those are very important caveats. How can students get involved in the Half-Earth Project?
DL: First, learn about biodiversity from our online resources, understand and even challenge our ideas and messages, and think about how to turn learning into action. Share your passion and knowledge with your parents, friends, and community. Especially tell your teachers about us. Use our Half-Earth Map and other resources to find species and places near where you live, or even on the other side of the world, that you might be interested in. We are planning to add more and more local information to our map, but you can research local conservation orgs yourself.
You might start with your local Audubon chapter and state Nature Conservancy. There are many, many small conservation organizations doing great work right in your neighborhood, including in cities. Consider signing our Half-Earth Pledge as an important gesture of your commitment! We have some amazing stories about community-based action for a Half-Earth Future: for example, the Landlab in Ohio. Think about what could be done in your yard, at your school, at a community park, or at a valuable state site. Restore native plants and eliminate invasive species.
JR: Wow, that’s a wide assortment of exciting and practical ways students can contribute. How can teachers and other educators facilitate opportunities for students to learn about our planet and practice the role of stewardship?
DL: My most general point would be that helping kids to learn about biodiversity and conservation is probably the best multi-disciplinary integrated learning experience you could afford students. The loss of biodiversity is a huge, real-world problem that pulls together science, math, English, social studies, technology, computing, economics, history, geography, business, and humanities. The study and problem of saving biodiversity have great phenomena, data, and stories including diverse stakeholders and conflicting viewpoints. Reach out to like-minded educators. Bring biodiversity into your classroom, curriculum, lessons, and teaching philosophy.
JR: Thanks for connecting our readers with so many powerful resources. What is the best way for teachers and other educators to reach you?
DL: Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. I will respond. Thanks, Dennis.
JR: Thank you so much for your time and for all you do to help students, educators, and our planet.
About the Author
Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., is a Fulbright Specialist and longtime educator with two doctorates and 11 books.
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