Merging science and Permaculture can lead to new ways for students to embrace science. Photo:

The profound lack of sustainable systems on our planet is of great concern to environmentalists, some of who are educators and some of who are permaculturists.

Many of the problems facing Earth and its inhabitants are caused by a lack of ecological literacy among much of the human population. Ecological literacy includes an understanding of the scientific principles of ecology, including the recognition of limits and possibilities. It also includes an attitude of care toward the environment and a commitment to act. Finally, it requires the ability to recognize interconnectedness; what some people call systems thinking.

Unfortunately, ecological literacy is not nurtured in most schools. At the same time, many science courses are taught in ways that turn too many students off to science.

Students complain that science is too hard, boring, and has no relevance to their lives. These complaints go hand in hand with a worldwide trend in science classes where students drop science after taking required courses. This trend concerns the scientific community. But it should also concern the environmental community because scientific literacy is a prerequisite for ecological literacy, especially regarding concepts such as carrying capacity, dynamic equilibrium, nutrient cycling, and the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Science teachers have a high degree of scientific literacy. However they don’t always have a high degree of ecological literacy. Evidence suggests that many science teachers are teaching in ways that don’t engage all students.

Considering all this, there’s an opportunity to explore new ways to teach and learn science that could potentially engage more students in science while also developing their ecological literacy.

Enter Permaculture

Those who identify themselves as Permaculturists are generally very ecological literate.

Most are individuals who apply their scientific knowledge to growing food sustainably and building energy-efficient dwellings. They’re individuals who care about the health of the planet and act accordingly. And they tend to exhibit good systems thinking skills when looking at everything from the global economy to a worm farm.

Permaculturists are often people who connect the dots and ascribe to the precautionary principle. They’re also eager to share ideas and enthusiasm with others.

Practicing permaculturists – those that have applied permaculture design to their homes and properties – can be called citizen scientists. They use both their understanding of scientific concepts and scientific thinking to do things such as growing food without the use of chemicals or high inputs of fossil fuel.

At times these citizen scientists conduct their own research, which can be as simple as applying a compost tea as a foliar feed to one of two plants in a garden bed and watching what happens. This is science in action. It’s local, hands-on, relevant and solution oriented; many of the characteristics that the international literature on science education promote.

Mutually beneficial

There are high school science classrooms all over the world.

There are also – after nearly 40 years as a movement – permaculture practitioners all over the world. Science teachers are professionals at teaching science, but they may not know very much about sustainability or ecological design. Permaculturists know a lot about sustainability and ecological design but are not professional educators.

On the surface, this may appear to be a perfect complimentary relationship, but it’s not as easy as that. Common ground must be identified and a common purpose must be agreed. I submit that they are one and the same: improving students’ science learning and their attitudes toward learning science in school.

While the science teacher’s benefit from this complimentary relationship ought to be clear from a utilitarian perspective, the Permaculturists’ benefit may be more ethically based. In other words, as a system of science and ethics, Permaculture asks of its practitioners to care for the Earth, care for people and share excess resources. For many Permaculturists, knowledge and enthusiasm are resources they hold in abundance, which they are ethically bound to share. Additionally, many Permaculturists recognize the need to invest their efforts in helping move their communities toward sustainability, not just their personal properties. Schools are a natural component of any community for Permaculturists to engage in such efforts.

Talking the walk

After establishing common ground and purpose, a common language is essential for a partnership between science teachers and Permaculturalists to succeed. That language should be easily accessible to the science teacher, a language that may not even include the word Permaculture, except in its identification as one of any number of approaches to ecological design.

In order to get the most possible science teachers on board, Permaculturists should learn to communicate in terms of science vocabulary, science skills and student learning.

Biology, chemistry and physics can all be explored through a Permaculture lens and in a Permaculture context.

Any Permaculture property can provide rich learning experiences outside of the classroom if designed and managed properly. The important thing is not to try to teach Permaculture! The key is to teach science, but in a Permaculture way. This requires considering student learning as a design challenge and applying the principles of Permaculture to it.

Like any Permaculture design, it should start with a sector analysis of the available resources and energy flows for a given science class. These would include the teacher’s knowledge base and energy level, but also factors such as the school’s educational philosophy, the national curriculum, the location of the school, the availability of funding or transportation, effective communication, and access to resources designed to help Permaculturists work with science teachers.

Only after a sector analysis for student learning has been completed can a high quality, local, hands on, relevant, solution oriented science learning experience be designed and delivered.

This is part of what I’ve been researching for the last three years in pursuit of finding effective ways to integrate environmental education into secondary schools and improve students’ scientific and ecological literacy. I’ll be presenting preliminary results at the New Zealand Association for Environmental Education conference in January, 2012, and at pre-conference workshops of the Australasian Permaculture Convergence in April, 2012. Both events are in the Central North Island region of New Zealand.

–Nelson Lebo III, Transition Voice