‘Bugs’ make learning fun

Schools and institutions award, winner: Midlands Meander Association Education Project.

The Midlands Meander Association Education Project (MMAEP) provides ample evidence that learning can be fun, even in the most seemingly resource-poor contexts.

By metamorphosing into colourful mascots, such as Bhekisile the Beetle, Bongi the Butterfly, Gugu the Grasshopper, Sizakele the Spider and Charles the Chameleon, MMAEP fieldworkers — known as ‘The Bugs” — have delighted schoolchildren and teachers alike.

They have also inspired an interest in the natural environment and its protection among both the schoolchildren and the communities from which they are drawn.

Fun notwithstanding, MMAEP is a sophisticated and specialist programme, which helps 114 teachers at 15 schools registered in the Wessa/WWF-SA Eco-Schools programme to integrate environmental education into the teaching curriculum.

Although this integration is required as part of the national curriculum statement, many schools are without the resources, skills or information needed to do it eff ectively.

MMAEP project coordinator Nikki Brighton said the schools they work with do not expect ‘stuff ”. ‘We share knowledge, energy and enthusiasm,” she said. ‘Experience has shown that continual support from a fieldworker is more effective than simply providing materials.”

Thus teachers at MMAEP schools benefit from monthly lessons cotaught by a MMAEP facilitator and regular workshops. A total of 3 262 pupils benefit from high-quality, creatively co-taught lessons and improvements in teachers’ teaching methods.

The project began in 2004 under the umbrella of the Midlands Meander Association, which represents the artists, crafters, hoteliers, restaurateurs and country producers who make up the Midlands Meander route.

MMAEP works closely with the Eco-Schools Project, an internationally recognised award scheme that accredits schools that make a commitment to improving their schools’ environment.

School teachers are encouraged to use the school grounds as a learning resource for lessons on anything ranging from biodiversity to the water cycle, indigenous vegetation, renewable energy and climate change. The emphasis of the programme is on wise resource use, creativity, sustainable living and community building.

Brighton said gardens have proved to be a useful learning tool for MMAEP, particularly the indigenous, medicinal and wildlife-friendly kind planted through MMAEP, that encourages the adoption of permaculture principles.

The result is that many schools are now producing fresh vegetables to feed learners and to share with others. Rural school grounds also provide a wealth of material for lessons on biodiversity.

‘We get a real thrill watching the astonishment on the learners’ faces when they discover many different species in their school grounds,” said Brighton. ‘At one school recently, the count was 147 different species of birds, plants and insects.”

Testimonials from grateful principals, teachers, pupils and the project’s partners, which formed part of MMAEP’s submission to this award’s panel of judges, also suggest the educational impact of the programme is considerable.

Hilton Intermediate teacher Joan Quayle said: ‘Learners have developed an attitude of caring towards nature. We educators have been influenced by the teaching style of The Bugs and now we bring the environment into everything, all subjects, even maths.”

MMAEP’s approach clearly moves beyond simple pedagogy and this is summed up in its vision to help schools nurture capable, confident and curious children who are sensitive to environmental ssues, who have the resilience to cope with a changing world and are able to contribute positively to their communities.

‘We firmly believe that the world would be a much better place if everyone was able to grow good food and treat all living things with respect,” said Brighton. It seems to be working: at Hawkstone Primary School, a small farm school in the Karkloof in KwaZulu-Natal, the changing attitudes of learners has filtered down through the community.

Teachers report that children now teach their parents permaculture methods and messages about not killing wildlife. MMAEP reaches directly into the communities surrounding the schools.

More than 30 individuals living near the schools have asked for and received help from the programme in their food gardens and MMAEP runs two enviro-clubs for children outside of the school environment.

‘We want young people to view environmental education and related fields as valuable career options and to mentor and train enthusiastic young people to take over our tasks,” said Brighton. MMAEP regularly assists at township dog training initiatives and dog shows.

It hosts holiday activities at local children’s shelters and assists other non-profit organisations by sharing skills and knowledge when needed and by organising public events to raise awareness about climate change and other issues.

To raise money it started the B.U.G. Shop, a unique online gift shop where people can buy a gift that is really a donation to the project — a magic hat for a child, a packet of seeds, a trip to the local nature reserve. Not only do they help participating schools, but the gifts themselves help the environment by moving away from the conventional consumption patterns that usually attend gift-giving.

On the homefront MMAEP practices what it preaches and, as an organisation, tries to reduce its carbon footprint wherever possible — by recycling, by encouraging staff to use public transport or to share transport, by using paper that has already been used on one side as far as possible and Sappi’s 50% recycled paper when new paper is absolutely unavoidable.

Last year, out of concern for the health of the planet, the project staff turned down the opportunity to fly to Budapest to receive the Skal International Eco-Tourism award in -the educational programmes category, saving 5.1 tons of carbon in the process.

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