Experiential Environmental Education in Russia: A Study in Community Service Learning

By Silcox, Harry C. | Phi Delta Kappan, May 1993 | Go to article overview

Experiential Environmental Education in Russia: A Study in Community Service Learning


Silcox, Harry C., Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Silcox describes a people-to-people student exchange that had as its focus the environmental monitoring of Novgorod, a city in Russia -- and the issues for further research that this exchange raised.

ON 20 JUNE 1992 a group of 26 American students, teachers, and environmentalists left the United States to take part in a community service/experiential learning environmental project in Russia. They were part of a people-to-people exchange that had as a focus the environmental monitoring of Novgorod, Russia, a city founded in 859 with a present population of 300,000.

The Pennsylvania Institute for Environmental and Community Service Learning had organized and sponsored the project, which was to be carried out by students and teachers from the Environmental Academy at Abraham Lincoln High School in Philadelphia. As part of their regular school curriculum, the American students had been trained in the use of portable monitoring devices by teachers David Kipphut and Dolores Hughes and lab assistant James Kennedy. They took with them to Russia all the necessary materials and equipment for the testing of the town's environment.

When the Americans arrived in St. Petersburg, they were greeted by their Russian host, Alexander Popov, and his three assistants. The American group was transported to Novgorod by bus and taken to the city's finest hotel, the Beresta Palace, where they would stay for the first two nights. At that point we learned that the Russian hosts had not arranged for Russian families to house the American students as originally planned. Moreover, the promised laboratory to house the equipment had not been finished in time for the group's arrival. The original principal of High School 30, who was to make the arrangements, had been dismissed, and a recent teacher strike had brought the project to a halt. We decided to place the American students in the hotel and to invite a randomly selected group of Russian students to an introductory dinner/reception for the Americans. This get-acquainted dinner worked out well, and the American and Russian students matched up and made their own arrangements for boarding the Americans.

Despite these initial difficulties, the project began to take shape and form. On the third night, the American students moved in with Russian families. Each participating family had a child willing to work on the environmental project. A room in High School 30 was set up as a lab, and the Russians and Americans continued the process of getting to know one another. The exchange of ideas and the intercultural dynamics of the living situation provided the Americans with ample experience for reflection, while the environmental study gave firm direction to the students' daily routine.

In all, the students undertook 14 discrete environmental projects. These included monitoring the levels of detergent, cyanide, cobalt, and nickel in the Volkhov River. Students also checked radiation levels. The environmental devices used to perform these functions, along with a complete portable environmental lab that could monitor air, water, and soil, were later given to the people of Novgorod for the establishment of a permanent American/Russian Environmental Education Center in the regional hospital.

An environmental conference held on July 6 and 7 further heightened the community's awareness and also attracted a number of scientists from Moscow. The American consul from St. Petersburg was represented by cultural attache Bruce McGowan, who expressed the hope that other Russian cities would establish similar environmental centers devoted to research and teaching. He placed great significance on the hands-on nature of the projects and the civic pride that such programs bring to the local townspeople as they see community problems being solved by volunteers. It is this very combination of hands-on experience and community involvement, of course, that defines the experiential service learning approach. …

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