Environmental Education heralds a new era
Rhodes University marked its 20th year of Environmental Education in 2010, commemorating the establishment of the Murray and Roberts Chair of Environmental Education at the university in 1990.The current incumbent, Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka was preceded by Eureta Rosenberg.
In October 2010, a truly wonderful new Environmental Learning Research Centre was built to house the scholarship and community work of the Environmental Education Department. The building is situated opposite Eden Grove, on the outskirts of the Botanical Gardens. An ambitious project indeed, it was funded by the Department of Environmental Affairs with a donation of R12 million.
Why was establishing a Research Chair in Environmental Education such an important step for this department? “Environmental Education was diffuse and lacked a theoretical basis,” says Professor Pat Irwin, the first incumbent and founder of the chair. The chair, and thus Environmental Education, developed alongside South Africa's new democracy and, says Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka, “it was through the early work of the chair in this period that we began to think of Environmental Education as a process of social change.” Adaptability has, therefore, been key to the chair's successful response to challenges, inherent in the growth of a young democracy. Many partnerships have enriched the work of the chair, including, among others, Goldfields South Africa, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa, UNEP and UNESCO and, closer to home, the Makana Municipality and the Umthathi Project in Grahamstown.
In its early days, the Chair and its then partner, the Goldfields Environmental Education Service Centre, participated in educational policy development and worked to make sure that the new curriculum incorporated Environmental Education. The focus is now on implementation, as the chair works with educational and other institutions. Today, the chair has an active research programme, with 16 PhD and 33 Masters students currently registered, and with a throughput rate in the Masters programme of 85%. Research produced in and through the chair is intellectually rigorous, but also translates well into real-world situations, creating sustainable solutions for communities. Environmental Education is a new field, born out of a new social movement and, says Prof Lotz-Sisitka, will likely remain “on the margins, engaging with the critical social change necessary for sustainable societies... Perhaps this is what we are most proud of - research that has meaning in the lives of ordinary South African people.”