Using Art to Teach Environmental Responsibility

Kevin Saari, Oakland Community College
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In this activity, students will use art to consider the effects of industrial culture on the environment and envision how to create a more positive and sustainable future. The students will create art works based on images of environmental damage. The student will create a "before" image and an "after" image. The students will use these images to address the social and economic basis for environmental harms, as well as how to reclaim damaged areas and live in a more ecologically sustainable manner.

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Learning Goals

Engages students in civil discourse/ communications that lead to more effective decisions

Advances students' literacy around sustainability issues

Promote creative visioning around sustainable futures

Encourage self-reflection and personal development of their "voice" for solving societal challenges

Context for Use

This activity would be appropriate for older students who are enrolled or engaged in art classes and/or courses which could benefit from an artistic learning exercise. The time required will vary depending the class performing the activity. For example, a sociology course could use it for a brief exercise (part of a class period or a full period), while a painting class might require several days or weeks of work. The teacher should evaluate the course needs and their students and decide what they want to do, depending on the level of interest and the amount of discussion he or she wishes to have in class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Present the class with a photograph of a location that has suffered environmental/ecological damage.

Have the students create a work of art (e.g. painting, drawing, collage) that shows the location before the damage.

Lead the students in a discussion about what happened at the site, their feelings and thoughts about the damage and have them explain their work of art.

Repeat the activity. Have the students create a second work of art showing how humans can do doing restoration of the site.

Have the students write a concise description of the artwork, including its name, their name, what they learned, the reasons for their choices, and how they think we can make a better future. This description will be used in the student art show referenced below.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Do a student art show at the school in the hallway or in a local community center. If possible, involve local environmental or sustainability groups to lead a discussion or provide information.

Collaborate with an English teacher to encourage the students to write letters to the local or federal governmental officials about the need for ecosystem protection.


Students will have accomplished the goal initially when they have completed the art work(s). These can be graded and assessed by the teacher's usual methods of evaluation. The larger goal of educating the students on sustainability can be evaluated a number of ways. The students' group presentations will provide an idea of how much they have learned about environmental responsibility, sustainability, and restoring ecological health. If the activity is ongoing, the group exercises can be repeated for more in-depth discussion. The teacher should also have the students write their own descriptions of the art work to be displayed and provide information or explanation of the work for anyone who sees it; this will provide another way to determine what the student has learned from the activity. The art show can be used to create community discussion; for example, an open forum for the public could be held, involving the student artists and local sustainability, environmental, educators, business and civic leaders. Local businesses could be approached to sponsor the art show and/or display the students' works to promote further awareness in the community.

References and Resources