March 27, 2015

Spotlight on Sustainability: Seeing messages in our environment

Werklund School of Education prof Bonnie Shapiro studies signs and symbols in learning settings

Over and above their textbooks and assignments, students are learning from cultural practices in schools and even the school building itself —from how class discussion is organized, to an athlete's awards case at the front door. Bonnie Shapiro, professor in the Werklund School of Education, studies semiotics, how signs and symbols in different learning settings communicate lessons, values and behaviours. "They are cultural structures that teach," Shapiro says.

They're everywhere. "An award case at the entrance to a school may suggest to all who enter that sports are highly valued in the school," she says. "Other aspects of the school program may be featured through photographs that demonstrate achievements in other subjects such as science, drama and mathematics."

A big budget set aside for a particular topic sends a message about that topic's value. Exposed air ducts and electrical systems communicate information about building design and structure. And recycling bins in the hallways teach the importance of thinking about where materials go when we "throw them away."

"Sometimes if the buildings are very old, they represent values that may be different from the values today," Shapiro says. "Not only do we want to perpetuate the positive values and concerns for the environment in our school settings, we also want to disrupt those that are not productive."

Shapiro's research, which won an ATA Educational Research Award, explores how to engage teachers in the semiotic readings of environmental messages in different settings. She is also the academic co-ordinator of the Education for the Environment program, a Masters offering in the Werklund School of Education.

The program, the only one of its kind in the province, "deepens understanding of the human connection to the natural world" to help educators develop the skills and resources they need to help others become informed and make decisions about environmental issues.

The program's graduate students include teachers, social workers, conservationists and outdoor educators. They have explored "in place-based settings" such as Kananaskis, a city park and natural prairie grasslands project at an elementary school to learn how to understand and interpret environmental signs and symbols.

"Educational places are designed to support and perpetuate our cultural values," Shapiro says. "As educators, we strive to learn how to read the messages of learning environments to understand how these might be interpreted by students and how we can better design settings to send a message of care and concern for the environment."

Spotlight on Sustainability is an ongoing series profiling the work of students, faculty and staff. To submit story ideas please contact the Office of Sustainability.