25 Nov, 2015

A Record-Breaking Year for Environmental Education in Armenia!

ATP Eco Club member Melanya Sarukhanyan and the Ohanian Environmental Education Center in Margahovit

By Ani Melkonyan

Armenia Tree Project has been carrying out its Environmental Education program since 2005, conducting important trainings and workshops in every corner of Armenia. Thousands of schoolchildren visit ATP's two Environmental Education Centers named after Michael and Virginia Ohanian every year. These centers - one located on the grounds of Karin Tree Nursery and another located in Margahovit Village - provide interactive lessons focused on all aspects of the environment.

It was a record-breaking year as more students visited the centers than ever before. 64 school groups (1646 students) from Yerevan, Kotayk and Armavir received EE classes at Karin, which significantly exceeds the number from previous years.  Together with students, parents and teachers, Karin hosted 1940 guests this year. The Michael and Virginia Ohanian Environmental Education Center (MOEC) in Margahovit hosted 74 school groups  from the regions of Lori, Tavush, Gegharkunik and Shirak. 1971 schoolchildren, 288 teachers and parents visited the educational center and received environmental classes.

ATP believes planting trees alone is not enough when there is limited awareness about environmental issues in the country and lack of advocacy. Through the EE program, ATP aims to raise a responsible generation of Armenians, that will take on their roles as caretakers and protectors of the environment. The EE team works hard to instill respect, care and understanding towards nature in young Armenians.

Melanya Sarukhanyan is a 13 year old schoolgirl from Margahovit and a regular at MOEC. She's a member of ATP's eco-club, the inauguration of which in 2012 was a cause for great excitement in the village. Melanya was introduced to the club at school, by her biology teacher Ms. Gayane Markaryan, who also happens to be the eco-club trainer. The club has two age groups - middle and high school students - with 35 kids in total. They meet thrice a week, all year round. Making the extra effort after school is no inconvenience for the students because they enjoy getting to learn new things in a peaceful environment.

MOEC is like an illustration straight out of a children's book. The building itself is camouflaged to reflect the surrounding green rolling mountains. The front yard is a beautifully laid out garden and an exhibition of the children's projects. The delicate flowers, plants and vegetables are a result of all that the children have come to learn at the club.

Here Melanya has learned how to produce compost from gathered waste, bio-humus with Californian red worms; how to plant, prune, graft and care for trees. She's learned about organic insect control; establishing organic vegetable gardens; the techniques of producing traditional crops and about non-traditional vegetables and herbs and their growing methods. The EE center has introduced value-added crops such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts to the villagers, who only grew cabbage and potatoes in the past.

The students study bee-life, the importance of bees in ecosystems, the damage of pesticides and herbicides to bee colonies, bee care and honey production.

"The goal is to reconnect the children with the environment. We want them to value their natural heritage" says Alla Sahakyan, ATP's EE manager.

When asked what she likes about the club, Melanya answers by saying that they put into practice everything that they learn in theory. "We use modern and at the same time eco-friendly technologies, which we don't have at school," says Melanya, "We watch slide-shows and videos together...It's more fun that way."

A vital part of the EE program is for the kids to make a connection between what they learn at the club and what occurs in their daily lives. They apply their knowledge by making compost in their gardens; collecting and recycling paper and plastic bottles. The eco-kids even initiated a paper recycling system at school.

"I get a lot of phone calls from parents complaining because their kids won't allow them to throw trash away," jokes Sahakyan, "that's how I know our work is paying off".

As for her future plans, Melanya hasn't discovered her true calling yet. However, being a protector of the environment already seems to be a full-time job. "I've learned that nature gives us life, so we must care for it... I see nature as an intrinsic part of myself now", explains Melanya.

Armenia Tree Project also has a program called Building Bridges, which serves as a platform where children of the Diaspora together with their counterparts in Armenia learn about their natural heritage, the Armenian culture, and each other. In 2015, EE hosted 5 such school groups from the east and west coasts of the United States and 1 other non-Armenian school from Beirut. All the visits included tree plantings, excursions to historical-memorial sites of Armenia and different environmental activities.

Another important part of the EE program is the training of teachers, who later incorporate environmental classes in their curriculums. This year, around 80 teachers were trained by ATP. An additional 60 teachers, professionals from international and local organizations, policy and decision makers were also trained in cooperation with GIZ.

The EE team also conducts classes on environmental topics at different schools and educational institutions throughout the year; as well as summer camps, various environmental workshops, seminars and events.

In addition to its main activities, the EE program implements various donor funded programs and cooperates with different organizations such as AMAA, Caritas, and Ghoghanj.

ATP will continue to promote environmentalism through its EE program. Training campaigns will be carried out through the next year for educators, youth and other NGO members. EE will continue operating the 2 educational centers, and work towards raising the number of visiting students in 2016.

"We have so many exciting ideas and great plans for the coming year.  There are some positive reforms in the works in Armenia and hopefullly environmental education will go from being non-formal to a more permanent part of the curriculum. Then we can work on a larger scale, with more public schools and make a bigger impact," concludes Sahakyan.