Students feel the force of nature with graphic novel

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Scottish conservationist makes waves 100 years after death

He is seen as the father of the national park movement and the man who helped preserve the American wilderness. Now, a century after his death, John Muir is once again inspiring a love of the natural world.

The pioneering Scottish naturalist was the driving force behind the creation of the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California, and a prolific writer and campaigner on the impact of humans on nature. Now research has found that a book about his life has helped to spark interest in environmental issues among a new generation.

The graphic novel, John Muir, Earth - Planet, Universe, was given to every secondary school in Scotland last year, the 100th anniversary of his death. Each school received 24 copies for use with S1, S2 and S3 pupils as part of a Scottish Book Trust project, aiming to keep Muir's legacy alive in his native Scotland and help young readers develop an understanding of the natural environment and the importance of protecting it.

A year on, researchers at University of Edinburgh claim that the book has helped to shift pupils' attitudes towards nature.

Their study found that three-quarters of teachers surveyed said the book had increased students' awareness of the value of the natural world. Just over half said it had impacted on pupils' sense of connection with nature.

"In participating schools, working with this book in association with other educational activities did indeed positively shift pupils' awareness of the value of nature and their sense of connectedness with the natural world," the researchers write.

"We conclude that the book engages students around environmental issues across a range of subjects, that it has been used cross-curricularly and that it works well with Curriculum for Excellence."

Only a small number of teachers said there had been a noticeable increase in environmentally conscious behaviour among students, but the researchers argue that this could be because many were already engaging their pupils in activities to protect wild places.

`A storied role model'

Philippa Cochrane, head of reader development at the Scottish Book Trust, said that stories could help to make topics perceived as "dry" seem more interesting to students, as well as getting them to think about issues in new ways.

She said the research backed up the belief that reading had social benefits in addition to promoting literacy.

The researchers found that one of the reasons for the book's impact was Muir's character. As well as writing and campaigning, he also worked as a shepherd for a season, lived in a log cabin he built himself and took US president Theodore Roosevelt camping in Yosemite. "Having such a storied role model does impact on the pupils who read the book," the researchers say.

The report also found that the book was being used widely in subjects including geography, environmental science, biology, religious education and English.

The book was developed in partnership with the John Muir Trust, Creative Scotland, Education Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, and in consultation with teachers and pupils.

At the time of publication, Pete Rawcliffe, people and places unit manager at Scottish Natural Heritage, said the values that Muir held dear rang as true today as they did 100 years ago. "This lively, fun book is a terrific tool to get children thinking and talking about nature, and to encourage them to enjoy the great outdoors," he said.

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