Latino Kids Missing out on the Outdoors and STEM

When you think about the outdoors and “outdoorsy” people, what comes to mind? Bearded hikers in flannel shirts? Intrepid retirees armed with the latest in GPS gadgetry ambling through the woods? But not necessarily people of color, right? Sadly, such sentiments are somewhat backed by reality–relatively few of the millions of visitors to U.S. National Parks each year are African American or Latino. A similar disconnect from nature is, disturbingly, present in our classrooms; children from underserved and minority communities are less likely to have access to environmental education programs.

Considering just how diverse the U.S. is – and is becoming – we are talking about a LOT of children who are missing out on the benefits of environmental education–and especially the abundant applications to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in environmental science and outdoor learning.

Latinos, the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., are also among the most underrepresented in the STEM workforce. Meanwhile, Latino children, especially ones in urban and low-income neighborhoods, largely miss out on environmental education and  outdoor experiences. This was a topic of discussion at “Overcoming Environmental Injustice: Getting Latino Kids Outdoors,” a Graduate Summit hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) on April 16th. Melissa Ocana, a CHCI Graduate Fellow, discussed her research and moderated a four-person panel on STEM, Latinos and environmental justice. Panelists included NWF’s Laura Hickey, Senior Director of Eco-Schools USA, and Jackie Ostfeld of the Sierra Club, who chairs of the Outdoors Alliance for Kids(of which NWF is a founding member).

NWF's Laura Hickey speaks at the CHCI STEM Summit
The timing couldn’t be better for such a discussion. A recent study on preschool-age children showed that Latino kids are among the least likely to be taken outdoors to play. Meanwhile for the first time, fewer than half of preschool-age children in the U.S. are white, and studies show that there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050. Yet, it is these very kids of color that are not benefiting from the outdoor time and STEM education that our economy is calling for.

I point out the economy because STEM is an increasingly important, yet decreasingly popular route of study for American students. In other words,  demand for careers in STEM is growing while we are failing to supply enough young STEM-trained individuals to fill these jobs. Engaging more students in environmental learning would increase their ability to make connections between STEM and real-world opportunities.

We may be able to debate the ideal amount of time kids ought to be spending outdoors (which is, in my opinion, a LOT more than is typical today), but we cannot turn our backs on the devastating results of the unhealthy, indoor childhood. Getting kids from all backgrounds outdoors, learning the science of the environment, is key to their health, career prospects, and much more.