By. Leesa Carter-Jones, Executive Director, Captain Planet Foundation


When kids first learn about the idea of endangered species they have an immediate, empathetic response. Hands shoot into the air and they say, “Animals are in danger of dying and going extinct? What can we do?”


Most typically, there are no solutions to offer besides making posters of endangered animals or writing a letter to a local politician. And often, even those options are not offered.  Instead, kids are told that there is nothing they can do and their attention is turned back to their lessons.


Here at Captain Planet Foundation, we hear these stories a lot from teachers who are dismayed that they’re losing the opportunity to teach an important lesson to kids: How empathy works. The understanding that when you feel that emotional tug, that sense of ‘wrongness’ – it is your consciousness telling you to step in and become part of the solution.


When we teach children to ignore these cues, we inadvertently teach them apathy. And then we look around as adults and wonder why so many people choose inaction – when there is so much to be done.


The good news, you wonder? There is a growing body of educators around the country who are taking a different approach.  They are adopting programs that build empathy and embrace social and emotional learning. They are working on an approach to education that focuses on the development of the 21st Century skills that create great citizens: collaboration, problem-solving, empathy, creativity, and communication.  The kind of learning that builds citizens who SEE something and DO something.


The reality is that kids want to be a part of creating an improved world.  They see and hear about what is happening around them – and when given no opportunity to engage in a solution, they detach. There are fascinating studies that show how kids who learn about environmental degradation in the classroom, without being empowered to become part of the fix, become LESS likely than their counterparts to engage in sustainable behaviors as adults.


You heard that right. They adopt sustainable behaviors at a much lower rate than kids who never took environmental science at all.  They don’t even recycle.  After all, what is the point they wonder?


About 16 months ago, Captain Planet Foundation banded together with a group of environmental non-profits to develop a program called Project Hero. (Non-profit partners include: Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy, NatureServe, One More Generation, and Turner Endangered Species Fund, among others.)


The intention of this collaboration was to offer educators a way to respond to their students when they ask, “What can we do?”  Using existing biological data, this web-based tool allows kids to research what is endangered or threatened where they live and then design and implement a stewardship project that helps solve a habitat issue for that species.


Olivia Ries, one of our Foundation’s heroes and the co-founder of One More Generation (along with her brother, Carter), recently published a great article about Project Hero for National Geographic.  You can read more here, and I really hope you will sign up to receive updates when Project Hero launches this Fall.


Together we can help kids imagine a better future, and then build it!




Leesa Carter-Jones joined Captain Planet Foundation in 2012 and has helped the organization successfully launch Project Learning Garden, the Leadership Center (science and environmental stewardship programs with the Georgia Department of Education), and the Planeteers Club Program. She is a respected speaker on sustainability, environmental stewardship, and youth education programs. Most recently, she spoke on the Farm to School panel at the International Farm to Table Symposium and moderated the panel on environmental education at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting.