PopEd and Pam Wasserman: Thirty Years Together

Pam has worked at ZPG/Population Connection for thirty years, and has guided PopEd to become the program it is today. Another longtime staff member, Lee S. Polansky, interviewed her on the program’s evolution since its founding in 1975.

What is your background and how did you come to work at Zero Population Growth?

Before I entered the “population world,” I had a strong interest in women’s reproductive health. I had volunteered at women’s clinics in the U.S. and the U.K. (Marie Stopes International), and written my senior thesis at Brown University on Margaret Sanger. I was also really drawn to working in education, but wasn’t sure exactly how. My academic background is in American Studies, with a focus on our country’s educational system.

An opportunity to be a fellow at The Population Institute after college got me interested in population issues — both the social aspects and the environmental connections. Once the fellowship ended, I knew I wanted to stay in the population field, and soon found myself at Zero Population Growth.

Please describe some of PopEd’s history.

ZPG started a Population Education program in 1975. The thinking behind it was that young people needed to understand population dynamics and environmental connections in order to make responsible decisions as future voters, leaders, and, possibly, parents. This was a time when environmental studies were starting to come into their own in K-12 and university curriculum. People were talking about ecological concepts like “limits to growth” and carrying capacity in nature. This was also soon after milestone legislation was passed in the U.S. to clean up our air and water, and protect species. The time was ripe for all sorts of environmental studies, including human ecology.

In the early years, the PopEd program primarily developed curriculum for the classroom — books and kits. We also had the original version of World Population (the “dot” movie) on 16 mm film! That was produced in 1973.

There was originally a staff of one, so the outreach to teachers was limited at first. The same staffer who started ZPG’s program also developed some curricula for Population Reference Bureau in the 1970s. When I joined PopEd in the late 1980s, there were two of us running the program for about five years, until we secured enough funding to begin growing the program.

How did schools receive PopEd in those days?

I feel like I’ve been working on these issues long enough to see cycles — both in education and the larger political climate — around teaching population and environmental topics. When I started here, it was the Reagan-Bush era with the so-called “Moral Majority,” and some teachers and administrators probably shied away from including anything they might deem controversial.

Even so, we always found a place for our curriculum to fit K-12 needs, then and now. The teacher associations (National Science Teachers Association, National Council for the Social Studies, etc.) were receptive to including our materials at their conferences and in their journals. Once we found supportive educators who liked what we were doing, we built on that and continued to cultivate relationships.

Any memorable anecdotes from the early days?

Here’s one that’s actually not specific to PopEd: In 1989, after just a year working at ZPG, I was assigned to write a booklet on people’s choices to have one or no children. It was titled “Planning the Ideal Family.” Originally, it was designed to validate our supporters’ life choices with information dispelling myths about “only children” and “childfree” couples. Back then, these were hot button topics. I wound up on live TV talk shows, including one moderated by Matt Lauer (before his Today Show fame, and #metoo movement downfall). Audience members yelled things at me like, “An only child is a lonely child!” (Incidentally, I later became the mother of an “only,” who is certainly not lonely.)

One of my fond PopEd memories, from 22 years ago, is being invited by an NGO in Tokyo to visit Japan one summer and present professional development workshops for teachers and youth workers throughout the country. They translated our high school materials into Japanese prior to my visit. It was eye-opening to see how our curriculum would adapt to another setting.

How did PopEd become the juggernaut it is now?

One of the best decisions was starting our PETNet (Population Education Trainers Network). With a small staff, we knew the best way to expand our outreach significantly was to enlist the help of some of the nation’s best educators to represent us in their local areas. Our first Leadership Institute was held in 1990 for the original group of about twenty volunteer trainers. The program took off and became an annual event to train more leaders. Today, there are over 650 PETNet members and they present about three-quarters of all of our workshops.

Professional development workshops became the cornerstone of our program. While teachers around the world have access to our materials through our websites, there’s still no substitute for face-to-face interactions with educators. We also put an emphasis now on workshops for university students who are preparing to become teachers. That way, we reach diverse audiences of young adults who are just starting to think about how to engage children and teens on important global issues.

I also think that some educational trends have caught up to us in more recent years. For instance, the new Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which have been adopted by most states, really stress teaching human-environmental impacts. There are also now two Advanced Placement (AP) courses in high schools across the nation that devote substantial course time to population studies: AP Environmental Science and AP Human Geography. We were teaching about sustainability before that term was even used widely in the educational community, like it is now.

How do you feel PopEd has changed since the program’s beginnings?

Many of the themes in our curricula have endured: We still teach about population fundamentals like birth/death/fertility rates, demographic transitions, and all things that impact people’s family size decisions. We also still stress the basics of human-environmental impacts. Some of these impacts (like climate change) we started teaching back in the early 1990s, but now the preponderance of data and observations make it a more critical part of our work.

There are other population/environmental topics that are newer to our curriculum, like fracking, the growth of megacities, and aquifer depletion. We’ve also changed with the times on the informational platforms we use. Our materials are now disseminated across three websites, one of which is an interactive, multi-media site that lets the user explore hundreds of locations and historical milestones to better understand our population history, present, and future (WorldPopulationHistory.org). We’ve also engaged students directly in using new media with our World of 7 Billion annual student video contest.

We’re always fine-tuning our model for workshops and trying to provide more of them in school districts, on university campuses, and at all sorts of professional development conferences where teachers gather. For those who can’t get to one in person, we have an online course that educators can take for graduate credit.

I’ve been really fortunate to work with some exceptional colleagues over the years who bring fresh ideas and approaches to the program. There are currently eight staff in the PopEd program, and we’re planning to expand later this year.

What are your hopes for PopEd’s future?

Even though we’ve been going strong for over 40 years, there are always new teachers who aren’t familiar with our work and students who don’t yet make the “population connection.” So, I’m hoping we can continue to expand our outreach and continue to prepare a population-literate electorate.

I’m really impressed by the current generation of students I meet. They seem engaged in the world around them and interested in becoming good environmental stewards. I think our classroom resources have real potential to inform and inspire them.

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