Naturally: Environmental Education Research

by Jim Parry

If you wonder what environmental education is all about, you are not alone. Years ago, William Stapp gave the following purpose for environmental education: “. . . producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution (Stapp 1969).”

Environmental Education

The research is wide and varied. Teaching the “subject” in schools is not without controversy. Is it science? Is it social studies? To some, it is simply biology and ecology. To others, it includes the social and political issues surrounding environmental issues. Others insist that environmental education should lead to advocacy in environmental protection. Nearly everyone agrees that environmental education is multi-disciplinary.

After a great deal of expert deliberation, Federal and state laws are now in place for formal education (schools). The curriculum standards for every state now include some environmental education. Generally, standards require that students learn basic ecology and understand issues such as pollution, endangered species, conservation, and land use.

Environmental education research covers these questions:

  1. What do we teach? What is good content, and what subjects, from natural science to social studies to ethics, are relevant?
  2. How do we teach? What are good methods to educate about the environment, given both the scientific and political, and the easy and difficult to measure aspects?
  3. Why do we teach? To what ends do we educate about the environment?

Environmental Literacy

Advancing Education Through Environmental Literacy is available from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development written by Michele L. Archie of the Harbinger Institute (2003),

Regarding the first and third categories, a favored “end” is termed Environmental Literacy (EL). Reading and math literacy imply a level of proficiency, so this approach makes sense. What does it mean? Environmental literacy is “the desired outcome of environmental education programs. Environmentally-literate individuals understand both ecological and social-political systems and have the inclination to apply that understanding to any decisions that pose consequences for environmental quality” (North American Association for Environmental Education 2000).

In 2000, the North American Association for Environmental Education unveiled “Excellence in Environmental Education-Guidelines for Learning” (K-12). Through the collaborative efforts of educators and professors, this document was created to provide a grade-appropriate framework for educating toward environmental literacy. Many states have used it in their formation of state standards.

Any search of the literature will yield an array of tests and formulations about EL. Specifically defining EL remains difficult. Theorists, legislators, and teachers have not completely come to terms about the disciplines involved, politics, and methods of instruction.

Some things are easy to measure. Can you define a term? Identify a plant? List the consequences? Measure the impact? But how about making an informed decision about wetlands or global warming? And is this strictly an intellectual topic, or does it involve the heart?

A great deal of literature is devoted to the question of “tripping the switch.” How does one come to understand and love the natural world? Does it happen at a very young age? Do mentors make a difference? Is it enough to take a class or pass a test? What cultural factors are involved? Is this a “nature-versus-nurture” question?

Conservation Experts

Harvard Professor and entomologist Edward O. Wilson has coined several key words on the subject. Biodiversity refers to the number of different species in a given area, and how they contribute to the health of the natural environment. Biophilia implies that humans have a genetic affinity to appreciating other living things. Consilience is a word to describe a forthcoming unity of the biological, genetic, molecular, social, environmental, and psychological sciences. Wilson is a major figure in the conservation movement. His studies have consistently led him to the conclusion that preserving the natural world is critical, to which his bestselling books give testimony.

Methods of instruction have been analyzed, too. Many feel that early education is critical.

Work by David Sobel centers on the premise that a child’s understanding of the world is constantly expanding, and environmental education should begin by connecting children with their immediate surroundings, subsequently moving outward (Sobel 2004). He suggests that educators connect children with a “sense of place,” local play areas and parks, focusing on regional ecology before addressing more global issues such as climate change, ozone, or economics.

Louise Chawla’s expertise is in the area of environmental psychology, and she has written in the Journal of Environmental Education about environmental sensitivity (Chawla 2000). Her research includes life experience, experiential education, and use of the Montessori method.

Much research is devoted to later years. If a child does not spend time outdoors in nature, it can impact their level of environmental concern later in life, writes Randy White (White 2004). Jana Meinhold and Amy Malkus examined the pro-environmental behavior of students, some of whom had pro-environmental attitudes and some who did not (Meinhold and Malkus 2005). Research confirmed a predilection toward pro-environmental behavior in people who had pro-environmental attitudes.

Environmental education can actually raise standardized test scores, says Gerald Leiberman (Leiberman 1998). Scores in state tests of students who conducted field-based environmental studies were compared with those who did not.

Teaching Strategies and Methods

Teaching strategies and methods have been evaluated in environmental education. Most elementary textbooks now include chapters dealing with the environment. Cross-disciplinary methods have proven especially worthwhile. Curricula include research projects, computer modeling, and guided reading.

Role play has proven to be effective in many ways. One activity has students acting in a town council meeting as a mayor, banker, environmentalist, unemployed worker, and parent, evaluating whether to fill in a wetland for development of a theme park.
Some have measured the efficacy of discussion, controversy and issue analysis. Students are presented with a topic that may have several consequences and solutions. Guided discussions help reveal various facts and opinions, generally stimulating growth and understanding of an issue.

Some researchers have analyzed the effects of service learning projects, such as litter clean-up, bird houses, tree-planting, and water quality monitoring. Service learning is an example of a valuable teaching method, but its effects are so rich and complex that studying them is difficult.

One category of research deals with “significant life experiences,” which implies that certain encounters with people or places can shape the course of an individual’s development. Sessions at camp, relations with camp counselors, and wilderness trips, are often referred to here.

Not surprisingly, nonformal education has also been widely studied. School camping/outdoor education programs, nature centers, zoos, museums, and scouting experiences have all been part of environmental education research. Students’ ability to define terms, and understand concepts and changes in attitude have all been documented, as have anecdotes of life-changing experiences. There is no doubt that camps have a major role to play in shaping the attitudes of young people toward a better relationship with nature. Many camp professionals and other environmental leaders can point to their experiences earlier in life that led to their choice in careers!

Chawla, L. (2000). Journal of Environmental Education.
Leiberman, G. and Linda Hoody. (1998). Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrated Context for Learning (San Diego, California: State Education and Environmental Roundtable).
Meinhold, J.L. and Amy J. Malkus (2005). Adolescent Environmental Behaviors. Can Knowledge, Attitudes, and Self-Efficacy Make a Difference? (EJ689316)
North American Association for Environmental Education. (2000). Excellence in Environmental Education-Guidelines for Learning (K-12).
Stapp, W.B, et al. (1969). The Concept of Environmental Education. The Journal of Environmental Education. 1(1):30-31.
Sobel, D. (2004). Place-Based Education, Connecting Classrooms & Communities, Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
White, R. (2004). Interaction with Nature During the Middle Years: Its Importance in Children’s Development & Nature’s Future,

Jim Parry is the outdoor education director at Collin County YMCA Adventure Camp in Anna, Texas. He can be reached at

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.



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