Environmental education (EE) is a means of learning whereby students engage in hands-on studies of local environments EE programs make use of local ecosystems surrounding a school such as city parks, rivers, or urban gardens. Although local ecosystems are particularly useful for teaching scientific content, creative educators are using them to teach a variety of additional subjects. EE programs have been found to increase standardized test scores among the majority of participating classrooms and schools, reduce behaviour problems, and provide opportunities to develop leadership capacity. Many progressive schools around the world are now incorporating EE activities within their curricula, and this nascent movement, while still relatively small, is generating large academic benefits.
Environmental Education Increases Standardized Test Scores
The State Education and Environmental Roundtable, a U.S. national study of environment-based education encompassing 150 schools throughout 16 states over the course of 10 years, has found that making use of local environments to enhance learning can produce gains on standardized test scores and overall grade-point averages in science, math, language arts, and social studies. In fact, students in EE schools or programs have outscored their peers in traditional schools and programs on the majority of assessments.
The academic benefits of environmental education are evident in the following examples:
- Hotchkiss Elementary (Dallas, Texas): Fourth-graders in an EE program scored 13% higher on average in reading skills than fourth-graders at the same school before the implementation of the program.
- Hawley Environmental Elementary School (Milwaukee, Wisconsin): All third-graders at this school passed the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test, compared to just 25% of their peers in other traditional schools throughout Milwaukee.
- Environmental Middle School (Portland Oregon): 96% of eighth-grade students meet or exceed the state’s math standards, compared to just 65% of those in similar but non-environment-based middle schools.
- Isaac Dickson Elementary School (Asheville, North Carolina) – Fourth graders in an EE program increased their math scores by 31% in a single year. This is particularly impressive, given that a significant percentage of Isaac Dickson students live in housing projects and half come from low-income families.
Environmental Education Increases Student Engagement
It is well known that student engagement is critical to academic achievement. Anecdotal evidence from educators indicates that EE increases student motivation and interest, thus awakening a love of learning in students who were once weak performers. This is particularly important for students of low socioeconomic status, who often have poor academic prospects. According to Jane Eller of the Kentucky Environmental Education Council, as a result of the incorporation of EE activities, “In just a few years, we’ve begun to see schools from some of our poorest neighborhoods do very well on the assessment.”
This effect has been seen at many schools that have incorporated EE activities into their curricula. For example, Kruse Elementary of Pasadena, Texas, where poverty is ubiquitous and 87% of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a teacher named Libby Rhoden began providing environmental education to her first-graders. The result has been that Rhoden’s students consistently outperform their peers from other classes in both reading and math.
Environmental Education Reduces Behaviour Problems
Educators have found that students in EE programs are usually better behaved and less likely to be absent than those in traditional programs. For example, at Little Falls High School (Little Falls, Minnesota), ninth-graders participating in EE had 54% fewer suspensions than their peers in non-EE programs. Even more impressive, Hotchkiss Elementary (Dallas, Texas), which had 560 referrals to the principal’s office for disciplinary problems in the year prior to the implementation of an EE program, noted just 50 referrals two years later.
An additional benefit of EE is that it often includes after-school programs that constructively occupy students and involve parents and other members of the community. This reduces the likelihood of juvenile crime and violence, which occurs most frequently between 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, according to law enforcement officials.
It is unsurprisingly that students are willing to engage in environment-based after-school activities, given that they find such activities appealing and worthwhile. In a survey that asked what community service or service learning subjects interested students the most, 82% listed the environment among their top three choices. Given the broad appeal of EE, it is obvious that such programs have the potential to increase student engagement, which is crucial to promoting academic achievement and reducing high school drop-out rates.
EE counters the tendency of many students to disengage and develop a negative orientation toward their schools, and by extension, their communities. While traditional education tends to impart facts in isolation, EE puts them into context, connecting information from various disciplines and associating it with real-world issues.
Environmental Education Enhances Leadership Ability Among Students
EE programs are effective in developing character and leadership capacity because they lack the off-putting preachiness of so many other character-building efforts that have been attempted in schools.Certain features of EE are particularly useful for building leadership skills, as well as the abilities students will need to maintain lucrative employment within the modern information economy:
- Social skills: Students must work together as a team to complete projects, which fosters inclusiveness, cooperation, and diplomatic skills.
- Critical thinking and decision making: Because EE encompasses issues-oriented instruction, students apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems and thus engage in higher-order thinking.
- Active participation: EE offers opportunities to engage in the sort of hands-on learning that increases student motivation and engagement.
- Community orientation: Students derive a sense of empowerment and connection to their communities through taking action to solve problems for the greater good, as well as learning about the roles and responsibilities related to citizenship, and the possibilities for and constraints upon citizen action.
- Personal responsibility: Students take responsibility for devising strategies both for learning about the environment and for solving environmental and related problems. Rather than feeling that environmental problems are overwhelming and that the situation is hopeless, EE students tend to be optimistic about the future and the ability of their generation to solve such problems.
An additional benefit of environmental education is that in some cases projects have enabled students to undertake studies and activities that would have otherwise been far too expensive for communities to fund. For example, students from the School of Environmental Studies (Apple Valley, Minnesota) surveyed the water quality of 20 ponds throughout the City of Eagan, producing data that was later used by community agencies to improve water quality in the city.
According to Michael Ferry, a teacher at Woonsocket High School (Woonsocket, Rhode Island), “Environmental science informs students how to protect natural resources, gives them the tools they need to teach others, and serves to develop the next generation of land stewards.”
Examples of Environmental Education Programs
EE encompasses a wide variety of activities. The following are a few examples of the ways in which various schools have incorporated EE within their curricula:
- Kimbark Elementary (San Bernardino, California): An on-campus vegetable garden, pond, greenhouse, and native plant arboretum are used to study botany, aquatic insects, and microscopic organisms.
- Glenwood Springs High School (Glenwood Springs, Colorado): High school students had the opportunity to create an urban pocket park, producing all the plans and supervising the development.
- Huntingdon Area Middle School (Huntingdon, Pennsylvania): Local streams provide a place to gather data that is used for teaching various mathematical concepts, including statistics, percentages, and fractions, as well as graph and chart interpretation.
- Isaac Dickson (Asheville, North Carolina): Students learn about nutrition by growing their own food products in the garden and then studying them, after which they create nutritious meals to share at the school or donate the produce to local social service organizations.
- Taylor County High School (Perry, Florida): The nearby Econfina River is used to teach science, math, language arts, and economics.
- School for Environmental Studies (Apple Valley, Minnesota): Students complete pond profile projects, which involve sampling and testing water, analyzing plants and insects, collecting historical and scientific data about the way the land evolved, and learning about the area’s previous human inhabitants.
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- Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
- The National Environmental Education & Training Foundation. (2000). Environment-Based Education: Creating High Performance Schools and Students [PDF]. Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative (PEEC), PEECWorks.org.
- The North American Association for Environmental Education and the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation. (2001). Using Environment-Based Education to Advance Learning Skills and Character Development [PFD]. Washington, DC: National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), NEEFUSA.org.
- State Education & Environment Roundtable (SEER). (2000). California Student Assessment Project: The Effects of Environment-Based Education on Student Achievement [PDF]. Poway, CA: SEER.