Environmental Education Research Paper Starter

Environmental Education

(Research Starters)

Environmental education refers to the integrated study of the natural, living, and physical environment and humans' interactions with it. Environmental education programs in U.S. K–12 public schools increased as a result of the environmental movement of the 1960s–1970s era. There are many differences in philosophy and approach and continual disagreements about the composition and social purpose of environmental education. Research has found that the implementation of environmental education in schools is problematic and not very successful, and there is a large gap between intent and performance in teaching students about environmental issues.

Keywords Affective Development; Bioethics; Cross-Curricular; Environmental Education; Environmental Ethic; Environmental Learning; Environmental Literacy; Experiential Education; Integrative Learning; Interdisciplinary; Outdoor Education; Place-Based Education; Service Learning

Alternative Education: Environmental Education


Environmental or environment-based education is a relatively new, innovative and dynamic form of cross-curricular education that is focused on the study of the environment.

Because environmental education involves the study of changes in earth systems and environmental systems over time, it is an important context in which to learn about science. Environmental education curricula are directed at increasing students' environmental knowledge, awareness, and literacy. The history of environmental education is linked to that of outdoor and experiential education. Environmental education began to take concrete form as a discipline in the late 1960s and became a pedagogical field in the 1970s.

The practice of environmental education in U.S. schools is adaptable to all age, grade, ability, and achievement levels. Although experiential education can take place in a variety of settings, outdoor-learning settings have many advantages over classroom settings. Environmental education curricula are interdisciplinary, integrated, and thematic and require contributions from multiple subject areas. Environmental learning attends to students' variant learning styles and accents their diverse learning needs in the area of multiple intelligences.

Environmental education is an important context in which to learn about the environment, as well as science—biology, geology, nature—and numerous interdisciplinary, or hybrid fields. Environmental education involves the broad study of changes in earth systems and environmental systems over time. Among environmental education's primary goals are to deepen students' engagement with issues in environment and science such as global warming, biodiversity, sustainability, and sustainable development. Related school curricula are directed at increasing students' environmental knowledge and awareness and their overall environmental literacy—knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors—related to the environment.


Environmental education can be traced to outdoor education, and its history is intimately intertwined with that of outdoor and experiential education. The roots of environmental education can also be traced to recreational camping, which began to be practiced during the period from 1861–1880, the nature study movement. Environmental education, as outdoor education, was influenced by the traditions of camping education and nature study. Environmental education grew out of the juxtaposition of the philosophies of the two separate movements: the school camping/outdoor education movement and the conservation/nature study movement. Environmental education draws on the combined educational practices of experiential and outdoor education (Adkins & Simmons, 2002; Carlson, 2000; Chase, 1985; Kirk, 1980). According to Carlson (2000), the beginning of outdoor education as a "learning method" began in 1930.

Direct observation and experience with one's natural surroundings was considered to be a worthwhile endeavor until about the 1940s (Pyle, 2001). A significant purveyor of this type of direct observation and first-hand study was Rand Aldo Leopold (1886–1948). Leopold was a forester, ecologist, philosopher, educator, and writer. Leopold was a fervent campaigner for wilderness areas and the preservation of wildlife. He was a founder of the Wilderness Society in 1935 and a director of the Audubon Society, also from 1935. His experiential learning on the land led to his development of a "pedagogy of place" or "place-based education, " which involved quality environmental learning experiences in local settings (Knapp, 2005; Merriam-Webster Inc., 1988). In addition to place-based education, the field of environmental ethics also originated near the end of the 1940s, but did not make great progress until the 1970s (Huiying, 2004).

The 1960s Environmental Movement

Environmental education began to take concrete form as a discipline in the late 1960s. The goals of environmental education since their emergence have been strongly evident in science curricula. Developing environmentally literate citizens who have the knowledge and skills to take responsible action with regard to the natural environment have been the aims of environmental education since its inception. Many well-known events and people contributed to the movement, including:

• The introduction of the term “environmental literacy” in 1969.

• Rachel Carson's concept of “ecological interdependence,” introduced in her book Silent Spring published in 1962.

• The Russian scientist D. L. Armand's works of the 1960s contributing to establishing the concept of “sustainable development.”

• The first journal of environmental education published in the late 1960s.

• The involvement of the Peace Corps with environmental education in the 1960s, sponsoring programs in schools, youth centers, parks, and zoos.

(Adkins & Simmons, 2002; Bennett & Bennett, 2004; Braus, 1993; Di Chiro, 2006; Kasimov, Malkhazova, & Romanova, 2005; Roth, 1992).

Environmental education programs in U.S. public schools increased as a result of the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s, becoming a "pedagogical field" in the 1970s. The first international conferences on environmental education were also held in the 1970s. The United Nations conferences on the environment played an instrumental role in developing the basic premises and guiding principles for environmental education curriculum development. The first Earth Day celebration took place on April 22, 1970 (Baird, 1991; Covert, 1986; Gonzalez-Gaudiano, 2007; Papadimitriou, 2001).

National Efforts

From 1990–1994, the National Science Foundation embarked on a nationwide program to infuse earth systems concepts throughout the K–12 science curriculum across the country (Fortner & Boyd, 1995). The National Environmental Education Act (NEAA) of 1990 established a federal comprehensive education program to support state and local efforts (U.S. Congress, 1996). The NEAA established the Office of Environmental Education (OEE) within the Environmental Protection Agency. The NEAA supports the development of materials and education efforts so that environmental problems are characterized factually and objectively, are scientifically sound, and are balanced. The National Environmental Education Amendments Act of 1996 made the NEEA programs operate more efficiently and effectively and extended authorization for NEEA programs (U.S. Congress, 1996).

As the focus of environmental problems and government policy in the U.S. has shifted from water supply in the 1960s to solid waste management in the 1970s to hazardous waste management in the 1980s, to air quality in the 1990s and to global warming and climate change in the 2000s, the role and importance of environmental education has continued to expand (Lankard, 1996).


Learning Settings

Experiential environmental education and environmental learning can take place in a variety of settings and venues. These include diverse traditional and nontraditional settings for teaching and learning. Besides school-based/in-school/classroom environmental learning settings, there are many different, alternative, non-school/out-of-school/outside-the-classroom settings. Natural, local, cross-cultural, community-based, outdoor learning settings have many advantages over classroom settings. Informal learning can occur in nature or nature education settings. Students can address environmental issues and problems in the community and local areas. Outdoor settings include wilderness and urban adventures, rope courses or camp-based extensions of the classroom. Parry (1998) describes one program—resident outdoor environmental education (ROEE)—in which students live in the outdoor environment and take part in a camping experience for two to five days.

Most environmental education activities are undertaken in school or under the guidance of the school. Lab-based biological studies and environmental education in the school classroom have replaced nature study in outdoor environments, reducing possibilities for students to establish personal connections to the earth (Pyle, 2001; Rickinson, 2001). Most work in schools is done indoors. Schools sit isolated on large chunks of land surrounded by areas of grass and parking lots and consume many resources. Moore (1996) and Pope (1998) suggest that instead, schools could design and develop two perfect environmental education laboratories: one indoor and one outdoor. There exist a variety of options for designing the school grounds for environmental learning and creating optimal outdoor learning environments to foster students' intimate contact with nature. In doing so, schools need to give consideration to such features as pathways, ground covers, landforms and topography, trees and vegetation, gardens and animal habitats (Moore, 1996; Pope, 1998).


Environmental education curricula are student-centered, theme-oriented, integrated, and interdisciplinary units of study. Thematic units of hybrid topics are interwoven throughout the K–12 curriculum. Environmental education and environmental learning are cross-curricular, cross-disciplinary, and require contributions from numerous disciplines or subject areas. Environmental curricula use the description and operation of the biological/ecological and physical environment, and related social issues, as the focus of integrative learning for all other subject areas (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000; Papadimitriou, 2001). The environment-related aspects of environmental education, including examples of the fields, subjects, concepts, topics/issues, and programs/projects, are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Environment-Related Aspects of Environmental Education


Note: Some of these projects/programs are taken from Irwin, 2007, & from Kushmerick, Young & Stein, 2007.

Practical theses supporting the merging of environmental education and science education have previously been proposed (Papadimitriou, 2001). Science curriculum content includes concepts not only from environmental science, environmental conservation, life science, and biology but also from all the...

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