Background: Why is Environmental Education Important?
Our nation’s future relies on a well-educated public to be wise stewards of the very environment that sustains us, our families and communities, and future generations. It is environmental education which can best help us as individuals make the complex, conceptual connections between economic prosperity, benefits to society, environmental health, and our own well being. Ultimately, the collective wisdom of our citizens, gained through education, will be the most compelling and most successful strategy for environmental management (1).
Yet studies consistently reveal that the U.S. public suffers from a tremendous environmental literacy gap that appears to be increasing rather than decreasing. For example, two-thirds of the public fail even a basic environmental quiz (2) and a whopping 88 percent of the public fail a basic energy quiz (3). These same studies found that 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source.
A. Environmental education increases student engagement in science. In our schools, research has shown enormous benefits from environmental education. When integrated into a science curriculum, environmental education demonstrably improves student achievement in science (4). Such an increase is likely due to the fact that environmental education connects classroom learning to the real world. Students, when given a choice, will gravitate towards environmental science. Science fair administrators note that 40 percent of all science fair projects relate directly to the environment, and the Corporation for National and Community Service reports that more than 50 percent of the service-learning programs they fund are focused on the environment.
The relative lack of environmental education in the U.S is one leading cause for why our students’ performance in science compared to other countries does not meet our expectations (see "The Influence of Environmental Education on U.S. Performance in TIMSS vs. NAEP" included in this book).
B. Environmental education improves student achievement in core subject areas. When integrated into the core curricula or used as an integrating theme across the curriculum, environmental education has a measurably positive impact not only on student achievement in science, but also in reading (sometimes spectacularly), math, and social studies (5). The same study found that schools that taught the core subjects using the environment as an integrating context also demonstrated:
- reduced discipline and classroom management problems;
- increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning; and,
- greater student pride and ownership in accomplishments.
Even more importantly for many, environmental education employs and enhances critical thinking and basic life skills. The National Science Board of the National Science Foundation confirmed the importance of environmental education to student learning in their 2000 report, Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century: "The twin goals of learning are to acquire knowledge and gain skills such as problem solving, consensus building, information management, communication, and critical and creative thinking. Environmental issues offer excellent vehicles for developing and exercising many of these skills using a systems approach…changes should be made in the formal educational system to help all students, educators, and educational administrators learn about the environment, the economy, and social equity as they relate to all academic disciplines and their daily lives."
Likewise, the 2005 Report to Congress submitted by the National Environmental Education Advisory Council on the status of environmental education in the United States finds that "environmental education – with its emphasis on critical thinking, interdisciplinary teaching, and learner achievement – is also helping to meet educational reform goals."
C. Environmental education provides critical tools for a 21st century workforce. The vast majority of Americans are convinced that the environment will become at least one of the dominant issues and challenges of the 21st century, as the growing needs of the growing global population increasingly presses up against the limits of the earth’s resources and ecosystems. The National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education confirmed this in a 2003 report, noting that "in the coming decades, the public will more frequently be called upon to understand complex environmental issues, assess risk, evaluate proposed environmental plans and understand how individual decisions affect the environment at local and global scales. Creating a scientifically informed citizenry requires a concerted, systematic approach to environmental education..." (6)
At the same time, business leaders increasingly believe that an environmentally literate workforce is critical to their long term success and profitability, with better environmental practices and improved efficiencies impacting positively on the bottom line while helping to better position and prepare their companies for the future. Charles O. Holliday, Jr., Chairman and CEO of DuPont, speaks for a growing number of his peers in declaring that: "an environmentally sustainable business is just good business, given the growing concern for environmental problems across America. A key component of an environmentally sustainable business is a highly educated work force, particularly involving environmental principles." As one example on the micro scale, the National Environmental and Training Foundation estimates that environmental education about topics such as energy, water and waste management, improved employee health, cleaner working conditions, and recycling would save small and medium sized businesses alone at least $25 billion/year.
D. Environmental Education helps address "nature deficit disorder." A recent study found that children today spend an average of 6 hours each day in front of the computer and TV but less than 4 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play, leading researchers to discover a new condition specific to this current generation that they have called "nature deficit disorder." This extreme emphasis of indoor time spent in front of screens versus outdoor play and discovery has been correlated with negative psychological and physical effects including obesity, loneliness, depression, attention problems and greater social isolation due to reduced time with friends and family.
What do increased study of science and nature and its increased outdoor time accomplish? Especially in the very young, it has proved in studies extremely beneficial for cognitive functioning, reduced symptoms of attention deficit disorder, increased self-discipline and emotional well-being.
(1) National Environmental Education Advisory Council, Report to Congress, September 2000
(2) The National Report Card on Environmental Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behavior, Roper Starch Worldwide for the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (2001)
(3) America's Low "Energy IQ:" A Risk to Our Energy Future, Roper ASW for the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (2002)
(4) Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, State Education and Environment Roundtable, Lieberman, G.A. and Hoody, L.L. (1998)
(5) Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning, State Education and Environment Roundtable, Lieberman, G.A., and Hoody, L.L. (1998)
(6) Complex Environmental Systems: Synthesis for Earth, Life, and Society in the 21st Century, NSF Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education (2003) Page 41