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what is environmental education?

Environmental Education is...

... a resource that transcends the classroom—both in character and scope. Regardless of where, how or to whom it’s provided, the end goal is the same: environmental literacy. More than ever, children and adults need to know how ecological systems work and why they matter. Some people have become so disconnected from the natural resources that sustain them, they don’t know where their food comes from or where they get their drinking water. People require knowledge, tools and sensitivity to successfully address and solve environmental problems in their daily lives. The health of the environment is inseparable from humans’ well-being and economic prosperity. Environmental education is a lifelong process for the learner. Those who provide environmental education in classrooms and who serve the public at parks, museums and nature centers are a powerful presence in North Carolina. The state has long been recognized as a leader in the field of environmental education, and we want to continue that legacy. By supporting environmental educators in North Carolina, we can multiply efforts to help young people and adults understand their connection to the world around them. We continually seek the most efficient, effective ways to deliver knowledge and to inspire academic excellence.

"We often forget that all education is environmental education - by what we include or exclude, we teach the young that they are part of or apart from the natural world. An economist for example, who fails to connect our economic life with that of ecosystems and the biosphere has taught an environmental lesson all right, but one that is dead wrong. Our goal as educators ought to be to help students understand their implicatedness in the world and to honor mystery."
- Dr. David Orr

The Case for Environmental Education

In the classroom and beyond, the desired outcome of environmental education is environmental literacy. People who are environmentally literate understand how natural systems function and how humans and the environment are intertwined. To that end, environmental education strives to provide learners with sound scientific information and the vital skills of problem solving, critical thinking and decision-making. At one time or another, individuals will be compelled to address and solve complex environmental problems affecting the economy, public health or shared natural resources. Environmental education provides the necessary tools. The National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Environmental Research and Education noted 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.”

For Children and Students

In the PreK-12 classroom, environmental education takes it cue from children's natural curiosity about animals, plants and other elements of nature. Teachers report that environmental education captures their students' attention more readily than many other topics. In addition, environmental education has consistently engaged students who are hardest to reach. Its value is not limited to students - environmental education reduces burnout among educators and invigorates their teaching.

Environmental education holds great promise for improving the quality of learning in America's classrooms. When teachers use the environment as a context for learning, they report better student performance on standardized measurements of academic achievement in reading, writing, math, science and social studies; reduced discipline and classroom management problems; increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning; and greater pride and ownership in accomplishments.

Environmental education in schools can help produce motivated students, high-performance lifelong learners, effective future workers and problem-solvers, thoughtful community leaders and individuals who care about the people, creatures and places that surround them.

For Adults and Families

American adults, many of whom have missed opportunities to receive environmental education in school, have a hunger for environmental literacy. In a survey of 2,000 American consumers ages 18 and older, half said they "do not have the information to be personally involved in increasing their green behavior." Forty-nine percent state they would do more for the environment if they only knew how. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that they seek environmental education so they can protect their personal/family health; an equal number said that they want the information so they can "personally protect the environment."

A 2001 survey commissioned by the National Environmental Education Foundation found that the public's top environmental concern is the protection of health and family health. Sixty percent of adults responding said that the main reason to protect the environment is to keep people safe from pollution.

Environmental education is a promising conduit for reducing obesity, particularly among children. Besides its immediate benefits, physical fitness can help children develop lifelong healthy habits. "Children in America are suffering from the effects of obesity and inactivity at unprecedented levels," says Chris Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. "Teaching youth the benefits of a healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle will ensure healthier children, healthier communities, and healthier businesses." The Centers for Disease Control asserts that parks and nature have potential for improving and maintaining physical, mental and social components of the health of children and adults."

A nationwide survey study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2004 found that exposure to natural settings in after-school and weekend activities significantly reduced the symptoms of ADHD in children ages 5 to 18 who had been diagnosed with the disease. Green outdoor activities reduced symptoms significantly more than did activities were matched across settings. The study authors suggested that daily doses of "green time" could alleviate or reduce symptoms of ADHD.

For the Workplace

Environmental education can provide hands-on environmental learning experiences that translate into job skills - whether or not this knowledge applies to a career in science. Charles O. Holliday Jr., chairman and former CEO of DuPont, declared 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 workforce, particularly involving environmental principles."

For the Community

Environmental literacy gives individuals the tools to be good stewards of the environment in their neighborhoods and communities. Educated citizens are vital engines for addressing, preventing and solving local environmental problems - be it through monitoring local streams for pollution or participating in strategic planning for sustainable development. Environmental education also frequently spurs interest and participation in public service and leadership projects with multiple beneficiaries, e.g., schools, faith-based organizations, public parks, impoverished neighborhoods, senior citizens.

The Definition, Principles and Goals of Environmental Education

The field of environmental education owes its origins to two United Nations-sponsored meetings held in the 1970s and the two seminal documents that emerged. The International Workshop on Environmental Education, held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1975, produced the Belgrade Charter, which stated a single goal for environmental education. In 1977, delegates to the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education in Tbilisi, Georgia (USSR) built on the Belgrade foundation in adopting the Tblisi Declaration.

The Belgrade Charter states a single goal of environmental education:

To develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.

The Tblisi Declaration expressed three broad goals for environmental education:

1. Foster clear awareness of, and concern about, economic, social, political and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas.

2. Provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment.

3. Create new patterns of behavior among individuals, groups and society as a whole toward the environment.

According to the Tblisi principles, environmental education should:

  • Consider the environment in its totality - natural and built, technological and social (economic, political, cultural-historical, ethical, aesthetic).
  • Be a continuous lifelong process, beginning at the pre-school level and continuing through all formal and nonformal stages.
  • Be interdisciplinary in its approach, drawing on the specific content of each discipline in making possible a holistic and balanced perspective.
  • Examine major environmental issues from local, national, regional and international points of view so that students receive insights into environmental conditions in other geographical areas.
  • Focus on current and potential environmental situations while taking into account the historical perspective.
  • Promote the value and necessity of local, national and international cooperation in the prevention and solution of environmental problems.
  • Explicitly consider environmental aspects in plans for development and growth.
  • Enable learners to have a role in planning their learning experiences and provide an opportunity for making decisions and accepting their consequences.
  • Relate environmental sensitivity, knowledge, problem-solving skills and values clarification to every age, but with special emphasis on environmental sensitivity to the learner's own community in early years.
  • Help learners discover the symptoms and real causes of environmental problems.
  • Emphasize the complexity of environmental problems about thus the need to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Utilize diverse learning environments and a broad array of educational approaches to teaching, learning about and from the environment with due stress on practical activities and firsthand experience.
Key Characteristics of Environmental Education
  • Relates to an environmental topic or issues
  • Uses the outdoors as a learning environment
  • Is a lifelong learning process
  • Is interdisciplinary and draws upon many fields of study and learning
  • Is relevant to the needs, interests and motivations of the learner
  • Is based on accurate and factual information
  • Presents information in a balanced, unbiased manner
  • Inspires critical thinking and decision-making
  • Motivates people to take responsible action
  • Improves learner achievement and outcomes
What Are the Components of Environmental Education
  • Awareness and sensitivity to the environment and environmental challenges
  • Knowledge and understanding of the environment and environmental challenges
  • Attitudes of concern for the environment and motivation to improve or maintain environmental quality
  • Skills to identify and help resolve environmental challenges

Participation in activities that lead to the resolution of environmental challenges (UNESCO, 1978)

Distinction between information, outreach and environmental education

From U.S. EPA:

Environmental information and outreach may be important elements of EE projects, but these activities by themselves are not environmental education.

By itself, environmental information only addresses awareness and knowledge, usually about a particular environmental issue. Outreach involves information dissemination and requests or suggestions for action on a particular issue (often without the critical thinking, problem solving and decision making steps in between). EE covers the range of steps and activities from awareness to action with an ultimate goal of environmental stewardship. Below are definitions of these and other terms.

(1) “Environmental Education (EE)” increases public awareness and knowledge about environmental issues and provides the participants in its programs the skills necessary to make informed environmental decisions and to take responsible actions. EE is based on objective and scientifically-sound information, and does not advocate a particular viewpoint or a course of action. EE teaches individuals how to weigh various sides of an issue through critical thinking and enhances their own problem solving and decision making skills on environmental topics.

(2) “Environmental Information” provides facts or opinions about environmental issues or problems. Information is essential to any educational effort. However, environmental information is not, by itself, environmental education. Information provides facts or opinions whereas education teaches people how to think, analyze, and solve problems.

(3) “Environmental Outreach” disseminates information and sometimes asks audiences to take specific action, but doesn’t necessarily teach people how to analyze an issue. Outreach often presents a particular point of view, and often in pursuit of a particular goal. Examples may include a community meeting to inform residents about a toxic site in their area and where they can go for help, or a campaign to get volunteer participants for a beach or stream cleanup event.

(4) “Environmental Stewardship” is voluntary commitment, behavior, and action that results in environmental protection or improvement. Stewardship refers to an acceptance of personal responsibility for actions to improve environmental quality and to achieve sustainable outcomes. Stewardship involves lifestyles and business practices, initiatives and actions that enhance the state of the environment. Some examples are: living or conducting business in such a way as to minimize or eliminate pollution at its source; use energy and natural resources efficiently; decrease the use of hazardous chemicals; recycle wastes effectively; and conserve or restore forests, prairies, wetlands, rivers, and urban parks. Stewardship can be practiced by individuals, groups, schools, organizations, companies, communities, and state and local governments.

Check out the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation's EE Resources at a Glance

Environmental Education Plan

See North Carolina's Environmental Education Plan for sources information for the sections above.