Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II   Section III   Section IV   Section V


Assure that Environmental Education is Centered on Science


" and education are important allies in preserving the environment. ...a solid grasp of science and ecology is indeed the first step toward a cleaner world." William J. Clinton, 18 October 1997


"We will propose [that] the schools and students of the world ... study environmental information on a daily basis..."

Albert Gore, Jr., 21 March 1994

The natural world provides a host of goods and services that are used every day by every human being, and yet there is an alarming lack of understanding among the public that this is so. An electorate that does not understand the natural world or the nature of the tradeoffs that must be made in managing it wisely and sustainably cannot make informed decisions. Communities that do not have an understanding of the workings of the ecosystems within which they live will be unable to function as responsible stewards, and will thereby too often cause and suffer from losses of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The National Biological Information Infrastructure described in the previous section will make all manner of biodiversity and ecosystems information available to the voting populace as well as to governments. The recipients of that information, however, will need some fundamental knowledge in order to apply the information wisely and effectively. This knowledge must come from both formal classroom and informal education.

There are many benefits that come from investments in education: a more informed populace, high cost-effectiveness, and more scientifically literate citizens. Informal education is very cost effective, and people enjoy learning informally because they have control over the timing and topics (without tests and grades). When people enjoy educational experiences, they value the lessons more and remember them longer, and they are more motivated to seek further learning.  

Increase opportunities for informal and participatory education about biodiversity and ecosystems, for student-scientist interactions, and for continuing education for K-12 teachers.

Student-scientist partnerships such as those engendered by the school-based Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program are an extremely valuable activity that benefits not only the students' educational experience but also the scientific projects themselves. There are many organizations that promote this sort of interaction both within government agencies and in the private sector. Some partnerships of this type have expanded to include the participation of community groups, museums, Federal agencies, and city, state and county governments. An example is the two-year-old "Chicago Wilderness" project. This community effort to document and restore the wild areas in and around the city of Chicago is coordinated by the Field Museum of Natural History, US Forest Service, and US Fish & Wildlife Service, but also involves 50 or more non-governmental organizations and more than 5,000 individuals. Persons of all ages work side by side with scientists from the Museum and the agencies, learning about and contributing to the welfare of the environment at the same time.

Similar projects should be started around the country in cities that have natural history museums or botanic gardens to provide the scientists; offices of the Forest Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, or National Park Service to provide initial funding; and concerned citizens to provide the leadership and organization. There are many Americans who stand ready to improve the environment that they will leave to their children and grandchildren. The efforts of the Federal offices in Chicago should be commended and also emulated wherever possible. Scientists should be commended for interacting with the public. And, grant programs to support such partnership activities would go far to encourage more scientists to participate.

Informal education in museums, science centers, zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens and like institutions has long been recognized as one of the most effective means for helping people of all ages understand and learn about science. This is because the informal context allows individuals to find something of personal value that they wish to learn about, and then provides them with an entry into the information on that topic. The learning that takes place in informal settings is extremely cost effective. Each year, 130 million people gain new insights in natural settings in US national parks. The pricetag is less than $1.00 per visit to visitor center displays, walks and campfire talks provided by the National Park Service. The National Museum of Natural History is one of the most popular visitor sites on the National Mall in Washington , DC, but it (and all other natural history institutions in the country) are underfunded in comparison to their needs and to their popularity.

The expenditures of the government on informal education are very modest, and should be increased to meet demand. For instance, many people are turned away from National Park Service and other interpretive programs every year because there is insufficient space to accomodate all of those who are interested. Museums require additional funding to maintain interactive exhibits, which often wear out before their planned expiration because the positive response of visitors to the exhibits exceeds the capacity to maintain them. Nature centers and exhibits on public lands are all in need of maintenance and expansion to serve the public's desire to know about nature. There are various mechanisms that the Federal government can use to increase support of informal education, such as increasing budget lines in agencies that have programs in these areas and providing grants to state and private institutions to increase their efforts in these areas.

Teacher-training opportunities in settings other than colleges of education can provide K-12 teachers with skills that they can use in the formal classroom. Science and Technology Centers, Long-Term Ecological Research sites, the National Park Service, natural history museums, and botanical gardens, etc., all offer teacher training opportunities in between school semesters that provide teachers with skills and lesson plans that they can take into their classrooms. These are most effective when facilitators from the training institution follow up with the teachers, observing them when they present these new lessons for the first time and providing feedback. One such project conducted by a Science and Technology Center over the course of two years reached 55 teachers, and through them 1,500 students, at a cost of approximately $150,000. The project was co-funded by a grant to the center and by the schools that employed the teachers, and its success was demonstrated when these teachers' students achieved higher exam scores over the period of the project. The apparent cost of $100 per student is actually less over the long term, as the same teachers re-use the skills they have acquired.

Increasing investments in professional development for teachers of the type described above will quickly reach students with scientifically sound environmental education (see next section), and can be done in partnership between governmental levels (Federal and local). The Eisenhower Professional Development Federal Activities program for math and science is already in place, and is developing certification frameworks for 25 teaching fields. One of these should be specifically directed at environmental education as an interdisciplinary area that integrates the social and behavioral sciences with mathematics and the natural sciences. The Eisenhower Professional Development State Grants funnel $250 million per year to the states to improve education in science and mathematics. Environment, as a field of integrative science, should be a focus for the improvements made with these funds.

Funding for continuing teacher development in content and skills for environmental education is fully justifiable, and should be increased sufficiently to reach at least 10,000 teachers per year (and through them 250,000 to 300,000 students in any given year). This can be done by restoring funds within the Eisenhower Professional Development Federal Activities Program for grants in this area to 1995 levels, and by increasing National Science Foundation (NSF) teacher enhancement funding in the area of environmental education. Also, grant funds from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Informal Science Education program of the NSF should be elevated to increase capacity and number of sites (museums, botanical gardens and the like) that provide professional development opportunities for teachers, in conjunction with the Department of Education's Eisenhower Mathematics and Science Regional Consortia. Investments in education are generally rewarding, and are always needed as new students enter school, new teachers enter the workforce, and as individuals discover new interests. The success of the sorts of programs we are recommending here can be measured only in part by increasing student test scores. It is more likely that informal educational experiences will generate an increased understanding of environmental principles by the public. For students, such lessons from informal education will be reinforced by school-based instruction. We believe that greater environmental science literacy will lead to more informed voting, and ultimately to better stewardship of our nation's living capital.

Take steps to establish an "Environmental Science Curriculum Study" to produce texts, other learning tools, and teacher preparation materials for the Nation's schools and colleges.  

Environmental education must be based in science. Unfortunately, in the past some instruction and instructors have not adhered to this principle. Instead, some single-interest groups have widely advertised biased views, and some communities have become polarized by conflict between the need for jobs and the needs of species. Environmental education has devolved all too often into emotional environmentalism (or emotional anti-environmentalism).

Education to understand the relationship between society and the biosphere should draw from the sociological, geological, geographic, meteorological, chemical, physical, ecological, taxonomic, and economic sciences. Unfortunately, as has been noted in recent reports by groups from both the political right and the political left, much of the curricular and textual material available for use in America's schools does not include such a balance. Many of America's teachers are not themselves equipped with the knowledge and skills to work beyond the limitations of the materials at hand, or to choose the best from among the materials that are available. And, making matters worse, many school districts in this country completely exclude environmental education of any sort from the curricula for their K-12 students.

There are several publications that peripherally address the issue of curricular development for environmental education. The North American Association for Environmental Education has published "Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for Excellence" (1996). This document encourages teachers to look for fairness and accuracy, depth, emphasis on skills building, instructional soundness and logic in teaching materials. However, the document is written from an activist perspective rather than the empirically driven perspective of science. The National Science Teachers Association, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, is developing a "Global Environmental Change Series" which begins with a unit on "Biodiversity." This booklet brings biology together with economic realities and expresses these in a manner that can be understood by and builds the skills of students. But it is one study unit for a workshop or high-school classroom, not a curriculum. The National Academy of Sciences has produced (1995) a set of National Science Education Standards. These cover the breadth of the teaching of science, the training of teachers, and the assessment of science education, but do not address curricula specific to environmental education.

This Panel believes that America's schools should provide future voters with a logical basis and scientific skills for making choices among alternative ways to manage the Nation's natural capital. Further, this education should be incorporated throughout a student's years in school, including college, and should be taught according to a balanced scientific curriculum. However, because it is beyond the scope of this Panel's charge to develop such a curriculum, we recommend that the Administration take steps to establish an "Environmental Sciences Curriculum Study," or ESCS.

The ESCS of our vision would be patterned on and parallel to the highly successful BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study), which has been the source of high-quality teaching materials and teacher-instruction materials for the biological sciences in America's schools since 1958. The BSCS is constantly updating and upgrading the texts it produces, which it publishes in several versions to allow teachers and school districts a choice among alternative methods and perspectives. Application of the curriculum- and materials-development methods used by the BSCS would enable the ESCS to bring a much needed scientific rigor to environmental education, allow inclusion of the many scientific disciplines that must be integrated when considering environmental questions, and enable presentation of an equitably balanced view of biodiversity, ecosystems and society.

The availability of such curricula and materials would mitigate the resistance to environmental education that occurs in a great many school districts. This resistance probably occurs for a number of reasons, but two of the main ones are lack of teachers prepared to teach scientific principles in this context, and the tendency toward emotionalism and activism found in so many texts that are not grounded in real data and clear thinking. In the absence of the text and curriculum development that we recommend here, a very large percentage of America's future voters will be deprived of the tools they will need to fully participate in choices about how the Nation's natural capital will be managed. As has been said so succinctly by Presidential Science Adviser Dr. John Gibbons, "Since when is ignorance a promising route to deliverance?"

The preparation of this report was supported by a partnership among The George Gund Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, IBM, Lucent Technologies, the National Science Foundation, the Environmenal Protection Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Cover  Introduction   Section I   Section II   Section III   Section IV   Section V

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