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Environmental Education Research

Research on EE for Schools

Most of environmental education research is devoted to the effectiveness of different strategies on changing environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. However the Alameda County Waste Management Authority and Source Reduction and Recycling Board commissioned a study in 2006 to review the literature on the impact of environmentally-related education on academic achievement (Norman et al. 2006). 

The researchers reviewed 24 original research studies, including theses and dissertations.  They categorized papers based on two relevance criteria: 1) changes in academic achievement measured by widely-used standardized tests in core curriculum areas: writing, reading, math, science or social studies; and 2) programs delivered as part of a K-12 program.

Studies were also categorized based on whether they met five research quality criteria: 1) a randomized or other technique to avoid group bias; 2) peer review with a description of intervention and participants; 3) at least 300 students or 50 classrooms/schools; 4) valid outcome measures (standardized tests); and 5) statistical tests on significance of impact.

Eight of the reviewed studies met all the criteria. Of these, seven showed positive outcomes for students who received environmental education (2 in writing/language arts, 2 in reading, 3 in math). One study showed no impact (science) and one showed a slight negative impact (reading). (results do not sum because some studies covered more than one subject). 

Twelve studies met some but not all of the criteria. Of these, eleven showed positive outcomes for students who received environmental education (2 in writing/language arts, 1 in reading, 3 in math, 3 in science and 2 in social studies). One study showed a negative impact (math).

While not as definitive, the remaining studies found improvements in attendance, behavior, retention, increased enthusiasm for learning, greater pride of ownership, increased interest in reading and "greater volumes of higher quality writing".

The study summary included these findings --

and these recommendations --

Norman, N., A. Jennings, L. Wahl.  2006. The impact of environmentally related education on academic achievement. Community Resources for Science. accessed: September 20, 2011

(Note - the study included both elementary and upper grades)


What Works Clearinghouse - This site reviews education studies and looking for those that use randomized clinical trials (like medicine!) of various educational strategies, policies, and resources - The reviews are conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences in Department of Education. Find out what really works and what doesn't. Sampling below....

This page summarizes research findings about EE

Changing learner behavior through environmental education. 1990. H. Hungerford and T. Volk. J. Environmental Education 21(3): 8-21. %20volk.htm
Methods: Surveys
Findings: Major variables in changing behavior: Entry - sensitivity; Ownership - in-depth knowledge about issue; personal investment ; Empowerment - knowledge of and skill in using environmental action strategies, locus of control. Minor Variables in changing behavior: knowledge of ecology; attitudes toward pollution, technology, and economics; knowledge of the consequences of behavior- both positive and negative; A personal commitment to issue resolution


Beyond praying for earthquakes: What works in environmental education. 1998. J. Glover and L. Deckert. Parks and Recreation November
Methods: Review of studies to-date on effective EE
Findings: Role of parks and nature centers: Get young people in natural areas as often as possible for as long as possible to develop environmental sensitivity; Get people away from tv; Go beyond nature study - get them to think about issues close to home and how collective actions relate to those issues; Conduct workshops on skill development - build confidence in making a difference; Support programs that emphasize concern about welfare of others - income, education, concern for others best predictors of action; Interpretive programs should emphasize ownership and empowerment  - visitors are ready for serious talk about issues and citizen action


Closing the achievement gap: Using environment as an integrating context. 1998. G. A. Lieberman and L.L. Hoody. State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER)
Methods:40 study schools, interviews with > 400 students, 250 teachers and administrators, 4 surveys, comparison of standardized test scores, GPAs and attitude measures - 14 schools compared data from EIC and traditional students - 36/39 comparisons (92%)
Findings:Observed benefits - better performance on standardized tests in reading, writing, math, science and social studies; Reduced discipline and classroom management problems; Increased engagement and enthusiasm for learning; Greater pride and ownership in accomplishments. For 2/3 where traditional schools did better, it was in math which was not incorporated into EIC program. Using the environment as an integrating context means 1) using a relevant context - local resources, situations and issues, 2) tackling demanding questions (usually initiated by students after an initial prompt), 3) using interactive approaches, 4) having a learner orientation 5) using authentic assessments (reports, letters, ordinances, bills, grants), and 6) having an integrated, interdisciplinary, collaborative approach


Outdoor education and environmental responsibility. 1998. R. Yerkes and K. Haras. Clearinghous on Rural Education and Small Schools, Charleson W. V. Eric Digest
Methods: Review of literature on what makes effective environmental education
Findings: What does not work: Lectures, excessive moralizing, externally derived codes of conduct, adults setting  conduct agenda, teachers/leaders as authoritarian figures What does: autonomous student behavior, focus on problem solving, developing and using env. action skills, focusing on specific environmental issues, case studies, field trips, community inventory projects, community action projects + small group discussion, dilemma discussions, role playing, use of role models & Mentors, participation in community clubs, peer teaching, concrete environmentally positive, action-oriented experiences, relevant context, long term involvement, support, follow up and reinforcement by role models, community, service learning, interdisciplinary, problem-based methods, allow for cooperation, reflection


Environment-based education: Creating high performance schools and students. 2000. NEETF.
Methods: Case studies of seven elementary schools that adopted environment based education (EBE)
Findings: Reading, math, science and social studies scores improved, discipline problems were reduced, every child had an opportunity to learn at a high level - includes summary of factors influencing achievement


Environmental education: Improving student performance. 2003. Bartosh. Master's Thesis
Methods: 77 pairs (pairing based on census data) of schools in Washington state, EE program for at least 3 yrs vs no EE Washington Stds of Learning Test and Iowa Basic
Findings: Schools that used EE had consistently higher scores, no EE schools had lower scores, EE/non EE Schools - Math Scores 44.6/41.1; Reading Scores 63.3/61.2; Writing Scores 47.1/43.7; Listening Scores 76.4/75.1; Reading ITBS 63.2/60.7; Math ITBS 65.8/63.5. Teachers in EE schools used outdoor areas more, had more training, had more support from administration and parents and see more value in EE


Effects of outdoor education programs for children in California. 2005. American Institute for Research.
Methods: 255 6th graders from 4 schools who attended 3 outdoor schools - at risk kids, 1 week certified programs, kids attending in spring were controls for kids attending in fall
Findings: Outdoor schools students significantly higher cooperation, conflict resolution, self esteem, peer relationships, problem solving, motivations, behavior, compared to control students


Report card on status of environmental education in Washington state. 2004. B. MacGregor and L. Prado. Audubon Washington
Methods: Two years of statewide meetings, community surveys and one on one meetings as well as evaluation of scores on standardized tests
Findings: Students in schools using ee consistently score higher on standardized tests than students in schools without ee and have more support from parents, community and administration.


Improving test scores through environmental education: Is it possible? 2006 O. Bartosh, et. al. Applied Environmental Education and Communication 5(3):161-169 UhexoxYZfdk
Methods: Compared student achievement in math, reading and writing within and between 40  EIC and traditonal schools
Findings: Schools with integrated EE programs outperform non-EE schools on standardized tests - also significant increases in student and teacher enthusiasm, and decreases in behavioral problems


Changing minds: the lasting impact of school trips. 2006. A. Peacock.
Methods: Evaluation of UK National Trust Guardianship Scheme - practical activities that support Natural Curriculum, first hand involvement, connecting with local env, using Nat Trust sites - muliple vists to one site - former students interviewed evaluate learning using Generic Learning Outcomes, 8 sites
Findings: Students - increased fun, increased motivation to protect environment, increased local pride, resenting disrespect, increased social skills, increased understanding & management of env, acquiring and using skills - gardening, microscopes, making things;  Little or no impact on  larger issues or subject choice; Most effective - early & sustained engagement, parental and community involvement


Integrating horticulture biology and environmental coastal issued into the middle school science curriculum. 2009. Karsh, K. et al. HortTechnology 19(4):813-817
Methods: Experimental and control groups at 4 Louisiana schools, experimental groups received 8 additional horticulture lessons
Findings: Students who received the horticulture lessons improved their post-test scores by 11.4 points (P <= 0.05) in the first year and 25.07 points (P <= 0.0001) in the second year of the study. Significant increases in individual lessons were found both years. In the second year, students who received the lessons were more aware of their role in the environment than those who did not receive the additional lessons (P <= 0.01). The addition of horticulture lessons to the middle school curriculum enhanced student knowledge and stewardship of the environment.