What are the learning goals of environmental education? How are they best accomplished? How do they support the broader goals of improving students’ STEM skills?
Students have an innate curiosity – even wonder – about the natural world around them. Environmental education (EE) taps into their enthusiasm and provides them the knowledge and skills to solve 21st-century challenges. Early connection with the environment also equips students to make everyday decisions that improve the quality of their lives and the health of our planet.
The goals of EE can be accomplished well through project-based learning and hands-on exploration of the outdoors. Local, place-based environmental projects provide relevant learning experiences for students and an opportunity to make a meaningful difference in their communities.
Through EE, students learn not only STEM content, but also develop the critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills that are critical for success in STEM careers where substantial growth is expected. Further, studies indicate that young people who experience the natural world and have more opportunities to play and learn within it are more likely to choose science or related fields as careers.
What are the opportunities and obstacles to introducing students to environmental education?
While field trips and opportunities to explore nature centers and other nonformal education settings are valuable to sparking interest and deeper knowledge about the environment, lack of time and resources can make it challenging for teachers to provide those opportunities. Increasingly, schools are investing in enriching the more accessible laboratories for learning that exist right outside the classroom door, in a nearby park, the schoolyard, school garden -- even the school building itself. Recognizing the national priority on successfully engaging more students in STEM, significantly more environmental science content is being integrated across multiple disciplines. There are expanded opportunities within the new Next Generation Science Standards to emphasize science learning through an environmental context, through content on human impacts on the natural world.
What do policymakers and decision makers need to know when thinking about STEM learning and environmental education?
Research and survey findings indicate young people have a strong interest in the environment. Total employment in STEM jobs is expected to increase by twice as much as all other jobs by 2018 and environmental science jobs are expected to grow by 25% by 2016 – the fastest among the sciences. Sources and additional statistics can be found in the new Tech & Our Planet infographic.
In 2011 the U.S. Department of Education developed the Green Ribbon Schools recognition award, which honors schools that are exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving the health and wellness of students and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM, civic skills and green career pathways. This year, as part of National Environmental Education Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did a PSA that speaks to the important connection between EE and STEM.
Submitted by Jennifer Tabola, senior director of education, National Environmental Education Foundation