December 2, 2022
Does environmental education change behavior?
Rena Kingery

YEP! students remove invasive English ivy from a Douglas fir tree in Larabee State Park, as part of a program in designing and leading climate action and stewardship projects. (RE Sources courtesy photo)

December 2, 2022
Does environmental education change behavior?
Rena Kingery

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Drew Collins remembers celebrating the first Earth Day in his middle school. Each day of that week, his teachers showed videos describing how water, air and noise pollution were poisoning the planet.

“It had a profound impact on me for the rest of my life,” said Collins, a nature photographer and videographer based in North Seattle.

Now in his 60s, Collins brings his underwater visuals to classrooms and companies with his nonprofit Made in Puget Sound. His goal is to instill in people an appreciation for aquatic life within the south-central Salish Sea and invite them to protect this unique ecosystem.

The first Earth Day in 1970 is widely regarded as the American government’s awakening to widespread environmental destruction and pollution and a need to address the issue with legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed that year, and in 1990 Congress signed the National Environmental Education Act, which aimed to increase environmental literacy across the country. Washington state’s K–12 environmental education requirements and resources are collected under its Environmental and Sustainability Literacy Plan.

More than three decades after environmental education became a nationwide goal, school curricula, statewide education programs and nonprofits such as Made in Puget Sound are more widespread than ever. And according to research, the effects on behavior have been profound, if difficult to measure. All around the Salish Sea, education leaders work to empower youth and adults to take action that will sustain the ecosystem for generations to come.

A positive outlook

The people who make it happen: participants in an environmental leadership program provide the energy, skills and work to create change and promote sustainable behaviors. (RE Sources courtesy photo)

As the education specialist for RE Sources, Cambry Baker coordinates the Youth for the Environment and People (YEP!) program, which creates opportunities for students to design and lead climate action and stewardship projects. But, she said, her work is not just about promoting sustainable behaviors and attitudes.

“It’s more about changing how students think about the climate problem,” she said. 

Baker and her team act as facilitators, but the participants do the work to make the project a reality. The 2020–21 cohort centered their efforts on environmental justice, creating upcycled bags and filling them with food for Northwest Youth Services. They also built a website that provided COVID-19 resources and information about how environmental injustices contribute to disparities in COVID-19 cases across racial and socioeconomic lines.

During one lesson with her YEP! students, Baker asked the group to think about the two different stories being told about climate change: the alarming narrative of species loss and environmental degradation, and the hopeful narrative of solutions and action. 

“At the end of the lesson, as students were reflecting on it, one student…sat back and she was like, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever felt hopeful.’ That, to me, is a huge takeaway,” Baker said, adding that research shows a direct link between feeling hopeful about climate change and taking environmental action.

Inclusivity and accessibility

With its roots in social and environmental justice, YEP! is not only changing climate outlooks but also reaching students that might not initially be drawn to environmental education, said Baker.

“I had one student who was really passionate about queer rights, and they joined Yep! and [didn’t] have much of a background working in climate change,” she said. “But they saw it was about social justice and wanted to be a part of it.”

Unlike many opt-in environmental education programs, YEP! is free, and participants even receive a small stipend for their contributions. Environmental education developers and practitioners have increasingly sought ways to make informal learning experiences more accessible and inclusive to students from all backgrounds.

Lucy DeGrace is the outreach manager for Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, a nonprofit that runs classroom and community environmental education programs. Part of her job is ensuring programs are accessible and free for all students. 

When an environmental education lesson or field trip is embedded in school curricula, “every student who’s involved with a program is going to get the same experience and exposure to a positive nature-based experience,” DeGrace said.

One SFEG program called Salmon in the Classroom allows students to raise salmon fry from eggs and release them into a local stream. DeGrace often meets older students and adults who “light up” when they speak about their experience rearing salmon in their school.

From the north end of the Strait of Georgia to the south end of Puget Sound and west through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, environmental educators are working to inform and inspire action to sustain the ecosystem. (Map of the Salish Sea and surrounding basin, Stefan Freeman, WWU, 2009)

“It’s this incredible, teachable moment for hands-on experience with salmon,” said DeGrace. “There aren’t that many chances to hold a salmon egg and a juvenile salmon, and it’s thrilling.”

Inspiring and evaluating change

DeGrace, Baker and Collins admit that it’s difficult to measure the impact they’re having on behavior and environmental knowledge. Most programs, including SFEG, use before-and-after surveys to understand how the experience changed the participants’ understanding of environmental issues. DeGrace usually sees a 60 to 80% increase in students’ environmental knowledge after participating in an SFEG program, she said.

But other outcomes are less tangible.

Justine Asohmbom turned the heat up in her house one day, only to find that her son immediately turned it down. When she asked him why, he mentioned learning about the problems of energy consumption in his school’s environmental education program.

“Whoever did this program will not understand the impact, how that knowledge has come all the way to me,” said Asohmbom.

Asohmbom sympathized with her son’s educators because part of her job as education outreach coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology is evaluating the impact of environmental education campaigns on sustainable behaviors. She has helped develop, implement and assess community programs and school curricula that teach youth and adults the importance of taking care of Puget Sound.

The future of community environmental education, she said, is social marketing.

“It’s been a game changer,” Asohmbom said, adding that they used to simply write and distribute educational brochures. “It is the best way to do educational outreach and the best way to do behavior change programs.”

Community-based social marketing uses direct contact with community members to encourage pro-environmental behaviors. For example, Ecology’s Don’t Drip and Drive campaign which began in 2010 was designed to decrease toxic fluid leaks from vehicles. When it rains, these toxins, along with fertilizers, pesticides and abandoned pet waste, mix with stormwater, which drains directly into rivers, lakes and the Salish Sea. One-third of Washington’s waterways are unsafe for drinking, recreating or growing shellfish because of stormwater pollution.

Asohmbom and her team researched a target audience for the Don’t Drip and Drive campaign and reached out to them to understand barriers to repairing leaks. Based on community feedback, they partnered with auto shops to provide free inspections and discounted repairs and held free workshops to help people identify leaks, learn about the importance of fixing them and find a trustworthy mechanic. The interagency team estimated that nearly 4,000 vehicle leaks were repaired because of the pilot program, and the campaign continues to reach drivers across the state.

As part of its social marketing strategy, Ecology partnered with federal, state, local, tribal and nonprofit organizations to create Puget Sound Starts Here. The website provides information on little changes every person can make to protect Washington’s waterways, such as practicing natural lawn care and cleaning up pet waste. Its tone is hopeful and solutions-focused, the kind of environmental education that, Baker said, leads to climate action.

It might be impossible to measure the extent to which Earth Day and environmental education have swayed the public toward sustainable behaviors. But people like Collins, who experienced a shift in his own mindset half a century ago, believe the power of environmental education is undeniable.

“I like working with teens and kids because they know, just like when I was a kid a thousand years ago, if something bothers you, you can make a difference,” Collins said. “And I believe they will.”

— Reported by Rena Kingery

[Editor’s note: See reader comments on our Letters to the Editor page.]

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