The Case for Environmental Education
Just as service learning has been proven an effective way for students to learn, develop valuable skills and retain concepts, the utilization of environmental education in the classroom as a “connecting thread” or context for other academic disciplines has also been shown to be educationally beneficial.
In its 2002 publication, Education & The Environment/Strategic Initiatives for Enhancing Education in California, the California Department of Education made several important points about the key to excellence in education. “A main element, generally agreed on, is that integrating subjects aids learning. For that reason, integrated education and cross-subject instructional materials have proliferated.”
The report concludes that environmental education can be used effectively to connect many subjects within curriculum. “[It] pulls together the existing curriculum into a sensible and tangible whole. Learning parallels the ‘real world’ by combining academic disciplines (English and language arts, mathematics, science, history and social science, visual and performing arts) in investigating the local environment, defining and assessing issues, and creating and communicating solutions.”
Environmental education also...
- Emphasizes depth of understanding over breadth, as determined by a joint study published in 2000 by two major environmental education organizations.1 The study showed that students involved in environmental education efforts improve math and reading scores, perform better in science and social studies, are more fully able to transfer their familiar learning into unfamiliar contexts, and learn to "do science," rather than just "learn about science."
- Utilizes group work, a skill critical in higher grades and in the workforce. In 1999 the National Business Education Association noted that it seeks "employees who can work in teams, create analytical reports, interpret data and make decisions," all skills developed through environmental service learning.
- Cultivates critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, as students measure what they learn in the classroom against real-world situations, a continuous feedback loop that promotes flexibility, teamwork and leadership.
- Nurtures community involvement and active citizenship—the backbone of our democratic government. The Western Governors’ Association has declared, "Beginning with the nation's youth, people need to understand their relationship with the environment. They need to understand the importance of sustaining and enhancing their surroundings for themselves and future generations. If we are able to achieve a healthy environment, it will be because citizens understand that a healthy environment is critical to the social and economic health of the nation." Environmental service learning projects strengthen students' relationship to community, and make them want to be active participants in creating meaningful change.
A March 2000 study2 funded by the California Department of Education paired eight conventionally structured California schools with eight demographically similar schools that had reorganized their curriculum to use the environment as an integrating context for learning. These latter schools used proven educational practices, but emphasized the local community and natural surroundings as the primary venue for learning. Students in the schools using the environment-based model earned higher scores on standardized tests than their counterparts in more traditional settings.
 Lieberman, G., & Hoody, L. (2000). California Student Assessment Project: The Effects of Environment-based Education on Student Achievement. San Diego California: State Education & Environment Roundtable.