As we enter a new century and millennium, environmental educators must come up with new knowledge and techniques that address the demands of a constantly evolving social and technological landscape, while ensuring that environmental education stays relevant to the needs and interests of the community. These challenges to environmental education require that we reexamine the way we do research and train environmental professionals and educators, as well as the way we communicate environmental information to the general public.

Great strides have already been made in strengthening environmental education for the general public. This is particularly true in terms of defining environmental education and its objectives (Ruskey and Wilkie 1994). In the past few years, the North American Association for Environmental Educators has spearheaded an effort to develop mechanisms both to strengthen standards for environmental education and to make it possible to achieve them. A solid base for environmental education already exists. In the United States, there are many leaders in the field, and these individuals have had an extraordinary impact on environmental education. There is also a plethora of organizations and material available for all age groups and most learning situations (see the box on p. 287), which can be incorporated in broad-based environmental education efforts to meet diverse needs. As scientists and educators, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to utilize and expand this resource base.

The way we plan today for public education on the environment will have dramatic effects on the future quality of life. Effective and meaningful environmental education is a challenge we must take seriously if we and future generations are to enjoy the benefits of our natural heritage. This article identifies some of the current and future challenges to environmental education in the United States and offers suggestions on how best to address them. Although some of the examples and education models involve freshwater systems, the concepts behind the educational strategies can be applied to most other environmental settings. Some of the information presented here may be applicable in other countries struggling with the challenges of environmental education.

Managing complexity and valuing science

Environmental problems have become increasingly difficult to understand and to evaluate, yet environmental issues are more often expressed in “sound bites” than explained by sound reasoning. Moreover, reasonable treatment of environmental concerns often falls prey to the political agendas of those who have a vested interest in an unsustainable, resource-extractive approach to economic development. The challenge, then, is to express the complexity of modern environmental issues in ways that are understandable and inviting, and at the same time to ensure that science continues to play an important role in explaining and evaluating environmental issues and in forging solutions to environmental problems.

For example, there is a large gap between what members of the general public hear and what they understand about environmental problems related to aquatic resources. Everyone knows that Americans are concerned about safe drinking water. However, a survey conducted by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) showed that only “about one in four American adults knows that the leading cause of water pollution is surface water running off the land, from farm fields to city streets” (NEETF 1997). In referring to “Consumer Confidence Reports” that will soon be provided by water companies and utilities, NEETF reports that “even if the bill-payer reads the report, its technical nature may be daunting” (NEETF 1997).

Nor does the gap narrow for other environmental issues. Some measure of scientific acuity is necessary for comprehending these issues, and there is some evidence that the United States lags behind other industrialized countries in science and math education. As an article on the “ABCs of Science Education” reports, “Even our best and brightest are falling behind—the top scoring 20% of US eighth graders are taught what seventh graders are taught in high-scoring nations” (Tibbets 1997–1998..

Moreover, at times there have been efforts to “dumb down” the existing scientific underpinnings of environmental knowledge as a means of advancing an agenda that depends on an unsustainable, resource-extractive approach to economic development. This movement attacks environmental education almost across the board, claiming that the loss of biological diversity, declining health of aquatic resources, and human-induced climate change, among other issues, are not worth worrying about. The general thrust of these contrarian attacks is that there is no science behind the environmental concerns shared by a majority of the American public; additionally, the argument goes, environmental education materials that fail to point this out are unduly biased (Manilov and Schwarz 1996–1997). Although this anti-ecoeducation movement has abated somewhat, it will always be a critical factor in shaping environmental education in the United States.

Environmental education must teach about science itself and about the use of the scientific method—an important supplement to belief systems and value judgments—to help evaluate and respond to environmental threats. Educational materials that omit the important role of science and the general rules of scientific inquiry are damaging to the field of environmental education.

The need to include science in educational efforts does not, however, excuse educators from the obligation to communicate in an understandable way that invites further inquiry from those who might be intimidated by scientifically complex subjects. The case of Pfiesteria is a good example. When the first reports came out about the effects of Pfiesteria on fish stocks and humans in and around the Chesapeake Bay and coastal North Carolina, this toxic organism quickly became a hot-button issue discussed in the form of sound bites in a variety of media sources. Those who knew the most about the subject (including JoAnn Burkholder, internationally recognized expert on Pfiesteria) struggled valiantly both to express the problem in understandable terms and to identify areas of certainty and uncertainty. The National Wildlife Federation also became deeply involved in the issue; coverage in the organization's magazine and in activist materials was objective, backed by science, and communicated in understandable terms and, perhaps most important, in ways that invited further inquiry (Broad 1997, Carroll 1998, Davis 1998, Dolan 1998).

This last aspect of the Federation's involvement with the issue—the production of materials that both explain scientific inquiry and provide mechanisms for further exploration—is a critical component of environmental education. Various materials evidence this kind of approach, but two that deserve special mention are the National Wildlife Federation's NatureScope volumes Diving into Oceans and Wading into Wetlands (Braus et al. 1989a, 1989b). These publications describe activities that can help sharpen scientific learning skills and provide resources and suggestions for obtaining further information about aquatic resources. An extraordinary array of leading experts in the scientific community contributed to both volumes through the peer review process and editorial comment.

Science has provided the greatest evidence, to date, of the damage we have done and are doing to the planet. The need to rely on science to support environmental education programs and materials continues nonetheless, obligating scientists to learn new skills for communicating and making complex subjects understandable to the public.

Responding to demographic changes

Obviously, planning for environmental education must take into account significant demographic changes in the United States. What are those demographic trends, and how will they most likely affect the nature of environmental education? First, minority populations dominate population growth; the number of non-Hispanic whites is expected to begin declining in the third decade of this century. Another noteworthy demographic change, in addition to greater cultural diversity, is that the number of aging but active baby boomers will increase over the next several decades. A third important societal shift concerns the nature of the family—namely, changes in its traditional constitution and in the amount of time that family members spend with one another (Crispell 1995, Kate 1998).

An increasingly diverse society, larger numbers of older Americans, and family life that is geared around schedules rather than free time all have important implications for environmental education. Clearly, environmental education must be of interest to, and available to, diverse audiences. Fortunately, some pioneering efforts show how this process might be initiated. One of the nation's leading environmental education organizations, the National Audubon Society, has built a partnership with the United Negro College Fund and the CSX Corporation to create a scholarship program for minority students who wish to become more involved in environmental programming (CSX Corporation 2001). The Earth Tomorrow program of the National Wildlife Federation is targeted specifically at inner-city, largely African–American, student populations, and a recent edition of the Federation's National Wildlife Week was issued in both Spanish and English (Flicker 1998, Rogers 1998, Tunstall 1998). The Roots & Shoots program of the Jane Goodall Institute has adapted a curriculum packet for diverse audiences with the help of numerous local organizations in Los Angeles with a particular focus on at-risk and culturally diverse communities (McCarty et al. 1998).

Designing programs for diverse audiences is not an easy process. It involves much more than mere linguistic translation, although language is important. It requires the involvement of the potential audiences in program design. Moreover, programs must be designed to be sustainable within the communities they seek to involve.

Other trends in US demographics—the rapidly aging population of the country and the harried nature of family life—also need to be addressed. The Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EASI) takes an interesting approach: It enlists senior citizens as well as young people to monitor the quality of aquatic resources in Pennsylvania and other states by appealing to their commitment to volunteerism and to the environment. (The EASI Web site is shown in the box on p. 287.)

In terms of reaching families, one of the strategies employed by the National Wildlife Federation is to create opportunities for parents and other caregivers and adult family members to interact with children through the NatureLink program, which was developed in conjunction with the Canon Clean Earth Campaign. Often associated with fishing and other uses of aquatic resources, the program has produced Natural Fun, a guide that suggests nature education activities that allow families to spend time together (NWF 1997). What these and other outdoor-oriented programs share is an understanding that the constitution of families and the nature of “family time” have changed. Outdoor education programs in particular must be designed to provide opportunities for families with increasingly crowded schedules to spend time together. Most important, these programs have to be fun and engaging to compete with other demands on families' time, and their outcomes must be both obvious and rewarding to the program participants.

Demographic changes in the United States in the 21st century will dramatically change the potential audience for environmental education. If environmental education keeps pace with this changing audience, the overall environmental movement will benefit by staying relevant to future generations and by inspiring individuals to take action to conserve natural resources and protect the environment. Lessons learned in the United States may well prove useful in the growth of environmental education in other countries as well, particularly those concerning materials and programs that effectively reach ethnically and culturally diverse populations.

Responding to the new “geography of childhood”

In our childhood, it seems to today's adults, we had more opportunities than today's children to interact with nature directly, rather than through “virtual realities.” Yet today's child probably has access to more information about the environment than we did, through televised nature shows, IMAX films, and computer games and graphics. As Nabham and Trimble (1994) pointed out,

In a 1992 survey of fifth and sixth graders in the United States, 9 percent of the children said that they learned environmental information from home; 31 percent reported that they learned from school; and a majority, 53 percent, listed the media as their primary teacher. Such media-inspired children may become fierce in their desire to save condors and whales. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, each May the children of as politically correct a group of yuppie parents as one is likely to find don the costumes of endangered animals for All Species Day and parade proudly through the downtown streets.... Contact with even common wild creatures has become rare for most American children.

The challenge this pattern presents is not to supplant newer information sources but to complement them with a menu of linked opportunities that promote a continuum of experience, as well as learning that incorporates outdoor education and hands-on activities.

In addition to serving the ends of environmental education, making an extra effort to promote outdoor experiences to a generation whose first encounter with a mouse is likely to be with the one sitting next to the computer is important for significant developmental reasons. Mary Rivkin (1995), an expert in early childhood development and author of The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children's Right to Play Outside, believes that children have to experience nature directly in order to learn and develop in healthy, appropriate ways. The variety and richness of natural settings all contribute more than do manufactured indoor environments to physical, cognitive, and emotional development (Rivkin 1995).

In short, the changed geography of childhood means that environmental education programs must provide a continuum of experiences from online to hands-on. The Animal Tracks program of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF 2001) is one good example. A recently issued kit on water quality issues provides online resources, but it also suggests various activities, including the creation of aquatic habitats at schools that encourage hands-on, inquiry-based learning. This approach does not denigrate the newer sources of information; it merely ensures that they are part of a continuum that incorporates learning in nature as a necessary way of learning about nature. This philosophy is also evident in the programs of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (see the box on page 287), which couples its online and media-focused programming with more hands-on activities, such as those promoted in its Pondwatchers guide, a brochure about aquatic systems in the northeastern United States (Massachusetts Audubon Society n.d.).

This generation of children also gets more knowledge about nature from television documentaries than from actual experience of the natural world. That kind of change in the geography of childhood should not be taken as cause for attacking some incredibly valuable forms of educating people about the environment, including IMAX films, programming by the Discovery Channel and others, and online resources such as Jubilee's Journey, a CD-ROM available from the Jane Goodall Institute. Instead, there is ample opportunity for ensuring that educational materials relating to, say, aquatic resources couple traditional cognitive learning materials with hands-on experience, whether it involves water quality testing, restoration of streamside habitat, or the creation of wetlands as part of a schoolyard habitat project. Two organizations involved in this kind of work are the Izaak Walton League and the National Wildlife Federation.

Activity-based learning

One of the greatest challenges for education generally is to produce measurable results. Unfortunately, reaching this goal is neither easy nor devoid of the politics of testing and the endless philosophical debates over what constitutes marked increases in learning and knowledge. Environmental education, though not exempt from these issues, provides some exciting opportunities for enhancing learning, sharpening observation and problem-solving skills, and producing measurable outcomes.

A clear understanding of what we are educating our children for will give us guidelines on the structure of educational programs. There is a fair consensus among all involved in debates about educational reform that one of the principal goals of education is to enhance the ability of children to become productive members of society, as well as to advance a variety of skills that are productive for the development of children. It is in teaching children to become responsible and productive members of society that we are most likely to find significant and tangible benefits from environmental education.

In many school systems across the United States, students must devote a certain amount of time to community service as a prerequisite for graduation. This requirement is not something that is added to the learning experience for purely altruistic reasons, but rather because community service is part of the learning-by-doing philosophy that has guided US education for almost a century. Likewise, teaching about the environment is most effective if it incorporates activities that seek to produce tangible results.

For example, a number of organizations, including the Izaak Walton League, the Missouri Conservation Foundation, the Riverwatch Network, and GREEN (see the box on p. 287), have developed programs that involve children and adults in monitoring the environmental quality of streams and other bodies of water. Although testing water quality by itself does not directly enhance the environment, inevitably these programs lead to other results, such as streamside restoration, improved industrial practices, and policy changes, all of which deliver measurable and effective outcomes (Middleton 1998). One very successful and widely used program for stream protection, restoration, and education, sponsored by the Izaak Walton League of America, is called Save Our Streams (Middleton 2001).

Other programs, such as Cascadia Quest, which is based in Seattle, Washington, are even more closely focused on service activities. Indeed, Cascadia Quest students have restored salmon habitat, replanted eroded slopes, worked on urban streams, and made other improvements to water resources in and around the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the world. The Roots & Shoots program of the Jane Goodall Institute also is service oriented: It requires participants to undertake activities to protect animals, enhance the environment, and help develop their local community. Activities in these three areas have helped enhance the quality of local aquatic resources on behalf of people, wildlife, and the environment (Cascadia Quest 1997).

This kind of activity-based learning often produces economic as well as environmental benefits. For example, the Campus Ecology program of the National Wildlife Federation published a study entitled “Green Investment, Green Return.” The study lists projects undertaken on college campuses across the United States that both improve the environment and save money. These campus “greening” activities address problems ranging from water conservation to reductions in the use of pesticides and other toxic substances in landscaping and other campus activities. To reiterate, if one of the goals of education is to nurture the growth of productive members of society, then these kinds of programs are most certainly viable and valuable (Keniry and Lyon 1998).

Effective education requires the recognition of appropriate and meaningful strategies to help students discover more about the natural world, assemble information and facts, and solve problems. Detailed analyses are needed to more fully evaluate different learning styles and different areas of knowledge. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University, posits several distinct types of intelligence, including one that relates directly to intelligence about the natural world. He therefore asserts the need to create different approaches to evaluate the impact of educational programs on these distinct forms of learning and knowledge.

Problem solving, for example, is an important, requisite objective of the educational process, and research by Gardner and others suggests that hands-on environmental activities are an effective means of enhancing problem-solving skills (Knox 1995). Moreover, William Hammond, an environmental education expert, adds that a new approach to education and action “does not require the abandonment of technology and scientific rationality. It permits the blending of the best of the industrial modern world with the most useful and constructive post-industrial thought. When students are invited to move their education beyond the walls of the classroom and engage in genuine action, they are given the opportunity to synthesize knowledge, skill, and character; to test their preconceptions and misconceptions against real experience; and to learn both to follow and to lead as members of a learning organization” (Hammond 1997).

As Hammond suggests, the positive benefits of hands-on learning can enhance students' ability to become more conversant with the array of new technologies now being developed. There are many exciting and successful programs already in place. The Roots & Shoots program provides recognition to clubs that work on substantial projects in three different areas—protecting the environment, caring for animals, and helping communities. The NatureLink program at the National Wildlife Federation calls for participants to complete an “Earth Pledge,” and the Federation's Schoolyard Habitat program measures its success in terms of the number of schools that create habitats on school grounds.

Environmental educators should embrace the need for results as a particular strength of environmental education, especially those programs that can produce materials and experiences that cover a broad range of hands-on learning. Environmental education can—must—lead from awareness to action. That message should be reflected in program design and implementation, as well as in the way environmental education is defined and valued.

Sidestepping the psychology of despair

Learning more about the environment generally means learning more about what we have done to the environment rather than what we have done to care for it. Although environmental education certainly requires learning about the resilience of nature, it is the catalog of harm that will seem most evident to educators and students over the next several decades. The danger is that this catalog of harm will contribute to a psychology of despair—a loss of hope for the future and a sense that we as individuals cannot make a difference. The danger of despair is especially true for would-be educators who have been in the environmental trenches fighting for years, even decades.

Without underestimating the magnitude of the environmental challenges that we face globally as well as locally, and while noting the limits to what can be accomplished in the short run, we must realize there are ways to sidestep the psychology of despair. One is to recognize those who are making a difference in the world, especially young people, and to celebrate their accomplishment. Two of the most socially responsible (and profitable) corporations that are doing just that are Stonyfield Farm of Manchester, New Hampshire, and Tom's of Maine. The Planet Protectors program of Stonyfield Farm recognizes the achievement of individuals who have made substantial contributions to environmental protection. Tom's offers a Lifetime Achiever's Award to individuals who benefit the environment.

Another important way to avoid the psychology of despair is to promote the belief that individual responsibility and action can make a difference. Certainly the extent of environmental harm that the world-renowned Jane Goodall has witnessed firsthand over the last 40 years would give her ample excuse to be downcast and pessimistic about the future. Nevertheless, while fully acknowledging the challenges before us, it is her message of hope that is one of the most effective and best remembered parts of her frequent lectures. In public venues around the world, Dr. Goodall demonstrates her point by offering examples of individuals who have made a difference. JoAnn Burkholder is a great example of the kind of person Dr. Goodall cites. Despite threats and intimidation from those who opposed her efforts—agricultural and other interests—Dr. Burkholder uncovered threats to aquatic resources through her codiscovery of Pfiesteria, a deadly bacterium. Burkholder continues to educate people across the country about this dangerous organism and the man-made pollution that allows Pfiesteria to flourish. Dr. Goodall's overall message is one of hope. She offers four forces that provide hope for the future: the power and creativity of the human brain to solve problems; the resiliency of nature once we approach it from a position of respect; the strength and vitality of young people around the world; and the indomitable human spirit (Goodall 1999).

To become involved in respecting nature and protecting the environment over the long term, people need to have a sense of hope and gratification from environmental education. Building programs that merely catalog harm without advancing the sense that accomplishments can be made will not offer the kind of fun and enriching learning environment that creates a sustainable commitment to environmental protection. While the study of nature would be incomplete without discussing the threats to the natural world, an appreciation of nature should not be lacking in environmental education programs. It is teaching about the miracles of the natural world, more than anything else, that will engender a sustainable and creative learning environment.


Although great strides have been made in protecting aquatic resources, human population growth and industrial use will continue to pose significant challenges to the protection of these basic resources. While environmental education is sometimes characterized as “soft” and gets less attention than other aspects of environmental protection, it is through environmental education that future environmental advocates and problem solvers are created. To generate new leaders in the environmental field over the new century, and to foster the general public's knowledge and concern for the environment, environmental education should recognize and begin responding effectively to several major challenges. These include changes in demographics and experience, effective integration of newer sources of information with experiential learning opportunities, the effective communication of environmental issues to the public, and the avoidance of the psychology of despair.

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Among popular Web sites for information on environmental education are the following:

Author notes

Stewart J. Hudson is president of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, 290 Pratt Street, Meriden, CT 06450.