Major Study Asks, What Makes Environmental Education Effective?

by Asa Duffee, ANCA Marketing & Communications Coordinator


Anyone who works in environmental education isn’t just maintaining a job and producing an income; they’re working to impact their audiences and inspire change in the world. And while many people, such as the eminent Freeman Tilden, have anecdotally defined what makes environmental education effective, we still have to ask: can we actually quantify effective environmental education? It’s a challenge, since each program has so many variables and it takes a considerable effort to control for such variables, especially when comparing different regions and different people.

“Marc and I, we’ve spent probably the last fifteen years wrestling with this question … and learning how best to design and implement a study of this complexity,” said Dr. Robert Powell from Clemson University — he’s referring to Dr. Marc Stern from Virginia Tech, with whom Powell works in research on EE. “There’s a reason why no one’s tackled this yet, it’s because it is such a big thing and you need a lot of resources and a lot of expertise to pull it off.”


Dr. Marc Stern at his and Dr. Robert Powell’s presentation of their research at the 2019 ANCA Summit on August 21.

Dr. Marc Stern at his and Dr. Robert Powell’s presentation of their research at the 2019 ANCA Summit on August 21.


Powell and Stern have been leading such a study that may have major implications for environmental educators and nature centers. Last year they developed a team of eight researchers to observe 330 programs at 90 different organizations throughout the US, specifically looking at programs for children between 5th and 8th grade. The researchers took into account over 50 different attributes of the presenter, program, and environment, and used a survey to evaluate the children and teachers.

Using those data, Powell and Stern compared the attributes to 12 possible outcomes, including behavior change, enjoyment, learning, and environmental attitudes — in other words, specific effects that environmental education often aims to impact. While they continue to analyze the data, Powell and Stern have preliminary findings that they recently presented at the ANCA 2019 Summit at the Cincinnati Nature Center.

Based on those preliminary findings, more than 20 characteristics were linked with student outcomes. The strongest relationships were found in group size, novelty, natural settings, program transitions and conclusions, and the incorporation of advocacy. “There’s some nuance to all these things of course,” added Powell, so you’ll have to wait until they publish their findings to see how you might be able to use this research.

Tori Kleinbort, a fifth-year PhD student at Clemson University who was one of the researchers in this study, sees big implications. “One of the things that I think the study will shed light on is really understanding what you’re trying to achieve on the forefront,” she said, adding that both upper-level managers and practitioners in the field can learn from this research. “I think it’s really important that those people also have a really strong understanding of which outcomes are attempted to be achieved and what outcomes there are in this type of work.”


A young child meets salamanders as part of a program at the Cincinnati Nature Center.

A young child meets salamanders as part of a program at the Cincinnati Nature Center.


Connie O’Connor, Director of Education at the Cincinnati Nature Center, also thinks that different types of staff can use these results. “Now we have all this evidence that says that the staff really matter,” she said, noting that many organizations rely on volunteers or temporary staff to do programs for large groups. “Knowing that type of thing really speaks to the need to put more money into staff training and staff retention, because it makes a difference when you have the right people in the job. And I think that that’s a lot of impact on our profession.”

Having been a site for the research, the Cincinnati Nature Center is prepared for the published findings of this study, as well as other academic research in environmental education.

“We’ve put together a task force of about eight people,” O’Connor said. “We’re trying to ... figure out how to get this research digestible for practitioners in a way that’s really going to help them make decisions about how they’re designing programs, what they’re measuring, and what they hope to accomplish.”

Given the larger context of the global environmental crisis that includes climate change and loss of biodiversity, both Kleinbort and O’Connor mentioned that it’s more important than ever that environmental educators are able to communicate effectively and inspire change. Kleinbort specifically acknowledged the recent climate strikes, saying “As our society becomes ever more globalized, we’re able to share more information and obtain enough data to understand the potential impact we have on our climate and our world. So I think this is a really interesting time simply because of that, certainly to be in the environmental field, and then I think the research component adds an extra layer to that.”

O’Connor also sees this study as a larger trend of research in environmental education, noting that more academic studies can guide organizations to better fulfill their missions. “I’m just really grateful we are in a time when research is so openly shared among different academics for the sake of practitioners,” she said. “I feel like there’s some exciting changes in EE ahead of us that’s really going to help us see with clarity what we need to do and where we need to go. It’s an exciting time.”

Powell and Stern’s study isn’t over yet. While “Phase 1” is being analyzed, the two academics have plans to further the research. The first part of the study controlled for influences of grade level, race, and socioeconomic status, whereas “Phase 2 is focused on looking at the differences across different audiences,” Powell said. “Looking at racial diversity in particular, but also that urban, rural, suburban divide.” They will conduct this research through a $1.94 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The preliminary results of Phase 1 of this study will be published within a year. After that, keep an eye out for more reports on this research as it develops, as it may have significant implications for how your organization operates its programs.


Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of "Directions," the ANCA journal. Members can always access the full issue via the member portal. If you're curious about membership, see our membership levels.