Demonstrating the Impact of Environmental Education

Posted by Erin Lloyd on Monday, May 11 2015

More than ever, we are living in a data-driven world, where stories are enlightening but data drives the bottom line. Funders, policy makers, regulators, resource managers, and other decision makers rely on data to guide strategy.

In this climate, environmental education, which has a rich history of drawing on engaging anecdotes to demonstrate its value, needs to coalesce and communicate research-backed evidence of its impact on a range of outcomes, from student achievement to wildlife conservation to climate change adaptation.

Switzer fellows Nicole Ardoin (’02) and Christy Merrick (’00) are proposing a major new initiative to compile and analyze the existing research base for environmental education—and then identify existing opportunities for future research in the field. Importantly, this initiative, called Anecdotes to Evidence, will also include a significant focus on communications. After all, the data will do no good if they remain locked in academic journals. We propose linking rigorous research reviews with a robust communications strategy that will get the information into the hands of not only the research community, but also decision makers in policy, conservation, education, and other circles.

Nicole brings expertise in research and environmental education as an assistant professor at Stanford University. Christy’s focus is on supporting the environmental education field through the North American Association for Environmental Education, where she serves as the program director for the Natural Start Alliance. Because of Natural Start’s focus on early childhood education, we believe the best focus for this research review is on the impact and value of environmental education on children from birth through age 8. This early-childhood focus complements a broader national education policy emphasis on early childhood education, and could help infuse environmental learning in pre-K education.

A Switzer Network Innovation grant will help us work together to chart a course for this ambitious project, identifying specific research questions, developing a research and communication plan, and identifying potential partners. We have already found significant interest in a potential partnership from the Children and Nature Network, which also has identified a similar need for more research-backed evidence of the positive impact of nature on children’s lives. In addition, Switzer Fellow Sara St. Antoine (’92) works with the Children and Nature Network and could also lend support to this initiative.

We are eager to gather input and ideas from the Switzer Network on this project. Please share your thoughts on the need, strategy, potential partnerships, and other relevant areas. Thank you for helping us shape this project, which we believe has the potential to strengthen the research basis of environmental education, promote innovation and collaboration, increase recognition for the field, and bring new resources in support of environmental learning.

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environmental education

Hi Christy and Nicole. I'm intrigued by this idea and would be glad to talk and help if I can. Having swerved away from advocacy after several decades and gotten a divinity degree (with Switzer's help), a large part of what I'm working on is getting churches to go outdoors - for both conservation and spiritual reasons. I'm not sure what I could bring besides a growing conviction informed by 30 years of advocacy and organizing that political, economic, and technological responses to environmental issues are not enough - and that without the transformation that takes place in the mind and heart of individuals, they never will be. Which of course is where EE is needed, except that I'd add the spiritual dimension of connecting to the natural world. I'm starting to tell church people who want to know what they can do about the environment that the most important thing is to take their kids outdoors. Anyway, would be glad to talk more. sdblackmer@kairosearth /

Anecdotes to Evidence

Hi, Christy and Nicole -- This is an exciting an initiative, and one that has great potential for the field. I hope it gets full support from this community and others. A couple of thoughts and ideas come to mind upon my first read: 1) The early childhood focus is a good one, both for the policy reasons you note as well as keeping this project manageable. 2) Will this research build on some of the work that has been done to date in identifying future pathways for EE research? 3) Your focus on communication is especially important, and thus Christy's affiliation with NAAEE will be a great asset. I'm wondering if there are other environmental communications professionals in the Switzer network who might be able to contribute strategic thinking. 4) While their project has a different focus, I wonder if there is potential synergy between your proposal and some of the work that Marianne Krasny and others have been doing through the EE Capacity project. Not sure what that link is, but seems worth exploring! 5) I also think it would be great to involve practitioners in this project. The communications piece seems like the logical link here, in that in addition to influencing policy makers, a goal should also be to get current research into the hands (and practice) of environmental educators working in the field. You don't state this explicitly in your summary above, but it seems like a worthwhile consideration. I'd be interested in learning more about your plans and discussing whether I can be of assistance in any way. Best wishes, Brian Johnson


Very excellent job at identifying a real need and looking to fill it. Iʻve been frustrated by much of the environmental education material that I have read as either being too anecdotal (anecdotes are good, but we can tell a good story about anything really) or being on too short of a timeline. So many environmental education research tends to assess the impacts within a few months or at most a year. I would suggest, although it sounds like you two are already thinking this way, to focus particularly on the long-term impacts that environmental education might have. Particularly when engaged at the early ages. While I am not even close to an expert in this field, my own experience as an environmental educator to young kids is that the true value of environmental education is around personal values, and that these strong beliefs donʻt manifest themselves strongly until much later in life. I really donʻt know how much long-term research like that might exist, and if there isnʻt much that runs a little counter to your thoughts on this being a data driven project, but that is where I see this work making a big impact. That is a cool, impactful story, particularly if it is data driven (or at the very least data backed). Ultimately I donʻt have a lot to add in terms of partnerships, etc. but wanted to say this is a great sounding project and I hope it goes very well!

Partnership possibility with Mass Audubon?

If you're looking for participation by EE practitioners, I'd love to talk about how our work at Mass Audubon could be useful. We are always interested in quantifying impact and some educators across the state have explored different strategies ... happy to talk more and connect you with our statewide education director.

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