Higher Education Collaboration Boosts Exemplary Certified Environmental Educators in Arizona

As many of you know, the Arizona Association for Environmental Education’s (AAEE’s) environmental educator certification program has been growing for over a decade now. Beginning in 2007 & 2008 with knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers (Lisa Herrmann, Julie Gidley, Karen Schedler, and Lynn Fleming), the first pilot program ran in 2010. After the release of the program’s online platform in 2015, the number of certified environmental educators in the state grew to 40 by the end of 2016. Since then, enrollment and excitement for Environmental Educator certification has steadily increased.

 

And, so does awareness of this opportunity. Currently only 13 states offers EE certification pathways.  As a result, AAEE increasingly finds itself responding to national inquiries from other state’s looking to our program as a model template. As the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) asserts, “Professional certification ensures that individuals are fully prepared for work within a specific field of expertise. Certified environmental educators meet stringent requirements for proficiency in both the interdisciplinary content and pedagogy necessary to develop and deliver high quality, effective EE programs.”  This is exactly what AAEE’s program delivers. Here in Arizona, AAEE’s accomplishment has been drawing increased attention from higher education institutions as well.

Early in 2018, Prescott College environmental education instructor and AAEE board of directors member, Ellen Bashor, pointed to this clear opportunity for collaboration between Arizona institutions. Prescott College, a small and mighty college with the mission, “to educate students of diverse ages and backgrounds to understand, thrive in, and enhance our world community and environment,” quickly agreed to launch a pilot program. Their institutional goals clearly aligned with AAEE’s vision of, “a vibrant and ecologically sustainable future for Arizona with  a well-informed and engaged population comprised of socially and ecologically responsible institutions.” Then came the challenge: how does one unite a year-long, self-paced, online course with a semester-long, experiential, & place-based curricular framework?

With collaboration and input from AAEE board members, the certification committee, and Prescott College faculty, the Prescott College Environmental Educator Certification course was born. This course combined critical readings, field trips (comprised of observations, lectures, and service learning across the state) in-class discussion & activities, and AAEE’s certification assignments & portfolio-building online platform. Other organizations that partnered in this experience include Willow Bend Environmental Education Center, the Desert Outdoor Center, Educational Expeditions LLC, and Fountain Hills Charter School. The resulting pilot program was an enormous success. As final reviewing wraps up in January, AAEE & Prescott College aim to graduate their first class of 11 certified environmental educators from this new collaboration.

Students that enrolled in this class ranged in age from early twenties to thirties, with a spectrum of backgrounds and life experiences, and degree focuses in a variety of departments from Adventure Education, to Environmental Science, to Education, to Human Development. In their Capstone essays, many wrote of their educational journey through this pilot program. One Adventure Education student noted that this course, “reaffirmed and excited me to bring EE more into my Outdoor Education practices. Although the Outdoor Education setting lends itself well to be a part of environmental practices, many people do not take advantage of it and choose not to incorporate it full into their curriculum, instead only having some nature lessons as a side to the technical skills being taught.”

Other students spoke to a truly comprehensive learning experience. An Education and Human Development student explained that becoming an exemplary environmental educator, “takes form with the growing proficiency of environmental literacy, understanding the foundations of EE, professional responsibilities (i.e linking standards, navigating complex environmental issues through education not advocacy, staying current, and seeking out and maintaining growth-oriented relationships), planning and implementing (meeting learner needs, use of outside resources, identifying and utilizing diverse settings, and curriculum/lesson planning), fostering learning, and knowing how to use proper techniques in the field of EE for assessment and evaluation.”

In their Capstone assignments, all the students emphasized their increased understanding of, and respect for, the skills necessary to navigate complex, and sometimes controversial, environmental issues with learners of all ages and backgrounds. As one summarized: “a big lesson for me this semester was the importance of education and not advocacy.” Overall, it was truly inspiring to witness these students move through this process and both Prescott College and AAEE are proud of their expanded knowledge of, skills in, and dedication to the field of environmental education. With certified environmental educators like these heading out into the world, our future is indeed bright.

Are you interested in becoming a certified environmental educator?! Click here for to apply today!


Evaluating the Long-Term Results of Environmental Education Curriculum in Traditional and Non-Traditional Educational Settings

There are many lesson plans and program activities available to teach students and participants about environmental issue analysis. But how often do educators go back and evaluate whether learners have processed the results, formed their own opinions, and potentially experienced a behavior change? The environmental education field would benefit greatly from the documentation of the evaluative results from these lessons and program activities, using shared concepts and language.

Most traditional and non-traditional educators who work to communicate environmental concepts to their community scour the internet or look to colleagues for ideas when teaching a new concept. A quick internet search on issue-based lesson plans and activities returns more entries than can be processed in a short period of time. Sometimes these lessons appear in blog posts like this describing their immediate application results. Often the discussions about learning outcomes are anecdotal based upon the educator’s experience with their participants during the activity itself.

Many environmental issue-based lessons are written for K-12 teachers or higher education faculty but there are other professionals who engage learners in non-formal learning about environmental or natural resource concepts. The language used to describe formal lessons or programs contains jargon specific to formal or non-formal learning environments but the methodology for evaluating learning outcomes is the same. Non-formal and non-traditional educators more often evaluate their programs, not just for participant learning achievements but for value-added and behavior change results due to expectations from funding organizations. Can all educators can benefit from measuring long-term results of our applied lessons and activities?

Following the Guidelines for Excellence EE Materials by NAAEE, foundational environmental education materials are:

  • Fair and accurate, considering a diversity of opinion and background experience
  • Conceptually deep, considering awareness, feelings, values, and attitudes
  • Hands-on activities for people of all ages designed to build life-long skills
  • Action oriented, a call to action via civic responsibility
  • Instructionally sound, using learner-centered concepts and include assessment
  • Useable and replicable by others for similar results

These concepts are broadly applicable to both formal/non-formal and non-traditional educators and should be considered when developing any content designed to teach issue-based, controversial environmental topics, especially when seeking behavior change.

Many models, including NAAEE’s Guidelines, recommend remaining unbiased, refraining from inserting emotive language, and using science-based concepts and data to communicate effectively. No matter the age of your students or participants creating a space that is safe where people can freely share their thoughts and values without judgement is important.

Discussion should be designed to:

  1. find common ground
  2. focus on facts and data supporting all viewpoints
  3. engage participants using hands-on and action-oriented activities
  4. evaluate and revisit the big picture.

The last step is critical to checking for understanding. If time has elapsed since the lesson delivery and the evaluation is specific to the issue-based engagement, educators can often determine if the activity had lasting effect.

Research-based literature describes methodologies for teaching controversial environmental topics, including those that have a strong human-centric influence and involve an understanding of how humans are part of the issue and potential solution.  These are difficult to teach because more often than not students of all ages are influenced by many external factors such as family values, morals, economics, other complicated ethos, or nihilism. Examples of controversial topics include:

  • climate change
  • animal production practices
  • nutrition
  • forest management
  • pesticide use
  • water quality

Despite nuance, presenting content grounded in scientific fact and identification of all possible perceived values can lead to sound decision making.

Formal educators can benefit from thinking beyond the curriculum and 5E lessons being taught during the current academic year with the current students. Developing a programmatic model for evaluation beyond testing current students for achievement of learning outcomes involves thinking about the lasting benefits both to current students as well as the application of curriculum in the future. Documenting these results and sharing them are excellent strategies for moving the field of environmental education forward, making it a valued part of foundational learning and state-wide department of education strategy.

Construct lessons and activities designed to achieve a deep understanding of environmental issues

What is a “deep understanding” of an environmental issue? A deep understanding moves beyond a student or participant communicating knowledge at the conclusion of a lesson or activity. A deep understanding includes immediate and long-term reflection on difficult concepts, with time to revisit the issue within the learner’s community or family. Activities that evoke deep understanding fall on the programmatic spectrum, meaning the learning outcomes reach beyond current curriculum or activity learning outcomes. The outcomes are, by design, long-term.

It is hard to check for lasting learning outcomes and potential behavior change after conducting a lesson in the classroom, in a one-day program, or on a field trip. Students need to process and internalize difficult concepts, especially those involving human interactions with nature, which are shaped by experiences, values, and knowledge before and after the effects of any particular environmental education lesson can be known. Simply encouraging students to discuss and debrief after a lesson on climate change, food production and consumption, forest management, or other complicated issue, may have lasting effects but those effects will not be known unless educators are able to follow up after an elapsed period of time.

Plan to follow up with learners after an elapsed period of time

In formal and non-formal learning environments it is valuable to think about the effect the lessons and activities have beyond the experience itself. Formal educators may have the advantage of having access to students for more than one year, even if they are not in their classroom. Further, some schools are designed to include thematic curricular models or systems-based thinking. Thus, conducting a brief evaluation 6 months or a year after the lesson or activity was delivered may be easy if other administrators or educators in the school are amenable to collaboration.

Non-formal educators and non-traditional educators who only see, or communicate with, their participants once could prearrange a follow up with participants, or a subset of participants. This can take the form of an email survey where people may self-select after participation, or if the group of participants are from a school or adult program, permission can be gained to ask follow-up questions after the experience.

We recognize there are many barriers within learning environments preventing future follow-up. The idea is to think beyond the immediate lesson delivery and develop methods to assess at least a few learners in the future. Not every learner need be evaluated, rather a sample of evaluative results can still be of value.

Participants will return to their community with the information about the environmental issue fresh in their minds. They may on their own ask family, coworkers, or other community members about the concepts discussed and reflect further on their own value placed on economics or their constructed environmental ethic. If they do not reflect on the experience on their own, reflective questions designed to understand and elicit an understanding of the concepts (for the learner) and viewpoints (for the educator) can be very useful to developing a stronger program or curriculum in the future. Thus, the data gathered can be formative and serve as foundational to effective activity design.

Examples of post-activity evaluation questions in formal and non-formal/non-traditional learning environments:

Environmental issue lesson and learning outcomes* Sample post-lesson evaluation Sample long-term evaluation               (6+ months- 1 year)
Formal (6-8th Grade) Forest management – Examine the balance of human-use of forest products and sound forest management. Lesson includes a trip to a local forest ecosystem. What is a healthy forest ecosystem? What forest products do we use? Can we live without them? How does the availability of the resource affect its cost? How can we use these renewable resources and not damage the ecosystem? Have you revisited a healthy forest ecosystem? What forest products have you used on a regular basis? Have you considered your use of forest products since your initial visit to the forest? If not, why not?
Non-formal/Non-traditional (Adult audience/Professional farmer or landscaper Pesticide use – Describe the ecological implications of using too many pesticides. Lesson includes a hands-on activity designed to demonstrate the broad application of pesticides. What are some strategies to mitigate short and long term problems caused by extensive use of pesticides? What changes have you made to reduce your affect on the environment from pesticide use?

Have you helped anyone to understand the potential problems?

*We will post the full 5E Lesson Plan (Forest Management by Nick Carroll) and Program Activity Agenda (Pesticide Use by Peter Warren) on the website soon.

Document the results and summarize and share findings

Creating a shared list of aligned learning outcomes, post-lesson or activity evaluation questions, and long-term evaluation methods and responses will be helpful to our environmental education community. As with any formative evaluation, having information available about what works and does not work will help us to better understand the synthesis and understanding of complicated environmental issues and lasting effects of participation. Having a list of participant learning outcome results available to you for more than one year will inform how you do the activity or lesson in the future.

Educators and learners will benefit from gaining a better understanding of longer-term learning outcomes and impacts. Knowing whether learner knowledge is retained and applied can help us to design better curriculum and programs. If we have a shared list of outcomes from teaching difficult environmental issues, together we can enhance critical thinking skills of learners of all ages.

Discussion:

What are the barriers to conducting follow up evaluations with participants in any learning environment?

In your educational setting how might you go about following up with learners after an elapsed time?

Would you be willing to share achievements from teaching controversial environmental topics from your immediate lesson or program and follow up with those participants in a few years’ time? If so, what can AAEE provide to make sharing those results easier?

Resources and Links

NAAEE’s Guidelines for Excellence Series

Cotton, Deborah R.E. (2006) Teaching controversial environmental issues: Neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research. Vol. 48., (2)., 223-241. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228785938_Teaching_controversial_environmental_issues_Neutrality_and_balance_in_the_reality_of_the_classroom

Program Development and Evaluation, University of Wisconsin-Extension

Evaluating Learning Outcomes for Citizen Science

Conservation Education Program Development, USDA

Project Learning Tree: https://www.plt.org/

 

South Mountain Environmental Education Center: Building Community to Build Environmental Stewards!

In February 2016, the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (ACNC) reopened the South Mountain Environmental Education Center in partnership with the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department. Our joint mission is to offer environmental education to South Phoenix communities and visitors to South Mountain Park.

While celebrating the biological diversity of one of the largest municipal parks in the nation is an important aspect of our work, good environmental education also honors and celebrates the cultural history that has shaped the park and the people that live in the surrounding communities today. In this spirit, ACNC has been focusing on building relationships to help us understand the values, needs and interests of the people of South Phoenix and the great organizations that have been doing work locally for many more years than we have.

With support from local funders and the Flinn Foundation we’ve been hosting networking events to meet community members and seeking out partnerships with local organizations to help strengthen our collective impact. To support our friends at the Parsons Leadership Center for Girls and Women at Camp South Mountain as they launch their first summer camp in the new center, ACNC and South Mountain Park staff teamed together to provide a half-day training for brand-new summer camp instructors about the natural history of the Sonoran Desert, techniques for engaging youth and how to be safe in the hot desert.

Our work together helps ensure that youth are receiving high quality environmental education experiences while we celebrate the strengths of each organization.

Arizona Environmental Literacy Strategy

In previous communications we’ve shared that AAEE is working with a diverse group of stakeholders to develop an Environmental Literacy Plan for Arizona. The Environmental Literacy Committee has taken a few big steps toward making this happen. We’ve used feedback from our Environmental Literacy Summit that was held in March 2016 combined with research on the state of environmental education and general education in Arizona to develop some draft recommendations.

Our first recommendation is to focus on a strategy rather than a plan. Strategies are active, responsive to changing needs and adaptable; exactly what we need for Arizona. We don’t need a plan that sits on a shelf, we need a strategy that inspires and rallies.

Components of the strategy include: developing strong networks among formal, non-formal, and informal learning experiences; demonstrating relevancy to all stakeholders in Arizona; building capacity for environmental literacy through professional development, promoting strategies that prepare children for sustainable jobs; supporting the development of sustainable schools; and building a long-term support network for the strategy along with means to evaluate success.

Our next steps are to refine the strategy’s components with clear action steps and share these widely for feedback. If you’re interested in participating in these conversations consider joining the Environmental Literacy Committee.