The Lawrence to Conduct First-of-its-kind Environmental Literacy Study

July 13, 2023

For many students, learning about nature and the environment can be a fun, accessible way for them to engage with science and other subjects. It is also a critical part of the work we do at The Lawrence. In light of the many climate concerns we face, the California State Board of Education has identified environmental literacy as a key learning objective for all K-12 students in the state. But how much environmental learning actually takes place in California classrooms? To find out, The Lawrence will conduct a first-of-its-kind landscape study to assess the state of environmental instruction and education across California. The study is a project of the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), a fiscally-sponsored program of Ten Strands, a California–based nonprofit that works to strengthen the partnerships and strategies that will bring climate and environmental literacy to all of California’s TK–12 students.

The Lawrence has long been a leader in the field of environmental learning. We previously worked with Ten Strands, CAELI, and other educators and experts to develop the Blueprint for Environmental Literacy in California. Lawrence Hall of Science projects like BEETLES and MARE provide curricular materials, professional learning, and other resources for teachers and informal educators looking to integrate environmental education into their classrooms and programs. Another Lawrence project, the East Bay Academy of Young Scientists (EBAYS) works with students to identify environmental injustice issues in their own communities and to advocate for community health.

“By creating A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy and supporting important legislation that followed, we embedded environmental literacy into the state curriculum frameworks,” said The Lawrence’s Associate Director for Learning and Teaching Craig Strang, who co-chaired CAELI for nearly eight years. “We developed a process for districts to create districtwide environmental literacy plans, made equity and justice central to all of our work,, elevated the work of a handful of brilliant county office of education environmental literacy coordinators that inspired many other counties, and catalyzed and spun off significant projects.”

Environmental literacy describes the knowledge, skills, and understanding of scientific and social science principles to analyze environmental issues and make informed decisions that lead to sustainable, prosperous, and equitable communities today and in the future. In 2018, the California legislature passed the Environmental Education: Environmental Principles and Concepts bill, requiring in part K-12 schools to weave environmental principles and concepts into their curricula. However, the bill did not create a framework for measuring progress toward this goal. That’s where this new landscape study comes into play.

“The goal of this study is to get a snapshot of what learning is actually happening in California classrooms,” said Jedda Foreman, Director of The Lawrence’s Center for Environmental Learning. “The study will give school districts information they can use to allocate the resources needed to ensure equitable access to high quality, meaningful, and culturally relevant environmental learning experiences for all students.”

Researchers at The Lawrence are developing an online survey that will be distributed to a representative sample of teachers in schools across the state. Building upon a draft previously developed by CAELI, the survey is based in part on a study of the state of elementary science education in California published in 2011 by Rena Dorph, current Executive Director of The Lawrence. The findings of that study, entitled High Hopes–Few Opportunities, sent ripples across California and contributed to an increased focus on science education. The researchers working on this new landscape study hope their report will lead to a similar outcome for environmental literacy.

“We plan to recruit a sample of schools and educators that is representative of the whole state, including rural areas and counties in the central valley and northern California that are often not represented,” said The Lawrence’s Melissa Collins, who is conducting the study. “We want to know what kind of professional learning teachers receive. Is environmental learning siloed in science, or is it occurring across different subjects?”

Once the representative sampling plan is in place and our researchers have finalized the survey, CAELI will recruit teachers and conduct the survey online starting this fall. After data collection and analysis, a report of the findings will be published next spring. Researchers hope this will be just the beginning, with future surveys conducted years down the road to track progress and measure improvements in environmental literacy in California.

Beyond California, Melissa Collins and Jedda Foreman hope their study can serve as a model for other states pursuing environmental literacy goals in their K-12 schools. The environmental issues we face, driven by climate change, know no borders. It is critical for students across the country and around the globe to develop the knowledge and skills to face these challenges head-on now and in the future.

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