Research Insights: Five Principles for Teaching Youth about Green Living

By James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary

We have found that one of the best ways to engage people with, and educate them about, new ways of environmental thinking is to actively involve them in creating a better future—first, for themselves, and then for others.  Although marshaling opposition and marching for change may focus people’s attention for a while, to embed the essential principles of environmental awareness, sound ecological stewardship, and sustainable living into society’s collective consciousness, we need to model and then have people actually practice (and live) the changes that we wish them to make.

But, what motivational impetus shall we use to achieve our environmental education goals?

One of the world’s leading environmental affairs magazines, now The Ecologist, was founded in 1970. In the July 6, 2011 issue, in an article entitled How to inspire the next generation of eco-activists,  Tom Youngman observes that “Food is familiar to all parts of society and its renaissance as a tool for self-organization and mobilization of communities has defined …a constructive, inclusive [activist] approach. “

We can and should all be teachers who “inspire people towards a cleaner, greener future.” So, let’s begin by applying Youngman’s suggestion and explore using food as an environmental teaching research subject. Researcher Julie Downs, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, conducted a fast-food-based  study, published in 2013, to see if receiving scientific  information about how many calories a person should consume would help people make sound decisions about their health. 

Does providing more calorie related information influence meal choices?

In her study, 1,094 people (ages 18 and older) at two McDonald’s restaurant locations in New York were given information about suggested calorie intake before they placed their meal orders.

A third of the study’s participants were supplied with scientific information that said women and men should limit their total daily calorie intake to about 2,000 to 2,400 calories, respectively.

Another third of the participants were given a flyer recommending that a single meal should be limited between 650 and 800 calories.

The remaining third of the participants were given no research-based scientific information at all. 

Then, after each participant’s order was placed, the researcher examined his or her corresponding order receipt and gave each participant a survey to complete after they had eaten the meal.

Startlingly, her research investigation found that telling people some relevant, scientifically based calorie guidelines had no significant impact on how they used the calorie listings on the menu to make their meal choices.  The women ate ~27% more calories than were recommended for a single meal and the men consumed ~11% more. Even more disheartening, those participants who were told about calorie guidelines ate an average of 49 more calories than those who received no guidelines at all.

This study’s findings resonated with our combined 60 years of experience teaching science at US high schools, colleges, and universities which have demonstrated to us that effective teaching requires much more than just telling somebody something.

The Nobel laureate and former UK prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, once observed: “Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” Without having the personal motivation to learn something new and then to act upon that new learning, people tend to resist learning new information and instead continue to follow old habits.  To paraphrase the award-winning learning theorist David Ausubel:  Much of what we call education today is devoted to answering questions that our students never had in the first place. Therefore, let’s consider the learner’s motivation to learn about a subject such as environmental science or ecology.

A 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science published study conducted by researcher Grace Conyers, CEO of the Insanitek Research and Development firm, investigated the motivational factors for youth that inspire them to learn science and that serve to sustain that interest.

She interviewed 150 youth between the ages of 10 and 13 who had demonstrated an interest in science by enrolling in a voluntary “summer science camp” enrichment program and she then categorized their responses. Her three research questions were:

(a) What got you interested in studying science?
(b) Why do you like studying science? and
(c) What do you think you’ll do with science in the future?

For the first question,  What got you interested in science?, the top-three emergent, student-generated response categories, in descending order of frequency, were: I was influenced by someone I know personally (~55%);  As a child, when I played I was encouraged by others to answer my own questions (~40%); and I was inspired by the great scientists of the past (~5%).

For the second question, Why do you like studying science?, the top-three emergent, student-generated response categories, in descending order of frequency, were: I like the challenge of solving problems (~55%); I like to show-off my science learning to friends and family (~25%); and I like learning something new and different in science (~15%).

For the third question, What do you think you’ll do with science in the future?, the top-three emergent,  student-generated response categories, in descending order of frequency, were: I want go into applied sciences (~52%); I want to do scientific research (~22%); and I want to do a combination of applied science work, pure scientific research work, and science teaching (~16%).

To summarize her findings, the students in this study, all of whom like to learn science, were most influenced toward pursuing science by someone they actually know; enjoy the challenge of solving problems; and want to use the science they learn to do something practical. Thus, this investigation suggests that using local, relevant role models, employing question-posing strategies, and incorporating practical examples are promising keys to effective teaching.

Lastly, how can we help to insure that our environmental teaching will bear fruit? Three researchers (Emily Schneider, Rene Kizilcec, & Chris Piech)  who are involved in the Learning Analytics initiative at Stanford University and who reported their findings at a 2013 conference in Belgium, asked: Why do so many students start a Stanford online learning course (aka, a MOOC—Massive Open Online Course) and then drop out or bypass certain elements of those online classes?

Student behaviors in three such large-enrolment MOCC courses offered by Stanford faculty in computer science were analyzed. Data were collected when MOOC students completed assignments, took exams, watched videos, participated in class forums, or completed peer assessments.

The researchers found that successful course “completer” students improved their learning when they interacted frequently with other students on the online forum pages, so the investigators suggested teachers add other community-oriented interactive teaching features to online courses to encourage more academic-social behavior—such as viewing and discussing regularly scheduled videos together online.

Findings related to the MOOC online courses’ “non-completers” were that these students could be described as: course non-participators, course auditors, sporadic course element samplers, and gradual course-disengagers. Thus, it implied that online teaching may need to improve course-initiating activities, eliminate the auditing option, design the course to be sampling-proof, and continually motivate or build the perceived competence of potential course-disengagers.

In pondering the results of all three research studies presented here, we may infer that effective teaching of environmental concepts and practices:

(1) requires much more than just telling somebody something;
(2) can be improved by incorporating local, relevant role models;
(3) can be improved by employing question-posing strategies;
(4) can be improved by supplying practical examples; and
(5) can be enhanced by using interactive, community-oriented learning activities.

Whether you teach environmental stewardship to an individual or a whole class, whether you teach it directly, online, via writing, or via video-making, may we suggest that you consider the preceding three studies and the five principles mentioned above to help you increase your teaching effectiveness?

You may ask: “What benefits will accrue to me in my role as an informal environmental education teacher?”  Our response would be to ask you to consider the following learning graphic.  It shows a modified version of Edgar Dale’s classic, hypothesized, Cone of Experience model that we think is helpful in planning for effective teaching.  Note: The percentages are informed estimates of the relative effectiveness of various teaching activities in promoting learning.  Via that graphic, we wish to highlight that actually doing what you are learning about, and also the act of teaching someone else to do what you have learned are both very helpful in maximizing your own teaching effectiveness and depth of learning. Every experienced teacher will tell you that you personally will understand something much better after you have done it yourself and then taught it to someone else.

Photo Courtesy: www.danielwillingham.com















This also illustrates why we need to design our teaching activities around youth experiencing and interacting with Nature outdoors.  For instance, a 12-year-old Singaporean resident, Lavanya Prakash—“a young girl with a deep passion for nature and wildlife”—plans and writes a Nature blog called ‘My Nature Experiences‘ that records her own environmental learning experiences whilst exploring local Nature trails. We think this is a nice example of combining direct learning in natural settings with teaching others about Nature (in this case, teaching online).

In short, the need for effective teaching about green living is now greater than ever. We are all teachers at all times – with everything we do, with everything we don’t do, with everything we say, with everything we don’t say–and with our beliefs, with our attitudes–all of that, all of us,” writes Tricia Huffman.



About our Guest Writers:

DR. JAMES H. WANDERSEE — botanist, FLS, FAAAS–is the W.H. LeBlanc Alumni Association Professor of Biology Education in the College of Education at Louisiana State University and Chair of the Teaching Section of the Botanical Society of America. His website is EarthScholars.com

DR RENEE M. CLARY—geologist, FGS–is the Director of the Dunn-Seiler Geology Museum and Associate Professor of Geoscience Education in the Department of Geosciences at Mississippi State University. Her website is EarthScholars.com


Further links you may be interested in:

By the  authors James H. Wandersee & Renee M. Clary on EWTT:

1. Have You Thrown Something Away Today?

2. Plant Blindness: What research says

3. The Bridge Between Ecological Knowledge and Green Living

4. Teach Me About Soil

5. A Green Lesson from Mumbai about Food Packaging 

6. How can I convince my friend to use the stairs?

7. The Science of Tree Shade 



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Posted by on Oct 19 2013. Filed under Green Education, INSIGHTS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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