College of Natural Resources and College of Education Partner to Offer Environmental Education Courses

Students in Hill Forest during summer camp.

In a world with an increasing amount of natural resources challenges, it is important to educate tomorrow’s leaders about the environment from an early age. Thanks to the initiative of new faculty member Kathryn Stevenson, the College of Natural Resources will be part of an interdisciplinary effort to meet this need.

Beginning in the 2017-2018 academic year, the College of Natural Resources will partner with the NC State College of Education to offer two courses in environmental education. Taught by Stevenson, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, and Gail Jones, professor of science education in the College of Education, the courses will boost students’ knowledge of natural science concepts, enhance communication skills, and help students work toward a nationally-recognized certification in environmental education. We asked Dr. Stevenson to share more about the collaboration between the two colleges and the new courses:

Why is environmental education an important topic for both College of Natural Resources (CNR) and College of Education (CED) students to learn about?

There are strong collaborative ties between CNR and CED, and several individuals were enthusiastic about developing an environmental education curricular program. We also saw a real need and opportunity among students. From the CNR side, many students majoring in natural sciences see the need for communication and education, but have a hard time finding that training within the university. Additionally, many jobs in conservation, parks and recreation require an environmental education certification, and we saw this as an opportunity to offer courses that would let student work toward this certification. Likewise, environmental education and science education are a great fit, but there hasn’t historically been many opportunities for pre-service teachers to get training in things like taking students outside while they’re enrolled here. This program offers wonderful professional development opportunities for teachers.

Tell us more about the course offerings.

Kathryn Stevenson, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.
Kathryn Stevenson, assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.

EMS 496/694: Environmental Education Teaching Methods will cover most topics a regular teaching methods course would, with the addition of how to incorporate more informal and outdoor learning. This course points to one reason this cross-college partnership is so great. The CED faculty are certainly the experts on teaching and pedagogy, so students enrolled in the course will benefit from that expertise. They’ll cover some basic literature introducing the field of environmental education, how to teach an environmental education program (e.g., objective writing, lesson planning, lesson delivery, assessment), and special considerations for outdoor settings like safety or accommodating different learning styles or physical challenges. Students in this course will also complete about 40 hours of the environmental education Certification program, including certification in Project Learning Tree.

PRT 495/595: Environmental Education in Practice will orient students to the environmental education profession and prepare them to enter it. We will host several panels of guest speakers, visit environmental education sites, plan programs, and deliver them to students. We will also cover topics like program evaluation, consent forms, and resume building. Students will complete a portfolio through this course that should position them well to apply for environmental education jobs. Additionally, they will complete about 80 of the hours needed for environmental education certification.

How will these courses prepare our students for careers in the natural resources field and CED students for careers in education?

There are several concrete ways we are focusing on career preparedness. First, students are working toward environmental education certification in this program. As I mentioned above, this is a required certification for many jobs natural resources graduates would pursue. For instance, it is required by NC State Parks and Wake County Parks, and preferred for organizations like museums and aquaria, and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Beyond certification, training in environmental education gives natural science students skills they need to communicate science effectively and provide outreach to the public, a key step in managing resources for public good. CNR students will gain these skills as well as develop key contacts with whom they can practice them (i.e., teachers who will soon have their own classrooms).

On the CED side, environmental education certification does not carry the same tangible benefits like filling job requirements, but the program does provide teachers with a deep toolbox to enhance their student teaching. There’s a wealth of research that suggests that environmental education and outdoor education enhances classroom instruction in really exciting ways — from boosting cognitive reasoning, helping students integrate disciplines, and improving attention and behavior. These courses will have the dual benefit of giving teachers skills to implement these methods in their classrooms as well as a long list of contacts with people who can help (e.g., CNR students, environmental education program leaders). In short, we think environmental education training will make classroom teachers better at their jobs — both in terms of enhancing student learning, and finding professional satisfaction by making learning really fun.

Why are informal and outdoor education important?

In my view, informal education is learning that happens in the “interstitial” — meaning when you don’t necessarily even know you’re learning. This is probably where we learn the most — in settings that aren’t contrived — simply because that’s where we spend the majority of our time over the lifespan. So, it’s not a question of if it’s important — I think it definitely is. The importance on our end comes in understanding how and what people learn informally. For instance in an environmental education context, what are people getting out of going to a museum on their own? Or to a park? Or watching a nature program? Participating in a citizen science project? How can we maximize that experience?

As for outdoor education specifically, there’s been a groundswell of momentum around this over the last decade or so, largely around Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. There’s a collective sense that we are losing our connection with nature, and that’s hurting us — EO Wilson, Steven Kellert, and others have been saying the same thing. So, there’s been a lot of research around documenting what the disconnect is doing as well as seeing how time outdoors may help. And the impacts are really diverse. They range from academic (e.g., higher test scores, better cognitive development, more interest in science and STEM careers), behavioral (e.g., better attention spans, lower stress levels), emotional (e.g., stronger affinity for nature, better social interactions with peer), physical/medical (e.g., decreased myopia, decreased ADD, higher physical activity levels), and on and on. Outdoor education is a good way to get kids outside, so you can link it in some way with many of these benefits.

Have more questions about the new courses? Send Dr. Stevenson an email at kathryn_stevenson@ncsu.edu.