Research Summary

Agencies, educators, communities and wildfire: partnerships to enhance environmental education for youth

Community Youth Group Partnerships Meet Multiple Goals

Environmental Education Research

Many environmental educators know firsthand how valuable youth participation in community action projects can be in terms of developing leadership skills, such as environmental problem solving, effective communication, and group process. However, to design and implement such a project successfully, educators may need assistance and support. Program staff might talk with community members to co-design an activity such as a neighborhood cleanup, but the environmental education staff may not know how to approach a youth organization or why young people might be interested in these activities. Individuals who can bridge institutions, expectations, and needs can link youth, community organizations, and agencies in productive partnerships to improve the community and build youth action competence.

Using the context of wildland fire, a team of researchers explored seven U.S.-based case studies of wildfire education programs for youth. They purposely chose programs that were as different as possible, as long as they met the initial criterion: educators actively working with youth in the community to reduce the risk of wildland fires.

The selected cases included:
An after-school opportunity for middle-school-aged youth to build leadership skills by forming a Firewise Committee for their community and sponsoring education and clean-up projects with the local fire department, the state forest agency, and Keep Texas Beautiful.
A summer field school for high-school students to collect and interpret data about fire risk and vegetation for agency and community leaders for college credits, with Bureau of Land Management and local municipalities.
A Girl Scout Firewise badge enabling youth to understand how to reduce the risk of fire in the wildland–urban interface and communicate information to adults, with Florida Forest Service and local fire departments.
High-school geography teachers using a unit developed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and engaging youth in mapping the risk of wildfire and sharing information with homeowners.
A coalition of environmental education organizations offering field trip opportunities around Lake Tahoe to involve youth in planting trees to reduce erosion or remove vegetation to reduce the risk of wildfire, with U.S. Forest Service and local teachers.
A high school in West Virginia that adapted the Minnesota curriculum to engage at-risk youth with a homeowner association to assess and communicate risk in a hillside subdivision, with West Virginia Division of Forestry.
A county fire-safe council educational unit for sixth-grade teachers to increase awareness of wildfire risk, plan for evacuations, and help improve their ability to withstand a fire, with CalFire and U.S. Forest Service.

Researchers visited each program site and interviewed people associated with each of these programs, such as agency staff, educators, community members, volunteer firefighters, and youth. In the 81 interviews, the researchers asked questions about the programs, the processes that led to the programs’ development, and the recorded outcomes, thus far.

The researchers recorded and transcribed the interviews, then analyzed the data to identify themes and patterns. They found several themes about the ways in which the educators and other program planners/managers developed the initiatives that might enable others to have similar success.

In the successful programs, the key partners formed collaborations to create opportunities for youth to work in their communities. Most programs engaged staff from state or federal agencies, local fire or emergency responders, and environmental organizations to work alongside an educational or youth-group partner. Individuals often initiated those opportunities because that person spanned multiple organizations or perspectives. Sometimes, for example, a family connection brought organizations together, while other times someone with a vision and strong community connections found people who shared a common goal.

Each partner involved was able to meet their own needs—a factor that was core to effective partnerships. Agency members did not merely offer a field trip or guest lecture; rather, they prepared the youth to convey their message, reduce community risk, or collect needed data. Educators and parents perceived these to be equal partnerships where the youth developed leadership skills, gained public-speaking experience, and realized the benefits of community service. The youth saw these programs as ways to implement the concepts and ideas they learned in the classroom into the world; through the projects, the students’ actions could reduce the threat of a wildfire or even save lives.

Maintaining the programs was a challenge for partners. Since local partnerships were at the core of all of the programs, they required equal amounts of goodwill, perceived need, and community connections. The partnerships were at risk if an individual champion moved to a new challenge. In some cases, agencies institutionalized the program and were committed to providing funding, but needed new leaders to do the work. Some programs were in the process of expanding beyond their community boundaries. This expansion was easy when other individuals were identified who could see the value of the partnership, but was challenging when connections to “boundary workers” were not readily available.

Findings from these case studies offer insights for building community support for youth actions that lead to community resilience and are applicable to contexts beyond wildfire, including disaster recovery, water-quality enhancement, or ecosystem restoration. Although youth age was not particularly relevant, leadership opportunities were better suited to youth over age 12. The dearth of programs like these suggest, however, that boundary workers and champions may be in short supply. If university courses could help pre-service teachers learn about the needs and perspectives of regional, state, and federal agencies, and if natural resources students learned how action projects could enhance youth development, more people might see opportunities to meet multiple goals through youth–community partnerships.

The Bottom Line

Partnerships among environmental agencies, community organizations, and environmental educators can support programs that enable youth to engage in authentic, meaningful, community projects that build skills and improve the environment. Partnerships are more likely to thrive when projects are designed for all partners to attain their goals and when topics are broadly seen as working in the community’s best interest. Such partnerships require recognition of an important issue; authentic opportunities for youth involvement; respect and benefits for each group involved in the partnership; and development of social capital norms.