Research Summary

Environmental action and student environmental leaders: exploring the influence of environmental attitudes, locus of control, and sense of personal responsibility

Environmental Attitudes are Strong Predictor of Post-program Environmental Projects

Environmental Education Research

Environmental education addresses complex environmental, sustainability, and conservation-related issues through a range of approaches that seek to positively impact participants’ attitudes, values, knowledge, and efficacy-related skills. Yet when it comes to taking action on those issues, a question remains: How might young people appropriately and effectively engage in locally relevant, meaningful actions—and, perhaps more importantly, how might those actions be sustained over time?

In this survey-based study, researchers examined youth environmental action in the short and long term by evaluating several key dimensions of a conservation program. The researchers defined “environmental actions” as those actions that explicitly contribute to addressing environmental problems. In this study, the actions ranged in their impact on environmental concerns and were generally measured through the students’ implementation of conservation projects, such as recycling systems, carpooling programs, and rooftop gardens.

The study was implemented with participants in the Student Climate and Conservation Congress Program (SC3), implemented by the Green Schools Alliance and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The program, designed for youth environmental leaders, is a weeklong event for high-school students. During the program, the students engage with complex environmental issues through presentations, discussions, community service, outdoor recreation, and conservation-project planning.

To recruit survey respondents, the researchers invited all highschool-age youth attending the SC3 to participate in the study through an introductory letter, which included a parent consent form. The researchers conducted a pre-, post-, and delayed post program survey, with the delayed-post survey taking place 8 months after the program’s completion. Pre-survey respondents included 98 out of 103 SC3 attendees, and 45 respondents (of the initial 98) also completed the delayed-post survey. The pre-survey respondents were in grades 8 through 12; 63% identified as female and 37% as male. With regard to race and ethnicity, 60% identified as Caucasian, 18% as Asian, 12% as Latino, 7% as African American, and 3% as Native American. About 40% of the respondents received financial aid to attend the weeklong program.

To design the survey, the researchers adapted most of the measures from other studies to gain the benefit of using previously validated instruments. The pre-program survey, adapted from the Earth Force Student Survey, measured environmental attitudes, locus of control, and sense of personal responsibility. The post-program survey measured the same variables as the pre-program survey, as well as intention to act through inquiring about the planned environmental project. The delayed post-program survey focused on implementation of the projects and commitment toward future involvement in environmental action, such as leading their school or community in actions to address environmentally related issues, becoming involved in environmental volunteerism, taking environmentally related courses, or pursuing an environmentally related career.

Using correlational analysis and multiple regression, the researchers found that variables that predicted environmental action included a student’s environmental attitude as measured before the program. First, pre-program environmental attitudes were significantly correlated with environmental action such that students who had more positive environmental attitudes at the beginning of the program were more likely to follow through with their projects after the program.

Interestingly, participants whose environmental attitudes increased after the program were less likely to follow through with their environmental action projects. Participants whose attitudes did not change or decreased after the program were more likely to follow through on their projects. However, a student’s pre-survey environmental attitude was the only significant predictor for environmental action in a model that included all four variables (environmental attitudes, locus of control, sense of personal responsibility, and environmental action).

Second, pre-program environmental attitudes and personal responsibility were predictors of intention for future involvement in environmental action. However, pre- to post-program changes in environmental attitudes, personal responsibility, and environmental action were not indicators of future involvement. And third, environmental action and intention toward action were not predictive of future involvement in environmental action, suggesting that working on an environmental project may not necessarily lead to future environmental action.

The researchers caution that the sample size of this study was small, may have been biased toward students selected for their environmental leadership qualities, and reflects one specific program. Because of those considerations, the findings require further research before they can be generalized to a broader population.

The Bottom Line

Research finds that incoming environmental attitudes can be a strong predictor of environmental-action outcomes of education programs, particularly among youth. Therefore, selecting at least some participants who demonstrate strong pro-environmental attitudes may be important when considering group composition, as those participants can be more likely to have success in following through with environmental action projects. Those who are predisposed toward environmental causes might also be active agents in encouraging action among their peers.