Research Summary

Evaluating impacts of a wetland field trip: a case study with urban middle school students

Short field trips can improve environmental knowledge in urban middle schoolers

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2021

Children have become less connected to nature in recent years due to innovations in technology and more time indoors. Specifically, children and adults are more affected by this disconnect in urban areas because there are usually fewer opportunities to experience natural settings. Many in environmental education believe that direct contact with the outdoors can achieve increased knowledge, attitudes, and a deepened connection to nature based on existing research. However, field trips can be resource intensive and not all educators or schools can provide these experiences to students, especially in low-income areas. The researcher for this case study assessed the impact of a one-day field trip to a local wetland center on urban middle schoolers’ environmental knowledge, environmental attitudes, and connectedness to nature.

This case study included 26 seventh-grade science students from an urban middle school in a low-income area outside of a large city in Texas. For context, about 57% of the middle school’s population (896 students) are considered low-income, about 6% are listed as limited English Proficient, and 35% meet the criteria in Texas of at-risk for dropping out of school during their educational careers. The one-day field trip to the wetland center included a short walk over the wetlands to observe the setting and a tour of the center. The students also participated in four activities that were focused on the water cycle in urban areas, the amount of freshwater on Earth, water pollution and filtration, and a newspaper review on articles about water. The researcher administered a pre-visit survey to the students in their classroom four days before the field trip to the wetland center, and the post-visit survey was administered seven days later. The survey included seven open-ended questions that measured the participants’ connection to nature, environmental attitudes, and environmental knowledge. In the post-visit survey, an additional open-ended question prompted students to describe their experience during the field trip. In addition, both the Children’s Connection to Nature Index (CNS) and New Ecological Paradigm for Children (NEP-C) were used on both pre- and post-visit surveys. The NEP-C included three subscales which were: Rights of Nature, Eco-Crisis, and Human Exemptionalism. The CNS measures emotional connection to nature through 10 questions scored on a scale of one (strongly agree) to five (strongly disagree). Similarly, NEP-C measures the environmental attitudes of respondents through 16 questions scored on a scale of one (strongly agree) to five (strongly disagree). The researcher analyzed the data quantitatively by conducting a statistical analysis of the CNS and NEP-C as well as qualitatively by reviewing the written answers to the open-ended questions.

Based on the survey results, the trip positively impacted student environmental knowledge. In particular, the prompt that asked students to describe two ways that human activity can affect surface and groundwater had the most significant score increase between the pre-and post-visit survey. The CNS and open-ended survey answers revealed that the one-day field trip did not meaningfully alter participant connection to nature. Likewise, the NEP-C and open-ended survey results did not show a significant effect on environmental attitudes. However, the Right of Nature subscale within the NEP-C did show a significant increase. That subscale measured how much a person thinks humans’ dominate nature.

There were limitations in this study, and the results are not generalizable. The researcher acknowledged the group of 26 students was a small sample size. The findings were not analyzed against a control group that could have taken the same surveys without going on the trip, which limits our understanding of the program’s effect. Finally, the researcher suspected that the program length may have affected the CNS and NEP-C scores since longer environmental programs have been proven to grow student connection to nature.

The researcher suggested that although this case study showed no significant increase in student connectedness to nature nor environmental attitudes, there was a significant increase in knowledge on water quality and wetland ecosystems, and positive outcomes related to environmental sensitivity and intention act, from this one-day field trip. Based on the results, the researcher inferred that programs and field trips in this study could improve the likelihood of students developing pro-environmental behaviors. Teachers and administrators should be encouraged to allocate more resources to similar experiences, especially for students in urban areas that may not have frequent access to the natural world. Further, short-term environmental programming should be embedded in the curriculum at multiple points during a student’s learning career in school.

The Bottom Line

Children have become less connected to nature in recent years. Children and adults are most affected by this disconnect in urban areas because there are usually fewer opportunities to experience natural settings. The researcher in this study reviewed the impact of a one-day field trip to a local wetland center on urban middle schoolers in Texas and measured environmental knowledge, environmental attitudes, and connectedness to nature through surveys. The results showed the short field trip positively impacted student environmental knowledge, though there was no significant change in attitude or connectedness to nature. The researcher suggested that programs and field trips like this study could improve the likelihood of students developing pro-environmental behaviors, particularly in urban areas. Further, educators should be encouraged to allocate more resources to similar experiences.