Research Summary

Expanding high school youth’s perceptions of environmental careers and resilience development through conservation education

Hands-on experience broadens high school students’ understanding of interdisciplinary environmental careers and increases personal resilience

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

One goal of environmental education is to expose students to career opportunities in the environmental sector. Environmental education programs can attempt to increase student interest in environmental jobs, but the focus typically leans toward science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) careers even though the environmental field includes various other career types such as law, business, and social advocacy. A student’s vision of environmental jobs may therefore be limited, and research suggests this is true especially among students of color. The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) program Leadership in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) is a month-long summer internship for urban students (many of which are students of color) to engage in hands-on work with environmental professionals. This study examined whether LEAF expanded students’ perceptions of what environmental careers include, and whether these perceptions were related to students’ pro-environmental behaviors and personal resilience.

In 2015, one week after the conclusion of the internship, the researchers emailed an anonymous survey to 99 LEAF intern alumni, and 67 of them completed the survey. Respondents were mostly female (57%) students entering their senior year (88%) between fourteen different high schools across the United States. The respondents’ races/ethnicities were distributed between Black/African American (28%), Hispanic/Latinx (28%), and white (27%) students, with some identifying as Other or mixed (17%). The survey listed eight job activities and twelve skills. Respondents were asked to rank each of these items according to their belief that it was included or required in environmental careers, on a five-point scale (from “never” to “always”). For each item, respondents were asked to give two rankings: one on how they would have answered before participating in LEAF (as they recalled), and one on their beliefs at the time of taking the survey. The survey also included a pre-made eight-item scale to measure respondents’ adaptability and resilience. Finally, respondents ranked the frequency with which they practiced certain pro-environmental behaviors on a five-point scale from “never” to “always”. The researchers then analyzed the survey responses using statistical scales and correlation tests.

The survey answers indicated that after participating in LEAF, respondents more strongly believed environmental careers included the eight job activities listed. The increase was particularly strong for the “influencing policy” and “practicing law” activities. Similarly, post-LEAF respondents were more likely to rank most of the twelve skills as required in environmental careers. “Science knowledge” was the only skill that remained the same. Respondents reported higher confidence in “handling unexpected situations”, indicating higher resilience. Respondents also reported that they practiced pro-environmental behaviors more frequently post-LEAF, primarily recycling and reusing plastics, but some also reported composting food and writing environmental letters. There was no difference in responses between respondents from different racial/ethnic groups.

The results suggested that LEAF interns initially perceived environmental careers as primarily science-based, but they developed a better understanding of the interdisciplinary activities and skills involved in environmental careers. Post-LEAF, interns emphasized the importance of high motivation and advocacy for social change over science. The interns also appeared to increase their adaptability, and therefore their resilience. The researchers surmised t¬hat LEAF interns may have been influenced by their informal interaction with scientists and mentors, as well as their hands-on participation in habitat restoration and invasive species management.

There were limitations to this study. The researchers distributed a pre/post survey in retrospective, so respondents’ pre-LEAF answers are therefore based on their recollection after the program, and faulty memory or bias may have skewed these answers. Although 68% of LEAF interns responded to the survey, those who did not respond may have meaningfully different views. In addition, the researchers could not link specific LEAF activities to the changes in respondent data.

Based on LEAF’s positive effects, the researchers suggested that programs emulate LEAF in the following ways. Programs should inform students of the different interdisciplinary activities involved in environmental work and the students’ ability to contribute to environmental causes in their careers. Students should have opportunities to self-reflect and overcome their internal barriers to environmental careers, and programs should regularly assess students’ impressions of environmental careers. Finally, programs can help students build resilience through responding to unexpected developments. With these changes, programs may provide a more accurate sense of professional environmental work.

The Bottom Line

Environmental education is a vehicle to introduce students to the variety of environmental careers available. This study examined whether a hands-on internship expanded student perceptions of what environmental careers include, and whether these perceptions were related to pro-environmental behaviors and personal resilience in students. In a retrospective-pre/post survey, interns reported how strongly they believed certain activities and skills were involved in environmental careers before and after the program, and described their pro-environmental behaviors and resilience. The results suggested that interns initially perceived environmental careers as primarily science-based, but they developed a better understanding of the interdisciplinary activities and skills involved in environmental careers. The respondents also described more pro-environmental behaviors and resilience. The researchers suggested that programs inform students of the interdisciplinary activities involved in environmental work and provide chances for students to develop personal resilience.