Research Summary

A model for developing and assessing youth-based environmental engagement programmes

Model for Developing and Assessing Civic Environmental Engagement Programs

Environmental Education Research

There are a variety of perspectives on the impacts of human activity on the environment, but many people believe creating a more sustainable future requires a fundamental cultural transformation. Individuals who rethink patterns of human activity to consider their implications and chart a new course through changes in actions, policies, or other means can help create this transformation. How to achieve such shifts, however, remains unclear. There are different ideas in the literature and others in practice, yet increasing civic engagement stands as a common guiding principle across them.

Recognizing that youth and young adults are a particularly critical group to include in civic environmental engagement, this paper’s authors propose a five-part model to identify gaps in the environmental education literature, develop research priorities, and guide the development and evaluation of programs. The researchers propose that too little is known about which nonformal programs are effective in engaging young people and what qualities of these programs make them effective. Thus, this paper’s objective is twofold: first, to develop a model that can be used by practitioners, and second, to demonstrate the need for empirical studies that test the model in order to strengthen the outcomes of youth engagement programs.

To inform development of the model, the authors draw from the youth civic engagement literature and the empirical environmental education literature. Together, these bodies of literature focus on various elements of youth-based programs. Because there are many definitions and interpretations of engagement, the authors define engaged citizens as “members of society who are aware of their rights and responsibilities in society and actively participate in shaping the system norms, resources, regulations, and operations.” Given this definition, fully engaged citizens are those individuals who are conscious of how different parts of the system interact with each other and affect the lives of community members and others. Empowered to act and inspire action, engaged citizens recognize that they can individually and collectively influence various societal factors that shape those outcomes. The authors emphasize a distinction between behaviors and actions by acknowledging that actions are intentionally or consciously adopted with clear motivation and reasoning, as shown in the literature.

The authors focus on youth for a number of reasons, although achieving the transformation needed to address sustainability requires civic engagement at a broad scale. The period of adolescence is a critical time of transition as youth move into adult roles and responsibilities. In the course of human history, youth and young adults have been at the forefront of many transformational movements. Young people may also serve as messengers for other members of society, carrying the reasons and motivations for action into their homes to reach across generations. They also tend to take more risks than older members of society and have more available time to focus on issues of concern or interest. To engage this population, the authors justify a clear need for a systematic approach for developing and evaluating youth engagement programs that are informed by theory and practice.

The model the authors developed consists of five components: (1) engagement activity; (2) engagement process; (3) initiating and sustaining factors; (4) mediators and moderators; and (5) outcomes. They describe the first of these components, engagement activity, across three dimensions: objectives, structure, and quality. Objectives describe the types of environmental actions. Structure refers to how the program experience is shaped by the density of activities, such as those that occur over a long time period or others that are relatively more intense and concentrated, such as summer camps or youth conferences. Program leadership, or the level of youth engagement in planning and governance, also contributes to structure. The participant experience, such as finding the activities meaningful, helps define the program quality.

The second component of the model, the engagement process, refers to the ways in which youth interact with the program and is defined by three factors: intensity, breadth, and duration. Intensity is how frequently youth participate in the activities, along with other factors such as what kinds of emotional responses or knowledge the program generates. Breadth refers to the diversity of activities, and duration refers to the consistency of the youth participants’ engagement over time and the amount of time spent on activities. The authors identify “motivation(s) to become engaged and remain engaged” as initiating and sustaining factors (component 3 in the model) and recognize that these factors occur across multiple levels: individual, social, and system. Mediators and moderators (component 4) encourage, interfere, or interact in other ways with the engagement process to affect its outcomes. And finally, the authors organize outcomes (component 5) with respect to individual, social, system, and environmental results.

Overall, the authors of this paper propose a simple, tractable model for practitioners to use in designing and evaluating youth programs. In the paper itself, an extensive list of questions is included for consideration in program development and evaluation for each model component in an effort to improve civic environmental engagement. The model, and the associated list, could be used as tools in program development, implementation, and assessment.

The Bottom Line

To continually refine and improve environmental education programs, it is important to measure both the short- and long-term impacts on students. Programs with long-term goals especially need to include milestones along the way with measurable objectives; in this way, program administrators and educators can better understand whether and how their educational programs are achieving their intended goals and objectives. These measurable objectives can provide helpful tools for iteratively improving program design by learning from the various factors, such as structure and program quality, that together determine its effectiveness. A model, such as the one described in this paper, can help administrators and educators consider evaluation and program success through a careful and systematic process.