Research Summary

Outcomes of art-based environmental education in the Hudson River Watershed

Art-infused and place-based EE programs yield increased knowledge and connection for students

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Traditionally, formal science classes have focused on the mathematical and inferential aspects of science. However, by integrating art into science lessons, teachers can emphasize the visual-spatial, tangible, and creative aspects of science, as well. Research shows that through the creation of art, people are better able to connect with what they are studying. Research also indicates that increased environmental connection can lead to pro-environmental behavior change. This study explored the impacts of integrating environmental art into a watershed education program. The researchers sought to answer three main questions: (1) How does the integration of environmental art into a watershed education program impact participants’ environmental knowledge and attitudes? (2) What aspects of the environmental art curriculum are most impactful? (3) To what extent does art-based watershed education influence participants’ awareness of environmental issues?

Nature center staff, a local artist, and professors and students from a liberal arts college in upstate New York collaborated to create an art-based curriculum for the Hudson River Watershed program analyzed in this study. The program consisted of nine weekly classes designed to teach students about the Hudson River Watershed and the environmental challenges it faces. Program participants created three art-focused projects: watershed sculptures, drawings and paintings of their perceptions of and relationships with the Hudson River, and a large mural incorporating the previous two projects. Participants also visited a local nature center as part of the program.

The study took place in upstate New York and included 28 fifth- and sixth-grade students (aged 10-12) from two private schools in the region. Fourteen of the students participated in the Hudson River Watershed course, while the other 14 continued with their regular curriculum. Students who participated in the art-based watershed curriculum (the treatment group) were 64% female and 36% male and the latter comparison group was 30% female and 70% male. All students in the treatment group were from one school, while all students in the comparison group were from the other participating school.

Before the start of the 9-week program, students in both treatment and comparison groups completed two questionnaires. One questionnaire measured baseline environmental knowledge, and the other (derived from Bogner and Wiseman’s Model of Ecological Values, or 2-MEV) measured baseline environmental attitudes. At the end of the program, students completed the same knowledge and attitude questionnaires. The researchers used statistics to analyze the results and determine knowledge and attitudinal changes. To gain further insight into the effectiveness of the watershed program, the researchers conducted a focus group with the students who participated in the program. They also interviewed the teacher and seven parents of participants in the treatment group. Interviews and focus group conversations were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed for common themes.

The researchers found that both groups of students demonstrated statistically significant knowledge gains over the course of the nine weeks. However, students who participated in the arts-based watershed curriculum showed greater knowledge increases than did students in the comparison group, with the former improving their scores by 100% (11.4 points) and the latter improving their scores by only 25% (2.57 points). This indicates that, when compared to the regular curriculum, the art-based watershed curriculum was more effective in increasing students’ watershed knowledge.

The 2-MEV questionnaire did not reveal significant attitude changes for either group. Pre-test results indicated that students in both groups had relatively strong pro-environmental attitudes at the start of the study, which left little room for attitude improvements over the course of the study.

During the focus group, all 14 participants in the Hudson River Watershed program agreed that creating art helped them better understand environmental topics. They also indicated that they would like art to be integrated into their environmental education curricula in the future. Participants expressed that creating environmental art helped them connect to the course content and to the environmental issues of the watershed. Participants particularly enjoyed creating the group mural because it gave them an opportunity to teach and learn from each other. The researchers noted that the mural served as an example of a creative, fun, and engaging way to help students understand how humans can affect the environment and, in doing so, inspire pro-environmental behaviors.

During their interviews, parents and teachers reflected on how the watershed program helped students forge emotional connections to the environment. They mused that art may resonate with students who learn best through interactive programs. Additionally, parent interviews and student focus groups revealed that students who participated in the watershed program were more likely to engage in intergenerational conversations about local environmental issues, speaking with parents and grandparents at home about the topics they had learned at school. This suggests that integrating environmental art into curricula may increase student interest levels.

This study had several limitations. First, the two groups had different female to male ratios, which may have impacted the results. Second, the study involved only a small number of participants from a limited geographic range. The same study in a different location with a different set of participants would likely yield different results. Third, this study focused exclusively on short-term impacts and did not offer any insight into long-term impacts of an environmental art program.

The researchers recommend that practitioners incorporate art into environmental education across formal and non-formal educational settings. They also recommend that educators encourage students to discuss their learning experiences with family members. The researchers recommend that educators incorporate art-based curricula when teaching any difficult subject to help students connect to the material through an alternative or non-traditional pathway.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated the impacts of an arts-based watershed curriculum on students’ knowledge and attitudes related to the Hudson River Watershed. Participants included 28 students from two private schools in upstate New York—14 of whom participated in the program and 14 of whom did not. Program participants demonstrated significantly greater knowledge gains than the students who did not participate in the program. Program participants indicated that they felt a deeper connection to the watershed after the program. The researchers recommend that practitioners pair art and science in all education contexts.