Research Summary

Uncovering Students’ Environmental Identity: An Exploration of Activities in an Environmental Science Course

Environmental Identity Development in High School Environmental Science Course

The Journal of Environmental Education

During the past decade, high school environmental science courses have gained prominence, exposing more youth to environmental topics. Yet, little research exists on how the curricular content and activities of these high school courses influence students’ relationships with the environment. This ethnographic study investigates how various environmental science activities impact students’ environmental identities, which the authors of this study define as the connection one feels toward the natural environment.

The study took place at a northeastern U.S. public high school, which serves both rural and suburban students. The environmental science course was a lower-level elective course, which many students signed up for as they considered it a less-challenging alternative to chemistry. (Both courses meet the physical science course requirement.) The class was comprised of 17 students in 10th to 12th grade (ages 15 through 20); of these, 10 students elected to participate in the study. The researchers interviewed the students at the beginning, middle, and end of the semester and asked the students to reflect on their reactions to the course activities, how their behaviors and beliefs changed (or did not change), and which activities they found to be most influential. The researchers also interviewed the teacher on these three occasions; questions focused on goals for the course and if they had been met, as well as perceptions of the impact of activities on students. In addition to interviews, the author conducted participant observations, videotaped class sessions, and observed dialogues between students and the teacher. These additional forms of data collection were used for triangulation purposes; the researchers then compared data collected through those means with the interview data.

From the student interviews, four course activities emerged as being particularly influential: (1) an ecological footprint lesson and inventory of everything the students owned; (2) a field trip to a local landfill; (3) a town meeting regarding wetland development; and (4) a class debate regarding drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

For each activity, the author coded student interview responses for themes demonstrating the affirmation or disconfirmation of identity, environmental identity, and identity “confusion.” The ecological footprint activity, for example, required students to reflect upon their consumer identities and how their consumer-materialistic lifestyles influence the environment. Students spoke of “feeling personally bad” that their consumer actions led to so much environmental destruction, an emotional response suggesting the disconfirmation of student consumer identities. Furthermore, students spoke of wanting to change their behaviors by “buying less stuff.” This response reflects the strengthening of student environmental identities. Additionally, the author noted the ecological footprint activity provided an effective model for coupling experiences that provoke negative feelings with empowering ones, such as how to minimize personal waste.

The affirmation of environmental identities was demonstrated in the trip to the landfill, which included a tour of the recycling facility. This experience focused on the local environmental issue of linear waste streams and how waste, instead, can be used as a resource. During the interviews, students positively reflected on how the landfill facility worked to keep the surrounding wild habitat free of contamination and converted emitted methane into energy for a local university. This activity affirmed students’ environmental identities with a real-world, local example of pro-environmental action. It also gave them concrete ways to participate by promoting recycling and reuse efforts at school and home.

The wetlands town meeting also focused on a local environmental issue: the development of affordable housing on local wetlands. The wetlands are a popular public recreation area and were familiar to many students. In addition, some students lived in affordable housing, allowing them to connect with and personally relate to this environmental issue. For the meeting, students were broken into groups of two or three and assigned roles, which included developers, social workers, bird enthusiasts, and recreational users of the land.

During the post-meeting interviews, students noted the importance of understanding multiple perspectives from various stakeholders. Some students felt convinced by all arguments made; they spoke of being “right in the middle” and neutral about what to do. These comments indicate “identity confusion,” where the students were uncertain of how they feel. While considering various perspectives is imperative, educators must also promote critical thinking skills that help students weigh the different sides.

Identity confusion was also noted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge debate, which asked students to consider whether drilling should be allowed in the refuge. Students were assigned to either pro-drilling or anti-drilling sides and provided time to research and debate. While some students felt the debate affirmed the ideas they already had about anti-drilling, the majority of the interviewees spoke of understanding both sides, but not being able to choose “where they stood.” This, again, speaks to the importance of scaffolding argument assessment skills, as well as conflict resolution, negotiation, and consensus making.

The Bottom Line

Whether teaching in formal or informal settings, it is important for environmental educators to reflect on how activities influence students’ environmental identities. To do so, educators must find ways to connect learning experiences to students’ lives, providing them with opportunities to reflect on their learning. Using local environmental issues as the context for learning activities makes learning relatable and pertinent for students, allowing them to see the complexity of environmental issues. Issues that are frequently in the news or currently being debated in government can also spark interest and engagement. So that students can successfully develop their identities and perspectives on environmental issues, educators must also foster critical thinking, problem solving, argument assessment, and consensus-making skills. Otherwise, students can stall in “identity confusion” and the inability to weigh various arguments.