Intentional environmental education positively impacts climate change risk perceptions and associations

Nkoana, E. M. (2020). Exploring the effects of an environmental education course on the awareness and perceptions of climate change risks among seventh and eighth grade learners in South Africa. International Research In Geographical & Environmental Education, 29, 7 - 22.

The Earth's climate is changing due to human actions and now human actions must halt and reverse the damaging effects of climate change. People must see and experience these shifts to acknowledge that change is happening before meaningful, pro-environmental behavior change occurs. Many circumstances affect one's perception including social, cultural, psychological, and systemic aspects. To streamline influence globally, environmental education (EE) programs seek to directly expose students and their communities to environmental issues including water resource management, coastal resilience, deforestation, and pollution. In doing so, EE programs can help students identify solutions to mitigate or eradicate those issues. Though research proves EE can be effective, the author of this study aimed to assess whether EE in South Africa, specifically through the Eco-Schools program, affects student and community awareness of climate change risks.

The Eco-Schools program, established by the Foundation of Environmental Education, is present in 67 countries and came to South Africa in 2003. There are over 1,100 schools in the country that host this program. The program is largely driven by local non-governmental organizations in informal settings to support the national education system's policy to prioritize education for sustainable development (ESD) in all formal setting schools. The Eco-Schools program serves to enhance EE at schools through teaching theory and providing physical experiences in the environment for both students and local community members. It follows an implementation process that any school can follow and establishes a network in which other educators can share knowledge and best practices.

The study looked at the Mankweng Township and the RAmphele, LEgodi, MAbotsa (RALEMA) Villages in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. The researcher used a collective case study to collect and analyze the data from two focus groups: those who received EE and those who did not. The EE group had 12 learners from Pula-Madibogo primary school in the seventh and eighth grades in the Mankweng Township, an urban, self-sufficient city where subsistence farming does not occur due to space. The group that did not receive the EE included 11 learners from Josephate Hendrik Moloto secondary school in RALEMA which is a rural, more dependent area in which residents rely on small farms for subsistence. For both focus groups, the 23 participants were chosen based on their age, gender, and academic ability.

The two focus groups had a moderator that led each in a discussion. This moderator collected data in the form of individual responses from participants as well as conversations and interactions between participants. Both focus groups included participation tools like the problem tree tool and the Hazard, Impact, and Vulnerability matrix. The problem tree tool was used so the participants for each focus group could identify the trunk, roots, and branches of problems in their community, or the problem, causes, and impacts, respectively. This activity helps the participants learn the consequences of action, reflect on why the action occurred, and challenge why the action occurred to ultimately understand the relationship of cause and effect. The Hazard, Impact, and Vulnerability matrix is a scoring system in which the focus group participants rank a threat to their community on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most hazardous. The scores from each individual are added together across the group to determine a collective number which represented the communities' perception of that risk and their vulnerability to it. The results from both focus group activities were then analyzed using qualitative content analysis which elicits meaning from the results.

The focus groups revealed that awareness affects how an individual understands the current and future states of climate change and the linkages between environmental issues. For example, the focus group from Mankweng (those that had received EE instruction) highly ranked poverty and faulty infrastructure as risks caused by flooding in their community, while the other focus group did not identify environmental issues without being prompted. However, both groups identified diminishing air quality as a negative consequence of climate change. Overall, both focus groups indicated that short-term risks were of more concern than the long-term risk of climate change. For instance, the focus group from RALEMA highly ranked the risk of access to basic needs like drinking water and shelter as compared to climate change risks. Similarly, the Mankweng group highly ranked the issues of crime and substance abuse compared to climate change risks. Finally, the problem tree exercise proved that regardless of training, participants could identify the causes and effects of climate change and their role in those changes. However, the degree to which those causes and effects were identified varied slightly between the EE trained and untrained groups.

This study has its limitations and is not generalizable. Two schools, one with EE students and one with non-EE students, were chosen to represent each student group from a large region of South Africa. Therefore, differences between the two groups identified in this study may be attributable to the individual schools as opposed to the broader EE curriculum. This case study also looked at seventh and eighth grade students which limited the scope of the research and may not fully represent the larger community. Because South Africa has set forth policy and awareness campaigns at the national level for ESD and EE in formal settings, the study could be biased and provide a skewed comparison against other nations that have not engaged in national policy and campaigns related to ESD and EE.

The researcher confirmed that EE is needed to increase awareness of climate change risks. In general, there is a need for formal school systems to provide more opportunity for educators to build EE and hands-on experiences into their curriculum. In doing so, more students can identify and prioritize climate change risks and pro-environmental behaviors in their communities. Further, the researcher suggests that the Eco-School program and other similar programs host alumni evaluations to inform future EE endeavors.

The Bottom Line

<p>People must see and experience environmental issues to acknowledge that change is happening before meaningful, pro-environmental behavior change occurs. Environmental education (EE) programs seek to directly expose students and their communities to environmental issues and potential solutions. The author of this study aimed to identify if EE in South Africa affects student and community awareness of climate change risks. The researcher gathered data from two focus groups, one having received EE and the other having not. These focus groups revealed that awareness driven by EE affects how someone understands the current and future states of climate change and the linkages between environmental issues. The researcher called for formal school systems to provide more opportunity for educators to build EE and hands-on experiences into their curriculum so more students can identify and prioritize climate change risks and pro-environmental behaviors in their communities.</p>

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