Nature-based environmental education programs may improve health-related quality of life and STEM capacity in low-income Black and Hispanic youth

Sprague, N., Berrigan, D., & Ekenga, C. C. (2020). An analysis of the educational and health-related benefits of nature-based environmental education in low-income Black and Hispanic children. Health Equity, 4, 198-210.

Racial- and ethnic-minority children, as well as low-income children, face health and educational inequalities compared to white or high-income children. Research-based evidence indicates that nature contact may reduce such disparities in urban low-income populations. This study examined the potential of a nature-based education program for improving the health and educational outcomes of urban low-income Black and Hispanic children. Nature-based education (NBE) uses nature engagement to inspire curiosity and improve health.

This study tested two hypotheses: (1) An NBE intervention improves health-related quality of life; (2) An NBE intervention improves STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) knowledge and self-efficacy (STEM capacity). Three elementary and middle schools in the St.Louis Public Schools District (SLPS) participated in the study during the 2018-2019 academic year. Eighty percent of the student SLPS population at that time were Black; four percent were Hispanic. Over 95% of the students live in low-income households. The NBE intervention consisted of weekly STEM-based environmental education classroom lessons and monthly nature-based outdoor field trips. The program was implemented over a 15-week period and was facilitated by undergraduate mentors (NBE mentors).

Participating students (N=122) completed a pre-intervention and post-intervention survey addressing both health-related quality of life (HRQoL) domains and STEM-capacity domains. The HRQoL domains included physical health functioning, emotional health functioning, school functioning, social functioning, and family functioning. The STEM-capacity domains focused on leadership, teamwork, science relevance, sustainability relevance, STEM self-efficacy, and science interest. Additional data were collected through (1) student focus groups and (2) post-intervention surveys of the NBE mentors and teachers. Five school teachers and 49 NBE mentors completed the post-intervention survey, which focused on their perceptions of the NBE impacts on the SLPS students.

Student survey results showed significantly higher scores in every HRQoL and STEM-capacity domain after the completion of the NBE intervention program. Focus group responses and feedback from NBE mentors and teachers also indicated that the NBE intervention was effective in promoting STEM capacity and HRQoL in the participating children. Children's responses during the focus group discussions showed that the NBE program provided an engaging learning environment, promoted environmentally conscious decisions, engaged families, and promoted healthy behaviors, including physical activity. Student responses also indicated that the NBE program helped them develop leadership and team building skills. "Every NBE mentor and SLPS teacher indicated that the NBE intervention was beneficial for the SLPS students." Older students (age 12–15) showed larger gains from the intervention than younger students (age 10–11).

This research adds to the growing body of evidence indicating that nature contact and environmental education can improve health outcomes and scientific engagement of children. Such outcomes could help reduce the health and educational disparities of low-income, urban, Black and Hispanic youth.

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