Place-Based Learning Linked to Improvements in Environmental Quality

Johnson, B., Duffin, M., & Murphy, M. (2012). Quantifying a relationship between place-based learning and environmental quality. Environmental Education Research, 18, 609 - 624.

After years of measuring environmental education's impacts on knowledge, attitudes, behavior, student achievement, and other areas, researchers are increasingly considering how EE programs can directly affect environmental quality. This study's authors aimed to understand the environmental outcomes of education programs focused on air quality. They also wanted to know how place-based learning techniques affected the programs' outcomes.

The authors focused specifically on air quality education programs for several reasons. First, the authors believed that comparing all types of programs that influence environmental quality would generate too many variables to analyze effectively (for example, it would be difficult to compare programs that affect water quality, air quality, and invasive species). Second, they reasoned that air quality is an issue that impacts children's health. And third, they noted that numerous air quality education programs exist throughout the United States, ensuring that there would be a sufficiently large sample from which to select.

To identify the sampling frame, the authors compiled a list of air quality education programs throughout the United States by searching peer-reviewed literature and the popular press (including websites), as well as by reaching out through social networks. The search yielded 198 air quality education programs, and they were able to identify contact information for 190 of those. To those 190 programs, the authors sent a 45-minute survey inquiring about the programs' background, use of place-based learning practices, specific education activities, and program outcomes. To understand the degree to which the programs exhibited place-based learning, the survey included 18 practices and qualities of place-based learning and asked the respondents to rate how strongly their programs exhibited those characteristics. Some of the practices and qualities included factors such as: the degree to which the program is personally relevant to learners, whether the program uses the local environment as a context for learning, and whether the program contributes to community needs.

In the end, the researchers administered the survey over the phone or email to 54 program representatives. Most of the programs were school based, and about half started the programs in response to poor air quality in the local area. In addition, the programs represented a diverse array of socioeconomic backgrounds in cities, suburban areas, and rural areas.

The survey revealed that 11% of the programs made no effort to take specific actions to improve air quality, but instead provided information only. Another 43% were more action oriented and attempted to measure air quality improvements or related air quality indicators, but were not able to demonstrate specific improvements. Finally, the remaining 46% of the programs—the largest group—measured proxy indicators (factors that are assumed to affect air quality, such as a reduction in car idling) or actual changes in air quality. Most of this group (19 of 25) measured proxy indicators, while six measured actual air quality.

In general, the program representatives reported high levels of place-based learning indicators, reporting that the programs either “somewhat” or “strongly” included many qualities of place-based learning. The authors grouped the programs into two groups of roughly equal size based on their scores for place-based learning, the “lower” place-based learning group whose scores were at the lower end of the spectrum and the “higher” group. Interestingly, three-quarters (a statistically significant portion) of the 25 programs that reported air quality improvements were part of the “higher” place-based learning group. And the authors explain that further analysis revealed that “the degree to which a program incorporated [place-based learning] was the strongest predictor of improvements in physical or proxy [air quality] indicators.”

The authors conclude that while there are various limitations to their approach, “Our findings provide preliminary evidence that education programs can be a viable approach for achieving measurable improvements in [environmental quality].”

The Bottom Line

<p>This research suggests that certain types of air quality education programs—namely, place-based education programs that exhibit a certain set of characteristics—can have measurable impacts on either actual air quality or factors that are likely to improve air quality. This paper, however, represents just a first step in this line of research, and additional research is required to understand more about success rates, type, and scale of environmental benefits, the effectiveness of specific education approaches, and so on. And although measuring environmental impacts may be valuable in certain circumstances, by no means is it a necessary or appropriate evaluation for every environmental education program.</p>