What is Environmental Literacy?

photo credit: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterEnvironmental literacy1 requires having an understanding of the natural world and the capacity to interpret environmental systems.  Environmentally literate students are aware of the interconnectedness of the global, social, cultural, economic, political and environmental structures. They are actively developing an attitude of respect and stewardship toward the natural world, and gaining the skills necessary to make informed decisions about the environment. With this knowledge and understanding, environmentally literate citizens have the ability to take appropriate actions regarding the environment based on scientific, economic, aesthetic and ethical considerations3.

“Environmental literacy demands understandings, skills, attitudes and habits of mind that empower individuals to relate to their environment in a positive fashion and to take day to day and long-term actions to maintain or restore sustainable relations with other people and the environment.”
-Chuck Roth, pioneer in the field of Environmental Education and NH resident

How is Environmental Literacy attained?

photo credit: Prescott ConservancyEnvironmental literacy is primarily gained through the process of environmental education*.  Environmental education is an interdisciplinary inquiry-based approach to education that integrates hands-on, project-based classroom and community experiences with outdoor, place-based*, in-the-field learning experiences in order to achieve an understanding of the environment as a whole.  The environment, along with environmental conditions and issues, can be used as a context through which instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts are made relevant.   The environment can also be used as context for lessons in group dynamics, problem solving, real world, and community issues.  This kind of integration creates relevance and context that prevents the confusion students often experience when learning and teaching is approached out of context. It also enhances connections between people, the land, and their communities. Environmental education teaches children and adults how to learn about and investigate the world in which they live and interact, both with each other and with their environment, to attain environmental literacy.

“It is critical that every American understands how our community, economy, and the environment are connected and mutually dependent. Environmental education prepares all citizens with the 21st Century essential skills that contribute to healthier, more environmentally sustainable and economically prosperous communities… Environmental education fosters learning that can transform how we think, make decisions, and lead our lives. The future depends on our collective ability to apply an integrated approach to teaching and helping students understand the interrelated elements of sustainable environmental systems– from ecological, economical and community perspectives.” 4

What is the Importance of Environmental Education in Today’s World?

photo credit: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterResearch indicates that environmental education not only builds environmental literacy but also increases overall student engagement and motivation5. Heightened engagement then leads to improved academic achievement and performance on assessments in all subject areas. Using an interdisciplinary approach, environmental education uses real-world experiences, which highlight the interconnectedness of knowledge, encouraging systems thinking. This also gives students a chance to explore the matters at hand to gain experience investigating, defining and creating solutions to issues, thus improving critical thinking and problem solving skills. Working on real-world examples often benefits communities and increases collaboration and communication skills.  In addition, learning about and from the environment encourages outdoor activities, which improve physical and mental health6.

photo credit: Prescott ConservancyIn the world today, there is a great need for innovative thinkers and problem solvers. The problems that we face and will continue to face are complicated and involved. Initiatives such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) encourage students to get involved in these subject areas to prepare themselves for the next generation of the work force. Environmental literacy is an intricate part of this initiative and is also recognized as an important aspect of a well-rounded education to ensure preparedness for a sustainable future. Whether becoming a scientist, joining the green jobs economy, running for elected office, teaching or simply being able to make informed decisions, environmental literacy is an important characteristic of New Hampshire citizens.

Why is Environmental Literacy Important to New Hampshire?

New Hampshire has over a century-long legacy of tackling environmental issues, beginning with the establishment of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the passage of the Weeks Act.  Today there are many organizations and conservation groups across the Granite State.  They are responsible for many initiatives that speak to the desire to have local and sustainable business as well as environmental resource security. From the numerous community-supported agriculture (CSA) systems to green buildings to land conservation, to sustainable timber management to healthy water and wildlife populations, people of New Hampshire are clearly concerned with the future of our state.

photo credit: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterNew Hampshire has come a long way to re-growing the native forest cover since the 1800s, when most of the state had been cleared for timber and to create grazing pastures. Populations of many animal species that were nearly extinct due to changes in habitat and unregulated harvest have been managed back to sustainable populations. Conservation efforts over the years consistently attempt to protect and conserve the abundant forests and open space within New Hampshire’s borders. The search for balance between conservation and use in order to develop sustainable resource management continues. Efforts are underway to secure and protect water sources across the state, and new programs are focusing on water quality.  The recent revision of Good Forestry in the Granite State adds to efforts in sustainable forest management on public and private lands.  Individual towns are designating green spaces for wildlife, recreation, economics, education, agriculture and enjoyment of residents. Governor John Lynch has set an energy goal for 25% of our state’s energy to come from renewable resources by the year 2025. In addition, his Green Jobs Initiative sets aside funding for training in the green job industry to prepare citizens for a sustainable future.

Though many initiatives are underway, with ever-increasing population pressure, Granite Staters are continuously faced with the challenge of responsible growth and land use planning, while considering the value of our forests and natural resources. In addition, our changing climate challenges our current infrastructure and the manner in which we continue to develop. Extreme weather events are becoming more prevalent than ever before, and much planning is needed to manage storm water across the state. Warmer summers and milder winters encourage species formerly exotic to New England including disease-carrying organisms such as deer ticks. Shifts in growing seasons and extremely variable precipitation rates are having an impact on local agriculture, and warmer winters could mean a decrease in snow-related tourism.

photo credit: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterWith these many issues facing our state, now more than ever it is important for our citizens to understand the complexity of the economic, cultural, political and environmental systems. Though much is being done in our schools to encourage innovative thinking, New Hampshire needs the next generation to have a solid understanding of science and the environment in order to be ready to join the growing green jobs industry and prepare for the challenges ahead. Ensuring an Environmentally Literate citizenry is incredibly important to the future of New Hampshire.

What does New Hampshire’s Environmental Literacy Plan do?

photo credit: Squam Lakes Natural Science CenterNew Hampshire’s Environmental Literacy Plan provides an organized framework to expand environmental education for all people. It provides an opportunity to engage people in the outdoors and the world around them. The Environmental Literacy Plan ensures that environmental education providers, state natural resource agencies, organizations and local citizens are involved appropriately and effectively in schools and communities. The plan also ensures that environmental education activities are aligned with student graduation requirements and address state education goals. It ensures that teacher professional development opportunities in environmental education are aligned with student achievement goals, while assuring consistency and accuracy in environmental knowledge. Finally, the Environmental Literacy Plan serves as a necessary component of a comprehensive state environmental education program7. A state Environmental Literacy Plan is also a required element for federal funding based on the pending No Child Left Inside legislation.