Research Summary

Assessing community needs for expanding environmental education programming

Using Needs Assessments to Enhance Environmental Education Programming

Applied Environmental Education & Communication

Needs assessments are important tools to help non-formal environmental education (EE) centers, such as museums and nature centers, maximize their value within their community. Non-formal EE centers complement and supplement what students learn in the classroom and support life-long learning. These non-formal education centers strive to reach as many people as possible, while also not competing with other centers with similar goals. The purpose of a needs assessment is to understand the broader needs of a center’s audience and strategically tailor their programming to those needs. This study undertook a needs assessment of Schmeeckle Reserve in Stevens Point, Wisconsin to understand how best to expand their EE programs.

The Schmeeckle Reserve is a 280-acre natural area that offered several EE programs. The Reserve completed a needs assessment because of requests for educational programming from local schools and youth groups. Conducted in 2014, the needs assessment followed a 3-phase process: 1) pre-assessment interviews and program inventory, 2) survey collection, and 3) analysis and decision-making based on the analysis (or utilization of data).

In Phase 1, the researchers explored Schmeeckle’s community context in Stevens Point to understand the existing EE programs, audiences, and resources. This phase was an effort to curtail overlapping efforts with those of other organizations and to maximize Schmeeckle’s benefit to the area. Then, researchers conducted 19 interviews with program coordinators of similar organizations in Stevens Point. Phase 2 involved administering surveys to gather data on needs to three groups—teachers (92 respondents), non-formal youth/adult program leaders (28 respondents), and community members (187 respondents). These three groups were selected because they were also asking for increased programming at Schmeeckle. These respondents were identified through existing connections and census data. The surveys were analyzed using statistics. The interviews and open-ended survey questions were analyzed common themes. The closed-ended survey questions were analyzed by considering agreement with certain statements to identify community needs. During Phase 3, leadership at Schmeeckle met to discuss the results and decided how they could best fill the needs of the community.

Ultimately, based on the results of the needs assessment, the Reserve leadership decided to increase programming for nonformal youtha and adult groups. While no surveyed group showed significant differences in interest in added programming, the nonformal youth and adult group leaders indicated the highest interest and curricular needs. They also reported fewer transportation barriers to Schmeeckle, meaning that added programming could be easily accessed.

Through the needs assessment, the Reserve leadership learned that the education program coordinators of other organizations often claimed success due to the “niche” that their mission fills. This led the Reserve leadership to understand that they may need to find a niche to fill to drive success. Around 75% of the program coordinators interviewed in Phase 1 expressed that Schmeeckle could extend their outreach towards nonformal youth groups. Nonformal youth and adult program leaders survey respondents showed strong interest in additional programming, with 77% having previously taken a group to Schmeeckle in the prior year. The vast majority of these respondents (86%) indicated that Schmeeckle could help fulfill their curricular objectives. However, some cited barriers to coming to Schmeeckle, such as transportation and time.

Roughly two-thirds of teacher respondents (63%) indicated they would be interested in additional programming at Schmeeckle. However, nearly as many (62%) said that there was not much need for more programming for meeting curricular goals. Many survey respondents, particularly teachers, cited barriers to going to Schmeeckle, such as time, budget, and transportation. Only half of community member respondents showed strong interest for added programming, even though many had gone to Schmeeckle.

The researchers acknowledged that this study was limited by using a convenience sample for the surveys, meaning that they just surveyed respondents who were were easily accessible. That means that the results may be skewed, and if the researchers had gathered a random sample, they may have had different results. Additionally, the results are specific to this location and therefore not generalizable to other centers.

The researchers found that needs assessments can aid in identifying gaps in programming and guide leadership in finding the best way to fill the gaps. They recommend that similar facilities also use needs assessments for these purposes and more. In addition, organizations that work in an area with multiple, similar organizations may find the needs assessment a useful strategic tool to identify their niche and maximize resources.

The Bottom Line

Needs assessments can help nonformal EE centers maximize their impact. This study illustrated how Schmeeckle Reserve in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, collected data from their community to identify how best to expand their programming. In this study, the needs assessment indicated that the Reserve should have more environmental education opportunities for non-formal youth groups. Needs assessments can help an organization best allocate resources and understand new programming needs.