Research Summary

Evaluating a Constructivist and Culturally Responsive Approach to Environmental Education for Diverse Audiences

Residential EE Program Yields Positive Results, Especially for Urban Participants

The Journal of Environmental Education
2010

At the NorthBay Adventure Center on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, urban and rural middle school students attend a five-day residential program that promotes three main outcomes: environmental responsibility; character development and leadership; and positive attitudes toward school. Although character development may be associated with many EE programs, it is not often evaluated in EE settings. Instead, researchers have tended to focus on this outcome in after-school programs, and such outcomes are often referred to as positive youth development (PYD). The researchers in this study note that “NorthBay programming exists at the intersection of environmental education and PYD.”

Located in northern Maryland, NorthBay’s 97-acre site includes forested areas, wetlands, and developed areas. Facilities include a high ropes course, two climbing walls, a 40-foot boat, two indoor recreational facilities, a theater, hiking trails, one-half mile of waterfront, and a zipline that transports users from a tower into the Chesapeake Bay. Programs at NorthBay use a constructivist approach. Hungerford, Volk, Ramsey, Litherland, and Peyton’s Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions (IEEIA) model serves as a curriculum guide. The students identify, investigate, and address environmental issues with a multidisciplinary, student-focused approach. Programs also aim to link experiential lessons at the site with similar personal challenges the students might face at home. For example, the researchers explain, “The program links the idea of wetlands as ecological filters for pollutants in nature with role models as filters for negative influences in students’ lives.” Evening programs use multimedia presentations to reinforce character development themes.

The researchers evaluated NorthBay’s programs over two years, monitoring the students before, immediately after, and three months after their visit. Students completed pre-experience surveys upon arrival; post-experience surveys before departure; and follow-up surveys in their classrooms three months later.

The researchers selected a sample that reflected a cross-section of participants from urban, suburban, and rural schools. Of the students from urban schools, 88% were African American and 79% were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Students in the non-urban schools were 73% white with 24% eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The researchers found that participation in the weeklong NorthBay program generated significant positive short-term effects on environmental responsibility; character development and leadership; and attitudes toward school. Those gains persisted at three months, with the exception of positive attitudes toward school, which faded. The authors note that the long-term gains on environmental responsibility and character development and leadership are “particularly noteworthy” because follow-up surveys typically reveal that gains have faded to near pre-experience levels. Urban students had more positive scores on all measures at all points in time.

Although the authors didn’t specifically investigate which parts of the program contributed to its success, or why urban students seemed to glean greater benefits, they offer thoughts based on observations, interactions with staff and students, and the literature: “The successes of the approach at NorthBay suggest that making explicit linkages between students’ on-site and home lives can have meaningful lasting impacts on students. The racial diversity of the NorthBay staff may further contribute to this effect by providing legitimate role models for students.” They also note that NorthBay’s focus on local environments may align with the ways that research shows urban audiences conceptualize notions of “environment.”

The researchers believe that “NorthBay’s constructivist approach to student empowerment, its culturally relevant definition of environmental responsibility, and its intermingling of environmental outcomes with positive youth development have been keys to its success thus far.”

The Bottom Line

The NorthBay Adventure Center is a residential environmental education program whose goals go beyond typical environmental education goals to also include personal development outcomes. The program’s culturally sensitive and constructivist approaches, which evaluation results suggest are effective, promote environmental and personal development goals. As a result of program participation, students show significant gains in environmental responsibility, character development and leadership, and attitudes toward school, with urban students showing the most positive scores. Gains in environmental responsibility and character development and leadership persist at three months.