Research Summary

How do Wisconsin environmental educators perceive a potential, professional certification for individual environmental educators?

Environmental educators in Wisconsin identify challenges and benefits to a state environmental education certificate

Applied Environmental Education & Communication
2020

Professional certifications for environmental educators have been implemented throughout many states in the United States. The National American Association for Environmental Educators (NAAEE) encourages the creation of professional certifications because they can increase practitioners' knowledge, skills, and tools to effectively implement environmental education (EE) programs. While professional certifications provide useful training to educators, limited research has been conducted on educators’ perceptions around these programs. To develop an effective certification program, program developers should better understand practitioners’ perspectives on professional certifications and what they wish to gain from one. The purpose of this study was to determine environmental educators' perceptions of creating a professional certification for EE in Wisconsin.

For this study, the researchers developed an online survey based on feedback from EE professionals in Wisconsin. The survey consisted of 24 items with questions about demographics and additional closed and open-ended questions about professional certifications. It was distributed via email to environmental educators and EE agencies across Wisconsin. The researchers sent an initial email to 960 potential participants, which requested their participation in the survey, and followed up with two reminder emails to complete the survey. A total of 138 surveys were completed, primarily by non-formal, female educators, who had a graduate degree and 10+ years of experience. The majority of respondents dedicated about a quarter of their time or more to EE. The researchers analyzed the survey results for common themes.

The study found that most participants were unsure if a professional certification was needed and identified various benefits and challenges of a certification program. Most participants identified the primary benefit was the opportunity to maintain professionalism as well as enhance their legitimacy as educators. The primary challenge identified was the time commitment required to receive the certification. Participants were also worried the certification may decrease the inclusiveness of EE and wondered how the certificate would overlap with other certifications and degrees or would fit into the field.

Participants were also asked for their opinions on mechanics of the potential Wisconsin EE certification program. Most participants thought the Wisconsin Association for EE (WAEE) should lead the program, though many also thought it should be collaborative with other Wisconsin organizations. Participants identified key aspects they would prefer in a professional certification: opportunities for professional development and networking, limited cost between $51-100, time requirement of 0-80 hours to complete, be offered during anytime at an individual's career, and recertification should be required, but after 5 years and at a lower cost.

This study had limitations. The majority of participants were female, non-formal educators, with 10+ years of experience and a graduate degree. Results may have varied if there were greater diversity among participants. For example, young professionals with less experience, or those without graduate degrees, may have more interest in gaining skills from a professional certification. The small sample size may have limited the generalization of results to other environmental educators in Wisconsin. Additionally, this study was geared towards Wisconsin, which limits the generalization of results to other states within the U.S.

The results of this study offer a framework of how that other state EE associations could, and should, investigate educators’ perceptions of a professional certification before developing one. To make the professional certification more desirable among educators, the researchers recommend a partnership between states who have a professional certification and NAAEE. For example, the NAAEE could create a database where ‘certified’ environmental educators can be found and employers throughout the U.S. can utilize this database to find prospective candidates to fill vacancies. This could provide greater incentives for practitioners to complete the professional certification. Lastly, further research should be conducted to determine if current professional certification programs are improving the effectiveness of practitioners. Such results could assist in the development of general guidelines for other states to follow when developing a professional certification.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this study was to determine environmental educators' perception of creating a professional certification for EE in Wisconsin. The researchers developed a survey and distributed it via email to environmental educators in Wisconsin. A total of 138 surveys were completed, primarily by non-formal, female educators who had a graduate degree and 10+ years of experience. The study found that most participants were unsure if a professional certificate was needed and identified various benefits and challenges of it. The participants also opinionated mechanics for a successful certification program, which included: opportunities for professional development and networking, limited costs, time requirement of 0-80 hours, be offered during anytime at an individual's career, and recertification should be required, but after 5 years and at a lower cost. The researchers recommend program developers understand educators’ interest in a professional certification and determine what educators wish to see in the program.