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Environmental education (EE) refers to organized efforts to teach about how natural environments function and, particularly, how human beings can manage their behavior and ecosystems in order to live sustainably. The term is often used to imply education within the school system, from primary to post-secondary. However, it is sometimes used more broadly to include all efforts to educate the public and other audiences, including print materials, websites, media campaigns, etc. Related disciplines include outdoor education and experiential education.
Environmental education is a learning process that increases people's knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action (UNESCO, Tbilisi Declaration, 1978).
Environmental education focuses on:
While each of these educational fields has their own objectives, there are points where they overlap with the intentions and philosophy of environmental education.
The roots of environmental education can be traced back as early as the 18th century when Jean-Jacques Rousseau stressed the importance of an education that focuses on the environment in Emile: or, On Education. Several decades later, Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born naturalist, echoed Rousseau’s philosophy as he encouraged students to “Study nature, not books.” These two influential scholars helped lay the foundation for a concrete environmental education program, known as nature study, which took place in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The nature study movement used fables and moral lessons to help students develop an appreciation of nature and embrace the natural world. Anna Botsford Comstock, the head of the Department of Nature Study at Cornell University, was a prominent figure in the nature study movement and wrote the Handbook for Nature Study in 1911, which used nature to educate children on cultural values. Comstock and the other leaders of the movement, such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, helped Nature Study garner tremendous amounts of support from community leaders, teachers, and scientists and change the science curriculum for children across the United States.
A new type of environmental education, Conservation Education, emerged as a result of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl during the 1920s and 1930s. Conservation Education dealt with the natural world in a drastically different way from Nature Study because it focused on rigorous scientific training rather than natural history. Conservation Education was a major scientific management and planning tool that helped solve social, economic, and environmental problems during this time period.
The modern environmental education movement, which gained significant momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s, stems from Nature Study and Conservation Education. During this time period, many events – such as Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War – placed Americans at odds with one another and the U.S. government. However, as more people began to fear the fallout from radiation, the chemical pesticides mentioned in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and the significant amounts of air pollution and waste, the public’s concern for their health and the health of their natural environment led to a unifying phenomenon known as environmentalism.
One of the first articles about environmental education as a new movement appeared in the Phi Delta Kappan in 1969, authored by James A. Swan. A definition of "Environmental Education" first appeared in The Journal of Environmental Education in 1969, authored by William B. Stapp. Stapp later went on to become the first Director of Environmental Education for UNESCO, and then the Global Rivers International Network.
Ultimately, the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 – a national teach-in about environmental problems – paved the way for the modern environmental education movement. Later that same year, President Nixon passed the National Environmental Education Act, which was intended to incorporate environmental education into K-12 schools. Then, in 1971, the National Association for Environmental Education (now known as the North American Association for Environmental Education) was created to improve environmental literacy by providing resources to teachers and promoting environmental education programs.
Internationally, environmental education gained recognition when the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, declared environmental education must be used as a tool to address global environmental problems. The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) created three major declarations that have guided the course of environmental education.
June 5–16, 1972 - The Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The document was made up of 7 proclamations and 26 principles "to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment."
October 13–22, 1975 - The Belgrade Charter was the outcome of the International Workshop on Environmental Education held in Belgrade, Jugoslavia (now Serbia). The Belgrade Charter was built upon the Stockholm Declaration and adds goals, objectives, and guiding principles of environmental education programs. It defines an audience for environmental education, which includes the general public.
October 14–26, 1977 - The Tbilisi Declaration "noted the unanimous accord in the important role of environmental education in the preservation and improvement of the world's environment, as well as in the sound and balanced development of the world's communities." The Tbilisi Declaration updated and clarified The Stockholm Declaration and The Belgrade Charter by including new goals, objectives, characteristics, and guiding principles of environmental education.
Later that decade, in 1977, the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education in Tbilisi, Georgia emphasized the role of Environmental Education in preserving and improving the global environment and sought to provide the framework and guidelines for environmental education. The Conference laid out the role, objectives, and characteristics of environmental education, and provided several goals and principles for environmental education.
Environmental education has been considered an additional or elective subject in much of traditional K-12 curriculum. At the elementary school level, environmental education can take the form of science enrichment curriculum, natural history field trips, community service projects, and participation in outdoor science schools. EE policies assist schools and organizations in developing and improving environmental education programs that provide citizens with an in-depth understanding of the environment. School related EE policies focus on three main components: curricula, green facilities, and training.
Schools can integrate environmental education into their curricula with sufficient funding from EE policies. This approach – known as using the “environment as an integrating context” for learning – uses the local environment as a framework for teaching state and district education standards. In addition to funding environmental curricula in the classroom, environmental education policies allot the financial resources for hands-on, outdoor learning. These activities and lessons help address and mitigate "nature deficit disorder", as well as encourage healthier lifestyles.
Green schools, or green facility promotion, are another main component of environmental education policies. Greening school facilities cost, on average, a little less than 2 percent more than creating a traditional school, but payback from these energy efficient buildings occur within only a few years. Environmental education policies help reduce the relatively small burden of the initial start-up costs for green schools. Green school policies also provide grants for modernization, renovation, or repair of older school facilities. Additionally, healthy food options are also a central aspect of green schools. These policies specifically focus on bringing freshly prepared food, made from high-quality, locally grown ingredients into schools.
In secondary school, environmental curriculum can be a focused subject within the sciences or is a part of student interest groups or clubs. At the undergraduate and graduate level, it can be considered its own field within education, environmental studies, environmental science and policy, ecology, or human/cultural ecology programs.
Environmental education is not restricted to in-class lesson plans. There are numerous ways children can learn about the environment in which they live. From experiential lessons in the school yard and field trips to national parks to after-school green clubs and school wide sustainability projects, the environment is a topic which is readily and easily accessible. Furthermore, celebration of Earth Day or participation in EE week (run through the National Environmental Education Foundation) is a great way to dedicate your lessons to environmental education. To be most effective, promote a holistic approach and lead by example, using sustainable practices in the classroom and school grounds and encouraging students and parents to bring environmental education into their home.
The final aspect of environmental education policies, but certainly not least important, is training individuals to thrive in a sustainable society. In addition to building a strong relationship with nature, American citizens must have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a 21st-century workforce. Thus, environmental education policies fund both teacher training and worker training initiatives. Teachers must be trained to effectively teach and incorporate environmental studies in their curricula. On the other hand, the current workforce must be trained or re-trained so that they can adapt to the new green economy. Environmental education policies that fund training programs are critical in educating citizens to prosper in a sustainable society.
Following the 1970s, non-governmental organizations that focused on environmental education continued to form and grow, the number of teachers implementing environmental education in their classrooms increased, and the movement gained stronger political backing. A critical move forward came when the United States Congress passed the National Environmental Education Act of 1990, which placed the Office of Environmental Education in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and allowed the EPA to create environmental education initiatives at the federal level.
In the United States some of the antecedents of Environmental Education were Nature Studies, Conservation Education and School Camping. Nature studies integrated academic approach with outdoor exploration (Roth, 1978). Conservation Education brought awareness to the misuse of natural resources. George Perkins Marsh discoursed on humanity’s integral part of the natural world. The governmental agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the EPA were also pushing a conservation agenda. Conservation ideals still guide environmental education today. School Camping was exposure to the environment and use of resources outside of the classroom for educational purposes. The legacies of these antecedents are still present in the evolving arena of environmental education.
One of the current trends within environmental education seeks to move from an approach of ideology and activism to one that allows students to make informed decisions and take action based on experience as well as data. Within this process, environmental curricula have progressively been integrated into governmental education standards. Some environmental educators find this movement distressing and a move away from the original political and activist approach to environmental education while others find this approach more valid and accessible.
There is a movement that has progressed since the relatively recent founding (1960s) of the idea of environmental education in industrial societies, which has transported the participant from nature appreciation and awareness to education for an ecologically sustainable future. This trend may be viewed as a microcosm of how many environmental education programs seek to first engage with participants through developing a sense of nature appreciation which is then translated into actions that affect conservation and sustainability.
Programs range from New York to California, including Life Lab at University of California, Santa Cruz, as well as Cornell University in Ithaca. 
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