Wednesday, August 6, 2008 - 8:30 AM

SYMP 12-2: Essential elements of ecological literacy and the pathways needed for all citizens to achieve it

Alan R. Berkowitz1, Carol Brewer2, and Brooke McBride2. (1) Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, (2) University of Montana


While people outside the field of ecology have developed and championed important notions of ecological literacy, a comprehensive view from within the discipline itself has yet to emerge. A strong and clear voice about universal ecological literacy from the ecological community will contribute to the broader movements for environmental citizenship and sustainability. We surveyed the membership of ESA in summer 2007 using an on-line instrument with open ended questions about the essential elements of ecological literacy and the key pathways for achieving it. Responses were received from 1,034 individuals, most of whom hold doctorate degrees (69%), with the rest holding masters (20%) or bachelors (10%) degrees. Their degrees were in ecology (40%), biology (19%), or environmental sciences, applied sciences (forestry, wildlife, etc.), botany, zoology and limnology or oceanography (6-8% each). Word frequency tallies were performed for the combined responses to the questions: 1) “What are the top 5 things that every American - high school graduate or adult - should know, feel or be able to do to be considered ecologically literate?” (4,888 total responses). 2) “Please identify up to 5 Pathways that you think are essential for helping people become ecologically literate ... teaching techniques, or educational experiences, resources or policies” (3,897 total responses).

Results/Conclusions The term “ecosystem” was the most frequent (n=668) in question 1 responses, followed by “human” (n=615), “nature/natural” (n=495) and “environment/environmental” (n=390). Other frequently mentioned concepts included “planet/global/world” (371) “cycles/cycling” (360), “evolution” (354), “population” (290), “change” (284), “diversity/biodiversity” (274), “energy” (236), “interaction” (230) and “impact” (223). The term “services” (usually coupled with ecosystem) appears in 162 responses, while “natural resources” in only 37. The concepts needed for ecological literacy thus reflect the modern field of ecology, emphasizing two-way links between people and ecosystems, change, and energy, along with the foundational ideas of evolution, population and interaction. Fewer respondents listed skills, abilities or feelings as essential elements. Other than “know/knowledge” (304), active terms included “indentify” (74), “method” (70), “define” (66), “think” (55), “appreciate” (45), “describe” (43) and “explain” (41).  The term “nature” was the most frequent (479) in question 2 responses, followed by “school” (421), “science” (400) and “classes/courses” (388). There was strong support for direct experiences with nature: “experience” (385), “fieldwork/study” (327) and “outdoor” (206).
Further analysis of the findings and synthesis with other definitions of ecological, environmental and science literacy will yield a comprehensive and compelling vision for ecological literacy for all citizens.