COS 24-2 - Last undergrad in the woods: Students’ prior experiences and regional environmental literacy

Tuesday, August 9, 2011: 8:20 AM
9C, Austin Convention Center
Kristen M. Kostelnik1, Tammy Long1, Emily B. Morrison2, Joseph Dauer3 and Jonathon W. Schramm4, (1)Plant Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, (2)Department of Zoology and Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, (3)School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska - Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, (4)Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Environmental literacy (i.e., general knowledge about ecological and socio-political issues relevant to the environment) among the general populace has become a concern over the last couple of decades. In addition to being a component of increasingly important general science literacy, environmental literacy has a crucial role to play in informing public discussion about contemporary problems that have an environmental connection.  Some have hypothesized a link between regular outdoor recreation (e.g., hunting, camping) and environmental literacy, especially for the locality or region in which the recreation occurs. To examine this assertion, we administered two surveys to undergraduate introductory biology students (n=375). The first survey explored students’ knowledge about Great Lakes ecosystems (e.g., environmental issues, habitat types, plant/animal species).  A second, independent survey asked students about their current and prior outdoor experiences, as well as the extent of their concern regarding specific issues facing the Great Lakes region.


Nearly all students (86%) could name the 5 Great Lakes, identify a critical environmental issue for the region (95%), and name a habitat in the region (90%).We found that students’ secondary (middle and high school) and post-secondary outdoor experiences were highly correlated (r = 0.69). Secondary and post-secondary outdoor experiences were weakly negatively correlated with students’ personal concerns about important issues facing the Great Lakes region including water removal from the lakes, invasive species, and loss of endangered species in the region (correlation coefficients range from -0.26 to -0.32). Outdoor experiences did not appear to influence what students regarded as the most important environmental issues specific to the Great Lakes ecosystems. The most commonly cited issues were pollution (42%), water conservation (24%), invasive species and wildlife/habitat conservation (14%).  Students identified wetlands (34%), forests (32%), and non-wetland aquatic habitats (25%) as most critical to preserve, and were three times more likely to provide ecocentric than anthropocentric explanations. Our results point to the complexity of what influences environmental literacy.  Even by narrowly-defined, regional criteria, environmental literacy appears to be shaped by more than a students’ accumulated set of outdoor experiences.

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