An engaged citizenry has the responsibility to take an active role in addressing environmental problems in a socially responsible manner. To be well-informed, citizens need to know where to acquire information, identify potential biases, discriminate between sources of conflicting viewpoints, and intelligently review and synthesize information. This is a lifelong skill that is important to nurture at the undergraduate level, particularly in light of the overwhelming preference of this age group for on-line information sources over traditional media outlets. In 2013, we developed and introduced a multi-phase literacy exercise in a Principles of Ecology course designed for non-majors. This assignment had two parts: 1) library introduction and independent exploration and 2) small group work and presentation of group findings. In 2013-2016, we administered a pre- and post-assignment survey to assess whether student understanding of how environmental issues are presented in various media outlets as compared to the scholarly literature had changed. In particular, we asked if students will now be more discriminating when interpreting how issues are portrayed in various popular media outlets.
In general, students’ self-assessed understanding of how environmental issues are presented in the media moderately increased. Students also reported that they would be more discriminating when determining from which media sources they receive information on environmental issues in the future. Although the independent exploration portion of the assignment was useful, we determined that the experience of sharing in small groups and the presentation portion of this exercise helped students synthesize and form a more complete understanding of the issues examined. In addition to the value in better understanding the credibility of various media sources in their portrayal of environmental issues, these data will be used to assess and fine-tune the learning outcomes of the Principles of Ecology course, a popular core science offering for non-science majors.