A Curriculum to Enhance Environmental Literacy

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  • INDIRA NAIRDepartment of Engineering and Public PolicyCarnegie Mellon University

    SHARON JONESDepartment of Civil EngineeringRose-Hulman Institute of Technology

    JENNIFER WHITEH. John Heinz, III, School of Public Policy and ManagementCarnegie Mellon University


    Environmental literacy is an important part of undergraduate edu-cation. Such literacy is optimally gained with an approach thatweaves together the necessary disciplinary knowledge within aproblem-based context. This paper describes the result of effortsover a decade developing and teaching an environmental literacycourse at the undergraduate level. The objective of the course is toenable students to make informed decisions in the context of envi-ronmental issues. In this paper, we describe the theoretical under-pinnings of the course, provide a course description, and discuss arecent assessment of the effectiveness of the course in promotingenvironmental literacy. The material is currently being organizedas a web-based text.


    Environmental issues affect, and are affected by, all of our activi-ties to varying degrees. The need to have a working knowledge ofenvironmental issues is not confined to environmentalists, environ-mental scientists, and/or environmental engineers. In fact, most en-vironmental professionals are primarily involved in trying to fixenvironmental problems. However, the general populacecitizens,corporations, institutions, and governmentsare the primaryshapers of the environment. Environmental problems contain in-terconnections of concepts that individually form the topic of sepa-rate formal disciplines such as ecology, thermodynamics, law,ethics, and so on. A coherent environmental literacy course needs toaddress these technical and non-technical concepts as well as theirinteractions. Such a course is therefore essentially interdisciplinaryand a good basis for teaching students the integration of differentdisciplinary knowledge to address real and vital problems.

    The possibility of student engagement and the complexity ofthe topics make the environment one of the most exciting and chal-

    lenging arenas for teaching and learning. College students bring tosuch a course varying degrees of knowledge and comprehensionabout the environment. They bring passion, emotions, and precon-ceived opinions. A central responsibility of the course is to recog-nize the knowledge they bring, and to equip them with a frameworkfor competent and informed decision making about the environ-ment. To enable students to feel comfortable about interpreting andusing new knowledge, a literacy course should also teach methodsof structuring a new problem, and methods of recognizing com-monalities and differences in classes of problems so that the transferof learning to a new problem can occur.

    Development of the curriculum presented in this paper is the result of teaching portions of the course in various forms over thelast decade. A recent National Science Foundation Course and Curriculum Development Grant allowed us to formalize the cur-riculum into a series of nine modules that a cover a minimum set ofmaterials that we feel is necessary for environmental literacy. Thispaper describes the course that has resulted from these efforts. Assuch, we provide a brief discussion of the theoretical underpinningsof the course, a course description, and the results of a recent assess-ment of the course.


    Environmental literacy is hard to define. Scientists, philosophers,and educators including David Orr, Hans Jonas, and StephenSchneider have described the dimensions of environmental literacy.In his book, Ecological Literacy, David Orr, poses the multiplicity ofquestions that the quest for environmental literacy brings:

    The crisis of sustainability and the problems of education are inlarge measure a crisis of knowledge. But is the problem as is com-monly believed, that we do not know enough? Or, that we knowtoo much? Or, that we do not know enough about some things andtoo much about other things? Or, is it that our scientific methodsare in some ways flawed? Is it that we have forgotten things we needto remember? Or, is it that we have forgotten other ways of know-ing that lie in the realm of vision, intuition, revelation, empathy, oreven common sense? Such questions are not asked oftenenough [1].

    Orr also discusses the importance of a sense of place in ecologi-cal thinking. To this we would add the importance of a sense oftime. Discussing todays technological imperative. PhilosopherHans Jonas has pointed out that the ubiquity and causal pregnancyof technology has increased our reach in space and time to an unprecedented level. This, he argues, calls for a new ethic and responsibility for the technological age. David Orr cites GarrettHardins definition of ecological literacy as the ability to ask whatthen? For Orr, in addition to the ability to read and calculate,

    January 2002 Journal of Engineering Education 57

    A Curriculum to Enhance Environmental Literacy

  • ecological literacy also implies an intimate knowledge of our landscapes, and an affinity for the living world. It is, too, a systemicview, to see things in their wholeness [1].

    Stephen Schneider also addresses this issue of environmentalliteracy [2]. He states that it is an unattainable goal to expect stu-dents to gain a detailed knowledge about the content of all environ-mentally relevant disciplines. Instead, Schneider proposes that stu-dents should be taught how to ask three questions to the expertsthat include what can happen, what are the odds, and how doyou know. He argues that students do not need to know the tech-nical aspects of opposing views, but they should have the skill toevaluate the credibility of the process. Although we agree withmuch of what Schneider discusses, our thrust in the curriculum isthat to understand the answers to those three questions, the studentneeds a basic level of understanding about the science, technology,and policy associated with the issues.

    Since 1996, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has offeredan advanced placement test to evaluate a one-course content in environmental literacy at the baccalaureate level, titled Environ-mental Science. The content is divided into four categories ofvarying weight. From highest to lowest weight, the categories in-clude ecological concepts, environmental impacts, environmentalmanagement and conservation, and political processes. In otherwords, this definition of environmental literacy includes basicknowledge across a variety of disciplines from the sciences to the hu-manities. The heaviest weight is given to the scientific and techno-logical concepts.

    Before we began to formulate this course in 1990, we did an in-formal survey of our colleagues in the disciplines of environmentalengineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon. We asked themfor the minimum set of scientific and technological principles thatan environmentally literate person should know and be able toapply. The answers could be summarized as the understanding ofthree broad principles and their consequences: conservation ofmass, conservation of energy, and an understanding of risk and uncertainty.

    From these discussions, we conclude that environmental literacyat the baccalaureate level is the capability for a contextual under-standing of an environmental issue to enable analysis, synthesis,evaluation, and decision making at a citizens level. We identifieda fundamental core of knowledge areas (principles and methods)that is a sufficiently comprehensive set so that the problem area ofenvironment can be understood without disciplinary expertise.These core knowledge areas include an understanding of:

    interaction of the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere,biosphere, and anthroposphere;

    first and second laws of thermodynamics, practiced as en-ergy balances;

    law of conservation of mass practiced as materials bal-ances;

    ecological structures and biological evolution; interaction between population growth and resource

    consumption; industrial ecology, and life cycle analysis frameworks; risk, focusing on how quantitative risk is calculated, how

    it is communicated, and how it can be managed; and regulatory and ethical frameworks.In addition to the core knowledge areas, an environmental lite-

    racy course needs to provide students with the ability to:

    apply a systems approach and understand the limitationsof system models;

    build from their initial understanding of an issue inclu-ding using reliable sources of information and being ableto discriminate among the data; and

    analyze, synthesize, and evaluate alternate solutions.Each of these additional literacy requirements is briefly dis-

    cussed in the next section.


    A. A Systems ApproachLarge-scale environmental issues such as global climate change

    are studied by bringing together large working models of the atmos-phere, of climate, and of the distribution and dispersion of releases ofmaterials from human activity and evaluating the resulting system. Inhis book, The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra defines a system as an inte-grated whole whose essential properties arise from the relationshipsbetween its parts [3]. Thus, an understanding at the systemic levelmeans understanding not just isolated entities, but the relationshipsthat connect these entities. It is also important for students to appre-ciate that the building blocks we normally usescientific definitionsand principlesare models of the world, being continually refined aswe learn more. While only a specialist can understand the details ofthis modeling, every student of the environment should recognize thecomplexity and inherent uncertainty of results emerging from suchmodels, and what these imply for decision making.

    B. Building on Initial Environmental Knowledge A central objective for the course is to move seamlessly between

    acquisition of factual knowledge and precise vocabulary, and appli-cation of these to problems in a decision-making framework. Tothis end, core knowledge is presented by approaching concepts thatare already in the students mental models. The model of teachingstudents to construct their knowledge is generally called a construc-tivist model [4]. Constructivism is based on two principles firstnoted by Von Glaserfield: 1) Knowledge is not passively received,but actively built up by the cognizing subject; and 2) The functionof cognition is adaptive and serves the organization of the experien-tial world, not the discovery of ontological reality [4]. Pedagogicalobjectives such as teaching students how to learn, to become awareof their mental models, and learning styles, and to become respon-sible for their own learning can be incorporated with this approach.

    Incorporating new material into the existing cognitive and affec-tive framework involves conceptual change. Conceptual change mod-els of learning have also been described by numerous present-dayscholars including Kenneth Strike, George Posner, and JosephNovak of Cornell, M.C. Wittrock of UCLA, Deidre Gentner ofthe University of Illinois, and Leo Klopfer and Audrey Champagneof the University of Pittsburgh [5]. The mental models approach includes starting with the knowledge students have, providing someunifying principles, and then allowing students to analyze, synthe-size and evaluate the issues. This approach helps students developthe capability to search and find the relevant knowledge for a givenproblem or situation.

    Inherent to representing the students mental model of a sys-tem are ways to draw the relationships among concepts. Diagrams

    58 Journal of Engineering Education January 2002

  • for representing knowledge frameworks, or logical sequences havebeen used in various disciplines under names such as concept maps, flowcharts, mind maps, and of course, mental models. Novak andGowin discuss extensively the use of two such tools, concept mapsand Vee diagrams [6]. In Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge,

    perhaps the most useful primer on a variety of such diagrams,David Hyerle states that learners can use these to become inde-pendent, flexible, and interdependent builders of knowledge [7].There is no definite prescription for drawing concept maps, as theyare simply a schematic device for representing a set of concept

    January 2002 Journal of Engineering Education 59

    Table 1. Summary of topics included in environmental literacy core knowledge.

  • meanings embedded in a framework of propositions, or mean-ingful relationships between concepts in the form of propositions[6]. Practically, such a start for a topic also serves as a tool for brain-storming, and for the teacher to observe and correct existing misconceptions.

    C. Applying Core Environmental Literacy Knowledge: Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation

    Usually, the critical judgment to consider diverse criteria anddiscriminate between options is a faculty developed with expertiseand practice in a given subject area. Yet, environmental literacy re-quires that this evaluative faculty be developed in a non-expert.These evaluative skills fit into the traditional knowledge hierarchydescribed by Bloom as: knowledge, comprehension, application,analysis, synthesis and evaluation [8]. We suggest using decision-making scenarios as a way to foster such skills.

    A traditional design framework can be used to organize studentlearning of these skills. Broadly, the eight elements of the designframework may be thought of as: (1) issue analysis and problem de-finition, (2) model selection, (3) data collection, (4) data analysis,(5) generation of alternate solutions, (6) selection of evaluation cri-teria, (7) selection of optimal alternative, and (8) communication of

    that alternative. At different levels of student learning, different rel-ative emphases may be placed on each of these elements, howeverthe emphasis on decision making is crucial. Pedagogical and moti-vational factors such as teaching knowledge in context, learningthrough trial and error, extended periods for observation and test-ing, using the class material, and ethical responsibility, are all auto-matically built into the decision making approach to learning. Notethat each of these factors is cited by numerous authors as necessaryto attract and retain students [912].

    Exercises that engage students in situational learning have thegreatest success in generating student enthusiasm in this type ofcourse. Students often correspond with us long after the courseabout decisions they had to make as professionals, or for theirhome, and cite examples of how they used the skills from thecourse. Even when they have not understood the full issue, theyhave learned to recognize and articulate what they do not know, orneed to find out. However, time and other constraints make it im-possible to frame each concept. Misconceptions and inaccurateframing can enter in many ways. Keeping the right level...