How to Teach Environmental Literacy

The nature of the work I do every day centers on building environmental literacy—the understanding and skills a person needs to recognize their relationship to the natural world and make informed decisions about how they impact the environment—in our students. I’ve spent the last two years working with a cohort of teachers from around the country building a framework for teaching climate change and climate justice.

But my time and professional energy wasn’t always focused on the environment. My nonlinear journey to this work was fostered by what I consider the two most important components of environmental literacy.

The Environment Through an Interdisciplinary Lens

I was not an environmental studies major in college. In fact, I didn’t even spend any of my college years formally studying the environment. Rather, I graduated with a double major in art history and American studies. I had always been interested in our nation’s history and specifically our nation’s history with the ocean. 

I thought studying art and American studies would be a great combination to get my foot in the door of a museum––ideally a museum focused on our maritime past. As I left college, I took advantage of internships and fellowships, and it was in pursuing these experiences that I was introduced to the study of environmental history—the history of America’s relationship with the ocean is, after all, an environmental story. 

It is my background in—and my love for—the humanities that brought me to the following conclusion: if we are to truly build environmental literacy in our students, we must bring an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning about the environment. 

Part of this truth is simply about numbers. Interdisciplinary learning ensures that we will impact a wider range of students. If we teach about the environment in math, history, and art class, students of all interests and backgrounds will be impacted. For example, a math teacher could use climate data to build word problems and then discuss the real-world issues around those data points. Or a history teacher could talk about the Great Depression through the lens of the environment and the conservation movement. By connecting content areas other than science to the natural world,           we might even create a passion in a student who may have never chosen to take an environmental science course. 

The main impact of interdisciplinary learning, though, is that it brings context to science learning. Humans are a part of the natural world. What we do impacts nature and vice versa. Each component of our society and culture is at play in this relationship—our economy, cultural beliefs, history, government policy, land use practices, and culinary traditions. 

To only study the environment in a science classroom is to rob students of the full understanding of the world around them and the interconnections of this earth. It robs them of the important skill of understanding all of the parts in a system and how they interact and impact one another. It also increases the likelihood that students won’t understand why the information they are learning matters. 

For example, it’s one thing for students in an environmental science class to learn about the impact of mining on the land and water, but without the context for how mining impacts human health or how the state and federal government are tackling that issue, the topic won’t really matter to them. Interdisciplinary learning is essential to bridging the divide between rote scientific information and real-world application. 

Our Relationship with The Natural World

I grew up spending summer days on the beach with a mother who loved the ocean and the critters that live in it. As a child, I would walk up and down the beach collecting shells. And so, from an early age I was able to name the various species we would find. 

I eventually took a long hiatus from this kind of exploration and curiosity for the natural world. In fact, it wouldn’t be until after college when I regained the desire to actively pursue outdoor adventures and the yearning to be able to name the things around me in the environment. Through this life experience, I gained the second conclusion about environmental literacy: We all have our own relationship with nature––and educators can help students build that connection.

I spend a lot of time outside now. My time outside is essential to building compassion, care, interest, knowledge, and curiosity for the environment. Exploring a local nature preserve or spending a Saturday kayaking helps me to remember why I do what I do as an environmental professional. It also helps me to draw connections between things I’ve learned from a book or colleague and the real world. And it does it in a way that plays upon emotion. Time in nature builds upon our scientific knowledge, but it also makes us connect and care. 

Connection is what we will need to steward nature thoughtfully and empathetically.

I’m not saying that everyone has to be an outdoor enthusiast, but everyone does need to get outside to begin to understand their own relationship to nature: how much they like it, how it works, how it makes them feel, and what their role in nature is. 

Teachers can help facilitate this process through small steps, such as:

  • Having students keep a nature journal throughout a semester. 
  • Prompting students to think about their own family history and culture in relation to nature. 
  • Initiating brain breaks outside as a small step away from normal class activities. 
  • Using their campus as its own classroom and assigning projects that require the students to learn about the various species they observe. 

The simple act of shifting just one lesson to include environmental themes, or turning one class session into an outdoor experience, is a great first step to building environmental literacy for students. Whatever the approach, teachers are uniquely positioned to help students build their connection—a connection greatly needed to embed ecological knowledge within our communities and build a drive for environmental action. 

I’ve found that many people choose to go about their daily lives without truly facing the facts about the gravity of climate change and the environmental questions it raises. This avoidance plays out in educational settings where students are not receiving the environmental education they need to understand this fast-changing world. Fighting this climate-related avoidance can, and should, start in the classroom. 

Ronnie Vesnaver

Ronnie Vesnaver is the director of the Chesapeake Watershed Semester at the Gunston School in Centreville, Maryland.