Growing Up Green

University Park, PA (April 22, 2009) – Students who are the best informed about environmental science and the geosciences are also the most realistic about the environmental difficulties facing the world over the next 20 years, new research has found. But students who are least informed are the most wildly optimistic that things will improve.


These attitudes are among the results presented in Green at 15, a study done by sociologist David Baker and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University, in collaboration with a team of researchers at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, an international organization that brings together the governments of countries committed to democracy and the market economy.
The study analyzed student performance on PISA 2006, an international assessment of 15-year-olds done once every three years. In 2006, PISA focused on science, assessing the knowledge and skills of more than 400,000 students in 57 countries. “PISA is a very large study, and there is a lot of material that’s not covered in their final report,” Baker said. “It seemed to me that, given all the attention the environment has captured, it would be useful to know what 15-year-olds know and think about the environment, particularly environmental science and geoscience.”
The report looks at two broad areas- achievement, or scientific literacy, and students’ attitudes about the environment. In the area of achievement, American students’ performance was typical of other PISA assessments, with scores in the middle of the pack.
The assessment used a combination of multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions to give students an opportunity to analyze and interpret data. For example, a question on the Greenhouse Effect included graphs showing carbon dioxide emissions and the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere over time and asked students what information in the graphs supported a relationship between temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions.
Seventeen percent of American students demonstrated the highest level of proficiency, indicating that they could consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge to a variety of environmental topics. They also demonstrated the ability to link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions about environmental issues.
At the other end of the spectrum, 42 percent of American students performed at or below the lowest level. These students showed difficulty answering questions containing scientific information relevant to basic environmental phenomena or issues.
The portion of PISA dealing with attitudes about the environment assessed students’ familiarity with and sense of responsibility for environmental issues and their level of optimism about the environment.
Green at 15 showed that most students were familiar with issues such as air pollution, energy shortages and extinction of plants and animals. For most countries, there was no strong association between the students’ sense of responsibility for environmental issues and their proficiency in environmental science.
“The publication of this new study should inform school systems about how well they are doing in addressing important scientific issues about our Earth and its environment,” said Larry Suter, program manager at the National Science Foundation. “This report has applied the methods of scientific investigation to the study of a topic of concern to educators, scientists, and the general public.”
Fifty-five percent of participating U.S. schools had a specific course in environmental science, compared with 21 percent of such courses in schools in other OECD member countries.
Meanwhile, a separate report shows that middle school students in Iowa believe they have a critical role in protecting the environment for future generations, that they are already leading the way to make their own homes “greener,” and that they think the government, the private sector, schools and popular culture need to do more to promote conservation and sustainability. The newly published report includes an unprecedented survey of more than 140 students aged 11 and 12 at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa.
The children answered more than 40 questions that offer insight into the role environmental conservation and sustainability play in young people’s lives, and they wrote essays explaining what they think it will take to protect the environment, who should lead the charge, and why it matters. “They are no ordinary children,” the report says. “The students attend a remarkably green school, in a school district with particularly innovative green policies, in one of the greenest cities in the nation.”
The survey found that the children are keenly aware of what’s being done in their homes, their school, and their community to protect the environment. The majority of the students have changed something about their daily routine in order to help the environment, such as the length of time they shower or whether they leave the water running while brushing their teeth.
Many of them said they push their parents to do more to help the environment, such as turning off the car when it’s idling, riding a bike to work, and not adjusting the thermostat when it’s too warm or too cool.
The children rank themselves first when asked who should take responsibility to protect the environment in the future, but they also see a role for the government – though many of them see only a limited role – and also see roles for businesses, schools, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations.
“Their experience is almost certainly not representative of all youth in the country,” the report points out. “By finding out how these children live and think, we don’t learn what all youth think – we learn how young people nationwide can become more engaged in protecting the environment and what government entities, schools and communities can do to make it possible.”
Related Resources:
Environmental News Service- Growing Up Green
Green at 15
Computing for Sustainability