For many years, the environmental education field has focused on providing high-caliber programs to address the lack of environmental literacy being seen in our society. It is past time to turn our attention to scale, reach, and equity.
There are numerous organizations providing high-quality environmental education (EE) programs across the southeast. Environmental Education is a process that helps individuals, communities and organizations learn more about the environment, and develop skills and understanding about how to address global challenges (NAAEE, 2022). The southeast faces issues that are common across the country. Most programs operate independently of one another and, historically, little has been done to harness the collective impact of these programs to create large-scale change in each state or throughout the region. Funding often goes toward local, disjointed initiatives rather than larger-scale, capacity-building initiatives. This makes it challenging to sustain these projects in the long term or to extend the impact beyond the local community.
This analysis was designed to take a comprehensive look at the environmental education already happening on the ground, identify gaps and barriers to access that prevent successful implementation, and provide recommendations and next steps for increasing environmental literacy efforts in the southeast. This analysis will equip the organizations conducting environmental and conservation-related work in the region with the resources they need to address gaps, allocate resources more effectively, and ultimately meet the goal of increasing environmental literacy levels and stewardship behaviors.
In addition, the analysis will serve as a guide for future strategic planning efforts in individual states, as well as the regional SEEA collaborative. As a tool, it will help ensure that in the future we continue to focus our limited time and resources in areas where we will have the biggest impact.
A Summary for Busy People
If you are short on time, here is a brief summary of our major takeaways:
SEEA’s regional landscape analysis was designed to provide:
a comprehensive look at organizational reach and program offerings
a better understanding of the staffing, structure, and funding of organizations and how that affects reach and sustainability
organizational strategies for scaling programs for broader, equitable reach
state-level initiatives for scaling programs for broader, equitable reach
state and regional findings to inform future strategic planning efforts
Our key takeaways:
Over 700 EE providers participated across eight states (44% nonprofits, 39% government entities, 11% higher education institutes, and 7% businesses)
Over 40% of these are working with a budget of under $250,000 and an average staff size of 4 individuals
These providers collectively serve 2,194,272 students/youth and 16,355 schools annually
There are 79,857 volunteers across all programs
There needs to be more in-depth engagement opportunities for both educators and students; most programs are under an hour in length, and less than half of EE experiences are more than one day
Staff and leadership of EE providers do not reflect the overall demographics of the state
The average entry-level salary for environmental educators is 15-25% lower than in comparable fields
There is a need to increase opportunities for engagement at the early childhood and high school level in order for students to receive the same level of engagement in environmental education from kindergarten through 12th grade
There is a need for more support and training around the importance of evaluating programs and better tools to help providers do this in a meaningful way that allows them to strengthen their programs
There are gaps in services found across the region in rural areas, areas with the highest social vulnerability index, and areas with the lowest income
There is a need for additional support and training around the importance of collecting demographic information and how it can be used to strengthen programs and opportunities for broader engagement.
The main driver of this project was to gain an enhanced understanding of the environmental education providers in the southeast who are working towards the same or similar goals. Through the design and implementation of an environmental education program provider survey tool, we engaged in a robust mapping process to gather and share the insights and offerings of 700 EE providers across the southeast. The survey was designed not only to determine who the players were but also to provide a baseline dataset of the current assets and barriers in our field so that we would be equipped to take a more holistic approach to advancing environmental literacy efforts in the region.
At the onset of this project, the leadership team spent a considerable amount of time gathering information and insights from other groups who have completed similar analyses, determining what kind of information various partners would like to see in our analysis, and discussing potential partnerships. It was these conversations that led us to a collaboration with EcoRise and the University of Texas. EcoRise had already invested significant resources in survey design as well as data management, analytics, and visualization for their work in Texas and Louisiana. We engaged in an intensive process to merge our surveys and create baseline questions that can serve as a standard for our states as well as a nationwide effort. There are numerous other states that have expressed an interest in adopting this survey tool, which would allow us to compare data beyond the southern US to provide a national perspective on the field.
The dashboard is an interactive tool that educators and stakeholders can use to identify EE providers, programs, and schools in their area. The tool provides a quick snapshot of all the findings from our surveys via charts and graphs that can be filtered and exported. Educators can explore specific details through a toolbar that allows them to sort by geographic location, school, organization, and numerous other filters to narrow down to their specific needs. Educators and stakeholders can also access a complete list of EE providers and program profiles for the providers who completed the survey.
From the regional and state Climate, Education, and Equity maps, schools are now able to find environmental education providers in their area and learn more about what they offer. Environmental education providers can also use these to connect with local schools, look at demographics for their service area, and better understand climate and environmental issues in their community. For example, a food access organization could use the map to find food deserts in their county and work toward addressing those inequities.
Our survey included responses from over 700 EE providers (44% nonprofits, 39% government entities, 11% higher education institutes, and 7% businesses). Over 40% of these are working with a budget of under $250,000 and an average staff size of 4 individuals. To conduct a more in-depth review and analysis of the data, SEEA contracted 2nd Nature Trec, an organization that provides a wide range of services related to the outdoor industry. A summary of those findings is provided below.
We found geographic gaps in most states where no environmental education providers are located. These tend to fall in rural areas, areas with the highest social vulnerability index, and areas with the lowest income. We also found gaps in areas where states reported the highest obesity rates, particularly in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The number of EE programs in each state ranges from 25 (4%; Tennessee) to 133 (23%; North Carolina), with an average of 80 programs per state. According to the data, there are gaps in services in Tennessee, the southern counties in Mississippi and Alabama, the southeastern counties of Georgia and South Carolina, the panhandle of Florida, and the eastern counties of North Carolina and Kentucky (2nd Nature TREC, 2022). Because our data only shows us the headquarters of the providers, we cannot be certain that these areas are underserved, but given that most of the environmental education takes place as field trips or direct teaching, we can make an assumption that many of these areas go unsupported due to the distance it would take to serve them.
Field Trends Dashboard
The dashboard has a wealth of information available for educators and stakeholders. The following serves to highlight some of the regional findings, with the understanding that the data can be sorted by any number of and combination of factors such as state, sector, themes, audience served, and so on. For more details on how to use this tool to dig deeper into the data, please see the dashboard tutorial.
While data varies somewhat from state to state, we found the predominant program themes in the region to be, respectively: Conservation, Outdoor Learning, Biodiversity, Water, and STEM. In Florida and Mississippi, Marine and Coastal understandably ranked in the top five, while North Carolina and Tennessee saw Natural History ranking in the top five.
Terms for Work
The primary term being used across the region was overwhelmingly “environmental education,” followed by “outdoor education,” “conservation education,” and “nature-based learning.”
The top terms that teachers use most often include:
The top terms that EE Providers
use most often include:
The primary offerings being provided across the region were direct teaching and field trips, with the exception of Mississippi, whose primary offering was instructional materials. The primary audience served across the region tends to be K-5 students, followed by 6-8th grade students. This demonstrates the need to increase opportunities for engagement at the early childhood and high school levels in order for students to receive the same level of engagement in environmental education throughout K-12th grade.
Depth of Engagement
We learned that most programs were under an hour in length, and less than half of EE experiences are more than one day. This short-term engagement matters because a key facet of effective environmental education is intensive, long-term engagement. Environmental education that is correlated with standards and provides repeated, long term engagement throughout the school year can be invaluable in enhancing learning for all students. Studies show that an intensive intervention, such as a one-week EE program, has helped upper elementary to middle school students to exhibit significantly higher pro-environmental behaviors (Larson, et al, 2010). Professional learning data mirrors this as well for teachers. These longer-term interactions inspire changes in attitudes and behavior and are shown to be much more effective than shorter, one-and-done type engagements such as a single classroom lesson.
Anecdotally, many in our field offer these shorter programs in part due to external emphasis from funders or leadership on reaching higher numbers for programs. In order to move the needle on environmental literacy and pro-environmental behavior, there is a need to shift this focus from quantity to quality.
From our initial review, we have gleaned that environmental education providers are doing limited evaluations of their programs. Most providers are using informal methods of evaluation. There is a need for more support and training around the importance of program evaluation, as well as tools that can help providers do this in a meaningful way that will help them strengthen their programs. Our eeGuidance on Evaluation is designed to demystify the evaluation process and address these barriers. Coming soon!
If we adjust for non-responses, our data shows us that 7% of environmental education staff identify as Black, Indigenous, or Persons of Color (BIPOC), which is significantly lower than the southeast regional average of 28.97% per 2020 US Census Data. We found senior staff to be just 6.5% (2nd Nature TREC, 2022). This has identified a need for more BIPOC staff and leadership in environmental education organizations. Data showed that 18.5% of environmental education organizations had boards that reflected the same or higher BIPOC representation than the region.
In addition, the reported average of students served who identify as BIPOC was 45%, and educators served who identify as BIPOC was 60%, significantly higher than the regional average (28.97%) (2nd Nature TREC, 2022). However, our findings show that very few providers collect demographic data on the audiences they serve. This skews the data significantly for those organizations who are reporting demographic data, making it challenging to determine who is and is not being served. This also prevents us from being able to address demographic gaps in our region. We anticipate that the actual percentages of BIPOC students and educators served are much lower than our data suggests. There is a need for additional support and training around the importance of collecting demographic information and how it can be used to address equity and strengthen programs and opportunities for broader engagement. This led us to the development of the eeGuidance for Collecting Demographic Information.
Equitable Pay and Benefits
In a comparison of starting salaries for similar fields, environmental education was found to be lower than all three comparison fields. The average starting salary for environmental education reported in our survey was $29,515 for a full-time position compared to $34,900 for education, $39,100 for forestry, and $37,800 for hospitality and tourism. This finding made the case for a reimagining of more equitable hiring and pay practices. SEEA’s eeGuidance for Equitable Pay and Hiring provides recommendations and highlights some best practices for environmental and outdoor education organizations. Once applied, these standards and resources will help improve employee retention, attract more diverse talent, create a sustainable career path, and establish our field as a viable profession.
Data collected in the original and new landscape analysis is constantly being mined for trends, guidance, and information on how to better support and build the field of environmental education. Interested in doing your own research? Contact email@example.com.