Study Shows Lack of National Consensus on Teaching K-12 Students about Human-Environmental Impacts

Maps of Human/Environment Interactions

The tendency to emphasize or de-emphasize human/environment interactions in state science standards does not fall into regional clusters, nor into the familiar red-state/blue-state political pattern. Across the nation, I --> E topics get less attention in science standards than either E --> H or H --> E topics.


The destruction caused by natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and human activities such as mountaintop removal mining are powerful examples of how the environment and society are tightly interwoven. But to what extent do, or should, state science curricula in the U.S. seek to investigate or influence the nature of this interaction? That is a question new research being published in a special issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education examines by looking at the degree to which the individual state science education standards encourage study of society and the environment as interrelated systems.

What the researchers, scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, a member of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, found is surprising for its lack of consensus. Across the nation, there is generally more attention paid to teaching about how human society impacts the environment than for teaching about how the environment impacts humans and society—but support for both vary widely throughout the country. Moreover, in most states there is minimal or no support in the standards for teaching about the ways in which individual actions affect the environment.

"I do think that K-12 students should study interactions between humans and the environment in school," said Kim Kastens, a Doherty senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty and lead author of the study. "Their generation will have to cope with serious environmental problems, and they should understand the environmental impacts of the decisions they will be making as individuals and in their careers."

The researchers first coded each of 49 state science curriculum standards to assess if and in what manner K-12 educators are being directed by their state standards to direct students' attention and concern to issues of human interactions with the Earth. They then analyzed the standards across education divisions (elementary, middle school and high school) for mentions of the ways humans or society impacts the environment, the ways the environment impacts society or the ways individuals impact the environment.

In all but four states, the researchers found more emphasis on how people and society affect the environment than on how the environment affects people and society. In every state without exception, they found less emphasis on how individuals impact the environment than on how society as a whole impacts the environment.

The researchers did not include results for individual states in order to focus attention on national patterns emerging from the nation's 49 independent educational bodies. In particular, they found a lack of consensus over whether or not human-environmental interactions were important enough to direct that students turn their attention to such issues as water pollution or natural disasters at any point during their education.

"What our study shows is that there is no consensus at all across the nation about whether or not human-environment interactions should be part of science education," said Kastens. "In some states, it's as though you had landed in a space ship on a planet with no sentient beings or civilization. You study the air and water and rocks and plants and animals, but do not study any object or process caused by humans. In some other states, human-environment interactions are shoved into all sorts of nooks and crannies in the science standards, even when a basic science focus might be more appropriate."