Environmental action begins with environmental literacy

Something more than just education is required to produce environmental action. The WATERSHED Project supplies the missing pieces to our city schools.

by Merle O'Neill
magine students throughout San Diego County involved in restoration and monitoring projects that relate to their science learning. Imagine projects that contribute to the local environment and students contributing to the well being of their communities.
Thanks to the WATERSHED Project, you don't have to use your imagination. Here are a few examples of the results produced by this program: Active WATERSHED Project teachers and students are also at Vallecitos Elementary, Spencer Valley, Escondido High, Oakhill Elementary, Oakcrest Jr. High, San Dieguito High, Ada Harris Elementary, Earl Warren, Pacific View Elementary and La Presa, Highlands Elementary.
These projects are just part of an effort to introduce environmental literacy into the curriculum of our schools.

Path to literacy

In the two decades since the first Earth Day, organizations such as the EPA, Department of Education and the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) have endorsed the development of the well informed and environmentally literate citizen as an answer to our threatened environment.
The term "environmental literacy" (EL) is used to describe an individual's capacity to perceive and interpret the relative health of environmental systems and to take appropriate action to maintain, restore or improve the health of those systems. In 1968, Charles Roth initiated the work to define and develop a continuum of EL. He asserted that an individual who is environmentally literate possesses the following characteristics; 1) environmental knowledge; 2) environmental attitude and sensitivity; 3) problem solving, planning and collaborative/facilitative skills, action strategies and 4) the ability to take action to improve the environment.
Many have thought that the path to EL was through environmental knowledge and awareness-based education. Recent research indicates that knowledge and awareness is only one part of the equation. Dr. Mathias Finger, in his study of the Swiss, clearly demonstrated that when environmental knowledge and awareness was pursued in response to "fears about the environment," it became a coping mechanism and had little to do with the development of long term pro-active behavior. However, an ongoing involvement with nature combined with knowledge was the strongest contributing factor to the development of EL.
Several recent studies performed as part of the Masters' program in the School of Education at SDSU have verified these findings. Each of the studies identified several common conditions that exist among those considered environmentally literate. They are: frequency of interaction with nature (outdoors); significant role model, generally and most frequently an educator and then a parent; knowledge and the practice of community service on behalf of the environment.


The Daedalus Alliance for Environmental Education, in its work with SuperSEED (Science Environmental Education Development) Institute for teachers and the WATERSHED Project, has developed an educational delivery system that significantly enhances the development of environmental literacy in teachers and students. Recent work by Daedalus founders O'Neill and Winkelman has demonstrated that nature immersion training significantly effected the EL of approximately 50 teacher graduates. The assessments of 2,000 students trained by the Watershed Project consistently showed that they, 1) understood their roles in the community, 2) knew that their contributions were important, and 3) knew about the problems of their communities.
Through the WATERSHED Project, several classrooms in the San Diego Schools are now engaged in developing their EL using the Watershed Education Model. The project is a program that begins with "Adopt A Watershed," a science-based curriculum where the concepts are applied to a local restoration and/or monitoring project. The learning process is then communicated through a community education project.
If you would like further information on how you can get your classroom involved, please contact: Merle O'Neill at (619) 793-0411.

The Daedalus Alliance for Environmental Education is a non-profit organization whose goals are to improve the science and environmental literacy of teachers and students and the development of the responsible citizen on behalf of the environment.