an assignment for EDG 4930 - Environmental Education Methods
by Andy Lyons, February 1997
The purpose of this mini-study was to assess the environmental education views of graduate students in the Wildlife Department at the University of Florida. Graduate students in the Department of Wildlife represent a group of people who have chosen to pursue their professional career in environmental science. As part of their daily work, they are immersed in environmental issues. Their opinions of environmental education are thus insightful in the sense that they are acutely aware of the scope and nature environmental challenges facing our planet and the actions needed to meet them. Their opinions are also important because they are likely to play a role as an environmental communicator or educator at some point in their career.
The survey questions targeted four areas:
A secondary objective of this survey was to test the feasibility of conducting a survey over email using a software program to automatically process the responses. Email can be a valuable tool to the researcher because it can reach a large number of people with little effort in a short amount of time. Specific audiences can be reached by using one of the many email mailing lists with a particular focus (ex. Green-Travel for ecotourism professionals) or batch email addresses (such as the batch list which broadcasts to all wildlife graduate students). Being an electronic medium, email surveys can also virtually eliminate the tedious phase of manually typing in data, provided one extracts the data using a specialized program such as the one developed for this study.
A survey instrument was develoed to collect data in the four areas of investigation. The survey was reviewed by two fellow wildlife graduate students and a final version was prepared. The survey was emailed via the batch mailing list on Wednesday, January 22, and a message reminding people to return the surveys was sent a couple days later. As an incentive to return the survey, respondents were offered a copy of the results and the MS Word macro that was developed to extract the data from the responses.
90% of respondents stated they had not taken an environmental science course in high school other than biology. Considering that this survey population is highly interested in environmental issues, we can infer from this result that in general environmental science is not widely offered in the high school curriculum and/or taken by students on a pre-college track.
Although 97% of respondents majored in an environmentally related subject, 73% stated they had never taken an environmental education or environmental communication course as an undergraduate. This supports the findings of other studies which found that the communication /education aspect of environmental science is not considered an essential skill by most undergraduate departments.
Of the 43% who stated there had been a single experience or influence that swayed their decision to pursue a career in wildlife, most listed a positive childhood experience in the outdoors or an influential adult such as a parent or teacher.
Concerning environmental education at the primary school level, 37% felt that environmental education should be taught as a separate subject, and 70% believed it should be infused into other subject areas (some people felt both ways). In contrast, at the middle high school level, 67% felt it should be taught separately, and 53% felt it should be infused into all subjects (again some people felt both ways). This supports findings from other studies that at the higher grade levels environmental topics are treated almost exclusively in science courses.
Although the proportion was not overwhelming, most respondents did not believe that a course on environmental education methods or environmental communications should be a requirement for wildlife graduate students (57%). This question generated the greatest number of comments, which in general stated that while it is important to offer an environmental education/communication course to wildlife graduate students, it should not be made a requirement due to other demands on a graduate studentís limited number of courses.
When asked whether educating people on environmental issues will be a significant part of their ultimate job, 40% said it would be a significant part of their work, 47% felt it would be a small part of their work, 0% felt it would not be required, and 13% didnít know (Figure 1).
The Wildlife Department did not receive high marks when respondents were asked how well it prepares its graduate students to educate people on environmental issues, 41% said poor, 34% fair, 7% good, 0% excellent, and 17% didnít know (Figure 2). This preliminary result warrants further attention by the Wildlife Department as to how they may improve their training of graduate students to be effective communicators/educators. The comments from this question generally stated that opportunities for students to develop communication/education skills are available, but are not emphasized or taken by most graduate students.
When asked about their personal outlook on the environmental challenges facing our planet in the 21st century, 39% were hopeful, 52% pessimistic, and 7% donít like to think about it. The comments in this section generally recognized that education is an important component to any long term solution to environmental problems.
Out of approximately 80 students on the batch email list, 30 responses to the survey were received (38%). This response rate is comparable or better than the rates of other Ďmail-iní surveys. Of the 30 responses received, 22 were received before the reminder message was sent out, and an additional 8 were received after the reminder message. The large number of responses received after the reminder message (27% of total) indicates that sending out a reminder message is a sound strategy when conducting surveys via email.
After receiving the reminder message, one student reported he never received the survey. He was sent another copy and returned it. This again demonstrates the value of sending a reminder message.
Three students reported they had problems returning the survey due to unfamiliarity or inadequacy of their email software. These students were helped as much as possible, and two were able to correct the problem and return the survey. This illustrates that email surveys require instructions on how to use the Reply or Forward command to return the survey to the senderís address.
83% of the respondents stated they would like to receive a copy of the survey results. This demonstrates the effectiveness of using the dissemination of survey results as an incentive to increase the response rate. Furthermore results can be easily and economically disseminated over email, another advantage of this medium. This type of incentive will be particularly effective when the topic of the survey is of interest to the targeted audience.
97% stated that the survey was easy to fill out using email, and only one respondent routinely failed to put the answers in the brackets provided.
The software developed to automatically extract the data from the responses worked as expected. It caught errors on a few responses (e.g. answer delimiting characters Ď[Ď or Ď]í that were deleted) as it is designed to do. The results were successfully imported into MS Excel and MS Access for analysis and presentation of the results. 63% of the respondents requested a copy of the software, demonstrating it as another effective incentive.
The information provided by the wildlife graduate students in this survey generally upholds other research findings in environmental education. Positive childhood experiences in the outdoors and/or an influential adult role model can have a strong effect on oneís interest and dedication to environmental issues. At the high school level, environmental education is generally taught as part of a biology course. At the college and graduate school level environmental education / communication are not considered to be essential skills for environmental professionals, although their importance is widely recognized. The Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation should reexamine its training options in education/communication for graduate students. Finally, email can be an effective tool for administering surveys, although additional research into issues such as non-response bias for this medium should be explored.Appendix A - Raw Data