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Environmental Education: An Appealing Pathway to Project-Based Guided Investigations (January 2023): Foundations of the Field

By Stephen T. Schroth and Janese Daniels

Foundations of the Field

Although the environment has always existed, interest in it really began to blossom during the mid-nineteenth century. More than a century ago, John Muir noted in My First Summer in the Sierra that “[w]hen we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”1 Building on such increasing interest in and awareness of the environment, green education—sometimes also referred to as environmental education or sustainability studies—seeks to examine the Earth’s systems; humanity’s impact on these systems; and public health concerns that are correlated to depleted fisheries, drought, global warming, loss of biodiversity and habitat, pollution, and soil erosion. Providing a framework that permits a multidisciplinary understanding of the connections between people, the environment, and the economy, green education interests many children and adults who wonder about the world around them, its future, and their place within it.

The beginnings of green education as a field can be traced back to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, which some believe was the first international gathering to examine people, the environment, and their interconnectedness. Recognizing the relationship between education and sustainable development, the conference for the first time called for universal access to environmental education. This initial call was strengthened by the 1978 Tbilisi Declaration, stemming from the world’s first Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education in 1977, which recognized the need for environmental education and proposed an interdisciplinary framework for enabling teachers to provide such an education to children enrolled in kindergarten through the twelfth grade.

Before the 1980s, environmental education was seen as the exclusive purview of K–12 education, with higher education’s role limited to research and curricular support. This changed somewhat with the Bruntland Commission (also known as the World Commission on Environment and Development), which crafted a declaration defining sustainable development as the challenge to meet the world’s present needs without diminishing future generations’ ability to do the same. This charge compelled colleges and universities to become more involved in both environmental education and sustainable development, leading to the creation of environmental science departments at many institutions. This in turn helped to boost interest in the subject in K–12 schools, as newer teachers had been exposed to environmental education coursework as part of their preparation for the classroom.

Out of the Bruntland Commission’s call for action came the Talloires Declaration, a ten-point action plan that was endorsed by college and university leaders around the globe.2 It called for the incorporation of sustainability principles in all aspects of an institution’s operations, including teaching, research, operations, and outreach. As a result of efforts made by faculty and administrators to comply with the declaration’s goals, higher education took a leadership role in defining what green education entailed, thus establishing the breadth and focus of the supporting curriculum and shaping new work on applied technology, building design and construction, and the scope of interdisciplinary research. Over time, green initiatives began to affect every facet of college and university life from faculty research and teaching to student engagement, operational practices and systems, and staff and institutional responsibility for sustainable practices.

Environmental and sustainability education may be approached in several ways. Some individual educators, administrators, and institutions elect to offer classes or programs dedicated to environmental and sustainability education, while others choose instead to incorporate it throughout existing classes and across the curriculum. For this reason, while we of course include works dedicated to environmental and sustainability education from both a foundational and practical perspective in this essay, we also cover a variety of texts that permit educators to structure their teaching day using trade literature or other preexisting materials to create unique environmental and sustainability experiences for the students they serve.

1. John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1911), 211.

2. The text in four languages, list of signatories, and other implementation details are available at the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) site (