Who is Going to Care? From Butterflies to Environment-Based Education

By Gerald Lieberman, PhD|April 30, 2014

Sometimes it is best to start near the beginning and, in my case, that was a youth spent chasing butterflies, catching frogs, and fishing in nearby lakes. By the time I finished high school and entered UCLA, my passion took me into the field of ecology where I spent years exploring many parts of the world from the deserts of the Southwestern U.S. to the rainforests of Panama. I focused my research, writing, and thinking on what has become one of the most important challenges our planet faces – the global loss of biodiversity.


My first job out of graduate school was with The Nature Conservancy at a time when the organization was still small. One of the responsibilities that I had was reviewing every land acquisition project that the organization was considering from the perspective of biological value. The Nature Conservancy was at the early stages of growing into the powerhouse it has now become and, so in addition to looking at the biodiversity on any given property, I began to ask the question, “In 20 years, who is going to care about this land and the plants and animals that live here?”

More than 30 years later, that simple question, “Who is going to care?” has driven my whole career.

In the early 1980s, confident that there was great environmental education work going on in the U.S. and aware of the rapid rate of destruction of Earth’s tropical rainforests, I decided that I wanted to work where the action was. I built a program in Costa Rica in cooperation with the national Ministry of Education and two universities—a program that eventually was used to train all the elementary school teachers in the country.

Much to my surprise, in the early 1990s when I decided once again to focus my work in the U.S., it appeared that the field of environmental education had not been able to achieve nearly as much growth as what I observed in other parts of the world.

This led me to another question: with more people seemingly aware of environmental issues, why weren’t more students in the K-12 school system being exposed to environmental content and developing environmental literacy? (Although no scientifically sound studies are available, most experts estimate that only 5-10% of students in public schools receive any substantial instruction involving environmental content.)

With the good fortune of support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, I created the State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) and began my efforts to resolve this problem. It was not a coincidence that Pew was offering its support at the same time as states were beginning the process of formulating and implementing new education standards in everything, from English-Language Arts to Mathematics, Science, and History-Social Sciences.

SEER was fortunate to find state departments of education in 12 states interested in implementing environmental education, even though by this time (1995), most state departments of education were no longer allocating staffing or funding to environmental education.

To assure that their programs would have a meaningful role in new state systems of standards-based education, SEER’s members asked the staff to focus on one key topic—finding evidence that environmental education can play a meaningful role in helping students succeed in English-Language Arts to Mathematics, Science, and History-Social Sciences.

When, after a global search, we were unable to find any substantial evidence supporting this hypothesis, SEER initiated a major national study. The results of that groundbreaking study were published in 1998 in a report entitled, Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning.

SEER’s study coined the new term “environment-based education” (EBE), describing it as “a framework for instruction that focuses on standards-based educational results by using the environment and related issues as a context for instruction.” Although the terms environment-based education and environmental education share the word “environment” the two approaches are substantially different.

As described in depth in my recent book, Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts, “EBE has at its core three major goals: helping students achieve success with academic content standards; developing their understanding of interactions between natural and human social systems; and preparing students to be active members of a civil society with the skills they need to identify and resolve environmental challenges.”

Over the past 16 years, SEER has developed and implemented two major programs using the EBE approach. The first, is the EIC Model™, (Environment as an Integrating Context for learning) has been thoroughly implemented in about 150 schools across the country. Initially, this was done in cooperation with SEER’s state agency members, more recently the EIC Model™ has been adopted by individual charter schools and public schools in several states.

California’s Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI) is the second major EBE program developed in cooperation with and funding from the State of California. The EEI curriculum models many of the best practices for implementing environment-based education. Each unit gives students a thoroughly designed instructional strategy to help them master the selected academic content standards—this instructional design was the basis for the California State Board of Education’s approval of the 85 EEI instructional units. Similarly, with its basis on California’s adopted Environmental Principles and Concepts (EPC), students learn about the interactions and interconnections between natural and human social systems—the core of environmental literacy. Finally, particularly at the upper grades, as the EEI curriculum connects students to decision-making processes in a civil society, it provides them with many of the skills that they will need to resolve environmental issues in their communities.

With California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English-Language Arts and Mathematics, and the Next Generation Science Standards, there is still work to be done in demonstrating to educators how the EEI curriculum can be effectively used to help students master these new standards. Already, there has been great progress developing correlations that will guide teachers toward making these connections to the EEI.


Returning to my initial questions, “Who is going to care?” and “Why aren’t more students… developing environmental literacy?” environment-based education can provide an important part of the answer to both. The next generation will care if they have the opportunity to learn and do something to improve the environment. We can get the environment its rightful place in K-12 education if, and only if, we effectively connect the development of environmental literacy with standards-based education.


Gerald Lieberman, PhD
This article was written by Gerald Lieberman, PhD

Dr. Gerald A. Lieberman is founder and director of the State Education and Environment Roundtable, and is an internationally-recognized authority on school improvement. He served as the principal consultant for the State of California’s Education and the Environment Initiative, and is a past chair of the Commission on Education and Communication of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.