Environmental Literacy: A Lot More than the 3 Rs


I remember my first year in the classroom as if it were yesterday. As a bright-eyed recent grad, I was excited to engage my students and have them experience the world around them. My first task was teaching Earth Day, where we would focus on the 3 Rs of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Yes, you heard that right, and, yes, I am that old… However, in the early 2000s, this was really the only time we learned about the environment and how it plays a role in our lives (imagine that)! Fast forward a “few” years and gray hairs later, tremendous efforts have been made to support opportunities for the development of environmentally literate students and citizens. With that comes a much more thoughtful and comprehensive approach than the one I first taught.

What is Environmental Literacy and Why is It Important?

Environmental literacy is an individual’s understanding of how our local environments and the world at large are affected by the way we obtain resources. It is important for students to realize that our resources are depletable and our efforts to obtain those resources affect our environment on a global scale. Understanding the natural environment and the impact human activity has on it is essential to making informed decisions that affect the environment and human health now and in the future.

With that being said, how do we provide students with the opportunity to learn about the world in which they live and inspire them to develop a sense of personal and collective responsibility?

Fortunately, many states have developed Environmental Literacy Plans to provide a framework for school systems to expand and improve environmental education programs. For example, California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts standards (EP&Cs) were created with an eye toward engaging students in the processes of understanding and addressing climate change, pollution, and other threats to environmental stability. The EP&Cs complement the Next Generation Science Standards for California Public Schools (CA-NGSS), giving teachers additional guidance for nurturing environmentally literate young people. Beginning as early as Kindergarten, it is important for students to understand the world in which they live and their place in it. Students need to have opportunities to learn in the classroom and beyond its walls. So how can we address these principles with or without a state framework like the one in California?

One tool that can be used with or without a state framework is the Environmental Literacy Ladder created by the Campaign for Environmental Literacy. Within this model, five essential components of environmental literacy are outlined: Awareness, Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills, and Action. This model is “designed as a loose hierarchy from the simple to the more complex, each building on the step below. However, as with many models, the steps overlap in real life. Most important to appreciate is that environmental literacy cannot be achieved without all steps of the ladder; achieving any one step alone is inadequate and will not result in literacy.”

How does this translate, and how can we as educators put this plan into action within our classrooms? Below are several ways to engage learners and promote Environmental Literacy within your classroom (even virtually):

  • Case Studies: Feature local and regional case studies that explore real-world environmental issues. Miller & Levine Biology integrates three-dimensional learning through 27 case studies to give students an opportunity to engage with investigative phenomena. The program also has six different types of labs and simulations that provide over 100 experiences to support everyday phenomena.

  • Student-Centered Research Activities: Include high-quality field and web-based research activities to engage your students. The Quest Problem-based learning challenge in Elevate Science K-8 supports understanding of the Investigative Phenomenon to encourage open-ended inquiry. The Problem-Based Learning projects in Miller & Levine Biology support students’ understanding of relevant and local phenomena. These are student-led research projects that encourage student inquiry and discourse.

  • Environmental Justice Activities: Integrate justice and ethics by examining issues from an environmental justice lens. Miller & Levine Biology allows students to participate in a variety of authentic readings as they explore solutions to a real-world problem.

  • Climate Change Activities: Increase climate literacy and empower students to tackle the climate emergency. The Anchoring Phenomenon in Elevate Science K-8 prepares students for the challenges of tomorrow, building strong reasoning skills and critical thinking strategies as they engage in explorations, formulate claims, and gather and analyze data that promote evidence-based arguments.

  • SEL & Environmental Literacy: Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Environmental Literacy. Elevate Science K-8 offers a wealth of support using experiential learning experiences for various groups of students seen to be at risk for vulnerability to academic inequalities in science and engineering.

  • Virtual Field Trips and Hands-On Activities: Integrate high-quality environmental education experiences with local community-based partners. When students are immersed in the environment through field trips either first-hand or virtually, students connect to that environment and have the context for discussion about key environmental concepts and challenges. Sometimes it is challenging to get students outdoors. This is a great opportunity to access resources from Elevate Science K-8 such as virtual labs or interactivities.

As you start to apply these practices into your classroom, it is important to remember that any opportunity to immerse students in their world through observation and inquiry will help them gain a sense of personal and collective responsibility. Looking back, maybe that first Earth Day wasn’t so far off – it just needs to be done more than once a year.

Register your class for our Virtual STEM Fair: Earth Day Awareness >>

Learn more about Three-Dimensional Learning in our Miller & Levine High School Biology Curriculum >>

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


About the Author

Carolyn Levitt

K-12 Mathematics & Science Specialist