Across 15 years, the team of evaluators at Learning for Action (LFA) has partnered with more than three dozen environmental education organizations to study the effectiveness of their programs, strengthen their program design and outcomes, and build their capacity to improve. Most of these organizations work in the San Francisco Bay Area; others are national in scope with sites in multiple locations. Collectively, their programs serve a diverse set of populations -- and many of these programs explicitly aim to reach communities not engaged in environmental education.
This essay focuses on environmental education (EE) programs that serve young people -- the population most emphasized in the efforts we evaluated. Reflecting on EE programs that consistently and measurably achieve meaningful outcomes for kids, three key characteristics emerge: First, these programs have sufficient intensity to reach their aims, engaging young people in program content over many hours and months. Second, they are connected to classroom instruction, reinforcing and expanding on what students are learning in school -- particularly in science classes. Finally, these programs are grounded in positive youth development principles and practices, for example, nurturing development of life skills, a service ethic, and helpful relationships with adults. While some programs reflected all three elements, most lacked at least one of these key ingredients.