Environmental Education Research: Implications for Engineering Education

Article excerpt


Most environmental education in engineering has pertained to the development of technical environmental engineering skills. However, at the post-secondary level, the spectrum ofenvironmental education approaches is broad, and no consensus exists on the necessary curricular mix for forming effective environmental professionals. This paper examines the tension between the environmental education goals of knowing and caring- learning to scientifically describe how environmental processes work, and learning to value and feel concern for the environment. Literature on the development of environmental sensitivity is explored for insights into how the environmental sensitivity of engineering students could be assessed and nurtured.


"... [A]ll education is environmental education."1 What if engineering students could imagine hydrology from the perspective of fish? In 1997, we began testing enhancements to an introductory hydrology course in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Toronto. The purpose of the enhancements was to help engineering students understand the implications of hydrological phenomena for life forms in the watershed, particularly for fish. We emphasized the dependence of fish on intact migration paths, flood-plain breeding, and adequate base flows. The process included cognitive learning goals, but also had potential for affective learning by the students as they learned to identify with the needs of fish. In student responses to carefully designed exam questions, we looked for evidence that the enhancements to the course had made students more aware of the life-context of engineering hydrology.

The overall goal of our study was to learn more about educating engineering students for environmentally sensitive practice. How could we nurture positive environmental attitudes in our students? How could we measure whether we were succeeding? Would posifive environmental attitudes translate into environmentally sensitive engineering practice? Similar questions, regarding non-engineering students, have been pursued in environmental education research for several decades, so we turned to the environmental education literature to understand the scope of post-secondary environmental education, and especially to learn about proven approaches to affective learning in environmental education.

The purpose of this paper is to give an overview of aspects of environmental education, which may be illuminating to engineering educators. The first part of the paper describes the context of environmental education in higher education: the goals and emphases of available programs are described and compared. Looking at engineering education, the present content of environmental education for engineers is outlined. The paper concludes with a review of studies of affective learning in environmental education, framed by the concept of "caring," and focusing on the environmental education understanding of the phrase "environmental sensitivity."


Four types of programs of higher education preparation for environmental professionals are identified in reference 2: an entry point for the study of complex problems, preparation for technical specialists, a way to address particular environmental issues, and actionoriented programs for change agents (see Table 1).

Underlying the diversity in these programs is the diversity of paradigms for the human relationship with the environment. It has proved difficult to identify criteria for determining what curricular content is essential to the achievement of environmental competency. No consensus exists either on what skills environmental professionals should have, or what philosophical direction they should take:

"For example, the phrase environmental management was once thought to embody the necessary approach to environmental problem-solving, but it is now associated by some with only mild and perhaps inadequate reforms to reduce pollution by application of technological fixes. …