All In: Assessing Environmental Literacy in R.I.

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

It all seemed so simple. But then, like Topsy, it grew. No, it morphed.

So now ELAP project manager Jeanine Silversmith said plenty of people will be paying close attention to RIEEA’s extension of its ELP that was set in motion during its recent ELAPS.

OK. Let’s unpack all those acronyms.

The Rhode Island Environmental Education Association and its partners are conducting an environmental literacy assessment for Rhode Island. (RIEEA)   

The Rhode Island Environmental Education Association and its partners are conducting an environmental literacy assessment for Rhode Island. (RIEEA)


Let’s start with the heart of the matter, the ELAP, the Environmental Literacy Assessment Project of the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association (RIEEA). This five-year project will, Silversmith said, be the first such statewide study of its students’ environmental knowledge.

“A lot of people have done assessments of environmental programs,” she said, “but it’s mostly anecdotal. Nobody has done the really big, thorough study. The important thing is that we’re not going to be assessing environmental education. We’re going to be assessing students’ environmental literacy.”

This, for anybody who knows anything about RIEEA, will come as no surprise. In 2011 the organization published its Environmental Literacy Plan (ELP). The plan, co-published with the Rhode Island Department of Education and developed in collaboration with a variety of organizations, was designed to “enhance the work of state agencies and businesses and non-profits ... to further reach the goal of environmentally literate citizens.”

But what, one might ask, is “environmental literacy” anyway?

According to the ELP, it entails “the capacity of an individual to act successfully in daily life ... [by requiring] sufficient awareness, knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to incorporate appropriate environmental considerations into daily decisions about consumption, lifestyle, career, and civics, and to engage in individual and collective action.”

Silversmith said some of the plan’s recommendations were acted on over the years. Then, she continued, “fast forward to a year ago when [new federal legislation] listed environmental education as a worthwhile way to educate students, and here we are, not moving away from the ELP, but strategizing differently.”

Along the way, environmental education and literacy got another push by a recent study by Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and Woods Institute for the Environment, which notes that environmental literacy matters — really matters. A review of 119 peer-reviewed studies published over 20 years found clear evidence not only that effective environmental education provides students with knowledge about the environment and civic engagement, but that italso improves academic skills, such as critical thinking, oral communication, analysis and problem-solving, personal skills, and attributes such as autonomy, leadership and confidence.

Once the RIEEA began “strategizing differently,” however, the process took yet another detour.

When the RIEEA convened the Environmental Literacy Assessment Planning Summit (ELAPS) last July, the agenda was to convene several dozen people from environmentally savvy organizations to plan an environmental literacy assessment for Rhode Island.

“What we were going to do was very clear,” Silversmith said. “We would come up with an assessment to see how we were doing, how environmental education leads to environmental literacy and how that literacy leads to broader impacts.”

That was the plan.

But those two days with experts from various fields and various states, talking together, and asking important questions, made the would-be planners realize there was a lot more work to do before they could actually assess anything.
The result?

A five-year, $500,000 project divided into four initiatives, the fourth of which wouldn’t be set in motion for more than a year — “Monitoring the Status of K-12 Environmental Literacy” in Rhode Island.

During the first year, initiatives one to three would lay the groundwork, providing the project with the contacts, collaborators and information needed to develop an effective assessment.

Initiative I would develop connections with environmental leaders and partners throughout the state. Initiative II would extend the reach of the work to non-environmental entities such as businesses, industries and nonprofits that might be interested in connecting their missions with environmental literacy. Initiative III would determine “the state of the state” in terms of environmental education, connecting with schools to find out what curricula, partnerships and professional development activities are in place, and develop a teacher survey to find out perceived successes and gaps.

Only during the second year would the actual assessment — drawing heavily on the information gleaned from the first three Initiatives — be developed. Once the assessment instruments were developed, the data would be collected during year three, analyzed in year four and transformed into a statewide plan for improving environmental literacy in Rhode Island in year five.

To set this all in motion, in early April all four initiatives held kickoff meetings. Dozens of people from dozens of environmental organizations met at Save The Bay headquarters in Providence, the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown and at the University of Rhode Island to discuss their various topics. Bringing people together seems to have boosted participants’ spirits, according to the committee chairs.

Initiative II chairwoman Elisabeth Bux, director of education for the Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living, found that the “energized group of individuals representing a range of groups involved in higher education, after-school, health and safety and environmental management, advocacy and conservation” were already in touch with a wide range of organizations.

The connections between this effort and that of Initiative I will, she believes, enable the project to draw new collaborators into the work. Initiative II chairwoman Bridget Prescott, education director at Save The Bay, agreed, saying that a follow-up meeting among initiative chairs highlighted the importance of staying in touch with each other and piggy-backing on each other’s activities and connections.

Kelly Shea, education specialist at URI’s Guiding Education in Math and Science Network, who chaired the Initiative III meeting, said the level of questions her 15-member committee arrived at were thorough and wide-ranging, increasing her hope for “seeing more of our schoolyards used as a learning environment for students and ultimately helping students connect with the natural world.”

Rachel Holbert, education director at the Norman Bird Sanctuary, chaired Initiative IV about the assessment itself, which is what all the other initiatives have been set in motion to support.
“This is a really big project,” she said. “It was reassuring that as each of these steps progresses, the movement will become more compelling. It’s not too big or too scary.”

With almost $100,000 already committed from the Rhode Island Foundation, the Pisces Foundation and through Groundwork RI from an Environmental Protection Agency grant, initial financing is solid.

“And I’m a to-do list kind of person,” Silversmith said. “I can get people to move, to do what they say they’ll do. And they said they’d do what needs to be done to get this started. I see a very clear set of steps for each initiative, with some productive overlap.”

The RIEEA has come a long way from its humbler beginnings in the 1970s, she said. Its purpose was originally to bring together environmental-education providers by hosting annual conferences that provided support for specific activities and issues.

“We’d offer ‘How to Identify Mushrooms on Environmental Walks’ and that kind of thing,” Silversmith said. “But then, after ELP was published, we realized that the work of the RIEEA should be doing was much broader.”

Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer who also works as an educational consultant in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He blogs at