Quantifying a Relationship Between Place-Based Learning and Environmental Quality

Duffin, M., Murphy, M., & Johnson, B. (2008). Quantifying a relationship between place-based learning and environmental quality: Final report. Woodstock, VT: NPS Conservation Study Institute in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and Shel

ImageCan education programs improve the environment? According to the National Environmental Education Advisory Council (2005), this is one of the most important questions facing the field of environmental education as it matures and responds to challenges from critics and supporters alike. This study was aimed directly at addressing this question. Our goal was to investigate to what extent environmental improvement was a focus of school-based and nonformal education programs that focus on air quality (AQ), the degree to which such programs achieved measurable improvements, and whether specific instructional methods were associated with these improvements.

Over the course of 2007-2008, our multi-agency evaluation group attempted to identify and contact all of the major air quality education programs in United States. We completed a standardized telephone interview with representatives of 54 programs. Quantitative analysis of these interviews generated three key findings: 1) nearly half of the programs we studied reported evidence that air quality had actually improved over the course of their projects; 2) most of the programs we studied took some sort of action to improve air quality; and 3) programs reporting more place-based learning (PBL) qualities and practices such as service-learning and community partnerships were more likely to report improvements in air quality.

A program at East Valley Middle School in Washington state exemplified one category of AQ improvements found in our study sample. Student investigations revealed unhealthy levels of CO2, mold, odors, airflow, and airborne particulates in classrooms at their school. After working with school administrators and maintenance staff to address the problems, the students conducted post-measurements and found improvements in all indicators. Of the programs we studied, 11% reported positive changes in pre- and post- measures of physical air quality indicators similar to those at East Valley. 

A different type of evidence of improved air quality was reported by a program at Exeter High School in New Hampshire. Based on data from their monitoring of school and car bus idling rates in the school parking lot, students successfully led an effort to enact a school-wide no-idling policy and to install no-idling signs on school grounds. While these students did not generate subsequent measures of the effects of reduced vehicle emissions on physical air quality, the resulting policy implementation was presumed to effectively improve AQ. The Exeter example demonstrates how education programs can improve proxy indicators of air quality, in this case car and bus idling rates. Such proxy indicators of improved air quality were reported by 35% of the programs in our sample. 

Combining the two types of evidence (i.e. physical and proxy indicators), we found that nearly half (46%) of the programs in our study reported credible improvements in air quality associated with their educational efforts. Given the current dearth of literature linking education and environmental quality improvement, finding such a relatively high percentage of programs reporting this result was an exciting outcome.

The vast majority (89%) of air quality education programs we studied were action oriented, even if they did not report direct improvements in AQ. Teenagers working with a community group in Oakland, CA, for example, wrote letters to local government officials and industry leaders, and participated in a press conference promoting air quality awareness. High school students in Darrington, WA, presented slide shows about air quality and trained local community groups how to access AQ monitoring information online. High school students in Berlin, VT, monitored AQ in their school yard and presented their findings and a no-idling policy proposal to the school board.

Analyzing the study sample as a whole, the single strongest predictor of air quality improvement was the degree to which the program incorporated an aggregate measure of the principles of place-based learning (r=.40, p<.01). This finding was significant even when controlling for funding, instructional dose, and background factors. The two most significant individual PBL qualities and practices that predicted air quality improvement outcomes were the inclusion of a service-learning component (r=.38, p<.01) and a connection to authentic needs of the local community (r=.33, p<.05). 

The generalizability of our findings was limited to some extent by the relatively small and possibly nonrepresentative sample, by a potential confound between EQ improvement as a primary outcome measure and the extent of PBL practices, and by the risk of bias in self-report survey data from program personnel. Additional studies involving larger and more systematically selected samples, the use of experimental or quasi-experimental designs, and in-depth case studies could further test our findings. Future studies could also replicate and refine our methods while investigating other environmental quality topics such as climate change, water quality, or biodiversity

In sum, our findings provide preliminary evidence that education can be a viable approach for achieving measurable improvements in environmental quality. Policy makers may want to consider a new category of financial support for projects that actively attempt to improve environmental quality through education programs. Such programs may be able to deliver significant benefits at relatively low cost compared with other conservation strategies. Educators with an expressed goal of addressing environmental quality issues should consider adding pre- and post- indicator measurement components to their programs. Additionally, such educators should focus on specifically engaging participants in investigating and measuring real-world environmental quality issues in their local communities.

Findings At A Glance...

Key Findings Policy Implications Practice Implications
Nearly half (46%) of the programs studied reported evidence of improvements in air quality. Consider financial support for conservation projects that actively attempt to improve EQ through education programs. Consider adding measurement and assessment components to EQ-related programs. 
 Most (89%) of the programs studied took some form of action to promote air quality improvement.  EQ education programs may provide a good return on investment.  Focus more on specific educational practices (especially active engagement in real-world EQ issues in local communities) and less on pedagogical labels (e.g. "Place-based," "Environmental," or "Service-learning").
Programs reporting more place-based learning practices also showed more evidence of improved air quality (r=.40, p<.01). Promote discussion and measurement of EQ outcomes within the EE community.  


Pedagogical Area
  • place-based education, environment as integrating context (EIC)
Delivery Area
  • school based
  • community education
Outcome Area
  • environmental change
Participant Area
  • student
  • community