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Spending time outdoors key to boosting environmental literacy for young minority students, says study

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It's not entirely clear what "environmental literacy" is, but a new study says education programs that take place outdoors can help minority students foster more of it.

Nils Peterson, an associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at North Carolina State University, said the official definition of environmental literacy is "fair game." He co-authored the PLOS ONE study with an NC State graduate student, Kathryn Stevenson.

"The version we used was a pretty holistic one," he said. "It basically suggested that environmental literacy is a combination of content knowledge, or what you know about ecology; cognitive ability, so the ability to use that knowledge to solve problems; environmental attitudes, so whether you really care about the environment; and environmental behavior."

That last one, said Peterson, has to do with whether content knowledge, cognitive ability and environmental attitude leads people to actually engage in environmentally-friendly actions.

They found that when published environmental curricula was taught outdoors, all four components of environmental literacy improved for the students. That was especially true for black and Latino students.

Peterson said that may be because when it comes to engaging the natural environment, "the groups that get the least of that are going to benefit the most."

Those groups who "get the least of that" – that is, the least exposure to natural settings – often live in densely urban areas, much like South Los Angeles.

"Within those types of environments, schools, particularly public schools, lag behind in general in all areas of education, not just in environmental education," said Peterson.

That's not good, he explained, since there are major benefits in being environmentally literate. That's true on the individual level, said Peterson, since "being able to spend some time in natural environments and understand those environments" contributes to an overall sense of well-being.

But there's also a social benefit that comes with having an environmentally-literate population.

"There are all these huge, environmental issues we're trying to deal with," he said, citing climate change and fracking as examples. "The list goes on and on and, arguably, if we as a society are going to be able to address some of these issues, we're going to need a public that is able to understand these complex phenomena.

"If we create an environmentally-literate public, we might stand a chance," added Peterson.

South L.A. hardly calls natural spaces to mind, but Peterson said that doesn't mean students who live in the area – or areas like it – can't boost their environmental literacy.

"You don't have to go to a national park to use this curricula," he said, meaning programs like Project Learning Tree or Project WILD. "You can use a small micro-environment."

Like, say, a wetlands park or a local community garden.

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