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Primary-and Secondary-School Environmental Health Science Education and the Education Crisis: A Survey of Science Teachers in Ohio.


There is a science education crisis in the United States, with I studies showing that US. high school graduates are not as well-versed in science as graduates in other countries. Studies also suggest that students are better learners when the environment is used as an integrating theme. Therefore, the time is right to discuss opportunities for integrating environmental health science into kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) curriculum. The research presented here takes a step toward developing the use of environmental health science as a multidisciplinary theme in the K-12 curriculum. Almost 500 K-12 science teachers in Ohio were surveyed for their opinions about the science education crisis and the role of environmental health science in their current courses of instruction. These teachers had been identified as having an interest in environmental education because of their participation in the Environmental Education Council of Ohio. Nevertheless, the results of the survey suggest that these environmentally oriented science teachers are currently not aware of existing environmental health science learning opportunities, Environmental health practitioners have work to do to educate science teachers about the field and about the ways in which studying environmental health science could alleviate the science education crisis.


The State Education and Environment Roundtable (SEER) is a consortium of 12 states that have come together to improve primary- and secondary-school (K-12) science education by integrating the environment into the curriculum. One of SEER's efforts was to survey schools across the country to evaluate if students who learn science, mathematics, and other subjects with an environmental theme are better learners than those who do not. The survey found that using the environment as an integrating theme "significantly improves student performance in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, and enriches the overall school experience" (Lieberman & Hoody, 1998). The environment and environmental issues offer opportunities to promote hands-on learning, critical thinking, and other skills that lead to lifelong learning. Environmental health science (EHS) also can improve science education outcomes and address what many consider to be a crisis in science education.

Although there is still much discussion over the definition of environmental education, there is general agreement that good environmental-education programs should foster knowledge about the environment and the skills to act on that knowledge. The combination of knowledge and action is a component of environmental literacy as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) in its 1996 Report Assessing Environmental Education in the United States and the Implementation of the National Environmental Education Act of 1990 (U.S. EPA, 1996). That report presented a hierarchical approach to environmental literacy and education encompassing four goal levels: 1) knowledge about ecological concepts, 2) conceptual awareness of how behavior affects the environment, 3) knowledge and skills for issue investigation and evaluation, and 4) environmental-action skills.

Where does environmental health science fit into the education curriculum? Is environmental health science education synonymous with environmental education? Or does environmental health science belong in the science curriculum? Is it possible that environmental health science education resources could fulfill curriculum requirements in an array of disciplines, including environmental education, science, health, and civics? If so, arguments for enhancing environmental health science education efforts in K-12 schools can be framed within the debate about the efficacy of proficiency testing.

Environmental health involves understanding how the environment affects human health and how humans affect the environment. It includes the study of food safety, radiation, chemicals, communicable disease, and vectors, topics not covered in most environmental-education curricula. A study of 43 environmental-education organizations and institutions across the country found that the subjects those organizations most commonly addressed were wildlife conservation, wetlands, endangered species, and recycling (Lieberman, 1995). The study identified a list of 27 subject areas in all; noticeably absent from the list were issues such as food safety, vector control, and communicable diseases, which indicates that those issues are currently not components of environmental education at the participating organizations. Furthermore, toxic waste and human population growth are among the topics least commonly covered by the programs surveyed.

Like environmental education, environ mental health science education should cover knowledge and action skills. While those who are involved in the study of environmental education talk about raising "environmental literacy" (Morrone, Mancl, & Carr, in press; Stables, 1998), "science literacy" also has been mentioned in discussions of environmental education. There appears to be some agreement among environmental educators and environmental health professionals that science education is an important component of environmental education (Gist, 1998).

It is known that there is a science education crisis in the United States. As the Third International Mathematics and Science Study shows, U.S. students graduating from high school lag behind students in other countries in science skills (Committee on Science Education K-12 & Mathematical Sciences Education Board, 1999). An overriding issue that environmental health professionals must address, then, is the focus of U.S. education programs. Should the programs focus on the environmental-education crisis and raise environmental literacy, or should they focus on the science education crisis and raise science literacy? Or can both be done?

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) is focusing on the science education crisis by supporting the development of K-12 environmental health science materials. The goals of the NIEHS K-12 education programs are 1) to increase student interest and preparation in the environmental health sciences so that students are aware of science career opportunities and 2) to increase public awareness about the impact of environmental agents on human health so that all citizens can lead healthy and productive lives (NIEHS, 2000). Many K-12 environmental programs have been supported by NIEHS, and four of them are of interest in the research presented here: Toxicology, Risk Assessment and Pollution (ToxRAP [TM]); Health and Environmental Resources for Educators (HERE); Get the Lead Out; and Project Greenskate.

ToxRAP comprises three modules, for grades K-3, 3-6, and 6-9 (Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, 2000). The program teaches students to become detectives and apply risk assessment methodology in investigating specific environmental health scenarios. The scenarios involve investigations of why two families are ill and lead to an understanding of the health effects of car bon monoxide and lead poisoning.

HERE is housed at the University of Washington. Its mission is to "prepare future generations to make informed decisions about potential health risks from chemicals in the environment" (University of Washington, 2000a). One of HERE's projects is called "Risky Business: Living in a Chemical World," and a major component of the project is a CD ROM called "Essentials of Cell Biology."

Project Greenskate is also a product of HERE and is designed for students in grades 7-12 (University of Washington, 2000b). Students investigate a site for potential as a skateboard park. In the course of their investigation, which is completed online, they encounter the mayor, who has issued press releases about the site, and a toxicologist, who explains risk assessment. Ultimately, students discover that the proposed site is contaminated and constitutes a potential public health hazard.

Get the Lead Out is hosted by the NIEHS Center for Molecular and Cellular Toxicology, housed at Wayne State University (NIEHS, 2000). The lessons are designed for grades 6 and higher, and the goals of the program are to introduce students to 1) the concepts of environment and environmental toxicology, 2) the concept of natural versus synthetic chemicals, 3) the concepts of threshold exposure and dose-response relationships, 4) research and the need for experiments, and 5) careers in toxicology research.

The distinction between EHS curricula like those described above and environmental-education curricula is that the focus of the former is one of risk assessment and toxicology. By contrast, neither risk assessment nor toxicology is central to most materials of environmental-education curricula; those materials tend to focus on monitoring for environmental quality and on changing behaviors. This distinction is an important one for K-12 educators, especially if a goal is to improve science education outcomes among their students. The first step in developing opportunities to link EHS education with overall science education improvement is to assess the current state of EHS education in schools; the research presented below is a step in that direction.


A mail survey was designed to measure the knowledge K-12 teachers have of environ mental health science education and the extent to which they currently use the resources available for environmental health science education. The survey was developed and field-tested in the summer of 1999. A draft survey was sent to select K-12 teachers in Ohio and university faculty who train teachers, as well as to members of NEHA's environ mental-education committee. The comments received during the validation process were incorporated into the final survey, which was disseminated in the spring of 2000.

Survey Design

The survey contained six sections. Section 1 measured the overall knowledge of health and environmental health education in the respondents' schools. Among the questions in this section were several asking whether a respondent's school required health education and whether environmental health was a component of health education. Teachers were also asked about their use of the Internet for lesson planning and about their familiarity with NIEHS.

Section 2 measured opinions about the status of education both in the United States and in Ohio. Teachers were asked to identify their level of agreement with the statement that there is a science education crisis in the United States and with the statement that there is one in Ohio. There was also a question about proficiency testing, asking teachers if they thought the testing to be an effective assessment of science knowledge.

The third section of the survey was one of the metrics used to identify teachers' knowledge about environmental health science education. Introductory environmental health science textbooks were used to develop a list of 11 subjects considered to fall within the realm of environmental health science education (Moeller, 1992; Morgan, 1997). Teachers identified the level to which they agreed that each of these 11 subjects should be included in environmental health science education. The subjects included food safety, vectors and pests, emerging diseases, and environmental laws and compliance.

Science education standards were the focus of section 4. Twelve standards found in the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) were listed. For example, one standard states, "Science should be for all students"; another says, "Improving science education should be part of systemic education reform." Teachers were asked to indicate a level of agreement with each standard.

Section 5 gave another measure of knowledge about environmental health science education. Nine education programs were listed, and teachers were asked to identify which programs they were familiar with. Five of the programs were in environmental education, and four were in environmental health science education. The five environmental-education programs were as follows: the Leopold Education Project, which focuses on land use; Project WET, which is water based; Project Learning Tree, which is about forestry conservation; Habitats for Learning, which is an Ohio-based program that encourages the use of schoolyards for environmental learning; and Project WILD, which is a national program about wildlife conservation. The four environmental health science education programs discussed above also were listed (ToxRAP, Project Greenskate, HERE, and Get the Lead Out).

The final section of the survey was used to identify the sample and included questions about how long the respondent had been teaching, what the geographic location of the school was, and whether the respondent was a science teacher.


One reason that this research is unique is that the population of interest is a distinct group of teachers who are interested and involved in environmental education. For several years the Environmental Education Council of Ohio (EECO) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) have been involved in a partnership to increase the capacity of environmental education in the state. A component of this partnership is developing and maintaining a network of environmental educators. Membership in the network is free, and those who belong include teachers and nontraditional educators who are interested in environmental education. The network has been developed at professional meetings and through a newsletter that encourages K-12 teachers to join.

The fact that the survey sample was a specific population of K-12 teachers makes the interpretation of the results very interesting. At the time of this research, there were 1,188 teachers on the network roster. After review of the roster, all members who were not affiliated with a school were removed from the population, resulting in a list of 1,131 names. Surveys were mailed to the 1,131 teachers in February 2000. In April, an additional survey was mailed to nonrespondents with a letter encouraging their participation. As a result, 455 usable surveys were returned, which constituted a response rate of 40.2 percent.


Figure 1 summarizes the characteristics of the survey sample. Generally, there was a good mix of geographic locations of the schools among rural, suburban, and urban areas. Respondents who said that their schools were rural amounted to a little more than 40 per cent of the sample. Suburban schools constituted the next largest category, followed by urban and "other." The sample also was fairly well divided among the grades taught, with relatively equal proportions reporting teaching grades K-4, 5-7, and 8-12. The sample was made up of experienced teachers, with more than 55 percent of the respondents stating that they had been teaching 15 years or more. Finally, 89.7 percent of the respondents were science teachers, an important characteristic of the sample, especially in light of the findings relative to environmental health science education programs.

Figure 2 compares opinions about the existence of a science education crisis with opinions about the prominence of environ mental health science in the schools. Most of the respondents either strongly agree or agree that there is a science education crisis in the United States and in Ohio. It is interesting to note that most of the respondents also agree that environmental health science education, structured according to National Science Education Standards, should receive more emphasis at their schools.

When survey participants were asked if they had used environmental health science education materials in any of their classes, almost 70 percent of the sample indicated that they had. They are not, however, getting these materials from the Internet or from NIEHS. As Figure 3 shows, only 40 percent of the sample uses the Internet routinely to develop lesson plans and only 32 percent had ever heard of NIEHS. A majority of the respondents had read the National Science Education Standards.

Since the survey identified nine different sets of education materials, Figure 4 paints a very interesting picture. Respondents were asked to indicate if they were familiar with materials available for environmental education and environmental health science education, and 91 percent said they had no familiarity with any of the resources that are specifically designed for environmental health science. These materials include lessons on toxicology, risk assessment, and the human-health impacts of chemicals. By contrast, only 10 percent of the respondents had no familiarity with any of the environ mental-education materials. Thirty-two percent were familiar with three of the five environmental-education curricula, and seven percent were familiar with all five.

Discussion and Conclusions

The results of this survey suggest several issues and opportunities within K-12 environmental health science education. First, a respondent sample consisting mostly of science teachers who are involved in environ mental education agreed that there is a science education crisis in the United States and in Ohio. The respondents also agreed that environmental health science should receive more emphasis at their schools. These opinions suggest that environmental health science offers opportunities to enhance the science curriculum and begin to mitigate the science education crisis. In light of the evidence that students are better learners when the environment is an integrating theme, the time is ripe for environmental health science to take on an enhanced role. If the sample of Ohio teachers is representative of science teachers who are interested in the environment in other states, tremendous opportunities exist for enlisting teacher support in introducing environmental health science education materials into the curriculum.

A second, less promising result of the survey has to do with the use of the Internet in lesson planning and with teacher awareness of NIEHS. NIEHS has an effective Web site that offers K-12 environmental health science education materials. Unfortunately, most of the science teachers who participated in this study did not use the Internet to plan lessons. Teachers need to be made more aware of NIEHS and the resources it offers. The field should not rely on NIEHS to promote its resources to teachers in their states or communities; rather, environmental health professionals should do their part to make teachers aware of the resources that currently exist.

The third major finding of this study underscores the need to promote existing environmental health science resources. Teachers are not familiar with those materials, perhaps because they do not routinely use the Internet to plan lessons. Perhaps, also, it has something to do with the fact that the teachers surveyed in this study had been teaching for 15 years or more. Regardless of the reason, the development of materials--even if they are award-winning environmental health science materials--is accomplished in vain if teachers are not accessing and using them. Environmental health professionals should consider educating local teachers about existing resources.

Finally, the results of this study suggest a need for additional research into the knowledge that teachers have about environmental health science education. Once gaps in knowledge are identified in a representative sample of teachers, steps can be taken to fill those gaps and address current education crises.

Corresponding Author: Michele Morrone, Ph.D., Asst. Professor, Environmental Health Sciences, Ohio University, 416 Peden Tower, Athens, OH 45701-2979.


Committee on Science Education K-12 & Mathematical Sciences Education Board. (1999). Global perspectives for local action: Using TIMSS to improve U.S. mathematics and science education. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. (2000). ToxRAP [TM]. [less than][greater than] (22 June 2000).

Gist, G.L. (1998). NEHA's role in environmental education: Leadership. Journal of Environmental Health, 61(2), 4, 48.

Lieberman, G.A. (1995). Pieces of a puzzle: An overview of the status of environmental education in the United States. San Diego, CA: Science Wizards.

Lieberman, G.A., & Hoody, L.L. (1998). Closing the achievement gap: Using the environment as an integrating context for learning. Poway, CA.: Science Wizards.

Moeller, D.W. (1992). Environmental health. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Morgan, M.T. (1997). Environmental health. Englewood, CO: Morton Publishing Co.

Morrone, M., Mancl, K., & Carr, K. (in press). Development of a metric to test group differences in environmental literacy. Journal of Environmental Education.

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2000). NIEHS K-12 education initiative. (22 June 2000).

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center for Molecular and Cellular Toxicology. (2000). Get the lead out. (22 June 2000),

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (1996). Report assessing environ mental education in the United States and the implementation of the National Environmental Education Act of 1990. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Stables, A. (1998). Environmental literacy: Functional, cultural, critical. The case of SCAA guidelines. Environmental Education Research, 4(2), 155-164.

University of Washington. (2000a). HERE. (22 June 2000).

University of Washington. (2000b). Project Greenskate. (22 June 2000).

General Information About the Survey Sample (N = 455)
School Location
Urban 21.6%
Suburban 36.0%
Rural 40.1%
other 2.3%
Science teahcer
Yes 89.7%
No 10.3%
Grade taught
K-4 31.3%
5-7 32.7%
8-12 29.6%
Other 6.4%
Years taught
1-5 12.3%
6-10 18.3%
11-15 13.4%
15+ 55.9%
Teachers' Awareness and Use of Educational
Tools for Environmental Health Science Education
 Yes No Don't Know
A 69.7% 24.7% 5.6%
B 40.9% 57.6% 1.6%
C 32.8% 63.9% 3.3%
D 62.6% 35.4% 2.0%
The pie charts show responses
to the following survey questions:
A.--Have you used environmental health
science curriculum in any of your classes?
B.--Do you routinely use the Internet
to develop lesson plans for your classes?
C.--Have you heard of the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences?
D.--Have you read the National
Science Education Standards?
Note: Table made from pie chart
Respondents' Familiarity with Curricular Materials--Environmental Health
Science and Environmental-Education Materials
 EHS curriculum EE curriculum
0 91.4% 10.5%
1 7.0% 9.2%
2 1.5% 19.1%
3 32.7%
4 21.3%
5 7.0%
The values given in the key refer to the number of programs
teachers were familiar with for each of the two curricula.
COPYRIGHT 2001 National Environmental Health Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Morrone, Michele
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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