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Environmental Education Definition and Requirements

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Is environmental education required?

Yes. State law requires that every school district develop and implement a kindergarten through grade 12 sequential curriculum plan for environmental education (see the Wisconsin Education 20 Standards). In addition, environmental education objectives and activities shall be integrated into the kindergarten through grade 12 sequential curriculum plans, with the greatest emphasis in art, health, science and social studies education [see Wisconsin Administrative Code PI 8.01(2)(k]. Curriculum planning can be guided by using the Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability.

Teachers must also be prepared to teach environmental education and those with licenses in early childhood regular education, elementary and middle school regular education, science, and social studies must demonstrate knowledge and understanding in environmental education including the conservation of natural resources. [PI 34.022(2)]

What is environmental education?

The ultimate goal for environmental education is environmental literacy. The Wisconsin Standards for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability states, "Environmental literacy and sustainability stem from a person’s relationship with their place. Environmental literacy is demonstrated when individuals have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to engage, individually and collectively, to support sustainable natural and cultural systems. Sustainability refers to a community's ability to 'satisfy its needs and aspirations without diminishing the chances of future generations' (Stone & Barlow, 2005, p. xiii). Developing environmental literacy is foundational to achieving this goal" (WI DPI, 2018, p.8).

NAAEE in their Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines for Learning (K-12) (p2) define it this way: “Environmentally literate students possess the knowledge, intellectual skills, attitudes, experiences and motivation to make and act upon responsible environmental decisions. Environmentally literate students understand environmental processes and systems, including human systems. They are able to analyze global, social, cultural, political, economic and environmental relationships, and weigh various sides of environmental issues to make responsible decisions as individuals, as members of their communities, and as citizens of the world. (Adapted from Maryland Partnership for Children in Nature, April 2009)”

People who are environmentally literate understand the earth's ability to sustain human and other life. They take action and are involved in their community to help sustain our natural resources so that people can create and enjoy a high quality life for themselves and the future generations. This can be achieved through providing a balanced, academically-based environmental education as part of the curriculum. Breaking down walls between academic disciplines and other areas of environmental study to allow for integration will be essential to helping students become effective, productive, responsible, and environmentally literate 21st century citizens.

Environmental Education included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

Environmental education is a part of a well-rounded education as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. Language in ESSA makes environmental education explicitly eligible for funding under Title IV: 

  • Environmental education is called out as eligible for funding under "well-rounded education" grants program
  • Environmental literacy programs are eligible for funding as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program 
  • The prioritization of STEM activities including "hands-on learning" and "field-based or service-learning" to enhance understanding of STEM subjects provides additional opportunities for environmental education programs

Download the fact sheet from the North American Association for Environmental Education

Strategic Plan to Advance Environmental Literacy

Wisconsin's Plan to Advance Environmental Literacy

Wisconsin's Plan to Advance Education for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability in PK-12 Schools provides strategies for statewide collaboration to increase student academic achievement, improve student health, and save schools money through education for environmental literacy and sustainability. Download the entire document or the executive summary.

This plan is a companion to Wisconsin's Plan for Environmentally Literate and Sustainable Communities published in the same year. 

For questions about this information, contact Victoria Rydberg-Nania (608) 266-0419