EE Research Applying a Permaculture Design Framework


From EE Research Bulletin

Lebo, N. & Eames, C. (2015). Cultivating attitudes and trellising learning: A permaculture approach to science and sustainability education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 31(1), 46–59.

Permaculture and environmental education both originated in the 1970s and, although they have grown along different paths, they continue to have parallel, complementary goals and philosophies. Permaculture is defined, generally, as a systems approach that looks at a subject or area and attempts to maximize beneficial relationships while minimizing harmful ones. originally, permaculture applied specifically to food cultivation, but since its inception, the notion has informed designs for many other systems, such as those in finance, law, business, and education.

In general, permaculture takes a bottom-up approach, cultivating fertile grounds to support vigorous growth and biodiversity. This means identifying—and addressing—deficiencies in existing foundational systems. After addressing inadequacies in the “soil,” or the foundational elements of systems, a permaculture approach supports beneficial connections and positive feedback loops while providing gentle guidance and support for the growing system.

In this study, the authors used a permaculture approach to science education with a class of 18 secondary school students (all 14 years of age) in New Zealand. The students participated in a curriculum that included three units: Environmental Chemistry, Ecological Principles, and Plants as Food. The units moved from a big-picture focus to a local focus, with an overall goal of improving environmental literacy and understanding the role of food production systems. In the final unit, students took field trips to two local permaculture sites: a diversified orchard and an eco-accommodation that used permaculture practices to increase its sustainability.

The authors assessed the impact of this curriculum using a mixed-methods approach. They used formal and informal interviews with the teachers; for students, the authors used questionnaires before the curriculum was implemented, as well as focus groups after the curriculum had been implemented to gather a range of qualitative and quantitative data. Additionally, one of the authors worked closely with the class throughout the curriculum as a “participant observer.” This allowed for a long-term, more holistic view of the curriculum’s impacts on the students.

Although quantitative data for this study were not statistically significant because of the small sample size, the data did suggest some overall trends. The authors found that the focus on food provided students with a sense of relevance, which in turn related to higher levels of engagement and interest. All students reported enjoying the experiential aspect of the field trips. Themes of enjoyment and the ability to participate in real, applied activities were prevalent in student responses. The enjoyment of these activities, however, did not necessarily translate to increased interest in science and science learning. In particular, students who expressed disinterest in science in the pre-implementation questionnaires did not show increased interest after the curriculum had been implemented, even if they enjoyed the experiential learning. Also, the ability to link key words to make sustainability statements increased only for some students.

After completing their participation in the curricular unit, many students felt more positivity toward science and science education, yet few demonstrated increased pro-environmental attitudes.

The authors emphasized the importance of the curriculum’s ability to engage students, even briefly, in science and sustainability topics by providing experiential learning opportunities using a permaculture approach. They note that the more locally and personally relevant the context is, the more nourishing the program will be for students.

The authors also offer trellising as an alternative to the familiar concept of scaffolding; they draw a contrast between the imagery evoked by each term. The authors propose that scaffolding suggests knowledge that is built by outside forces that construct understanding within rigid constraints and according to a precise plan. By contrast, trellising indicates knowledge that grows more organically, driven primarily by the learner with gentle guidance and support from others. Trellised learners, therefore, have the freedom to explore their own interests, make broader connections, and grow at their own pace.


A permaculture approach to education can cultivate healthy attitudes toward learning, which, in turn, promote growth. A permaculture approach identifies and amends deficiencies and enhances existing positive relationships and feedback loops (such as the feedback loop between relevance and engagement). This approach also gives students freedom to explore their own interests, grow knowledge organically, and find intrinsic motivations within a soft supporting framework, or trellis, rather than a rigid scaffold that may lead to more limited and less self-motivated learning. Environmental educators can use this approach to increase relevance and interest among students.

The Environmental Education Research Bulletin is a project of ChangeScale in partnership with Dr. Nicole Ardoin at Stanford University. The bulletin is designed to inform environmental and sustainability educators about recent relevant research, with a primary emphasis on informal, field, and residential settings, as well as stewardship behavior, conservation, and related topics. Although other environmental educators and those in related fields might also find this bulletin useful, it does not—nor is it intended to—cover all aspects of environmental education. This Research Bulletin, as well as past issues, is available online through the ChangeScale website: (link is external).



EE Research: Outdoor Education

EE Research: Outdoor Education

Memories from Residential Outdoor Education Have Long-term Impact

THE RESEARCH: Liddicoat, K. R., & Krasny, M. E. (2014). Memories as useful outcomes of residential outdoor environmental education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 45(3), 178–193.

For students, spending several days at a residential outdoor environmental education (ROEE) program creates many new and powerful experiences, some of which are remembered for years to come. Yet, to date, only limited research has considered the role of memories as an outcome of environmental education.

This study investigated the memories of students five years after they completed an ROEE program. The gathered memories served as a means of qualitatively measuring the long-term impact of these programs on the students’ environmental knowledge, behaviors, social interactions, and personal narratives.

There are many different types of memory. For the purposes of this study, the authors focused on long-term episodic memories, which are memories of a specific event or episode, rather than generalized knowledge (semantic memories). Specifically, the authors focused on autobiographical memories, which are considered a subset of episodic memories that create a part of a person’s coherent life story. These memories were considered best suited for investigating the long-term impact of the ROEE programs.

In addition to learning what the participants remembered about the programs, the authors wanted to know how the participants have used these memories. Previous research into memory, reported in the psychology literature, has divided the uses of episodic autobiographic memories into three main categories: directive function, social function, and self function. Directive function refers to when a memory of a past experience is used to direct action and make predictions about the future. Social function is when a memory is used to converse and share stories, thus forging new relationships and maintaining intimacy with friends and family. Self function is when a memory enables a person to develop a coherent sense of self over time. The authors asked: How do memories of ROEE serve directive, social, or self functions? The authors paid special attention to directive functions, since directing future actions and behavior is most closely aligned with the goals of environmental education.

Data for this study were collected at two different research sites: the North Cascades Institute’s Mountain School in North Cascades National Park, Washington; and the Teton Science Schools near Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

The program at the North Cascades Institute (NCI) was a three-day camping experience for fifth graders designed to foster an appreciation for the local biota and natural and cultural history of North Cascades National Park, as well as stewardship of the environment. The Teton Science Schools program consisted of two different three-day programs. One was for fifth graders, designed to teach the students about different ecosystems in Grand Teton National Park through inquiry-based scientific investigation and encourage environmentally friendly behaviors, such as limiting food waste. The other program was for seventh graders, and focused on winter ecology through a series of field experiences and outdoor recreation activities such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

Study participants were high school students (now in tenth or twelfth grade) who had attended one of these programs five years prior to the study. The first author visited classrooms at both schools and interviewed willing students. The sample included 18 former participants from NCI and 36 from the Teton Science Schools. The interviews were semistructured, with a basic outline of questions that became more specific as each interview progressed. The recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim, and the data were analyzed using qualitative data analysis software for emergent themes and categories. Data from each site were analyzed separately so that the findings could be compared and contrasted to one another.

The authors found that the interviewed students recalled many powerful memories from their ROEE experience and that these memories were continuing to serve a variety of functions in their lives. Many of the specific themes that emerged were similar at both sites, with different emphases that reflected the intentions of each program, as well as the different backgrounds of the students.

The most prominent uses of the memories were directive, such as inspiring an interest in outdoor recreation and environmental stewardship. For most students who participated in the program at NCI, the experience was their first time camping in a tent, especially without their families. Many of these students expressed appreciation for the experience and the desire to do it again. That said, most of them had not been able to actually go camping again, which the authors suggest may be due to their lack of independence as minors. The students from NCI also shared many environmental stewardship behaviors they had implemented into their current lives. They attributed these behaviors to what they learned during the program. These were mostly personal behaviors readily applied at home, such as turning off the water when not in use and not wasting food.

Participants of the Teton Science Schools program reported the knowledge gained in the course had been directly applied to their daily lives, recreational pursuits, and work. Many of the students in the program were regularly partaking in outdoor recreation activities both before and after participating in the course, and so were able to put to use specific knowledge about the outdoors, such as how to look at snow layers and predict the avalanche danger.
The students also credited their experience from the course with inspiring greater enthusiasm for environmental stewardship, especially with regard to learning about and caring for the local landscape.

The participants shared that the ROEE program had also significantly helped them with their social skills (considered a directive function) and had served for years as the basis of social interaction (a social function). Social skills included learning to work with others, make new friends, and be more outgoing within group settings. The memories served as a basis for social interaction by being a source of shared experience that facilitated reminiscing with friends who also attended the program. The memories were also shared with family and friends who did not attend the program, which promoted participation in the program by younger students and siblings.

Some of the shared memories seemed to serve a self-function, which are the memories that give a sense of continuity to one’s life. Many students reported the trip was one of the most memorable experiences of elementary
school and, overall, a fun and positive one. The authors propose that these types of memories may relate to self-confidence and a sense of empowerment needed to pursue environmental goals.

This study is one of the first to explore the use of memories as a measurable outcome of environmental education experiences, considering whether these memories can be used to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of a program.
Using the three memory-use categories defined in the psychology literature—self, social, and directive—the authors investigated the different ways in which memories of a residential environmental education program had impacted students’ lives, as reported five years after the experience. Results showed that the memories served a variety of functions that were aligned with environmental education’s goals, such as promoting environmental stewardship and an interest in outdoor recreation.

EE Research: Mapping

Mapping Community Connections Strengthens Students’ Knowing of Nature

THE RESEARCH: Jagger, S. L. (2013). “This is more like home: Knowing nature through community mapping.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 18, 173–189.

Place-based environmental education provides opportunities for students to learn in a context that is local, familiar, and relevant. The author of this paper focused on a place-based teaching technique—community mapping—to see how it might influence students’ relationships to nature. Community mapping allows community members to express their knowledge, values, and visions spatially as they draw connections between people and place. Additionally, it gives participants a voice as they express their own representations and connections.

To address the relationship between community mapping and knowledge of nearby nature, the author examined a community mapping project conducted with a fourth-grade classroom in British Columbia. The class’s project centered on a local provincial park and integrated diverse disciplines, including social studies, science, and math. During this 12-week project, students went on field trips, took photographs, recorded observations in a field journal, and met with local community members. Students then arranged their written stories, drawings, and photographs on a bulletin board map of the park in their classroom.

To understand how community mapping projects influence students’ understanding of nature, the author conducted interviews with students, analyzed their written work, and observed field trips and the mapmaking process. From this analysis, five learning actions emerged: observation, situated knowing, identifying, restoring and transforming. Students engaged in observation as they recorded descriptions of the environment, the connections between living and nonliving things, and human influences on the environment. Through situated knowing, they connected their own stories, as well as those of other community members, with the park. For example, students shared stories on the map about their own experiences at the park, as well as the experiences of First Nations, or aboriginal people, whom they interviewed. As students worked, they began to identify connections between human actions and the environment, such as how litter may affect animals in the park. Students then recognized how the park was a place they needed to care for, maintain, and restore. Students then became environmental educators, or transformers, and shared their new understandings with friends and family, while also voicing their own stories and connections to the park.These results suggest that community mapping may be a useful tool for connecting students with local places and the natural world. The community mapping project engaged students in direct sensory experiences and interactions with local natural places; in doing so, the mapping project strengthened emotional bonds and highlighted connections between human actions, history, and natural places. After the project, many students expressed attachment and ownership of the park. Furthermore, they recognized how their actions in the park influenced animals, plants, and other people.

To enhance the value and effectiveness of community mapping projects, the author suggests that projects continue for a longer time than 12 weeks. Additionally, future projects could further integrate social and cultural aspects of a place by incorporating the diverse voices of a place and ensuring the project is inclusive and empowering to all members of the community.



Community mapping can be a powerful tool for classroom teachers to enhance students’ understanding and connectedness to the natural world. Community maps can incorporate field trips, written stories, interviews, photographs, and artwork as means of understanding and drawing connections between people and place. While this case study was conducted with fourth-grade students, it may be useful for students of all ages as an interactive learning tool.

EE Research: Place-based Learning

Place-based learning connects experience, outdoors, and sustainability

from EE Research Bulletin
Nicole Ardoin, Editor

As the focus on promoting sustainability through environmental education has increased, so has the scrutiny on outdoor education programs, which may not always lead to increased sustainable behaviors.

In fact, this paper’s author suggests that some outdoor education programs may have an adverse effect on attitudes and perceptions of sustainability by making nature seem remote, pristine, and disconnected from students’ day-to-day lives. Drawing on an extensive body of research and interviews with educators, the author makes a case for the potential of place-based education to connect experiential learning and sustainability education. He also argues that place-based learning is a remedy for some of the problems that outdoor education programs face in fostering sustainable behavior.

As part of his research, the author partnered with eight educators in New Zealand—six secondary teachers and two preservice teachers. These teachers participated in three phases of research: first, they critiqued their current school-based outdoor education program; second, they engaged in professional development to generate individual action plans for aligning their programs with sustainability learning goals; and third, they reflected on their own learning process. The author analyzed the data from current experiential learning and place-based learning research; in the process, he uncovered common themes.

The first theme relates to the long tradition of using experiential learning within outdoor education and sustainability education programs. experiential learning engages the learner in doing—creating sensory experiences that foster both cognitive and emotional connections. Developing connections to nature through experiential learning may encourage students to protect it. This has been supported by research demonstrating that people are more likely to act on experiences than on knowledge. The teachers in this study described how bonds of love and gratitude toward natural places are fostered within their students when they engage with the natural world. They also spoke of the critical importance of fostering this connection prior to asking students to protect nature or behave in more sustainable ways.

The second theme that emerged related to the common misconception that the natural world is removed and separate from humans and human activity: that humans are not part of nature. This separation creates a dichotomy between beautiful, pristine wilderness and “home,” or where people live. The author argues that many outdoor education programs focus on pristine wild places, which allows students to connect to these wild places and develop a bond to nature. But, he wonders, do students’ wilderness experiences transfer to their home experiences and their daily actions? While the teachers interviewed assumed the transfer does occur for their students, the author cites evidence in the education literature that shows this isn’t always the case.

Finally, the author argues that place-based learning shifts the focus from pristine, untouched environments to local environments, including the physical space and how people interact with it. It connects educational experiences with the local community and to the place where students live. This local education allows students to see how they, too, are a part of nature, and how their behaviors can directly influence their local environment in either adverse or positive ways. At the same time, local education provides the students with the skills and knowledge needed to sustain and regenerate their community and place. After making the shift to place-based outdoor learning, the participating teachers described that students felt a sense of ownership, familiarity, and call for stewardship, demonstrating the powerful potential of learning and fostering sustainable behaviors in one’s greater backyard.


By connecting and experiencing their local place, students develop a sense of how their actions directly influence their community and local environment. This is a critical connection for students to make, as many environmental issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, are huge and abstract. Students who engage in place-based outdoor learning demonstrate a sense of ownership and the spurring actions of stewardship. Place based outdoor learning projects meet the needs of the community. Students themselves might be able to identify these needs, which could be related to habitat loss, local watershed contamination, or the spreading of invasive species.

THE RESEARCH: Engagement in local projects is empowering to students and fosters a sense of ecological citizenship. Hill, A. (2013). The place of experience and the experience of place: intersections between sustainability education and outdoor learning. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 29(1), 18–32.

EE Research: Climate Change

Environmental Educators Should Help Develop Climate Change Teaching Resources

from EE Research Bulletin
Issue 5, January-June 2013
Nicole Ardoin, Project Lead in partnership with ChangeScale

THE RESEARCH: Monroe, M. C., Oxarart, A., & Plate, R. R. (2013). A role for environmental education in climate change for secondary science educators. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 12(1), 4–18.

Climate change is one of the most divisive and controversial issues of our time, yet the authors of this study propose that secondary science teachers should incorporate it into their curricula. The authors contend that the topic easily lends itself to conversations on the nature of science, hands-on activities in data analysis, and development of critical thinking skills, among other important lessons. Additionally, the authors suggest that environmental educators and researchers are uniquely prepared to help secondary science teachers with developing resources for teaching about climate change.

Given that environmental educators could make substantial contributions to the development of climate change curricula, the authors developed and implemented a needs assessment study to understand (1) whether secondary teachers are willing to include climate change in their lessons, (2) if they feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge on the topic, and (3) which resources and strategies would be most helpful for them in teaching climate change lessons.

To collect their data, the authors focused specifically on the southeastern United States and sent out a survey to middle- and high-school science teachers. The survey, which included several open-ended items and 25 closed-ended items, was completed by 746 teachers. Among other topics, the survey asked the teachers about whether they already included climate change in their curriculum, and what they perceived to be the best strategies for teaching about controversial topics. Additionally, the survey asked them to rate the usefulness of different teaching resources.

Based on the survey results, 77% of these middle- and high-school science teachers reported that they already include climate change in their curriculum and were willing to continue doing so. However, whetherthey cover it and howthey do so varied significantly by the teacher’s subject. For instance, biology, earth science, and marine science teachers tended to cover climate change using the format of a week-long lesson. Ecology and earth science teachers generally reported teaching climate change for longer periods. On the other hand, teachers of physics, physical science, chemistry, and agriculture tended not to teach climate change at all, citing reasons such as lack of cohesion with state standards or not enough scientific evidence for climate change.

In terms of understanding and comfort levels, only 2% said they have “little understanding,” yet only 24% said they have a “detailed understanding;” the majority claim a “moderate understanding.” As above, there is a difference across subject areas in comfort with teaching climate change: biology and environmental science teachers feel significantly more comfortable with it than agriculture educators.

The strategies teachers rated as most appropriate for teaching about climate change were to “explain scientific uncertainty, present the rationale for how people interpret climate change differently, discuss advantages and disadvantages of climate related policies, and discuss the history of climate change science.” Most teachers were interested in the goals of “connecting science to everyday life” and “emphasizing critical thinking.” The educational resources teachers ranked most useful were student action projects, hands-on activities, and lab work, with data sets, videos, and pictures following close behind. In terms of the scope of climate change education, most teachers are interested in teaching about its effect on the world as a whole.

The ways in which climate change affects us, and the ways in which we might combat it, are extremely interdisciplinary. The diversity of perspectives on climate change also means that careful thought and preparation must go into planning curriculum. As the authors put it, “environmental educators—who have been working through the sticky, wicked, fuzzy, and interdisciplinary issues of hazardous waste, environmental justice, [and] nuclear energy . . .—are well prepared to address these challenges.”

The authors conclude that many life science and environmental science teachers are willing to include climate change in their curricula, especially as a way for students to develop the skills of critical thinking and synthesizing multiple perspectives. Moving forward, environmental educators and researchers should help develop climate change teaching resources because of the experience that they have in working with diverse perspectives and backgrounds, as well as working in controversial and cross-disciplinary fields.


Despite the previous taboo on teaching about climate change in schools, teachers are willing and interested in incorporating it into their curriculum because of the important skills that it can help

students develop. Although there are many organizations and agencies developing these resources to help teachers, environmental educators are uniquely positioned to add their input because of their knowledge and experience in working with controversial, interdisciplinary issues. The results of this survey can be used to guide environmental educators in developing strategies, goals, and activities related to climate change that will be useful to teachers.

EE Research: Climate Change

Understanding Climate Change Requires Holistic Understanding of the Climate System


THE RESEARCH: Shepardson, D. P., Niyogi, D., Roychoudhury, A., & Hirsch, A. (2012). Conceptualizing climate change in the context of a climate system: Implications for climate and environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 18(3), 323-352.


From Environmental Research Bulletin

Nicole Ardoin and Jason Morris, Project Leaders

Research has revealed that there is a wide gap between the ways that scientists and students think about climate change. This paper’s authors argue that to better understand climate change, students must first understand the climate as a system. They propose a climate system framework that can be used to teach about climate change. Their goal is to present this framework to inform both the design of climate change curricula and future research on climate change education.

The authors conducted a comprehensive review of research on secondary students’ learning about climate change and identified six categories of topics that emerged from the review: (1) causes of global warming climate change, (2) greenhouse gases, (3) relationship of global warming and climate change, (4) relationship of climate and weather, (5) the carbon cycle, and (6) the impacts of global warming and climate change. For each of these categories, the authors describe research on the learning that has taken place, looking for sources of the misconceptions that secondary students have. For example, the authors highlight that students believe air pollution, such as acid rain and dust, causes climate change; carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; and greenhouse gases exist as a “layer” in the atmosphere. When it comes to impacts, students are largely focused on the impacts of increasing temperatures, which they see as the cause of sea level rise due to ice melt they believe will be the cause of cause droughts and a loss of drinking water.

The authors use this analysis to construct a generalized model of secondary student conceptions of climate change, including their erroneous ideas. They then use well-accepted scientific models of the climate system to create their own climate system framework. The framework describes the Earth’s climate system, including the external and internal causes of climate and natural and human-induced causes of climate variability. The authors juxtapose their climate system framework and the students’ conceptual model to highlight what’s missing from the student conceptual model. The authors’ analysis reveals that students are missing several key concepts “that need to be addressed in order to develop students’ conceptualizations of climate change within the context of a climate system.” These concepts include:

  • What is a climate system?
  • Climate and weather
  • The Earth and Earth’s energy budget
  • System feedbacks
  • The sun (solar radiation)


  • Atmosphere (troposphere)
  • Ice and snow
  • Oceans
  • Land and vegetation

The authors believe that understanding these concepts will help students understand the climate system as a whole, and they believe it “challenges students’ understanding of global warming and climate change as being driven by the greenhouse effect alone.” This system understanding, the authors argue, helps put the variability in the Earth’s climate into perspective. But, they acknowledge that teaching students about the Earth’s climate is challenging, and more research about how students think about the climate system is needed. The authors have invited the formal and informal education community to provide comments and feedback about their proposed approach at an online discussion board at

THE BOTTOM LINE: When teaching about climate change, the authors of this paper argue that the curriculum should emphasize climate change in the context of the climate system as a whole. They’ve developed a climate system framework that describes key concepts and linkages in the climate system. This approach focuses attention on fundamental climate science knowledge and develops students into critical thinkers who can use this knowledge to help interpret and understand climate change. But they acknowledge that teaching about the climate system is not easy, and more research is needed. The authors invite colleagues to weigh in on the challenges of climate education 21and their proposed teaching approach at

Shepardson, D. P., Niyogi, D., Roychoudhury, A., & Hirsch, A. (2012). Conceptualizing climate change in the context of a climate system: Implications for climate and environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 18(3), 323-352.