Why an Environmental Education Degree?
Environmental education aims to nurture an understanding of how personal and societal choices affect the earth's ecosystems and inhabitants. Environmental educators also hope to inspire a love of nature, often through outdoor immersion programs and adventure outings. However, they work with children, students, adults, and tourists in both formal and non-formal settings. Some are certified teachers who work in secondary schools, while others plan and run programs at nature centers, parks, or nonprofit organizations.
Environmental Education Undergraduate Programs
Aspiring environmental educators typically earn a bachelor's degree in environmental science, environmental studies, geography, ecology, or a related area; there are few undergraduate programs in environmental education specifically. It's advantageous to choose these degrees, though, since they combine teaching methods and experiential learning with the necessary scientific foundation.
Volunteering for conservation organizations, parks, or summer camps while in college is an excellent way to gain valuable practical experience.
Environmental Educator Certification Programs
An increasing number of states are certifying environmental educators working in both formal and non-formal settings. Certification programs set standards and often require ongoing professional development.
Separate certification is required for public school teachers in all states. Certification requirements vary by state, but always require at least a bachelor's degree, completion of a teacher preparation program, and supervised teaching experience. Many require a general teaching test, background check, and continuing professional development.
Unity College in the wooded setting of Unity, Maine specializes in environmental science education and hands-on experience. Unity offers two unique degree programs: a B.S. in Adventure-Based Environmental Education and a B.S. in Secondary Education. The secondary education program offers much more than instruction in traditional education techniques; it integrates in-depth studies in natural resources, environmental education, as well as lab work, fieldwork, and teaching assistance. Students learn educational psychology, geographic information systems (GIS), and how to use field equipment.
As undergraduates, students are actively involved in leading experiential learning sessions for local schools and camps. Graduates are prepared to fill roles as much-needed science teachers; in addition to a diploma, they also receive a certification to teach life or physical science in middle school or high school. They're also qualified for positions as park rangers and nature guides.
Unity College's Adventure-Based Environmental Education program gives students real-word experience leading wilderness hikes and other activities, such as canoeing and rock climbing. Students also learn pedagogy, how to safely teach through outdoor activities, how to manage traditional and outdoor classrooms, and leadership skills. This program is best for students seeking careers in outdoor, recreational, environmental, and experiential education. Graduates are qualified for positions as educators in schools and nature centers, wilderness guides, and eco-travel professionals.
The University of Minnesota, Duluth offers a Bachelor of Applied Science (B.A.Sc.) in Environmental and Outdoor Education. Students learn outdoor education methods, program planning and delivery, program management and evaluation, and principles of recreation. They also spend one full semester in the field in an outdoor educational setting. Graduates are prepared for careers in adventure education, environmental interpretation, environmental education, and other informal education settings that don't require a teaching license.
Graduate Certificates in Environmental Education
Several schools offer graduate certificates in environmental education. These can be a good choice for students with environmental science degrees who want to add education credentials, without committing to a full master's program. Some graduates of traditional education programs who are interested in environmental education may also wish to pursue a certificate.
Hamline University in Minnesota offers a 10-credit graduate certificate in environmental education that's available both traditionally and online. The certificate focuses on environmental concepts and both indoor and outdoor teaching methods. Students may choose courses on ecology, natural history, teaching methods, field biology, and geology.
Master's Degrees in Environmental Education
Graduate programs in this field offer M.A., M.Ed., or M.S. programs, which have different areas of focus. For example, the M.Ed. is generally aligned for educators in formal settings that require teacher certification. The M.A. tends to focus on the social sciences, while M.S. programs are for students who wish to study science and natural resources in greater depth. Aspiring students should choose the program that best fits their backgrounds and goals.
Western Washington University offers an M.Ed. program. Students can choose from two options: a residency focusing on the non-profit sector, or a more traditional program that encompasses environmental education more broadly (either with or without a thesis). The more traditional, on-campus program is a non-thesis option. However, students must design an environmental education field project. The campus-based thesis option is more research-oriented, and suitable for students who want to pursue further study or careers in academia.
The non-thesis residency option involves collaboration with the North Cascades Institute (NCI). In addition to the M.Ed., students earn a Certificate in Leadership and Nonprofit Administration from NCI, as well as Northwest Naturalist Certification. Students design curricula and learn about nonprofit management and natural history. They must pass a comprehensive exam. Western Washington University programs do not include teacher certification.
New York University offers an M.A. in Environmental Conservation Education that prepares students for careers in formal and non-formal educational settings. The program focuses on the social sciences, including coursework on environmental philosophy, policies, journalism, ethics, and education, as well as science. Fieldwork is a required component. Students also gain real-world experience through NYU's partnerships with museums and environmental education centers, including internship opportunities with a wide range of organizations. Graduates find careers as environmental educators, program managers, and environmental consultants.
Doctoral Programs in Environmental Education
Educators, program managers employed by governments and nonprofits, and others can advance their careers through a doctoral program in environmental education.
Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona is a private, well-ranked college offering a Limited-Residency Ph.D. program in Education with a concentration in Sustainability Education. Students create customized programs of study, including a practicum. Candidates also complete an “action-oriented dissertation” that includes rigorous scholarship. It's a flexible program that allows students to complete most work remotely, with occasional visits to campus.
Employment in Environmental Education
Most environmental educators work for nature centers, national and state parks, and nonprofit environmental organizations. Some work for zoos, aquariums, and arboretums. These types of organizations have limited budgets, which equates to a limited amount of jobs. Due to the interest in this career field competition for jobs is strong. Candidates with practical experience through volunteer work at parks and summer camps will have the best opportunities.
Core Skills You'll Develop While Studying Environmental Education
- Leadership: environmental educators learn how to lead group activities, both in the classroom and outdoors.
- Pedagogy: students learn teaching methodology and best practices for both formal and non-formal educational settings.
- Communication: students learn to communicate effectively with people of all age ranges and backgrounds. They learn how to explain complex environmental concepts verbally and in writing. They also must give presentations and run group activities.
- Critical Thinking: Students learn how to evaluate sustainability challenges and potential solutions, as well as the environmental consequences of individual actions.
- Scientific Analysis: students may also learn how to collect, analyze, and interpret environmental data about their local areas, and interpret the information for community groups.