By Catherine Adams
September 13, 2022
“In my years of teaching Environmental Studies classes here at the University of Colorado (CU Boulder) – and at Oxford University and at the University of California Santa Cruz before joining CU faculty – I have observed that many students now arrive in our major with increased understanding, knowledge and skills to address intersecting environmental challenges.” According to CU Boulder’s Chair of Environmental Studies, Dr. Maxwell Boykoff, students are coming to college more prepared to address modern day environmental challenges than ever before.
This sentiment is echoed by educators at the high school level. Erin Morckel, an AP Environmental Science teacher at Westerville North High School, has also noticed increased environmental literacy in her students. “Although there are still big gaps in knowledge of the specifics of how climate change is human-caused, I believe students are overall more tuned in [to modern environmental challenges] than they used to be when I started teaching,” Morckel said.
AP classes like AP Environmental Science offer students the opportunity to study the environment at a college level before even stepping foot on campus. AP classes are college-level courses offered to high school students through the College Board’s Advanced Placement program that count towards graduation. Although policies vary from college to college, most US universities give college credit for a passing result (a 3) on the end-of-year AP Exam. A score of 3 or higher allows students to bypass general education courses and entry level environmental studies courses and get ahead early in their college career. This is becoming increasingly common. For example, more students are taking AP Environmental Science than ever before. In 2021, 149,106 students took the AP Environmental Science exam. This is a significant increase from the 98,9959 students who took the AP Environmental Science exam in 2011. The passing rate stayed relatively consistent, with 49% passing the exam in 2021 and 49.4% passing the exam in 2011. These increases are the result of extensive effort from the College Board, states, and school districts to expand access to AP courses, particularly for traditionally marginalized students. Correspondingly, Erin Morckel attributes increased local AP enrollment in her district to “a strong push from the district to increase AP enrollment all around, especially for students of color, in all upper-level classes.”
Beyond the college credit, students in AP Environmental Science also learn valuable information about environmental concepts and processes. “Almost every topic in APES is related to a present-day environmental issue, always under the umbrella of climate change… I hopefully have the ability to educate and motivate students to make changes in their lifestyle or choose careers in this field,” Morckel said. Educators like Morckel are able to cultivate students’ passion for the environment while simultaneously preparing them for success in college. For example, Audrey Huang, a third-year Environmental Science major at the Ohio State University, credits her AP Environmental Science teacher for helping her choose her college major. “I took AP environmental science, and that’s really what got me into the environmental science track. Pretty much just all of my AP classes prepared me for the workload and kind of study structure that I would need, but environmental science was really the only one that prepared me for this specific field of study,” Huang said.
However, in-class work is not the sole reason students are entering environmental studies departments better prepared. Research shows that belief and understanding of climate change, an indicator of overall environmental knowledge, is significantly increased by engagement in environmental extracurriculars. Although teachers who engage their students outside of the classroom and assign more at-home work increase their students’ climate change comprehension, classroom learning is not the sole answer. In fact, according to a 2019 study, involvement with science-themed extracurriculars is more influential on belief in climate change than classroom coverage of climate change. “Participation in engineering/science clubs, camps, or competitions; reading/watching science literature/programs; and presenting a poster on science/engineering content were all significantly predictive of a belief in climate change” (Shealy et al., 2019). This indicates that more prepared students likely engage in enriching activities outside of the classroom. For example, Huang participated in the Science Olympiad, which she believes prepared her to study environmental issues in college. “I did the Science Olympiad… and that really helped my problem solving and quick thinking skills. It kind of prepared me for what a science field would be like,” Huang said.
In recent years, youth have certainly had increased opportunities to get involved in environmental extracurriculars. Youth environmental activism has been on the rise in the US, and has created another avenue for young people passionate about environmental issues to learn about the environment outside of class. Partially inspired by Greta Thunberg’s school strikes in Europe, hundreds of thousands of students across the United States went on strike to protest what they felt to be a lack of climate action from their government. These strikes were led by youth organizations such as US Youth Climate Strike, International Indigenous Youth Council, the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, and Zero Hour. These organizations continued to grow in size after the global strikes, absorbing youth around the United States into the environmental justice movement. Youth activists are learning about environmental issues such as climate change and advocating for solutions before even arriving on campus.
The complex modern environmental issues humanity faces may seem challenging, but students seem increasingly up to the task of producing creative, interdisciplinary solutions. This is a fact many, including Professor Boykoff, find hope. “I find this encouraging as students’ capacities and capabilities appear to be increasing over time and then our work together becomes more productive and fruitful in the classroom and beyond,” Boykoff said.