While people outside the field of ecology have developed and championed important notions of ecological literacy, a comprehensive view from within the discipline itself has yet to emerge. A strong and clear voice about universal ecological literacy from the ecological community will contribute to the broader movements for environmental citizenship and sustainability.
The current and two past Vice Presidents for Education and Human Resources of the Ecological Society of America (ESA, Meg Lowman, Carol Brewer and Alan Berkowitz) surveyed the membership of ESA in summer 2007 using an on-line instrument with open ended questions about the essential elements of ecological literacy and the key pathways for achieving it. Responses were received from 1,034 individuals, most of whom hold doctorate degrees (69%), with the rest holding masters (20%) or bachelors (10%) degrees. Their degrees were in ecology (40%), biology (19%), or environmental sciences, applied sciences (forestry, wildlife, etc.), botany, zoology and limnology or oceanography (6-8% each).
Berkowitz and Brewer, joined by University of Montana graduate student Brooke McBride, are analyzing the results of the survey from a number of perspectives, in preparation for several publications, and for an ESA Policy Statement on Ecological Literacy.
In response to the question about what every citizen should know, feel, or be able to do in order to be considered ecologically literate, preliminary analysis shows:
- There is a tremendous diversity of definitions of ecological literacy among ecologists.
- Concepts dominated respondents' definitions (versus abilities or feelings).
- Human ecology concepts were surprisingly frequent among responses.
- Negative human impacts predominated.
- The list of concepts needed is for ecological literacy could be longer and deeper than may be achievable.
- Skills, particularly critical thinking, understanding the nature of science and science process, also were important.
- There was notably little mention of self confidence.
In response to the question about the top 5 pathways that every American needs in order to become ecologically literate, preliminary analysis shows:
- The need to target students and the public.
- Near consensus on the importance of getting students outside and providing them with direct experience in the environment.
- An emphasis on active learning, with the need for suitable books, curricula and media also emphasized.
- Surprisingly little mention of engagement in critical thinking, modeling or quantitative work.