ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION AND THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH ALABAMA: A SURVEY OF STUDENT KNOWLEDGE AND PERCEPTIONS REGARDING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

 

 

H. E. Longenecker, III, Earth Sciences Department, University of South Alabama, Mobile, AL 36688.  E-Mail: heliii@aol.com.

 

The best approach to identifying and solving environmental problems within Mobile County, Alabama is to enhance public understanding and awareness of such issues.  Public understanding and awareness of environmental issues afflicting Mobile County are critical to improving the quality of Dog River and other area streams, rivers, and bays, in addition to the general environmental health of the county.  Dog River Clearwater Revival is a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting and restoring Mobile County’s Dog River, and this project is geared toward helping this organization reach its goals.  The University of South Alabama’s students originate from Mobile County and other areas throughout the world.  Therefore, this project surveyed 255 students at the University of South Alabama to determine their level of environmental knowledge and perceptions for several geographic scales ranging from local to global.  Survey results indicate the students of the University of South Alabama possess limited knowledge of environmental issues at the local, regional, national, and global levels.  In addition, the survey results revealed multiple and various student perceptions about environmental problems on the same scales.  Students voluntarily supplied their opinions about environmental problems in a subjective question and answer section of the survey.  The findings of this project call for development of an environmental education requirement in the University of South Alabama’s general education curriculum.

 

Keywords: environmental education, Mobile County, Dog River

 

 

Introduction

 

As with many areas in the United States, Mobile County, Alabama must deal with its share of environmental issues in a responsible and sustainable manner.  Mobile County is home to numerous natural resources and recreations, nearly 400,000 people, thousands of businesses, and abundant commercial and residential activity (U.S. Census 2002).  Local lawyers describe the county as liberal in relation to developing demographic trends, though many residents of the county may not agree to this assertion.  However, the increasing number of local media stories about environmental issues over the past few years lends support to the county’s increasing awareness and perception of practices and conditions afflicting the environment of the county.  Still, no studies performed to date display a particular level of knowledge or perception of environmental issues among the residents of Mobile County.  Policymakers, businesses, technologies, and residents, among others, make decisions that will affect the present and future environmental health of Mobile County.  Thus, the residents of Mobile County should possess an adequate working knowledge of environmental conditions and appropriate environmental practices.

 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has recognized that community-based research involving affected local communities in setting research agendas is effective and successful in dealing with problems such as pollution (AAAS 1999).  Dog River Clearwater Revival is a community action group based in Mobile County, Alabama, and its goals include improvement of the quality of Dog River and its watershed.  This group works to improve the quality of Dog River in many ways, including educating people about the watershed and regulatory compliance.  With hopes of meeting the group’s goals, special attention should be directed to educating the potential residents of Mobile County, especially those people who may choose to reside in the Dog River Watershed.  To reach these goals, however, residents of Mobile County and other local communities should possess the background knowledge they need to recognize environmental concerns and affect the policies that lead to various environmental problems.  This educational effort should focus on current environmental issues generally affecting the Dog River Watershed, including topics regarding alteration of the physical environment of Mobile County such as pollution, sewage system maintenance, runoff and erosion, and many other issues.  Furthermore, this education should be offered to the community and required for students attending college in Mobile County.  An environmental education requirement as part of the general curriculum requirements of college students is an effective method to instill environmental knowledge in future Mobile County residents.

 

The University of South Alabama (USA) and its students were targeted in this study since many students may become residents of Mobile County in the future, and, of course, since the students presently reside in the county.  A substantial number of USA students are natives of Mobile County, while other students grew up in, transferred, or moved to Mobile County at some point in their lives.  With enrollment topping the 12,000-student mark in 2002 (USA), a number of USA students are certain to make Mobile County their temporary or permanent place of residence upon graduation.  As such, these students need a solid environmental education for enlightenment about local, regional, national, and worldwide environmental issues.  Even if the graduating students move away from Mobile County, their new homes also need a foundation inclusive of a proper environmental education.

 

The University of South Alabama does not require any type of environmental education course whatsoever as a prerequisite for graduation from any of its bachelor’s degree programs at the present time (USA General Education Requirements 2004).  As such, USA graduates may be more likely to contribute to environmental problems if their environmental knowledge is insufficient.  The content of a proposed environmental education program at USA can be put together by assessing what USA students broadly understand about environmental characteristics at the local, regional, national, and global scales.  Evaluation of USA’s student body reveals what students recognize about the skills, policies, and solutions needed to confront existing and potential environmental issues.  Therefore, an environmental education course required by USA is likely to enhance the environmental quality of Mobile County and its Dog River Watershed.

 

In support of the foregoing paragraphs, the research presented in this report centers on the development of an environmental education program to be administered by the University of South Alabama.  I believe proper environmental education of USA students will benefit the overall environmental health and conditions of Mobile County for the long run.  In pursuit of this goal, students of USA should possess and maintain environmental knowledge about the students’ immediate environment of Mobile County, at the very least, and grander scales of environment, including regional, national, multinational, and global issues.  The North American Association for Environmental Education further supports the development of an environmental education program at USA, stating knowledge of environmental issues “must be integrated into all aspects of the curriculum and into all types of educating institutions” to be truly effective (NAAEE 2004).

 

Research Question and Objectives

 

This project administered environmental education surveys to approximately 255 USA students with the intent of answering the following question: What is the level of students’ environmental knowledge at the University of South Alabama?  The central research objective for this project is to find out whether sufficient evidence exists for the University of South Alabama to require its students to participate in an environmental education course or program as part of the general education requirements for each bachelors degree offered.  As expected, the results of this research revealed the students’ level of environmental knowledge; however, these results also contribute to the understanding of how environmental issues develop with Mobile County.

 

Methods

 

Since there was no particular instrument readily available for this project, an environmental education survey (Appendix A) was developed to assess the students’ level of environmental knowledge.  This survey collected information for analysis and characterization of various aspects of student environmental knowledge.  A series of statements on the survey sought admissions from the students about their knowledge of environmental conditions within Mobile County and current events affecting the environment in general.  These statements were designed for objective responses on scan-tron forms to ease processing, with no individually identifiable information requested to maintain confidentiality.  The survey also sought categorical data to classify the students by age, gender, type of secondary education, and birthplace.  A subjective response section included at the end of the survey allowed students to opine about environmental issues at the local, national, and global scales: the first question asked for the student’s major, while questions two, three, and four asked for the student’s opinion of what he or she thought were environmental problems facing the City of Mobile, the United States, and the world as a whole.  Once completed, the surveys were administered to several USA classes which represented various major departments.

 

Once the survey period ended, student demographic data was collected from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning at USA.  Information about the student population at USA in general is attributed to careful study and research performed by this particular department.  The institutional researchers in this department often take the lead role in university assessment projects due to their familiarity with information resources at the university.

 

Processing of the survey results was completed by USA’s Computer Services Center.  Forty-two statements on the survey were designed as fact statements, opinion statements, or consistency statements; therefore, statistical analysis of the students’ responses revealed a certain level of knowledge and consistency for fact statements.  Chi-square testing ensured that no random factors created differences among the students’ responses, and Student’s t testing calculated whether certain groups of students responded in statistically significant and different ways.  Opinion statements on the survey revealed students’ attitudes and perceptions about differing scales of environments.  The subjective response sections for each survey were individually reviewed and recorded in tabular format.  The analysis of information collected from the students further strengthened the grounds for this research by revealing that the students have multiple opinions about environmental conditions on differing scales, and that the students’ knowledge of the causal processes of such environmental conditions is limited.

 

Results

 

Four undergraduate courses in three subjects were surveyed, including philosophy, geography, and computer science, with a total of 255 responding students.  Responding students represent more than 45 major departments, and slightly more than 10% of the students are business majors (Table 1).  Of the 255 students responding to the objective portion of the survey, only 168 students responded to the subjective question and answer section of the survey.  Statistical methods were referenced to Downie (1977), Sapsford (1996), and Schmidt (1975).  Assigned values were as follows: Strongly Agree is graphed as 1.000, Somewhat Agree is graphed as 2.000, I Don’t Know is graphed as 3.000, Somewhat Disagree is graphed as 4.000, and Strongly Disagree is graphed as 5.000 (Appendix B).

 

Statistical analysis of responses to the objective section was carried out to determine if significant differences existed by classifying variables.  The student respondents were classified by birth in Mobile County versus elsewhere, high school attendance in Mobile County versus elsewhere, public versus private high school attendance, gender, and age.  In general, the students’ responses approached the expected response of “I Don’t Know” when graphed with a trend line (Figure 1).  The trend line in Figure 1 shows the length of the survey may affect students’ responses.

 

Students classified as being Mobile County natives or non-natives responded to questions 7, 8, 9, 14, 18, 26, 28, 29, 31, 36, and 43 with statistically significant differences (Figure 2).  Mobile County natives were more likely than non-natives to believe that Mobile Bay and Dog River are polluted, and that treated sewage is dumped in to Mobile Bay.  Non-natives were less likely to agree Dog River is located in Mobile, Alabama; additionally, non-natives were less likely to know a company must apply for permits from the Army Corps of Engineers to place its business on a river.  Mobile County natives agreed that Mobile’s drinking water contains fluoride; however, these natives also agreed that the University of South Alabama is located in the Dog River Watershed, even though USA lies in the Three-mile Creek Watershed.  Non-natives generally did not know that methyl mercury accumulates in the tissues of organisms such as fish and people.  When presented value statements regarding environmental concerns, Mobile County natives were more likely to be more concerned with the immediate local environment of Mobile than the environment of the United States.  Non-natives did not know if there is an abundant supply of wetlands on the planet, whereas Mobile County natives disagreed that an abundant supply of wetlands exists on the planet.  The final statistical analysis between these student classifiers revealed that non-natives did not know the Environmental Protection Agency states all drinking water can be expected to contain some amount of contaminants.

 

Students classified as attending or not attending Mobile County high schools responded to questions 7, 8, 10, 14, 15, and 28 with statistically significant differences (Figure 3).  Students who attended Mobile County high schools were more likely to agree that Mobile Bay and Dog River are polluted; however, these same students were more likely to agree that rain falling on USA’s campus drains into Dog River, when in actuality rainfall at USA drains into Three-mile Creek.  More students attending Mobile County high schools believe Dog River is located in Mobile, Alabama, and that rainfall sometimes enters the city’s sewer system.  Question 28 was designed to test the consistency of student responses, and again, students attending Mobile County high schools believed, incorrectly, that USA is located in the Dog River Watershed.

 

Students classified as attending public versus private high schools responded to questions 11, 31, and 42 with statistically significant differences (Figure 4).  Students who attended public high schools were less likely to agree that oil, mud, and trash are collected by the city’s stormwater drainage system and deposited into the nearest stream; however, both public and private high school attendees responded in the range of not-knowing the correct answer.  Responses to question 31 again revealed student responses in the not-knowing range when asked if they were more concerned with Mobile’s immediate local environment as opposed to the environment of the United States.  Question 42 presented a tougher statement: public and private high school attendees were both likely to not know that the EPA requires all wastewater treatment systems to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from a state regulatory agency for discharging treated effluent to state waters.

 

Male and female students responded to questions 7, 16, 30, and 33 with statistically significant differences (Figure 5).  Female students agreed more than male students that Mobile Bay is polluted.  More female students than male students believe it is not okay to pour leftover paint, oil, or hamburger grease into a kitchen sink.  The female students are also apparently more concerned than male students about the immediate local environment of Mobile and Mobile County.  More female students than male students believe the polar icecaps are melting faster than ever before.

 

The students were classified into four age groups: under 25, between 25 and 30, between 31 and 45, and older than 46 years.  Statistical analysis revealed significant differences between age groups when compared against one another.  Students under age 25 were less likely than students age 25 to 30 to know that treated sewage is dumped into Mobile Bay; additionally, the younger students in this comparison were less likely to know about Atlantic fisheries depletion (Figure 6).  Students of age 25 to 30 agreed more than students younger than 25 that fertilizers and pesticides are picked up by rainwater and carried to rivers.  Students of age 31 to 45 years agreed that a tanker loaded with ethanol and fuel oil sank off the Virginia coast in February 2004, whereas students younger than 25 were less likely to know of this fact (Figure 7).

 

The most significant differences in responses from age groups occurred between students younger than age 25 and students more than 46 years old (Figure 8).  Significant statistical differences between these age groups’ responses occurred on questions 19, 20, 26, 27, 29, 30, 35, 36, 37, and 48; however, it should be noted that some bias might have occurred between these classifiers since less than 10 students responding to the objective questions were more than 46 years of age.  These statistical differences were interpreted with caution due to the unbalanced number of respondents in these age categories.  With this said, students younger than age 25 generally responded in the “I Don’t Know” range more often than students more than 46 years old.

 

Numerous responses were given for the subjective questions regarding environmental problems at the local, national, and global scales.  Each problem identified in each student’s responses was counted.  Of the top 15 responses given by students, nearly 63% of the responses indicated some form of pollution was the biggest environmental problem facing Mobile (Figure 9).  Thirty-four percent of local-scale responses identified pollution affecting Dog River, Mobile Bay, or the Gulf of Mexico, with specificity to the body of water but not as to the particular type of pollution.  Eight percent of the students identified pollution from industry, 5% of students identified automobile emissions as pollutants, and 2% of the students identified mercury as a problem for Mobile.  Nearly 82% of student responses were very general.  Ten percent of students admitted they did not know what environmental problems faced Mobile, 1% said they never thought about or do not think about such problems, and 11% did not respond to the local-scale question but responded to larger scale questions.

 

In response to the national scale question, 63% of students identified some form of pollution as the biggest environmental problem for the United States (Figure 10).  Nearly 11% of these students specifically identified pollution from automobile emissions, 6% indicated global warming, and another 6% listed trash or garbage as the U.S.’s biggest environmental problem.  Two percent of students polled suggested President George W. Bush is the biggest environmental problem for the U.S., and 3% listed peoples’ attitudes toward the environment.

 

Pollution was again identified as the biggest environmental problem facing the world at a response rate of 37%; however, only 2% of students identified a specific form of pollution: automobile emissions (Figure 11).  Four percent listed peoples’ attitudes toward the environment, and nearly 25% listed global warming or the greenhouse effect.  Fourteen percent identified human overpopulation or deforestation as the world’s biggest environmental problem.

 

Most notable in the subjective results is the fact that most students did not identify environmental problems with specificity (Table 2).  However, these results do indicate that the students have some awareness of environmental problems.  The students’ awareness of environmental problems is limited by the fact that very few (less than 2) students identified wetlands destruction, desertification, agricultural runoff, insecticides or pesticides, chemical runoff in general, logging, or any other environmental problem on the local, national, or global scale.  Despite intense media coverage at the local and national levels, very few students identified mercury contamination.  No students identified urban sprawl or lack of best management practices, though very few (less than 2) identified overuse of natural resources or fossil fuels as a problem.  Of particular importance, here, is the fact that nearly 20% of students clearly stated at their own will that they did not know what environmental problems were on the local, national, or global scale.

 

Discussion

 

The results of the environmental education survey shed light on student knowledge of environmental issues on several different scales; furthermore, student perception of environmental issues can be somewhat understood through the foregoing analysis.  This analysis revealed bias kept to minimal levels in this survey under the guidance of Golledge and Stimson’s survey methods (1987).  These analytical behavioral geographers would suggest, however, that further studies be conducted to evaluate the students’ perceptions, attitudes, and values about the differing scales of environment (Golledge and Stimson 1987).

 

Development of an environmental education requirement at USA could have long-lasting, beneficial impacts upon the environment of Mobile County and the Dog River Watershed.  As Holl et al suggest, “environmental education efforts need to do more to inform people of changes they can make in their own lives to minimize environmental degradation[.]” (1995).  The university level is the appropriate arena for understanding and solving environmental problems, and for instilling concepts about how to act toward the environment.  Schoenfeld recognizes “there is an ethical or moral dimension to the enviornmental [sic] movement that makes it indigenous to the American campus[.]” (1979).  Perhaps a course can be developed at USA which integrates geographic or earth science principles with environmental ethics and related case studies.

 

The current Code of Alabama (1975) does not require environmental education per se, yet it does call for environmental protection education at the elementary level (Ala. Code §16-6B-2(f)).  What good can be instilled for environmental protection on the elementary level is questionable at best.  Moreover, there is no mention of environmental education whatsoever at the secondary, undergraduate, or graduate levels, nor is there mention in any environmental management legislation under Alabama statutory authority (Ala. Code 1975, ADEM 1988).  There is, on the other hand, a section of education law providing for marine environmental sciences at the university level, though this legislation is designated for research endeavors as it appears in the Code of Alabama (§16-45-2, 1975).  The benefits of creating legitimate environmental education laws for the State of Alabama, and Mobile County, would be far-reaching and very wise.

 

Conclusion

 

The research described throughout this report has laid a foundation for implementing an environmental education requirement for University of South Alabama students.  Some type of environmental education program should be developed for inclusion into the general education requirements at USA; however, additional research into student environmental knowledge and perceptions should also be undertaken to achieve further, stronger evidence for this proposition.  As such, the University should endeavor to further delineate the causes of environmental problems in Mobile County as part of its commitment to public service and the advancement of knowledge.

 

Acknowledgments

 

Many thanks to Professors Kevin Meeker, Doug Porter, Glenn Sebastian, and Miriam Fearn for their class time and for offering their students’ participation in this project.  Thanks to Jim Longino of USA’s Computer Services Center for his help processing the survey results.  Thanks also to the students of USA for their honest participation in this research project.

 

References Cited

 

Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  2004.  General Administration, Administrative Code.  Online by the State of Alabama Legislature at http://www.alabamaadministrativecode.state.al.us/docs/adem/ (April 30, 2004).

 

American Association for the Advancement of Science.  1999.  “Science & Technology for the Nation: Issues and Priorities for the 106th Congress: Views from the Science and Technology Community on the House Science Committee’s Report ‘Unlocking the Future.’” Washington DC: AAAS.  Online at http://www.aaas.org/ (accessed March 19, 2004).

 

Code of Alabama.  1975.  Education, §16-6B-2(f) et seq., and §16-45-2.  Online by the State of Alabama Legislature, http://www.legislature.state.al.us/CodeofAlabama/1975/coatoc.htm, (April 4, 2004).

 

Downie, N. M., and A. R. Starry.  1977.  Descriptive and Inferential Statistics.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

 

Golledge, Reginald G., and Stimson, Robert J.  1987.  Analytical Behavioral Geography.  London, New York, Sydney: Croom Helm Series in Geography and Environment.

 

Holl, Karen D.; Daily, Gretchen C.; and Ehrlich, Paul R.  Knowledge and Perceptions in Costa Rica Regarding Environment, Population, and Biodiversity Issues.  December 1995.  Conservation Biology, Vol. 9, No. 6: 1548-1558.

 

North American Association For Environmental Education.  2004.  Online at http://www.naaee.org/ (May 1, 2004).

 

Sapsford, R., and Jupp, Victor.  1996.  Data Collection and Analysis.  London: The Open University.

 

Schoenfeld, A. Clay.  May-June 1979.  The University-Environmental Movement Marriage.  The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 60, No. 3: 289-309.

 

Schmidt, Marty J.  1975.  Understanding and Using Statistics.  Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company.

 

United States Census Bureau.  2002.  Alabama QuickFacts.  Online at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/01/01097.html (May 1, 2004).

 

University of South Alabama, Office of Institution Research and Planning.  2002.  Enrollment Facts & Figures.  Online at http://www.southalabama.edu/instres/irhome.html (April 16, 2004).