Evaluating Forms of Engagement with Environmental Education in Florida


  • Kelley McKenna University of South Florida, St. Petersburg Campus
  • Rebecca Johns University of South Florida, St. Petersburg Campus
  • Barnali Dixon University of South Florida, St. Petersburg Campus


This research expands understanding of weaknesses and strengths in non-formal environmental education in Florida by comparing a variety of programs for effectiveness in raising awareness, changing attitudes, increasing connectedness, and prompting pro-environmental behavior among adults. Environmental education (EE) is a broad category that includes classroom programs, outdoor education, experiential education, and education for sustainability. Using qualitative research methods, we identify various opportunities and challenges for adult, non-formal EE at nature preserves and through non-governmental organizations in Pinellas County, Florida.

We apply a theoretical approach within experiential learning called engagement theory to assess the effectiveness of several types of educational activities in changing participants’ attitudes toward the environment. The engagement theory of learning is a multidimensional concept that combines different learning strategies to increase student participation and overall success.  There are three components of student engagement: behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement. Participant observation and surveys were used at four study sites: two non-governmental organizations and two nature preserves.

Results of fieldwork and analysis indicate complex patterns of impact on participants. Interestingly, events that emphasize emotional connection –- a much lauded concept in EE -–did not show an increased level of commitment to solving environmental issues or instill feelings of empowerment to solving the problems. Behavioral type events appeared to lower connection to nature for some people but had a strong impact on commitment and empowerment. Adult EE in Florida might be improved through collaborative efforts to create general standards, through the development of educational programs that effectively combine cognitive, emotional and behavioral engagement and through the incorporation of a wider range of emotions beyond the positive.