30 SES 09 A, Education as Risky Business
Environmental problems are inherently complex, and most of the public does not have the required background to make informed decisions about their absolute severity, let alone their relative severity. The way people perceive ecological problems and evaluate their relative severity has a crucial impact on their motivation to address them. Therefore, understanding how people make sense of and evaluate ecological risks (ERs) is important (Duan and Fortner, 2010). Risk assessment studies show that there is an expert-non-expert perception gap, which stems from biases and misperceptions that characterize ecologically illiterate people. To date, there have been only a few studies focusing on the difference in ER assessment by people with an academic environmental background compared to people who lack such background. This study aimed at filling this gap, not only by examining the differences in risk assessments of EE vs. non-EE students, but also to discover whether there is a difference in the considerations leading to the different assessments.
The rationale of the research is based on the assumption that academic EE which, by definition, is designed to impart an elementary understanding of environmental problems (Hungerford, 2010), provides better tools for an informed assessment of environmental problems. This study answers the following questions: 1. Do students who enroll in environment-related programs perceive ERs as more severe compared to students who enroll in non-environmental programs? 2. Do they make different choices when they are required to prioritize ERs? and 3. Are the reasons and considerations for making their choices, evaluations and prioritizations different? By combining quantitative with qualitative approaches and analyses, we tested the following hypotheses:
H1. EE students will evaluate anthropogenic ERs as generally more severe than non-EE students.
H2. EE students will perceive most risks as more certain, imminent, personal and proximate than non-EE students.
H3. Their prioritization will be different, especially for ERs whose evaluation requires deeper understanding of the causal relationships between various ecological phenomena.
Students from two academic, environmental programs (n=103) and non-environmental programs (n=129) in two different academic institutions were introduced with a list of current real-life ecological problems. These problems were (not in an order of importance): soil, water, and air pollution, loss of green areas, loss of biodiversity, waste accumulation, overpopulation, water shortage, earthquakes, fires, etc. This list was taken from an official report of the most severe environmental problems, which was written by dozens of the highest ranking environmental experts. Students from both groups were asked to evaluate each ER's severity, make priorities (which problem should be addressed first, second, and so on) and explain the reasons for her/his choices. We integrated several constructs from the field of risk assessment, to measure perceived risk attributes (as certainty, imminence, geographical distance, personal implications, emotional response, etc.). To study how various ER's are organized and perceived, we used an analytical multidimensional scaling technique designed to create graphical representations of the similarities and differences in the ratings of multiple objects (risks, in this case) (Curtis et al., 2008). This analysis is based on principal component analysis, which enables the identification of perceived relationships between various elements (risks) according to their spatial distance. Specifically, risks that are perceived as related are depicted closer to each other, in a cluster, while risks that stand alone represent risks that are perceived as unrelated.
In general, EE students perceived all the environmental problems as significantly more severe than the non-EE students (thus confirming H1). The largest mean difference was found in the perception of population growth. EE students perceived ERs as more certain, proximate, imminent, personal and evoking stronger emotions compared to non-EE students, thus confirming H2. The order of the top five most important ecological problems was similar in both groups. However, loss of biodiversity and open areas were ranked significantly higher on the priority list of the EE group than that of the non-EE group. The largest difference in prioritization was in the case of population growth, to which EE students assigned a significantly higher priority than the non-EE students. Our analysis of the students’ explanations for their choices of the most severe environmental risk yielded three major perspectives: An anthropocentric perspective, adopted by two-thirds of non-EE students vs. a quarter of EE students, A whole-system perspective, adopted by 10% of non-EE students vs. 60% of EE students and A solution-oriented perspective, adopted by 20% of non-EE and 20% of EE students. The content analyses reinforce previous findings regarding the limited systemic understanding of environmental problems we found among the non-EE students. It is evident that compared to EE students, non-EE students ranked most of the risks which have complex and extensive impacts, such as population growth, loss of biodiversity and loss of open spaces, as having less personal relevance in the "here and now". Supported by the quantitative as well as the qualitative findings, we suggest that compared to non-EE students, EE students have, on average, better system thinking and an enhanced ability to understand the connectivity between the various problems.
Coole, D. (2013). Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question. Environmental Politics, 22(2), 195-215. Curtis, A. M., Wells, T. M., Higbee, T., & Lowry, P. B. (2008). An overview and tutorial of the repertory grid technique in information systems research. Duan, H., & Fortner, R. (2010). A cross-cultural study on environmental risk perception and educational strategies: Implications for environmental education in China. International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education, 1(1). Hungerford, H. R. (2010). Environmental education (EE) for the 21st century: Where have we been? Where are we now? Where are we headed? The Journal of environmental education, 41(1), 1-6. Maher, T. M. (1997). How and why journalists avoid the population-environment connection. Population and Environment, 18(4), 339-372 Rideout, B. E. (2005). The effect of a brief environmental problems module on endorsement of the new ecological paradigm in college students. The Journal of Environmental Education, 37(1), 3-11. Woodworth, B. L., Steen-Adams, M. M., & Mittal, P. (2011). Role of an environmental studies course on the formation of environmental worldviews: a case study of a core curriculum requirement using the NEP Scale. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 1(2), 126-137.
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