The Challenge: Building Environmental Literacy in K-12 Students

Environmental science in the United States is at a critical point: in the face of numerous environmental challenges, the public consistently ranks environmental issues among their lowest priorities,1 scientific literacy is on the decline,2 and politics (rather than science) often dictates environmental action.3 To address this predicament, environmental education provides an opportunity to help individuals and communities feel empowered with knowledge and skills to protect the environment. Specifically, environmental education aims to build environmental literacy,4 which includes the knowledge, dispositions, competencies, and motivations for environmental action.5 Harnessing the rapid development of programs focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) for K-12 students is one way to build environmental literacy and address environmental issues, as STEM education has been shown to contribute positively to student attitudes on environmental problems.6

The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas project has developed a suite of STEM educational materials to build environmental literacy with a three-pronged approach: (1) incorporating cutting-edge technological tools, (2) bridging disciplines to build a broad range of skills, and (3) engaging students with hands-on classroom activities and outdoor environmental education experiences. The goal of using this three-pronged approach is to provide a well-rounded learning experience that bridges students’ affinity for technology with real-world scenarios and outdoor experiences.

Despite the increasing national focus on and funding for STEM subjects,7 many students “perceive science to be a difficult subject and are minimally engaged in it”.8 One way to increase student interest in science is through technology,9 especially since the educational landscape is changing to reflect a focus on digital media and STEM.10 Students need certain skills to navigate technology use in their daily lives and to succeed in the increasingly digitized workforce. These skills include the ability to identify quality data sources, analyze large datasets, and make evidence-based decisions, all of which are addressed in the EnviroAtlas educational materials. These competencies can serve students in a broad range of contexts, not only opening doors to new career options, but also increasing students’ self-confidence and personal sense of empowerment, or self-efficacy.11 Self-efficacy has implications for student learning, as it has been shown to have impactful effects on human behavior, motivation, success, and failure.11

Illustrating the personal connections between scientific concepts and students’ lives can also help foster student curiosity in the sciences. Research shows that children frequently use technology even while outdoors.12 Although some may find this problematic (e.g., detracting from the nature experience)13 , others suggest that incorporating technology with outdoor experiences may be a particularly effective way to encourage youth engagement (i.e., capitalizing on existing interests and habits)14 . Finding ways to engage children with the natural world becomes more important as children are increasingly disconnected from nature and are spending less time outdoors,15 which can affect their physical, intellectual, and emotional health and development.16

Environmental education is a form of instruction that increases awareness and knowledge about environmental issues and enhances problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills.17 As the educational landscape shifts towards forging technologically literate students, educators can complement this with environmental education. One important component of environmental education is giving students time outdoors to facilitate their connection to nature. This connection to nature can be even more impactful when paired with local, place-based learning because research has shown that a person’s sense of place attachment can influence their environmental attitudes and dispositions towards environmental issues.18,19 Additional studies have found that those with stronger attachments to a particular setting are the most sensitive to human impacts in that place.19 Tying environmental issues to places where students live is one way that EnviroAtlas reinforces stronger student connections to nature.

EnviroAtlas Can Help to Meet the Challenge

Using the three-pronged approach to environmental education (incorporating technology, bridging disciplines, and engaging students with hands-on and outdoor activities), EPA researchers are working to empower educators and students in STEM using accessible tools and resources, including EnviroAtlas. EnviroAtlas is a free, web-based, interactive mapping tool that allows users to explore human-environment relationships in a broad range of contexts. EnviroAtlas was designed for research and community decision making, putting maps and peer-reviewed research at the fingertips of many who otherwise would not have access. It contains over 400 map layers on a national scale, with additional layers at a finer resolution for almost 1200 cities and towns across the United States. EnviroAtlas can be used in education to teach digital skills and encourage students to engage with real-world STEM topics via a high-tech tool.

Seeing the potential for EnviroAtlas as a powerful educational tool, EPA researchers developed a suite of educational materials that cover standardized science concepts. These educational materials were written with input from over 20 formal classroom educators and pilot-tested with approximately 300 students prior to their public release. They include four lesson modules, student handouts, supplementary activities, and teacher scripts, all of which align with all 50 State science educational standards. The lessons were designed in a blended learning format, a style of education that integrates online and in-person activities to maximize engagement and allow for personalized learning.20 Designed in the three-pronged approach, the EnviroAtlas educational materials merge outdoor experiences and digital skills by incorporating a technology portion, a hands-on activity, and an outdoor segment in each lesson plan. The following lesson modules are available online from the US EPA’s EnviroAtlas:

  • “Exploring Your Watershed” for grades K-6
  • “Introduction to Ecosystem Services” for grades 4-6
  • “Connecting Ecosystems to Human Health” for grades 4-12+
  • “Building a Greenway: Case Study” for grades 9-12+

EnviroAtlas Tools & Resources

American students are using technology in educational settings. As there are many environmental careers that require a mix of outdoor and digital skills, the EnviroAtlas materials use a blended learning format to allow students to investigate local, environmental issues using online technology. Classrooms that use technology in engaging, creative ways provide more effective learning environments than those that primarily use technology to complete the same activities they would have otherwise.10

The EnviroAtlas Interactive Map puts hundreds of geospatial layers on environmental conditions, uses, and stressors, transparent metadata, and socioeconomic overlay capability at the fingertips of anyone with internet access. Students can conduct guided or independent research, come up with a scientific question, identify relevant data sets, and analyze data from geographic information systems (GIS). As a UVA professor noted, “[EnviroAtlas] promotes critical thinking, uses actual data, and students can ask many types of environmental questions and explore the tool in search of answers.” The Interactive Map is also freely available, requires no special software installation, and no specialized skills to use—as a 5th grader said, “it’s easy.”

Considering that “few fields of inquiry are so clearly interdisciplinary in nature” as investigations of human feelings about places,21 the merging of science, technology, place, and students’ perceptions of their role in the environment all come together using the Interactive Map. Having easy access to these vast resources also helps students develop the critical skill of being able to sift through and make sense of data and information. The more that students interact with these types of information, the more they build confidence in identifying quality data and sorting through data to determine what is most relevant to the situation at hand. Through educational materials like these, educators can foster a generation equipped not only to navigate the digital world, but to thrive in it.

In addition to the Interactive Map, EnviroAtlas contains the Eco-Health Relationship Browser, a graphical literature review which allows students to explore the relationship between ecosystem benefits and human health. Like the Interactive Map, the Browser is extremely easy to use. It’s simple to manipulate, manageable to read, and provides scientific information in short, digestible pieces. However, behind its front-facing simplicity are robust data from over 500 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles, all of which are also available in a bibliography. The Browser’s emphasis on peer-reviewed evidence and the readily accessible documentation on study size, methods, and additional information for each article encourages students to think about the quality of information and practice forming arguments from evidence. Furthermore, the educational activities that leverage the Browser encourage students to select health outcomes that resonate with them or are somehow connected to their personal lives. This personal connection has been effective with students, as many come to realize through this lesson plan that they are intricately entwined with the environment and its systems. As one eighth grade student said, “I didn’t realize that protecting the environment meant protecting the people that I love.”

Making it Personal: Understanding the Eco-Health Connection

Making concepts personal and relevant to students’ lives is another powerful strategy for increasing student interest in environmental topics. The extensive array of data layers on the EnviroAtlas Interactive map allows students to research locations and topics relevant to them. A student from rural North Carolina could investigate land use patterns and temperature change over time in the Southeast, while a student in Phoenix, Arizona may be more interested in layers showing the health impacts of air pollution in their community. Both students could explore available maps and have compelling visual support for their research questions within minutes.

In the digital portion of the “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health” activity, students spend time exploring the interactive EnviroAtlas Eco-Health Relationship Browser. Rather than researching a pre-determined set of topics, students can choose to investigate health impacts that directly impact themselves or their loved ones. By focusing on these personal connections and strengthening the understanding that people are connected to nature, not separate from it, abstract concepts can become tangible. As one educator commented, “[Using EnviroAtlas] is a good way to connect AP Environmental Science concepts to the daily lives of my students.”

During the outdoor portion of “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health,” participants create a tangible web of connections between ecosystem services and human health outcomes.

Participants then discuss how ecosystems may affect ecosystem services. Students are also encouraged to share relevant personal experiences or related knowledge as they go along. The activity reinforces the idea that protecting ecosystem health is about more than conservation; it is also about improving a vast array of human health outcomes, from reduced risk of multiple cancer types to better mental health.

The “Connecting Ecosystems and Human Health” activity is not limited to formal education settings and has been used by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) Air Quality Division to increase awareness of the impacts of ecosystem benefits on air quality and public health.

Balancing Digital Skills & Outdoor Experiences

While the EnviroAtlas educational materials aim to increase students’ digital skills using EnviroAtlas and geospatial technologies, the materials also strive to strengthen students’ connection to nature. The irony of using digital media to engage students while simultaneously encouraging them to spend more time outside, however, it is important to balance the emphasis on technology with environmental literacy. More hours connected to screens and technology can contribute to spending less time engaged with nature.12 This is noteworthy because time spent outdoors and exposure to the outdoors have been found to have both preventative and health-promoting benefits.16,22-25 Preventative benefits include protection against anxiety, depression, and obesity disorders—some of the same health challenges associated with increased screen-time.16,23 Health-promoting benefits of time spent outdoors include improved physical health,24 mental health,25 and social relationships.16 Emerging research has also shown that these impacts are not only limited to childhood, but that they can have long-lasting effects into adolescence and adulthood.25 On a national-scale, researchers found an association between higher levels of exposure to nature during childhood and a lower risk of developing “any of a multitude of psychiatric disorders later in life.”25 In addition, time spent outdoors has been shown to increase conservation-related attitudes and behaviors,26 which is one step towards building environmental self-efficacy and environmental literacy. Each of the EnviroAtlas lesson plans get students outside, encouraging curiosity and exploration of the surrounding environment. While practical barriers exist to nature exposure in many areas, the lessons can still be conducted in most schoolyards, or even in a parking lot.

In the “Exploring Your Watershed” lesson for younger children, the three-pronged approach promotes practical skills like using geospatial tools, outdoor navigation, and understanding the concept of watersheds. Through a hands-on modeling activity, students visualize the way that water flows from ridgelines in a watershed. Using maps of the local area and the EnviroAtlas Raindrop Analysis Tool online, students can then map out the path of a raindrop from their location. This lesson plan aims to take watersheds, a concept often perceived by students as very abstract, and then use EnviroAtlas to make it personal, local, and visible. In an optional outdoor activity, students can practice navigation and exploratory learning by following the path of their local raindrop to the nearest body of water. Through this place-based exploration, the activity brings the connection between abstract concepts, digital tools, and the natural world to life.

The “Introduction to Ecosystem Services” lesson module, aimed at students in 4th-6th grades, starts with taking students outdoors to explore the benefits of nature in their own backyards. The lesson module contains a suite of six mini-lesson activities that are designed to be stand-alone or conducted together. The mini-lessons build on each other, with students first engaging with and exploring the outdoors, then exploring the tools and resources available in EnviroAtlas, and finally elaborating on their ideas by making high-level analogies between ecosystem services and common household items. The suite of mini-lessons captures all goals in the four-pronged approach. Student exploration of self-chosen topics can increase their connection to nature, while also enhancing critical thinking skills and leading to a stronger sense of self-efficacy for environmental science. The lesson plans demonstrate how valuable going outdoors can be, they allow students to use the EnviroAtlas tools to explore health benefits of spending time in nature, and then they solidify student understanding through personal outdoor experiences.

Improving Student Self-Efficacy in Science

When students learn STEM concepts and practices, they build their sense of self-efficacy as scientific and environmental agents, which have been linked to pro-environmental behaviors.27-30 Contributing to environmental science self-efficacy in students is at the forefront of the EnviroAtlas educational materials. Bandura suggested that although self-belief may not necessarily translate directly into success, “self-disbelief assuredly spawns failure” (p. 77).11 Therefore, empowering students to believe in themselves, their ideas, and their futures in scientific and environmental fields is imperative for our collective environmental future.

Considering that future social and economic demands for STEM professionals are expected to increase sharply in the coming years and decades, building student self-efficacy and interest in STEM careers will be critical to meet those demands.30 The likelihood that students in kindergarten through 12th-grade (K-12) will choose a STEM career depends on their attitudes towards STEM.31 Students are more likely to pursue higher education in STEM fields if they have high self-efficacy in math or science.28,29 This development of science and math self-efficacy can have impacts on a student’s educational career as early as middle school: one study found that eighth-grade students who believed science would be beneficial in their future were more likely to pursue STEM degrees later in life.29

One way to build scientific self-efficacy is to engage students in making arguments from evidence.32 The EnviroAtlas “Building A Greenway” lesson plan accomplishes this by asking students to use geospatial data as evidence for supporting their decision-making. Provided with a set of maps showing different data layers from the EnviroAtlas Interactive Map, students are assigned a role to play as a certain stakeholder in their community. The students then select which data layers are relevant to their stakeholder group, whether that be a local business-owner or wildlife conservation group, and form an argument for where a greenway should be built. Sometimes students will struggle with the decision, recognizing that for their stakeholder group, not enough information has been presented to make an informed decision. The lesson guidance suggests that educators use the teachable moment and confirm students’ instinct to request more information—after all, feeling empowered enough to demand more information prior to making a decision is one more step towards scientific self-efficacy. As current or future decision-makers, students should have the scientific self-efficacy to feel empowered enough to demand more information on an issue. This is especially true before they are asked to make a decision, even a hypothetical one, as in the “Building a Greenway” lesson plan, that has the potential to influence environmental and community well-being for years to come.

The “Building a Greenway” activity has been applied to community-level analysis in Fresno, California. During a demo of the activity in a California State University-Fresno undergraduate classroom, it came to light that local Parks and Recreation staff were actively considering placement of a greenway in Fresno. Students and Parks and Recreation staff agreed to evaluate EnviroAtlas maps in their consideration of the greenway placement, bringing a simulation of decision-making into part of the actual planning process for the City of Fresno.

Applications of EnviroAtlas

Using technology effectively in the classroom requires the time, skills, and resources to select and incorporate engaging digital content.10 The biggest strengths of the EnviroAtlas educational materials are that they are free and ready-to-go, saving educators some of their most precious resource—time. The EnviroAtlas team has put significant effort into helping educators feel comfortable using the tools and resources in their classrooms through formal conference presentations, informal presentations, classroom visits, and training workshops. In total, the team has conducted the activities with 1,600 student participants, primarily from low income/low resource schools, and just over 2,250 teachers, educators, and professional staff.

The EnviroAtlas team’s work to meet educators where they are and support them in incorporating these lesson plans has earned the materials an overwhelmingly positive response. One workshop participant, a trainer for STEM educators, reported back that she had distributed the EnviroAtlas educational materials to every science teacher in her county. Although it is hard to track and quantify the impacts as they spread, the exponential potential for growth and new, creative uses of the tools is immense.

Other educators have contacted EPA researchers with creative ideas for use of EnviroAtlas in a variety of subject areas, ranging from geometry to the history of war-torn areas. The head of one middle school science department noted that she planned to create a club for 6th-7th graders at her school based on investigative learning using the EnviroAtlas tools.

A high school Sustainability Academy teacher suggested an entire year-long portfolio project of student-designed projects based on EnviroAtlas data and tools.

In addition, emphasizing technology and applicable skills in the classroom applies to more than STEM subjects. Many art and language educators work to cross content areas and recognize where skills overlap, forming clear connections between classroom concepts and future life skills and careers. One North Carolina high school English teacher explored crossing the barrier between STEM and Language Arts using EnviroAtlas to investigate world literature through the lens of the eco-health connection. Those English students read a variety of texts from war-torn countries and browsed the EnviroAtlas tools to learn about ecosystem benefits and the potential health impacts in the wake of conflict. Finally, they formed arguments for who is responsible for remediation and revitalization efforts in the wake of conflict or war.

The possibilities for creative expansion are endless, and in the future, the EnviroAtlas team hopes to collaborate even more with educators to create and publish additional educational materials that use EnviroAtlas.


Building environmental literacy, developing digital skills, and increasing connection to nature are large, global challenges that will require efforts across disciplines and generations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EnviroAtlas project can contribute to those efforts.

The EnviroAtlas tool and associated lesson modules make state-of-the-science technology accessible for a variety of classrooms. The lesson plans can help teachers incorporate blended learning strategies while also achieving mandated education goals, going outdoors when possible, and providing opportunities for personalized learning. Students might not care about distant concerns like melting permafrost in boreal forests, but they likely know someone with asthma or have someone in their family with diabetes. By emphasizing connections between scientific concepts and students’ own lives and communities, the educational materials are designed to foster both scientific and environmental engagement. By structuring student learning such that students eventually generate their own solutions, EnviroAtlas aims to build self-efficacy. Together, these materials can help to foster new generations of technologically and environmentally literate decision-makers.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s decision-makers, and now is the time to empower them with the skills, resources, and environmental literacy needed to meet the challenges ahead.

The free EnviroAtlas educational materials can be found online at


This work was completed by Jenna Hartley under an ASPPH Fellowship (Associations of Schools and Programs for Public Health) and an ORISE Fellowship (Oak Ridge Institution for Science & Education). The authors would like to thank Laura E. Jackson, Ecologist with the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Susanna Klingenberg for their editorial assistance. In addition, thank you to Kelly Witter and Lauren Bamford with the US EPA RTP (Research Triangle Park) STEM Outreach Program, who made many of the local classroom visits for pilot tests possible via their program. Lastly, thank you to the teachers, students, and participants that allowed us to visit your schools, classrooms, and programs, especially those who inspired us with creative new ways to engage with EnviroAtlas in the classroom.


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Jenna Hartley

Jenna Hartley is an ORISE Participant at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development in Research Triangle Park, NC. She is also pursuing a PhD at North Carolina State...


Carolyn Pugh

Carolyn Pugh is an ORAU contractor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program. She graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in...


Kathryn Stevenson

Kathryn Stevenson is an Assistant Professor in the Parks, Recreation & Tourism Management department at NC State University. Her research focuses on environmental education and children & nature,...


Jessica Daniel

Jessica Daniel is an Environmental Protection Specialist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research in Development in Research Triangle Park, NC. Her background is in ecosystem...

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