Jeffers Foundation


Letter To Teachers & Educators

From Julie Ernst, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Director of Master of Environmental Education Program, Univ. of MN - Duluth

January 30, 2012

Dear Teacher/Educator,

Your visit to JeffersFoundation.Org suggests you may already be teaching about the environment in your classroom, are interested in learning more about how other teachers are incorporating environmental education into their classroom, or maybe you are someone who grew up finding joy in nature, and want to pass that joy on to your own students. Resources on this website are great ways to get started and also offer easy options for extending the environmental education you are already doing in your classroom.

Julie Ernst, Ph.D.
Julie Ernst, Ph.D.

Teachers often wonder how they can possibly fit one more thing into a crowded curriculum that is about to burst at the seams, and for the non-science teacher, it can be hard to see the relevance or feasibility of incorporating environmental education into other subjects. The good news is that environmental education is an excellent means for interdisciplinary teaching, and the skills and knowledge students learn are readily transferable to other disciplines. The programs and resources shared through this site demonstrate that environmental education can be integrated into your existing curriculum, and suggest that providing an outdoor or environmental context to concepts in math, science, social studies, or language arts can make the concepts you normally teach less abstract and more relevant to the lives of your students. We hope you use Jeffers Blogs and Facebook page to share how you are incorporating environmental education into what you teach so that others can learn from you and you from others!

But perhaps your question (or your administrator's!) is not how do I teach environmental education, but why? The fact is that there is a growing body of research regarding the benefits of environmental education, and this research makes it easy to see not only why environmental education is important to students, but why environmental education belongs in every school setting.

One of the most exciting educational benefits associated with environmental education is standards-based achievement in the core subject areas. For example, a comprehensive study was recently completed in the state of Washington, where 77 pairs of demographically-equivalent schools were studied. Students in schools with environmental education programs scored higher on the Washington Assessments of Student Learning in math, reading, writing and listening than students from schools without any environmental education programs. Closer to home, we have examples of schools which are using local ecosystems as a context for learning science, math, reading, and writing. 5th grade students in the Prairie Science Class in Fergus Falls, MN (a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Fergus Falls Independent School District 544 program) scored significantly higher on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in reading and writing than their peers in traditional classrooms. They also scored above the state average on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in reading and math. Recognizing this potential for raising academic achievement, the Minnesota Department of Education is currently supporting six schools in efforts to integrate environmental education into science, math, language arts, social studies, and physical education. Through this project, they hope to gain a better understanding of using environmental education to increase academic achievement and use this understanding to support other schools in doing so.

Beyond academic learning, environmental education has been shown to increase student engagement and motivation and improve classroom behavior. In environmental and outdoor-based programs, students often enjoy hands-on (experiential) learning, which may be perceived by students as more fun and easier than other forms of learning. Further, environmental and outdoor learning experiences can provide opportunities for investigating real-life issues and carrying out community projects (think service-learning) that are relevant to the lives of the students. While these types of learning experiences are motivating for students, they have also been shown to increase students' critical thinking and problem-solving skills, not to mention skills in observation, recording and scientific reasoning. Additional research suggests environmental education increases students' sense of civic responsibility, helping develop students who are competent and contributing members of their families, communities, and the world around them.

Within the last several years, the body of evidence in support of environmental education has grown to include health and wellness benefits and positive impacts on students' physical, social, and affective development. In fact, many health and youth development organizations locally and globally suggest that learning experiences in the outdoor environment are critical to the healthy development of children. While schools can't be expected to be the sole provider for a child's outdoor time needs, they have an opportunity and perhaps even a responsibility to contribute to ensuring children have opportunities to learn in and from the out-of-classroom environments around their schools and in their communities. By doing so, schools can look forward to creating high performing students, effective thinkers and problem solvers, contributing members of their communities, and people who care about the people and places around them.

Julie Ernst


Nature Play
Cognitive development focuses on developing functions of the brain such as thinking, learning, awareness, judgment, and processing information... Nature play has been shown to increase cognitive development in children of all ages.
Read More



Julie earned her Ph.D. at the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, with an emphasis in environmental education research and evaluation. She has formerly served as an education specialist for the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as a public affairs specialist for the USDA Forest Service. Her interest areas are program evaluation, environment-based education (environmentally-based formal instructional programs), early childhood EE/nature play, and federal agency EE programs.

Julie is currently an Associate Professor in the Center for Environmental Education at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

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