Why Basic Education Must Address the Environment?

When it comes to protecting the environment, whether to litter or not should not require a great amount of thinking. The answer to this question should be obvious. Garbage floating on waterways are clearly unattractive. Cleanliness is a simple concept that everyone understands. A river free of floating trash is much more appealing.
Above copied from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation website
What our eyes and nose detect are easy to grasp. Garbage is not nice to look at and is often not appealing in odor. It is then easy to show why it is important to keep solid waste away from rivers, for example. Unfortunately, issues regarding the environment are often more complicated than simply properly disposing one's garbage. We use detergents to wash our clothes, fertilizers to increase crop production, and pesticides to control insects. When these reach rivers and lakes, the effects on the environment can be as equally dramatic as solid waste, but we may not be just aware. And even if we are, we may not be able to weigh the pros and cons correctly to arrive at sound environmental solutions.

It is therefore important that the public is made more knowledgeable regarding environmental issues. The human race, with its technology and sheer number, is undeniably changing the world. Without doubt, environmental challenges are here to stay and in democratic societies, it is necessary that people are well informed so that the right decisions are made. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be currently the scenario. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published several years ago a study entitled, "Green at Fifteen? How 15-year-olds perform in environmental science and geoscience in PISA 2006":

The results are somewhat disconcerting. Here is a summary from "Think Green: education and environmental awareness" by Tracey Burns and Roxanne Kovacs from the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills:

The proficiency levels are defined as follows:

Proficiency levels for environmental science and geoscience performance indices
General proficiencies students should have at each level Tasks a student should be able to:

Level A

Student at this level are able to thoroughly explain environmental processes and phenomena. They demonstrate an ability to compare and differentiate among competing explanations by examining supporting evidence and drawing from their knowledge. They are able to synthesize answers from multiple sources. Read and interpret data on evolution.
Given a set of data, test competing hypotheses and identify errors.
Explain multi-trophic interactions and effect of biological and physical factors on organisms.
Given an environmental problem, provide environmentally sound solutions.

Level B

Students at this level are able to answer environment questions with little information provided. They are able to recognize various elements of the ecosystem and understand their interactions. They show knowledge and understanding of environmental concepts such as ecosystem balance, effect of human intervention on the environment, species distribution and survival, natural sources of energy, climate change, food chains, etc. Given a set of similar or closely related choices, determine the most adequate explanation to specific evidence.
Given specific evidence, determine some causes and predictable effects.
Given information on one element, identify other possibly related elements.
Given different elements of the ecosystems, provide some possible interactions and consequences.

Level C

Students at this level show a fair understanding of environmental cycles (water, gases, energy, living organisms), energy sources and sources of pollution. They are able to link evidence to causes and explain basic biotic-abiotic interactions, when adequate information is provided. Locate relevant information in a body of text.
Given specific information, choose between appropriate and inappropriate conclusions.
Choose between a diverse set of approaches or phenomena based on basic knowledge in environment.
Identify common sources of pollution and prevention strategies.
Given adequate information, link different parts of environmental cycles.

Level D

Students at this level are able to interpret a graph or figure when given appropriate cues. They show basic knowledge of common environmental processes. Given clear figures or graphs, describe differences and similarities between given environmental parameters.
Given adequate and complete historical information, can extract causal relationship between environmental processes occurring at different times.
Given specific evidence and a discrete set of environmental phenomena, link the causal phenomenon to the evidence using logic and basic knowledge of environmental processes.

In the above table, I have emphasized one of the tasks a student at level A (highest level of proficiency - only 19% among 15-year olds in OECD countries demonstrate this) can do: "Given an environmental problem, provide environmentally sound solutions." Highest level may sound very high, but in fact it is the minimum required in order to provide answers to environmental issues.

Since environment issues are closely tied to the disciplines of the traditional science courses of physics, chemistry and biology, a sound basic science education can ideally increase the proficiency level of students with regard to the environment. Unfortunately, these appear to be necessary but not sufficient. In an article published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, only a weak association is observed between a student's science self concept, that is, how a student perceives one's capability in the sciences, and the student's environmental awareness and responsibility.

Therefore, it is important to make the connection between competence and commitment. This can only be achieved first of all if environment issues are indeed tackled inside the classroom, where a clear connection between the issues at hand and the science that is required to understand the issues is made.