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Mental models, environment, higher education


Primary and secondary students in the United States are provided environmental education in their curricula due in part to national legislation, but higher education, for many U.S. citizens, is the last opportunity to educate young adults about the environment and humans’ role in it in a formalized setting. Pre-college education and other life experiences or ways of learning can shape a student’s mental model of the environment. While some previous research has focused on understanding environmental mental models of primary and secondary students, only one study to date has evaluated models of college students. Further, no study has evaluated potential shifts in mental models because of taking a course or what specific factors shape these models prior to college. The objectives of this study were to assess environmental models of college students and determine whether a course on “Environmental Conservation” reinforces or influences students’ mental models by the end of the course. We compared environmental metal models at the start and end of our course using the Environments Task tool. Students were asked to provide pictorial and written descriptions of their mental models at both time periods. Additionally, photographs were used to explore student beliefs on environmental representations and questions were used to assess sources of prior environmental knowledge of students at the start of the semester. Results show that pictorial and written mental models differed from one another at the beginning as well as the end of the semester. More students identified humans as a part of the environment in their pictures by the end of the semester compared to the beginning, but no such shifts were noted in the written description. Students identified secondary school courses, life experiences such as growing up on a farm or ranch or hunting and fishing, and their family members as their primary sources of environmental information prior to taking the course. In total, these results indicate that mental models remain underdeveloped after this specific 16-week course and that these models may be more fixed by earlier educational experiences than previously believed. Recommendations for future environmental education are also provided.

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International Journal of Environmental & Science Education





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LOOK Academic Publishers


Copyright © 2016 the Author(s)

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


This work was published in the International Journal of Environmental & Science Education (2017) 12:2. pp 105-115.