Environmental education programs can help improve air quality, according to a two-year research project funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Park Service Conservation Institute conducted the study, the first of its kind, in collaboration with the Shelburne Farms nonprofit environmental education center on behalf of the EPA, which released the findings on Monday.

Researchers focused on 54 school-based and "nonformal" education programs in North America out of an initial pool of 339. The 54 programs studied involved an estimated 50,000 participants and 800 schools and organizations, the report said.

Researchers found that 46 percent of the programs reported improved air quality at their sites as a result of actions taken, many of which involved the surrounding community and other stakeholders. Participants in 43 percent of the programs surveyed also took steps to promote clean air practices, although those programs did not measure change resulting from their actions. In all, 69 percent of the programs involved collaboration with other organizations or representatives of stakeholder groups.

The study is significant because it provides data about the relationship between place-based learning and environmental quality in environmental education programs. The research findings also have broader implications regarding collaboration and the importance of engaging diverse stakeholders in order to bring about change.

"At the beginning of this project, we hypothesized but were by no means sure that a quantitative approach to research into the PBL-EQ relationship was even possible," researchers Michael Duffin, Michael Murphy and Brian Johnson wrote in their report.

They included the chart below in their report to summarize their findings:

Research findings at a glance. To see the full chart, click here. Source: EPA
Source: EPA

Some of the programs studied involved issues of indoor air quality, as was the case at a middle school in Washington state where students worked with school administrators and maintenance staff to tackle problems involving levels of CO2, mold, odors, airflow and airborne particulates in classrooms. Other programs involved outdoor air quality, as did a New Hampshire project in which student efforts led to a no-idling policy for buses and other vehicles at the campus.

Researchers said the projects were examples of the two ways that the programs being studied accounted for change: Students at the Washington middle school cited "before" and after" measures of physical air quality indicators. Students at the New Hampshire high school considered proxy indicators of air quality -- the change in car and bus idling rates.

"Combining the two types of evidence (i.e. physical and proxy indicators), we found that nearly half (46 percent) of the programs in our study reported credible improvements in air quality associated with their educational efforts," the researchers wrote. "Given the current dearth of literature linking education and environmental quality improvement, finding such a relatively high percentage of programs reporting this result was an exciting outcome."

Nora Mitchell, director of the National Park Service Conservation Study Institute, said the findings also have significance for other environmental areas.

"This study represents an important step forward in our understanding of how place-based learning can improve environmental quality,"  Mitchell said in the report. "While this research emphasizes education programs focused on air quality, the study findings have direct implications for other environmental areas and are of great value to public land managers as they develop and improve their education programs."

A copy of the full report can be downloaded as a pdf file from the Place-Based Education Evaluation Collaborative.

In a separate development related to air quality at schools, the EPA recently released a list of 62 schools in 22 states, where air toxics are being monitored for 60-day period. The schools are in urban areas or are located near large industrial facilities. State and local air agencies are installing and operating the monitors, and EPA is purchasing the devices and paying for the laboratory analysis as part of its outdoor air quality monitoring initiative.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Zemlinki!