Education and citizen science; the missing pieces in the sustainability puzzle, Science Magazine article now available

Front page of Science Article

Front page of Science Article[/caption]

In May of 2014  ‘Science’ published a paper on the importance of creating synergies between science education and environmental education with the support of Citizen Science. The article, which I co-authored with Justin Dillon, Bob Stevenson and Michael Brody, is based on the trends emerging from the International Handbook of Environmental Education Research (Stevenson et al, 2013)*. The article is available through most university library systems in the world and can be obtained for personal use by clicking: ScienceWalsetall2014.

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from the article but essentially we emphasize the importance of: Connecting biophilia and videophilia: that is, study ways in which ever-present technologies and cyberspaces can be used to help people (re)gain a deeper and more empathetic contact with each other and with the world (presently these technologies and spaces tend to lead to the exact opposite). Creating spaces for hybrid learning: that is, hybridized environments and new spaces are needed for learning about the sustainability challenges of our time (e.g. climate change, malnutrition, loss of food security and biodiversity) that embraces the authenticity of multiple voices and cultural and theoretical perspectives, new forms of representation, and more change-oriented and community-based approaches. Strengthening community-engaged scholarship with a planetary conscience: that is, with the increasing complexity of societies, the interdisciplinary nature of people-society-environment relationships, the problems faced at local and global scale, and the uncertainty of their solutions or resolutions, there is a need for new spaces for collaborative and transformative approaches to research. Supporting emerging forms of ICT-supported Citizen Science: that is, the active involvement of citizens, young and old, in the monitoring of local socio-ecological issues by collecting real data and sharing those data with others doing the same elsewhere through social media and on-line platforms, as a catalyst for realizing the first three points. Furthermore we suggest that future research address: • the importance of acknowledging different ways of knowing into educational program(me)s; • the importance of place-based education; • the need for EE to focus on community-based activities that lead to • the individual and group empowerment; • the need to factor in issues of identity in EE; • the need for a convergence of science education and environmental education; • the need for EE to address issues of life-long learning • the need for practitioners and researchers to address policy issues; • the need for inter- and transdisciplinarity in EE practice and research. On a critical note, not so much stressed in the Science article but noted in the Handbook, we plea for stressing the importance of education serving people and planet rather than just serving the economy. The current push for innovation, competence, and a lifelong of learning for work and competitiveness, is resulting in the marginalization in education of people and by squeezing out place-based learning, arts, humanities and the development of values other than those driving consumerism and materialism. Wals, A.E.J., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Stevenson, R.B. (2014) Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Science, 344, p. 583-584.  * Stephenson, B., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Wals, A.E.J. (Eds.) (2013) International Handbook of Environmental Education Research. London: Routledge. Below you will find today’s press release by Wageningen University & Research Centre.

Here’s the press release of Wageningen University, no. 045, 9 May 2014 “Addressing climate change, requires a change of mind”

Sustainability needs link between theory and practice in education How can you ensure that people do not only spend time thinking about important global issues like climate change or world food supplies, but also roll up their sleeves and do something about them? Four researchers, including Professor Arjen Wals from Wageningen University, think that the education sector holds the key. Teaching processes around the world could be given more influence and meaning by making pure science subjects, such as biology and physics, complementary to lessons in nature, environment and sustainability. Their article on this new approach to teaching, which is based on citizen science, is published in the 9 May edition of Science. Throughout the world, ‘pure’ science subjects such as physics, chemistry, biology, maths, geography and general natural sciences, which traditionally aim to build up knowledge and understanding, are seen separately from subjects such as nature and the environment, which together with the latest branch ‘sustainability education’ take a more practical approach. Although this certainly makes scholars aware of the current condition of our planet, their lack of practical perspective evokes a sense of powerlessness. For example, what can you do to prevent or respond adequately to forthcoming climate shifts? Affinity with politics, society and the economy are essential in this respect. Conversely, education in nature, the environment and sustainability (aka ‘environmental education’) does not equip scholars with the scientific insight they need to back up their proposed remedies. Convergence When taught separately, natural sciences and environmental education give a disjointed answer to society’s demand for a truly sustainable society. “It’s time these two schools converged,” says Arjen Wals, Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development at Wageningen University. “If we cannot create a firm link between these two educational areas, scientific education is in jeopardy of becoming purely a vehicle for enhancing the innovative and competitive potential of a country’s economy”, he says. “At the same time, without a firm link with the sciences, environmental education will never be able to find a responsible and realistic way of dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties that are raised in the scientific debate surrounding questions of sustainability.” The authors of the article in Science give a number of examples of environmental education, which cover the area where science meets society. Among them is the American concept of Edible School Gardens, whereby schoolchildren grow their own food in an educational garden while simultaneously learning about the things they grow in science lessons. The Dutch version is known as Groene schoolpleinen (‘green school grounds’). Another good example is YardMap, based on IT and citizen science. Citizens, both young and old, analyse biodiversity in their own neighbourhood by means of digital photos, special apps and Google Maps. The aim is to identify the areas with the greatest potential for boosting biodiversity. Action plans designed to ensure that the YardMaps are kept fully up-to-date are drawn up and implemented on the basis of studies and in consultation with scientists and local partners (including the municipal authority, garden centres and an NGO). The various YardMaps are linked via social media. The Dutch Natuurkalender works in much the same way. Creating closer ties between citizen science, scientific education and environmental education will help citizens and scientists to take a meaningful and practical approach to the pursuit of sustainability. Wals: “It’s not just about linking up the content; it involves developing new competencies such as dealing with complexity, uncertainty and confusion, and devising and implementing meaningful local solutions”. This method of learning may also help to restore the damage to public confidence in science. The government will have to put more effort into stimulating and supporting the ‘hybrid teaching environments’ that blur the boundaries between science and society, school and neighbourhood, local and global, and shift the emphasis to the wellbeing of mankind and the planet. Transition Calls for transition and another way of thinking are becoming more urgent, says Professor Wals: “At the end of the day, the climate problem is as much in between our ears, as it is between the North and South Poles”. He backs this up with a remarkable conclusion: to his mind, the role of education and citizen involvement has been seriously underemphasised in the climate debate. In fact he wonders if we will ever be able to bring about a transition without committed, critical and competent citizens, who aspire to values that are not purely based on the material side of their existence but also on care for fellow human beings and, indeed, other species, here and elsewhere, now and in the future. Join in the discussion on #CitizenScience Publication Wals, A.E.J., Brody, M., Dillon, J. and Stevenson, R.B. (2014) Convergence Between Science and Environmental Education, Science, 344, p. 583-584. NOTE FOR EDITORS More information is available from Prof. Arjen Wals, Professor of Social Learning and Sustainable Development and Director of the Centre for Sustainable Development & Food Security, Wageningen University, tel. +31 (0)317 484184, or via Jac Niessen, science information officer at Wageningen UR, tel.+31 (0)317 485003,

The educational appeal of vagueness: the case of biodiversity

Environmental Education & Biodiversity

Loss of biodiversity is back on the agenda having faded somewhat during the last 15 years or so with the rise of new urgent issues such as runaway climate change, loss of food security, the rise of micro-toxins in waters and soils, etc. With the renewed attention for biodiversity it might be useful to go back to the nineties when the topic was high on the international policy agenda and some effort was spent on making biodiversity meaningful for ordinary citizens. Two publications that I was involved in back then seem very relevant today.

The first one appeared in the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (I believe the only open-access EE journal): Dreyfus, A., Wals, A.E.J. and D. van Weelie (1999). The socio-scientific dispute character of environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 155-176. Download here: Canadian Journal of EE[

The second one is a book commissioned by the Dutch government titled “Environmental Education and Biodiversity” which I recently updated slightly to make it suitable for open-access publication. Full reference: Wals, A.E.J., (Ed.) (1999). Environmental Education and Biodiversity. National Reference Centre for Nature Management, Wageningen, 107 p.Download here: Book Environmental Education & Biodiversity

The book is more elaborate than the article and contains concrete stepping stones for making biodiversity meaningful. Here’s a brief abstract of the book which also applies – in part – to the article.

Despite all the confusion about biodiversity, one thing is clear: there is no one single perspective or definition of biodiversity that accurately describes it in all situations or contexts. Biodiversity can have different meanings depending on the user and the context in which it is used. Even within the scientific arena a great number of biodiversity meanings and interpretations can be distinguished. It is not uncommon to find that scientific, political and symbolic meanings are used interchangeably by the same person. Both the knowledge base and the value base of biodiversity are variable and to a degree unstable and questionable.

Although these characteristics of biodiversity can render the concept useless or reduce it to a rhetorical instrument, they can also add to its strength when handled with care. Certainly from an environmental education perspective, but also from a policy-making perspective, these characteristics offer some worthwhile advantages: 1) Biodiversity brings together different groups in society that are searching for a common language to discuss nature conservation issues in relation to sustainability issues. 2) This dialogue allows the socio-scientific dispute character of “science-in-the-making” to surface. Participation in such a dispute is an excellent opportunity to learn about a highly relevant, controversial, emotionally charged and debatable topic at the crossroads of science, technology and society. 3) Making such a concept meaningful to the lives of citizens requires a procedure that could be utilised when developing educational programmes that focus on similar topics (i.e. education for sustainability).

This book provides a justification and rationale for developing biodiversity as a leading concept for environmental education for human development. Furthermore it proposes a stepping stone procedure that recognises the socio-scientific dispute character of biodiversity and provides a tool for turning biodiversity into a meaningful and existentially relevant issue. The procedure includes the following steps: analysing meanings of biodiversity, determining one or more perspectives based on the general learning goals of environmental education, setting specific learning objectives, selecting (sub)themes for learning, contextualising biodiversity and establishing the value of biodiversity. The procedure is intended to help curriculum developers, teachers, educational support staff and environmental educators give specific meaning to biodiversity and to help learners critically analyse the way biodiversity is used in science, technology and society. The procedure is an intermediate product that offers direction in developing and implementing specific learning activities and materials for various groups of learners.

Abstract of the article in French
L’éducation relative à l’environnement dans un monde postmoderne devra être sensible à la nature mal définie des principaux concepts naissants, tels que la biodiversité et la durabilité. Malgré toute la confusion qui entoure ces concepts, une chose est claire : il y a plus d’une façon de considérer ces concepts ou de les définir. En d’autres termes, il n’existe pas une seule perspective ou définition de la biodiversité ou de la durabilité qui les décrive avec exactitude dans toutes les situations ou tous les contextes. Bien que cette définition approximative rende de tels concepts inutiles ou les réduise à un instrument rhétorique d’un point de vue moderne, elle les rend intéressants dans une perspective postmoderne. En reconnaissant la nécessité de respecter le pluralisme (respect des différentes façons de voir, d’évaluer, de comprendre, etc.), la présence constante d’éléments d’ambivalence et d’incertitude dans la prise de décision environnementale et la nécessité d’apprendre dans ce riche contexte, les éducateurs en environnement dans un monde postmoderne trouveront une valeur dans la nature mal définie de ces concepts naissants. En se servant de la biodiversité comme exemple, les auteurs illustrent l’attrait pédagogique de la définition approximative. La biodiversité réunit différents groupes de la société à la recherche d’un langage commun pour discuter de la conservation de la nature en relation avec les enjeux postmodernes de la durabilité. Le seul fait que ces groupes avec des antécédents divergents se concentrent sur un concept commun, bien que la signification du concept varie pour chacun des groupes, ouvre la porte au débat socioscientifique. Ce débat fournit une excellente occasion d’apprentissage sur un thème hautement pertinent, litigieux, émotif et discutable au carrefour des sciences, de la technologie et de la société. Une attention spéciale est accordée au rôle des connaissances scientifiques dans des débats de ce type.

Meeting Malawi’s Minister of Environment & Climate Change Management

Earlier this month I had a fascinating week working with colleague Prof. Heila Lotz-Sisitka of Rhodes University (SA) and three SANPAD PhD-students in Malawi (Tich from Zimbabwe, Aristide from Mozambique and Dick from Malawi) on research issues related to the PhD work on Social Learning and Natural Resource Management (See my earlier Blog Post on (Re)Views of Social Learning). In the city of Zomba Prof. Sosten Chioto of Chancellor College took us to a brand new community radio station that has been set up to reach rural area’s in Southern Malawi on issues of climate change and food security. The radio station (104.1 FM ChanCo Community Radio) mixes music and information and is quickly becoming one of the more popular stations in the region. A big part of its success seems to be the fact that listeners, even in some of the remotest of area’s, respond to questions using their cell phones, either by calling in or by sending in text messages.

While at the station for a recording session we had the opportunity to speak with the Honorable Halima Daud, Malawi’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management who later that week would open the annual congress of the Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa in Lilongwe where I was asked to give a keynote on “Environmental Education and the Green Economy – opportunities and pitfalls”

Meeting Halima Daud

Ms. Daud made it clear that the addition of ‘Climate Change Management’ to her job title was crucial to emphasize the severe challenges climate change poses on food security issues in the country. Particularly the shifting of the rain patterns is affecting seeding and harvesting cycles and is extending the dry season while the current systems are not set up for harvesting the intensified rains that do fall periodically in the wet season. This is negatively affecting productivity which, near the lake area’s is increasing the pressure on fisheries (where stocks are under pressure and declining rapidly). The latter is an issue that Dick’s thesis “Organizing Multi-stakeholder social learning to foster sustainable fishing” is seeking to address.

Both the conversation with Ms. Daud and the presentations and discussions at the EEASA conference confirmed that we live in times of accelerating changes that require creative, routine braking responses, from the world of business, governance, science but, indeed, also from education.

As an introduction to this I am including the Introductory chapter to “Learning for Sustainability in Times of Accelerating Change” (Wals & Corcoran, 2012) here: Introductory ChapterIntroduction – Wals & Corcoran, 2012

If you are interested in Food Security in relation to Sustainable Development you may want to have a look at the newly formed Centre for Sustainable development & Food Security at Wageningen University at:

Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education

Source:  - careers in urban agriculture

Source: – careers in urban agriculture

Here’s another ‘old’ paper that resonates more today than it did when it appeared in the very first Volume of a very valuable journal “Local Environment” in 1996. What is interesting to note is that the neighborhoods in Detroit where the action research reported on took place have been transformed quite a bit: abandoned houses – often crack houses back then – have been torn down and the vacant lots have, in some instances, been ‘reclaimed’ by nature or converted into productive land for fruit and vegetables (see “Detroit Agriculture”). Perhaps, in a very modest way, educational initiatives like the one described in this paper have contributed to this transformation, although a question today is to what extend the Detroit schools take part in this transformation and whether schools are able to ‘localize’ their curriculum and educational processes to allow for this. Below you find the abstract of the paper which can be obtained in full by clicking on the reference at the end.


Environmental education can be a catalyst for sustainable development in local communities as long as it is recognised that communities have different challenges and needs. From a perspective of social change and sustainable development, environmental education can be broadly defined as the process that enables students and teachers to participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of educational activities aimed at resolving an environmental issue that they themselves have identified. What an ‘environmental issue’ is, then, depends on the perceptions and earlier experiences of the learner as well as the context in which education takes place. An illustration of such a participatory approach to environmental education is provided by the case of Pistons Middle School in Detroit, Michigan where teachers, students and outside facilitators combined action research and community problem solving.

Source: Wals, A.E.J. (1996). BackAlleySustainabilityWals 1996
Back-alley sustainability and the role of environmental education. Local Environment, 1 (3), 299-316.

How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education

Please find below the introduction to an article that appeared earlier this week on the CTA website that I co-authored with two of my colleagues. The full paper contains some useful links and can be found here in English and here in French.  Some of the resources referred to are available via the Share Box of this blog.

How to educate in a changing world? Towards competence-based tertiary agricultural education

Authors: Arjen Wals, Martin Mulder and Natalia Eernstmann,  Education & Competence Studies, Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands


Continued globalization and digitalization are not only affecting how we think, what we know, who to believe and how we act, they also affect the role of education in society’. In this regard, they attempt to answer ‘what do we educate for in such a world when things change so fast and knowledge becomes obsolete before you know it?’ For example, Wageningen University started changing their identity by positioning themselves as life science universities, which aspire to contribute to a better world and improved quality of life. Is that the way to go for agricultural universities?


Photo:  Jimma University Agricultural College (JUCAVM); source:

In this feature article we provide a brief review of some trends in Tertiary Agricultural Education (TAE) within Europe and examines the world-wide shift from traditional transmissive to emerging transformative development of more dynamic competencies in a real-world setting. A number of new competencies are required including: interdisciplinary problem-solving, addressing multiple stakeholder interests, participatory approaches in innovation, interactive methods in conflict resolution, responsive actions regarding community needs, critical media literacy, and social responsibility in entrepreneurship, to name a few, along with those that still connect to specific content areas (e.g. animal science, plant science, environmental science and agro-technology).

This overarching innovation taking place in tertiary agricultural education in Europe is referred to as Competence-based Education and Training (CBET). A synthesis of the requirements for new graduates as defined by the public and the related competencies that are considered relevant is presented. A case study of the ten-step re-design of the MSc curriculum in horticulture at the Jimma University Agricultural College (JUCAVM) in Ethiopia is showcased.

Go here for the full article!