Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name


Other Degree Name/Area of Focus

Society and Conservation

Department or School/College

College of Forestry and Conservation

Committee Chair

Carol A. Brewer

Commitee Members

Paul Alaback, Betsy Wackernagel Bach, Alan Berkowitz, William Borrie


ecoliteracy, ecological literacy, ecology education, environmental literacy, graduate training, NSF GK-12


University of Montana


National assessments have led many to conclude that the level of ecological literacy among the general population in the United States is too low to enable effective social responses to current environmental challenges. However, the actual meaning of ecological literacy varies considerably between academic fields and has been a topic of intensive deliberation for several decades. Within the field of ecology in particular, a driving purpose behind this ongoing discussion has been to advance a complete, pedagogy-guiding, and broadly applicable framework for ecological literacy, allowing for the establishment of guidelines and tools for assessing educational achievement; yet, a widely accepted framework does not currently exist. What is ecological literacy and how can it be achieved? Through an extensive review of the literature, I traced the evolution of the related concepts of environmental literacy, ecological literacy, and ecoliteracy, and compared and contrasted the numerous proposed frameworks across multiple dimensions of affect, knowledge, skills, and behavior. In addition to characterizing the overall discourse, this analysis facilitated close examination of where we have been, where we are, and where we might be headed with respect to these vital conversations. To explore current perspectives on the topic, I analyzed the open-ended responses of more than 1,000 ecologists and other environmental scientists on the nature of ecological literacy and how it may be achieved. Factor analysis revealed the presence of six common dimensions underlying respondents' views of ecological literacy (cycles and webs, ecosystem services, negative human impacts, critical thinking/application, nature of ecological science, and biogeography) and five common dimensions for how to achieve it (education by mass media, formal/traditional education, financial incentive, participatory/interactive education, and communication/outreach by scientists). Based on these results, I proposed a framework for ecological literacy that, ideally, will provide guidance for the development of updated ecology curricula and assessment tools, a foundation for discussion of alignment between K-12 and higher education, and a mechanism for creating greater synergy between formal and informal learning environments. Further, to assess the impacts of innovative graduate programs designed to train ecologists in promoting ecological literacy, I analyzed pre- and post-fellowship surveys completed by participants in an ecologically focused K-12 outreach program at The University of Montana, as well as the broader impacts of a set of similar programs across the country. These highly beneficial programs are urgently needed to ensure that future leaders of the scientific enterprise are well-equipped with the tools to effectively communicate their science with diverse audiences well beyond their scientific peers. Indeed, ecologists and other natural and social scientists who study the environment have multiple roles to play in promoting a modern vision of ecological literacy in society today.



© Copyright 2011 Brooke Baldauf McBride