Recent Student Research

This occasional series highlights research studies recently completed or almost completed by students in New Zealand. The first one is an intriguing and novel approach to integrating environmental education into secondary teaching, conducted as a doctoral thesis at the University of Waikato.

Toward Ecological Literacy: A Permacultural Aproach to Junior Secondary Science

February 2013

While scientific evidence of the impact of climate change and other environmental problems mounts, research in education indicates a pattern of student disengagement with science and a reluctance of teachers to include EfS in their teaching. My doctoral thesis addressed these challenges by developing and implementing an approach to teaching and learning science within the context of an ecological design system called permaculture. Permaculture formed a cornerstone of the theoretical framework that also included ecological literacy, scientific literacy and tranformative learning. A 12-week intervention was carried out in a year 10 classroom near Hamilton during 2010. Findings indicate that a permaculture approach to the teaching and learning of science emphasises Big Picture  thinking, promotes relevance in learning and engages students in science learning. Additionally, some students reported a greater enjoyment learning through a permaculture approach than their other experiences of science learning in school. Papers related to this thesis have been published in Green Teacher (Winter,2013), Permaculture magazine (forthcoming) and set (forthcoming).

Nelson Lebo, University of Waikato.

The second study is a Masters thesis, also at Waikato, into what knowledge, skills and attitudes students from an early childhood centre engaged in environmental education, took with them as they moved in primary schooling:

Education for Sustainability in transition of children from early childhood education to primary school

October 2012

Kia Ora, I would like to share a brief insight into the thesis I recently completed for my Masters of Education with the Centre for Scientific and Education and Technology Research at the University of Waikato. The study examined the understandings gained by young children from education for sustainability experiences in their early childhood education and their actions and behaviours related to sustainability in their later years. The study investigated what envirnomental knowledge and behaviours were transferred across spaces and time, what affordances make this possible and what constrains the process.

The Aotearoa New Zealand early childhood curriculum, Te Whaariki (1996), and the New Zealand Curriculum (2007) were considered in terms of education for sustainability and their place in the transference of knowledge across spaces.

This was a qualitative, in-depth case study which examined the teaching and learning experiences for a group of students, (aged 5-7years) from one early childhood centre and their subsequent use of knowledge and behaviours at two primary schools in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. The data was collected from interviews and focus groups with student participants, teachers (both early childhood and primary), and written surveys by parents/whanau. In the student focus groups the student participants were shown a range of photgraphs of environmental activities or areas of interest from an early childhood centre they attended prior to enrolling at primary school, as a catalyst for recall and prompt for discussion.

A number of significant findings emerged from the study. For example, the study demonstrated that the student participants were identifying with tangible objects and resources around education for sustainability; therefore potentially these had a strong influence on their knowledge and practices. A number of affordances influenced this outcome, for example, pedagogical approaches and the interconnected relationships between the child, the family, the early childhood centre and the school. Finally, the study has identified that an encompassing, holistic approach and the influence of home, the early childhood centre and primary school influences children’s developing environmental competencies and ultimately the development of their identity. This study identified that with an alignment of affordances young children were demonstrating thinking and actions from the dimension of education for the environment and were beginning to develop action competence.
Tracey Biss
Many thanks to Dr Chris Eames and Dr Sally Peters at the University of Waikato for their support and guidance.

This next study is a Masters thesis at University of Waikato focussing on an evaluation of an EE programme in schools.

Zero Waste Education:An evaluation of an environmental education programme
April 2014

The Ministry of Education’s Guidelines for Environmental Education in New Zealand Schools (1999) names five aims of what environmental education should achieve in New Zealand. These aims are for students to develop: “awareness and sensitivity to the environment and related issues; knowledge and understanding of the environment and the impact of people on it; attitudes and values that reflect feelings of concern for the environment; skills involved in identifying, investigating, and problem solving associated with environmental issues; and a sense of responsibility through participation and action as individuals, or members of groups whanau, or iwi, in addressing environmental issues” (Ministry of Education, 1999, p. 9).
The research reported in this thesis describes the evaluation of the Zero Waste Education (ZWE) programme against these aims, as well as the goals of the programme itself. The ZWE programme is based in Tauranga and operates in primary schools around New Zealand delivering waste education to students.
This research was conducted within the interpretivist paradigm. Data was collected using the case study method in one school in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, through interviews, parent questionnaires, student questionnaires, observations, and a focus group. Participants in this case study were students who had gone through the ZWE programme, their teachers and other members of the school staff, the ZWE educator, and the parents of the students who went through the programme. Data was organised by initially transcribing interview data, entering student questionnaire and parent questionnaire data into MS Excel spreadsheets and typing observational data. The organised data was then coded in a deductive approach based on the desired outcomes of EE and ZWE, and analysed for common themes that emerged in relation to these outcomes.
The findings of this study indicate that the ZWE programme appears to be meeting its desired goals in general terms, as well as those of environmental education as a whole. The findings appeared to show a raise in student’s knowledge of composting and worms, as well as a raise in attitudes and awareness towards the waste issue. The findings also appeared show a level of intergenerational transfer and action taking occurring, with a few participating households reporting a change in their waste management practices and teachers commenting on observed actions of the students.
One key recommendation to emerge from this study is for ZWE to further tighten its goals and discuss these with educators in order to enhance consistent achievement of the goals. Another recommendation discusses ways to further develop the action taking skills of participating students through the action competence approach and to ensure that these action taking skills have enough of an impact to last in the long term.
Ben Jones – Master of Education thesis (Email:

The relationship between children, nature and environmental awareness:
An exploration of children’s contact with nature in a central city and suburban environment

July 2012

In the last few decades, the ways in which children understand and interact within their local environments has changed dramatically. Structural bound constraints, such as urban development, automobility and the dominance of indoor settings (e.g. shopping malls, game arcades), and agency bound constraints, such as safety-conscious parenting practices, have caused a decline in children’s independent mobility and opportunities for autonomous outdoor play. As a result, children are increasingly losing the opportunity to explore and familiarise themselves with natural environments.

This study provides a novel insight on the impacts the decline in children’s independent mobility and autonomous outdoor play has on their development of environmental awareness. Environmental awareness is defined as personal concern for the natural environment, knowledge of one’s local natural environment and evidence of pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. This study is based on the contention that people will become environmentally aware through active exploration of natural environments, and by developing a sense of place. Sense of place is the emotional ties people develop through regular use of particular locations. Richard Louv, an American journalist and author, has coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’, which describes the consequences of human separation from nature. Louv contends that limiting children’s access to, and exploration of nature, impedes their development of environmental awareness. This thereby hinders sustainable development.

To exemplify children’s levels of environmental awareness, results are presented from fieldwork I participated in as part of a doctoral research project titled “Understanding the Relationships between Activity and Neighbourhoods in children’s geographies- the power of feelings”. This study involved child participants from two Auckland neighbourhoods: Auckland Central and Beach Haven. I analysed the child participants’ relationship with nature and their environmental awareness, based on their interaction with natural environments during two child-led neighbourhood walks. I was interested in discovering whether the environmental awareness of children growing up in a suburb surrounded by nature, and in an area dominated by high-rise apartments, varies. My research findings uncovered that children’s activity within their neighbourhoods influences their knowledge of local environments, and their development of a sense of place. During the neighbourhood walks, child participants from Auckland Central, and some from Beach Haven, revealed their restricted contact with nature and symptoms of the ‘nature-deficit disorder’. This was due to various structural and agency bound constraints.

Transformative environmental education has been recognised as a potential solution to the nature-deficit disorder. The transformative approach to environmental education is based on the ‘experiential learning theory’, which is founded on the notion that people cannot understand environmental problems until they are completely immersed in them. Transformative environmental education incorporates experiential and place based learning, both of which have proven to foster the development of environmental awareness. My study also examines various local and international transformative environmental initiatives and how they contribute to achieving sustainable development.

Adrienne Palwankar (
BSc Honours (First Class), University of Auckland.

I would like to hear of other student research in environmental eduction/education for sustainability being conducted around NZ, as it would be great to publicise it to our community on our NZAEE website.

Chris Eames,