How to Become an Environmental Studies Teacher


Environmental studies and environmental science are relatively new academic disciplines. With the rise of more eco-friendly attitudes across the world, both subjects have grown in popularity over the past three decades. Environmental studies and environmental science overlap, but they are marked by some important differences. Most notably, environmental studies is concerned with ecological problems, their social impact, and the political stakes in current debates centered on the environment. Applying scientific methods from disciplines such as biology, geology and chemistry, environmental science is the study of the environment and its current problems.

To illustrate the difference, while environmental studies majors may research how to more effectively encourage Californians to reduce their water usage during a drought, it is the environmental science major that is more likely to focus on the impact of the drought on wildlife. In other words, environmental studies is generally more concerned with the social and political impacts of issues related to the environment; while environmental science focuses on its biological impacts.

With escalating global issues attributed to global warming, land use, human overpopulation and intensive farming, it is the environmental studies/science majors who become teachers that play an important role in educating the future, and teaching their students about climate change, environmental health, conservation, genetic engineering, resource depletion and pollution.

How can I teach environmental studies at the elementary, middle or high school level?

A growing interest in environmental causes has led to a widespread push to incorporate environmental education at all levels of the public and private school system. However, even at schools with a specific focus on environmental studies (such as New York City’s High School for Environmental Studies), the subject is not always necessarily offered in the form of stand-alone courses but rather integrated into the social studies and science curriculum.

In other cases, environmental studies and science are taught implicitly by changing the school environment itself (such as introducing composting programs to address lunchtime and/or paper waste). While teachers at the elementary, middle school and high school levels may have many opportunities to teach environmental studies and science (and put a more concentrated major to good use), there are few opportunities to exclusively teach environmental studies at these levels.shutterstock_212447482

Requirements to become an environmental studies teacher vary according to location, grade level, and school district. Job applicants are required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Students may accomplish this by earning a degree in environmental science/studies, and then fulfilling required coursework to earn education credentials; or by earning a degree in education with a concentration in environmental studies/science:

  • A Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.) in environmental studies typically entails coursework in introductory biology, social sciences, chemistry, physics, and calculus. Students are expected to build a deep understanding of natural and physical sciences, as well as study the cultural and social influences that have an impact on the environmental problems plaguing today’s society. Environmental studies majors may also complete at least one environmental field studies program, or participate in a study abroad program before earning their degree.
  • A Bachelor of Science degree (B.S.) in environmental science program typically touches upon a blend of general science concepts, mathematics, computers, and technology. Depending on a school, students are geared towards concentrating on a specific area of environmental science, such as environmental technology, fire science, or EPA regulations.

All public schools and many private schools require educators at the K-12 level to possess a teaching license or certificate, regardless of the subject they are hired to teach. The process to become licensed and certified follows state-issued requirements that typically involve submitting to a criminal background check, paying applicable fees, and passing state-issued examinations.

In rare instances where an environmental studies or environmental science teaching position is available at a school for grades K-12, the following educational path is typically expected of qualified job applicants:

Elementary School (K through grades 5 or 6)

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree program in elementary education. Some states may require their K-6 teachers to major in a specific content area, such as science. Before graduating, education majors are expected to participate in an internship or student-teaching program.
  • Become licensed to teach in his or her state of residence; and fulfill certification requirements, which range from preschool to 3rd grade for early childhood teachers, or 1st through 6th or 8th grade for elementary school teachers.
  • Complete supplementary coursework or degree related to environmental science.

Middle School (Grades 6-8) 

  • Complete an undergraduate program in education, and fulfill state-related content area requirements, when applicable. Depending on their state, some teachers are required to major in elementary education. Student-teaching experience is required.
  • Meet the requirements for becoming a licensed and certified middle school teacher, which vary by state. While some states expect teachers to earn an elementary school teaching certification, for educators applying for jobs related to 1st through 6th or 1st through 8th grades, other states require secondary or high school certification for teachers applying for jobs for grades 7-12.
  • Complete additional education in environmental science, when available. 

High School (Grades 9-12)

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree program in a content area, like environmental studies/science or a different science.
  • Fulfill the requirements of a teachers program, including an internship or student teaching experience.
  • Become licensed and certified as a secondary school science or environmental science teacher by meeting state-issued guidelines. At this point, most graduates qualify to teach 7th through 12th
  • Participate in continuing education and professional development pertaining to environmental science.

Teachers who qualify to teach environmental science and/or environmental studies at the K-12 level also need to take professional development courses regarding the subjects, in order to stay current and qualified as a licensed teacher. The license renewal process for teachers is different for every state.

How can I become a college environmental studies or science professor?

Some of the first environmental studies and environmental science programs that a student encounters are offered at the college level, since in many respects, both of these allied disciplines grew out of existing programs, such as forestry, which is addressed at the post-secondary school level. For this reason, there are many opportunities to teach environmental studies and science at a college both in relation to environmental studies and science programs, as well as allied disciplines, including environmental management, forestry and agriculture.

Regardless of geographic location or institution, environmental studies and environmental science professors at the college level generally hold at least a master’s degree in environmental studies or science. Since environmental studies is still a relatively new discipline, however, they may also hold a degree in an allied discipline but possess a work or research history focused on environmental studies or science.

How can I become a university environmental studies or science professor?

Depending on whether one teaches in an environmental studies or environmental science program, qualifications to teach at the university level vary. In the few environmental studies programs that exist at the university level across the U.S., faculty hold either PhDs in environmental studies or a PhD in another discipline, such as politics, history or philosophy, but also possess a history or reputation for carrying out research on environment-related topics.

Similarly, environmental science faculty typically hold a PhD in environmental science or an allied field, such as biology, but have a history of engaging in research related to the environmental science field. Either way, this means that they have completed extensive graduate coursework in their area of concentration, passed doctoral-level field exams, and have written and defended a dissertation based on original research.

Once hired, environmental studies and environmental science faculty are expected to continue engaging in research, publishing their findings in reputed journals within the field (such as the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science), recruiting and supervising graduate students, and serving on departmental and university-wide committees.

What is the compensation for environmental studies teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salaries earned in 2014 for teachers (including those who taught environmental studies, and/or combined teaching and research as an occupation) were as follows:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $70,790

The overall salaries of environmental science or environmental studies teachers are ultimately affected by their level of experience; years spent teaching full-time; place of employment; and geographic location. For example, the BLS identifies the following states (with annual mean salaries) as being the top-paying locations for biological science professors (the broader career category that environmental science professors fall under): Hawaii ($113,960), North Dakota ($113,670), Massachusetts ($110,090), New Hampshire ($105,200), and Utah ($102,920).

To make the most money as an environmental studies or science teacher, an individual should pursue the highest level of education for the field (a doctorate degree) to qualify for positions within the top paying industries for the occupation. According to the BLS, environmental studies and science teachers who are hired to work with scientific research and development services earn the most money ($107,280 per year), followed by colleges, universities and professional schools ($90,550), junior colleges ($68,180), and technical/trade schools ($52,270).

What is the job outlook for environmental studies teachers?

Environmental studies classes are increasing in numbers across the U.S., and depending on the geographic location, job opportunities for teachers with a relevant background are becoming increasingly abundant, as seen in the state of Indiana.

The South Bend Tribune reported that the South Bend Community School Corp. recently took steps to build “environmental science-themed pathways” for students attending fifth through 12th grades. Environmental science studies is becoming an increasingly popular subject with students in Indiana. Pathways associated with agriculture are significantly rising in popularity, as farmers and related careers are looking to advance their understanding of the field.

Students can now attend more high school classes focused on sustainability and horticultural science. Program officials in certain states are also pushing to have the courses count towards credits for both high school and college (such as for attendees of Ivy Tech Community College). The state of Indiana is also home to a rural school called Greene Intermediate Center, which has an outdoor learning center, and was the first to embrace a curriculum with an environmental science theme.

In conclusion, the job prospects for those looking to teach students about environmental studies and environmental science will continue to grow. Topics, such as climate change and pollution, are not only hot-topic headlines in the news, but are also issues that concern the entire population. In order to produce the type of scientists, educators and leaders who better understand and create solutions to address worldwide environmental concerns, well-educated teachers and professors are needed to become prominent within today’s education system.

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