Knowledge Area BEPs: Youth Education Principles


Youth education principles applicable to water education derive from service learning, environmental education, stewardship education, and science literacy research. Each of these perspectives emphasizes critical thinking, leadership, and engagement in real world situations.

Water educators are uniquely positioned to apply much of the advice generated through stewardship best practice initiatives (Andrews, 2007; Fedler, 2001a; Fedler, 2001b, Siemer & Knuth, 2001). Because of the hands-on, real-life, and outdoor nature of aquatic subject matter, educators can provide youth and adults with opportunities to:

  • Be curious
  • Have a direct experience
  • Construct or address an authentic problem
  • Develop solutions
  • Practice
  • Get involved in a target behavior
  • Have fun

A National Science Foundation study known as Project Synthesis provided general advice about development of youth-centered science curriculum materials (reported in Horton & Hutchinson, 1997). Findings from that study and recent work building on the study direct educators to adopt the following principles in developing youth education resources (Horton & Hutchinson, 1997; Ponzio & Fisher, 1998; Falk & Dierking, 2000):

  • Organize content along an experiential path
  • Establish a relationship between content and experience
  • Facilitate experience from an experiential perspective
  • Provide opportunities for post-unit assessment

Refer to Environmental Education Principles, Learning Theory, and Development Theory for additional information about youth education.


Young people today need to know they’re needed. They need to experience the power of making a difference about something they care about. They need to feel hope that something can be done about the many problems they see around them. Young people have much to offer when asked. They have unique and powerful capacities for creativity, enthusiasm, energy, humor, intelligence and caring. In the past decade, the grass roots youth service movement has shown that kids can address the great issues facing our world: violence, hunger, illiteracy, disease and environmental problems (Cairn et al, 1995).

Young people are eager to help. In a 1993 survey, 80% of youth grades 4-12 identified water pollution as a “big problem.” 81% said they would like to do more to “help animals, fish or plants which are hurt by pollution” (Harris, 1993). The key to successful youth service projects is involving young people in developing, planning, organizing and evaluating the projects. Through such involvement, they learn more and work better.

Include these instructional ingredients:

  • Project-based instruction
  • Relevance to the real world
  • A high probability of obtaining rewards by the students from people they admire in their own communities
  • Hands-on learning
  • Intrinsically interesting curricula and tasks, studied in informal settings

Consider the following strategies:

  • Build a team of young people and adults.
  • Involve youth in setting realistic goals.
  • Arrange opportunities for young people to reflect on, learn from and apply lessons from their experience.
  • Acknowledge the skills, knowledge and experiences young people already have.
  • Give specific skills training or information as needed to help your group move a project ahead.
  • Ask older students or program veterans (including college students) for help.
  • Involve youth as leaders who have never before had the chance to lead.
  • Define and maintain accountability; group members must do what they promise.
  • Set responsibilities at appropriate levels. Too high, and failure is guaranteed. Too low, and kids will be bored.
  • Model behaviors you expect from young people. Expect the same from all staff and volunteers.


Recommendations are drawn from these and other resources:

Anderson, L. & D. Krathwohl, eds. 2001. A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom”s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives,

Cairn, S., R. Cairn, & K. Row. 1995. Give Water A Hand Leader Guide and Youth Action Guide. University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. Translated into Spanish by Gaby Castro, 1997, Ayúdale al agua: Guía de Acción. See also

Andrews, E. 2007. Fostering aquatic stewardship with the help of best education practices. Pages 25-32 in B. A. Knuth and W. F. Siemer, editors. Aquatic stewardship education in theory and practice. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 55, Bethesda, Maryland.

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), Alexandria, VA, Publications by many authors.

Cairn, R. 1992. Engaging Youth as Leaders of Youth Service Programs. Generator: Journal of Service-Learning and Youth Leadership, Vol. 12, no. 2, page 24. National Youth Leadership Council, 1910 W. County Rd. B, St. Paul, MN 55113 (800) 366-6952.

Cairn, R. & T. Coble. 1993. Learning by Giving: K-8 Service-Learning Curriculum Guide. National Youth Leadership Council, St. Paul, MN.

CESYES, Cooperative Extension Supports Youth Environmental Stewardship. See especially:

Earth Connections: Engaging Youth in Community Environmental Activities

Earth Connections: Planning Youth-Directed Natural Resources and Environmental Action Programs

Falk and Dierking. 2000. Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning. AltaMira Press.

Fedler, A. J. 2001a. An examination of the relationship between recreational boating and fishing participation and aquatic resource stewardship. Alexandria, VA: Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation.

Fedler, A. J. 2001b. Fishing, boating, and aquatic stewardship education:  Framework and best practices recommendations. In A. J. Fedler (Ed.), Defining best practices in boating, fishing, and stewardship education (pp. 4-17). Alexandria, VA: The Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

The Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the California Department of Education, the Marin Community Foundation, and other private corporations and foundations. The Institute is one of five National Science Foundation Centers developed to promote and support science education reform throughout the country. The website, provides research papers, including research about service learning.

Louis Harris and Associates. 1993. Children and the Environment: A Survey of 10,375 Children in Grades 4 through 12. Conducted for The Pew Charitable Trusts. Louis Harris and Associates, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10111 (212) 698-9600. • Quest International. 1994, Draft. LionsQuest Skills for Action.

Horton, R. L. & S. Hutchinson. 1997. Nurturing Scientific Literacy among Youth through Experientially Based Curriculum Materials. Center for 4-H Youth Development, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Columbus: The Ohio State University.

Ponzio, R. & C. Fisher, eds. 1998. The JOY of Sciencing: A Hands-on Approach to Developing Science Literacy and Teen Leadership through Cross-age Teaching and Community Action. The 4H SERIES project in action. Davis: University of California.

Siemer, W. F., & Knuth, B. A. 2001. Effects of fishing education programs on antecedents of responsible environmental behavior. Journal of Environmental Education, 32(4), 23-29.

Stepenuck, K. & K. Murphy. 2013. Exploring Streams: Stream Monitoring Curriculum Guide for Middle and High School Teachers and Students: Hands-on Learning about Streams Within and Outside the Classroom. WI DNR PUB-WT-992-2013. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921