Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mathematical Sciences

First Advisor

Thomas Marcinkowski

Second Advisor

Joo Young Park

Third Advisor

Ralph Turingan

Fourth Advisor

Stanley Snelson


This study explored Significant Life Experiences (SLEs) and the development of Environmental Sensitivity (ES) in a sample of African American and Hispanic American College Students. In the field of Environmental Education, SLEs and ES have been researched for the past 40 years. Specific factors associated with the development of ES have been identified (e.g., Chawla, 1998; Peterson, 1981; Tanner, 1980), and ES was found to be a predictor of environmental action (e.g., Marcinkowski, 2005; McBeth et al., 2014). Despite its importance, few studies have explored the development of ES among individuals who are majoring or working in an environmental field, none have explored the contributions of shared nature experiences with adults on the development of ES, and very few have done so among African and Hispanic Americans (e.g., D’Amore & Chawla, 2020; Sward & Marcinkowski, 2005). An extensive literature review revealed common factors associated with and influences on ES. These were considered when designing and conducting this study (e.g., significant life experiences, proximity to open natural areas, familial and other adult influences). This mixed-methods study was conducted in two Phases. In Phase One, participants completed rating scale and open-ended items in a survey regarding their early and/or most influential nature experiences, and in Phase Two they participated in a semi-structured interview. This approach resulted in a rich data set that provided detailed depictions of the development of each participant’s ES. The researcher contacted and gained approval to include students in environmental degree programs at an HBCU (n=2) or HACU (n=4) located in Florida. In total, 29 participants provided usable survey responses to the Phase One survey. This sample consisted of 11 African Americans (AA), 17 Hispanic Americans (HA), and 1 AA and HA; 13 males and 16 females. The survey responses were analyzed using descriptive statistical methods. In Phase Two, all 29 survey respondents were contacted to participate in a follow-up interview, and 12 of them completed a follow-up interview. The interview transcripts for participants were analyzed by hand and used NVivo to identify patterns and unique characteristics, and then compared for consistency. Next, a case study for each participant was prepared and member checks were conducted for accuracy. Following the case studies, domains were developed to summarize these patterns and unique characteristics for all participants. Finally, cross case comparisons were made within and between racial/ethnic subsamples. In total the researcher proposed eight research questions, four in each Phase. The overarching research question for Phase One was, “How do AA and HA college students characterize their level of environmental sensitivity and factors they perceive to be influential in its development?”. Overall, the responses to this Phase One question resulted in five key findings. The first is that, overall, participants considered themselves to be more environmentally sensitive than their family members. The second is that most participants identified a parent and/or teacher that was influential in the facilitation of SLEs and to the development of their ES. The third is that respondents participated in a variety of nature-based experiences, some of which included an influential adult (i.e., parent, teacher, non-formal educator). As participants became older, they began to consider these individuals to be role models, describing scenarios in which they perceived these adults to be environmentally knowledgeable and skilled, and in which these adults expressed their valuing of the environment. The fourth, is that participants expressed barriers that prevented them from engaging in exploration of open areas or parks (e.g., lack of transportation, safety issues). The fifth and final finding was that, overall. participants engaged frequently in free play in the outdoors, and they considered this time to be influential to their ES. The overarching question for Phase Two was: “For those AA and HA college students who characterized their level of environmental sensitivity as moderate to high, how do they describe and characterize their past interactions in nature with adult role models?”. In Phase Two, participants described their key nature experiences and those key adults who played a role in these experiences. There were five key findings and conjectures from those interviews. First, participants conveyed the importance of adults taking time to share and exemplify their connection to and valuing nature. Participants frequently identified a role model whom they remembered engaging in nature activities with them, many times teaching them about the natural world and/or a skill to use in the natural world (e.g., fishing, gardening). The significance and influence of these experiences were communicated by all the interview participants. The second key finding is that many participants agreed that they had an innate connection to nature and that this connection was foundational to their love and respect for the natural world. They consider this innate quality to be a part of their self-identity. The third finding is that interview participants recalled engaging in free play in nature early and often when they were younger. They considered this uninhibited play to be a key part to their development of ES over time. The fourth finding is that participants’ perceptions of the role of adults in their connection to nature changed over time. As participants described their life experiences in chronological order it became clear that more recent experiences with adults tended to be more geared toward their career path and in many ways, they wanted to spend time with that adult because of the knowledge they could learn from them. In contrast, participants’ descriptions of their time with adults when they were younger included a connection to that adult that was more emotional. Often, they enjoyed spending time in nature and wanted to spend time with that adult, as if time with that adult and in the environment was inseparable. The fifth and final finding is in reference to participants’ racial and ethnic identity. The HA participants’ responses were very similar, describing time with family and role models in nature as key to the development of their ES. They also mentioned the need for more HA role models working in the environmental field. The AA participants’ responses also had many similarities in terms of the development of their ES and their SLEs. One unique finding for this subsample was the role that racial stereotypes played in their interaction with the outdoors. Some participants felt unwelcome in outdoor spaces, and were inspired to challenge and change those stereotypes. The findings in this study resulted in several recommendations for further research and for practice. The recommendations for practice were organized into recommendations for: (a) families and communities, (b) individuals in K-12 educational settings, and (c) individuals in post-secondary settings. For (a), the first recommendation is that children should interact with nature and the outdoors early and often throughout their lives. Additionally, it is important that these interactions include adults and that those adults are involved in the interaction with nature. For (b), educators and school organizations should design and implement curricula that encourage interactions with the outdoors. These should be purposeful and encourage student engagement with the outdoors by exploring natural areas while learning about the science in these areas. Finally, for (c), students majoring in an environmental program should be allowed and encouraged to engage in exploration, field work, and research in outdoor settings. These direct interactions should take place early in the environmental program and should increase in sophistication and difficulty as students continue in the program. These recommendations would foster direct interactions with nature and allow individuals to construct their own connection with nature, which may have unfolding impacts on their personal, familial, academic, career, and socio-ecological attributes.


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