from the Fall 2016 Issue of CLEARING
Integrating Watershed Science in High School Classrooms:
The Confluence Project Approach
by Audrey Squires, Jyoti Jennewein, and Mary Engels, with Dr. Brant Miller and Dr. Karla Eitel, University of Idaho
It’s not just because I personally love snow and skiing and snowshoeing and all that. It’s not just because I love to teach science outdoors in the field. It’s not even just because I value connecting my students with real scientists every chance I get. It’s honestly not any one of these particular things alone that has made the Snow Science field trip the absolute favorite part of my Environmental Science curriculum over the last four years. Instead, it’s the simple notion that for this generation of teenager in the Inland Northwest, the impacts of climate change on the hydrology of snow within our watershed might be the most valuable social, economic, and ecological topic to cover in the entire school year. Snow is the backbone of our way of life in North Idaho, and the sense of awareness and empowerment my students develop as a result of this Confluence Project three-lesson unit is absolutely critical for their growth and progress as young adults heading into the 21st century. – The Confluence Project Teacher, Advanced Placement Environmental Science
lean water matters, immensely, to all of us. We desperately need education that promotes deep understanding of how water is important to students. Fortunately, water as a theme is easily incorporated into numerous scientific disciplines. From the basics of the water cycle in foundational science courses to the complexities of cellular processes in advanced biology; and from energy forecasting with anticipated snow melt in economics to the nuances of water as a solute in chemistry, water is foundational to a variety of subjects and can be incorporated into the learning objectives with a little creativity and willingness to step outside the box.
Over the past three years in high schools across Northern Idaho we have been working to develop a water based curriculum that has the flexibility to be used in many types of classroom, and that provides students with firsthand experience with water and water related issues in their local watershed. The Confluence Project (TCP) connects high school students to their local watersheds through three field investigations that take place throughout an academic year. These field investigations are designed to integrate place-based educational experiences with science and engineering practices, and focus on three themes: (1) water quality, (2) water quantity, and (3) water use in local landscapes. During these field investigations, students actively collect water, snowpack, and soil data and learn to analyze and interpret these data to the ‘big picture’ of resource quality and availability in their communities.
Before each field investigation, students are exposed to the pertinent disciplinary core ideas in class (National Research Council [NRC], 2011; NGSS Lead States, 2013), explore issues present at field sites, read relevant scientific articles, and learn field data collection techniques. Students then collect data in the field with support from resource professionals. After each field investigation, students analyze their data and use the results to discuss how to solve ecological issues they may have encountered. Adults guide students through this process at the beginning, with the goal that students will develop the necessary skillset to conduct independent, community-based, water-centric research projects by the end of the academic year (Figure 1). Students are ultimately challenged to creatively communicate their research projects, including both the scientific results and their proposed solutions to environmental issues encountered in their watershed, at a regional youth research conference (e.g. Youth Water Summit).
Figure 1: The Confluence Project continuum through an academic year. Curriculum units are listed on the left and can be taught in any order. For each unit, students participate in a: pre-lesson, field investigation, and post-lesson. Students then complete individual or group research projects using the knowledge and skills built throughout the year. The culminating event, the Youth Water Summit, invites students from across the region to present the results of their independent research projects to an audience of community stakeholders, experts, and peers.
Originally created to serve as a sustainable method to continue outreach efforts from a National Science Foundation Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) grant (Rittenburg et al., 2015), the development of TCP coincided with the release of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013). With a strong emphasis on science and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and coherent progressions (Reiser, 2013), the TCP model closely aligns with these new standards. Given that much of the curriculum developed for the older National Science Education Standards is content-focused (NRC, 1996), TCP fits the need to create curriculum that includes opportunities for students to explain how and why phenomena occur and to develop the critical thinking skills associated with scientific investigations.
Sobel (1996) wrote that “authentic environmental commitment emerges out of first hand experiences with real place on a small, manageable scale” (p. 39). In TCP, authentic learning often emerges as students engage in first-hand exploration. Using the local watershed as a lens for field investigations enables students to connect with their landscapes and develop new depths of understanding of the world around them. By connecting students’ lived experiences and local landscapes with scientific information we are able to generate a unique learning setting, which in turn sparks continued interest in exploring the familiar from a new perspective. As one student from the 2015-16 program wrote:
Before the several field trips that our class went on, I had no idea how many water related issue we had on our environment (sic). After being in the field and working with experts about this topic, I now know how to inform the public, how to test if the water is clean, and how to better our ecosystem for the future. Without this hands-on experience, I would still be oblivious to the issues around me.
This localized learning approach is often referred to as place-based education (PBE), which engages students in learning that utilizes the context of the local environment (Sobel, 1996; Smith, 2002). PBE seeks to connect students to local knowledge, wisdom, and traditions while providing an authentic context to engage students in meaningful learning within their everyday lives.
TCP also uses a project-based learning (PBL) approach (Bell, 2010) to help students frame the field investigations and the subsequent analysis and interpretation of collected data as foundations for their own research projects. These practices emphasize student construction of meaningful and usable scientific concepts and, perhaps more importantly, relating these concepts to their own lived experience. For example, one student wrote the following reflection after a class water quantity field investigation:
I learned that snow is a lot more complicated than I thought. Before, I had never heard the term “snowpack.” I learned about the different layers and how they vary and can have a great affect (sic) on our watershed. This new knowledge could help me be more aware of snow and now that I understand how it works, I can watch and see how my watershed will be affected that year by the amount of snowfall.
These types of reflections demonstrate an internalization of curriculum unit topics, which in turn motivates students to continue learning.
Importantly, PBE and PBL are used as frameworks to align lessons with the NGSS. The pedagogical features of PBL match well with the eight science and engineering practices at the core of the NGSS framework, which include: (1) asking questions and defining problems; (2) developing and using models; (3) planning and carrying out investigations; (4) analyzing and interpreting data; (5) using mathematics and computational thinking; (6) constructing explanations and designing solutions; (7) engaging in argument from evidence; and (8) obtaining, evaluating and communicating information (Bybee, 2011). In TCP, these pedagogical approaches provide a meaningful context for students to engage in developing understandings of disciplinary core ideas, while the curriculum creates new, effective ways to enact the NGSS.
Empirical evaluation of student learning in the program (Squires et al., under review) indicates that after participation in TCP, students expressed greater concern for local ecological issues, recognized the efficacy of science as a tool to address environmental issues in their communities, and were more engaged in science when PBE and PBL pedagogies were used.
Yesterday my entomology class went to a local creek to study the bugs and life around it. It was really cool to fish a lot of bugs out of the water. We got lots of benthic macroinvertebrates such as a mayfly (dragonfly), damselflies, all in different instars (sic) [stages of growth] …. We tested the pH of the water, the transparency of the water, and the dissolved oxygen in it…This was really a fun project, it was great getting all of the bugs I’ve been learning about and it was really cool to use my knowledge about them… I suggest that anyone should go and do this, you could learn a lot about your region’s water quality. –TCP Entomology Student
TCP curriculum aligns with several Performance Expectations and Disciplinary Core Ideas from the NGSS (Table 1), and can also easily adjust to fit within multiple courses. TCP curriculum has been incorporated into less flexible, standards-driven courses like Biology and Chemistry, as well as more flexible courses like Environmental Science, Entomology, and Earth Science. While each class participates in the same three units (water quality, water quantity, and water use), teachers tailor these units to the learning objectives of their courses.
For example, environmental science teachers have been able to tie the water quantity unit to global climate change, land and resource use, and local economics. Students analyzed collected snowpack data to determine how much water would be available in their watershed for growing crops and sustaining lake and river-based tourism economies. They also compared their data to historical figures to understand how climate change has impacted water availability in their watershed over the past several decades.
By contrast, TCP biology teachers have successfully incorporated TCP units as part of their yearlong curriculum aligned with rigorous biology standards. For example, as part of the water use unit one teacher discussed sustainable water use in an agriculture setting by focusing on concepts like plant growth and cellular function. Other teachers have presented photosynthesis, primary productivity, and fisheries biology during the water quality unit, and speciation, biodiversity, and habitat as core topics during the water quantity unit.
Even in very specialized science classes there is room to engage with this curriculum. For example, one entomology teacher was able to highlight the role of macroinvertebrates as indicators of stream health when teaching the water quality unit. He taught students insect characteristics, discussed growth and metamorphism, and then showed students how to tie flies in order to solidify that knowledge in a unique, hands-on way. The class then visited a stream near their school to identify macroinvertebrates and learn their importance in evaluating water quality. Last but not least, TCP curriculum was designed for the potential of cross-course collaboration, which gives students the opportunity to apply and link concepts and skills learned in science class to their other courses while developing critical thinking skills. Several program teachers have collaborated with colleagues in their schools to integrate content across disciplines and open students’ eyes to interdisciplinary study.
Table 1: NGSS Performance Expectations targeted by lessons within TCP Curriculum and their related Disciplinary Core Ideas (National Science Teachers Association [NSTA], 2013). See Supplemental Material for detailed lesson plans.
|Performance Expectations||Description||Disciplinary Core Idea|
|EARTH AND SPACE SCIENCES||HS-ESS2-2||Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth’s surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.||Earth Materials and Systems|
|HS-ESS2-5||Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.||The Roles of Water in Earth’s Surface Processes|
|HS-ESS3-1||Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.||Natural Resources; Natural Hazards|
|HS-ESS3-4||Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.||Human Impacts on Earth Systems; Developing Possible Solutions|
|ENGINEERING DESIGN||HS-ETS1-2||Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.||Optimizing the Design Solution|
|HS-ETS1-3||Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.||Developing Possible Solutions|
|LIFE SCIENCES||HS-LS1-3||Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that feedback mechanisms maintain homeostasis.||Structure and Function|
|HS-LS2-6||Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.||Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience|
|HS-LS4-5||Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in: (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.||Adaptation|
Connecting with local professionals.
The most valuable thing that we learned on our field trip to [the restoration site] was learning about the processes that were taken to restore the creek, and why they did it… We think that this field trip has shaped our understanding of these careers by actually experiencing the job and their daily tasks that can do good to the environment (sic). Following the field trip, we can say that we have a better understanding of just how time consuming and difficult the process of restoration in an area such as [the restoration site] can be. –TCP student water quality field investigation post trip reflection
Teachers often struggle to plan activities beyond the day-to-day classroom lessons, which is one reason why local professionals and leaders are an essential facet of TCP. Agency scientists, Tribal land managers, and graduate students provide scientific support to teachers and students during field investigations, in-class pre- and post-lessons, and final research projects. This gives students an opportunity to collaborate with and learn from specialists and practicing scientists in their communities, allowing the students to gain experience carrying out science and engineering practices alongside experts. In addition, students learn about career opportunities and restoration efforts in their local watersheds from TCP partners. Examples of past TCP partners include universities (extension, graduate students, and professors); Tribes (environmental agencies and Elders); state agencies (environmental quality and fish and game); federal agencies (Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Avalanche Center); and local organizations (environmental nonprofits, homeowner’s associations, and ski resorts).
Since these collaborations are critical to the success of TCP program we have developed a Reaching Out to Potential Partners checklist to help teachers contact and recruit community partners. The checklist helps teachers develop a coherent narrative to use with busy professionals which highlights the mutual benefits of collaboration.
Keeping costs to a minimum.
Admittedly, implementation requires some capital investment to cover essential program costs such as busing, substitute teachers, and field equipment. However, these costs can be minimized with some creative organization. Multiple TCP schools have been able to eliminate busing costs by using streams near or on school property. Supportive administrators can creatively minimize substitute teacher costs (in one case the principal agreed to cover the class instead). Field equipment is certainly necessary to collect data (see Resources), but the equipment required may potentially be borrowed from agencies or university partners. A classroom supply budget or a small grant from the booster club or other local organization can also help cover such costs and build supplies over several academic years. While regional youth research conferences, such as the Youth Water Summit are excellent ways to motivate students, it is possible to get the research benefits without the associated costs. We suggest inviting partners and other local experts to attend research project presentations at school. This way students can still benefit from external feedback as well as gain research and presentation skills.
TCP has provided a valuable framework for school-wide exploration of local water-related issues. TCP provides hands-on, place-based and problem-based learning while addressing key Next Generation Science Standards and preparing students for the kind of inter-disciplinary problem solving that will be increasingly necessary to address the complex challenges being our students will face as they become the workforce and citizens of the future.
The full TCP curriculum including lessons, standard alignment, field trip planning, and other recommendations can be found at: http://bit.ly/2cNdNIm
Interested in learning more from the TCP’s leadership team? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
A program like this requires dedicated and creative teacher and program partners. Without the enthusiastic commitment of our past and present teachers and partners TCP would never have been actualized. We’d like to thank Rusti Kreider, Jamie Esler, Cindy Rust, Kat Hall, Laura Laumatia, Jim Ekins, and Marie Pengilly for their aid in program design and implementation, as well as for continued programmatic effort and support. Furthermore, thank you to Matt Pollard, Jen Pollard, and Robert Wolcott; along with graduate students Paris Edwards, Courtney Cooper, Meghan Foard, Karen Trebitz, Erik Walsh, and Sarah Olsen for your dedication to TCP implementation. In addition, we would like to acknowledge funding from the NSF GK-12 program grant #0841199 and an EPA Environmental Education grant #01J05401.
Audrey Squires, Jyoti Jennewein and Mary Engels are past program managers of TCP. Squires is currently the Restoration Projects Manager for Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council while Jennewein and Engels are PhD students at the University of Idaho (UI). Dr. Brant Miller, UI science education faculty, was the Principal Investigator of the EPA grant that funded TCP in 2015-16. Dr. Karla Eitel is a faculty member and Director of Education at the McCall Outdoor Science School, a part of the UI College of Natural Resources.
Bell, S. (2010). Project-based learning for the 21st century: Skills for the future. The Clearing House, 83(2), 39-43.
Bybee, R. W. (2011). Scientific and engineering practices in K–12 classrooms: Understanding a framework for K–12 science education. The Science Teacher, 78 (9), 34–40.
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
National Research Council. (2011). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), 2013. Disciplinary Core Ideas in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Final Release. http://nstahosted.org/pdfs/ngss/20130509/matrixofdisciplinarycoreideasinngss-may2013.pdf Accessed 22 April 2016.
Reiser, B. J. (2013). What professional development strategies are needed for successful implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards? Paper presented at the Invitational Research Symposium on Science Assessment. Washington, DC.
Rittenburg, R.A., Miller, B.G., Rust, C., Kreider, R., Esler, J., Squires, A.L., Boylan, R.D. (2015). The community connection: Engaging students and community partners in project-based science. The Science Teacher, 82(1), 47-52.
Smith, G. A. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. The Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (8), 84–594.
Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education (No. 1). Orion Society.
Squires, A., Jennewein, J., Miller, B. G., Engels, M., Eitel, K. B. (under review). The Confluence Approach: Enacting Next Generation Science Standards to create scientifically literate citizens.