Understanding Ecosystems is a Real Need:

Will we help today’s kids learn what they ought to know about ecosystems?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Writer and Contributor

kids in school today, and their children, need to understand ecosystems, and their own place within them. And teachers need to possess the capacity to ensure this can be accomplished. A recent study published in Science, (Vol. 351, Issue 6274, 12 February 2016, pp. 664-665) indicates that US teachers are not adequately prepared to teach about global warming in any detail; nor, for many, with confidence that it is even happening, or is caused by human activities. And, how many know with confidence how local ecosystems will respond to global warming? This is, I submit, knowledge and understanding that our students need. As important as technical and engineering knowledge and understanding, which receives far more attention in our society than ecosystems.

martin-quote1This is a poor state of affairs. Ecosystems aren’t simple; nor is global warming. How many teachers, or citizens for that matter, know that the Earth’s current orbital position and ‘wobble’ about its axis indicate that we should be in a long cooling, not a warming, period? How many know the length of these periods during Earth’s journey around the Sun? Or their effect on ecosystems; ecosystems which support all life on Earth. Not to mention the human population explosion, which is the driver of much of this warming process. How many teachers spend quality time each year on these topics? How many feel free to do so? They need help. And help is what we can offer them.

How can our teachers bring themselves up to date on the complexities and importance of global warming? What resources do they have available? If you were to check the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site, you might be surprised. I just checked the Oregon Department of Education’s web site, and found nothing in the teacher resources section that could be used to support student learnings about ecosystems, global warming, or the human population explosion. The NGSS web site has the same paucity of resources for teachers, although they do note that some resources will be forthcoming. NGSS and the National Science Teachers Association web sites offer resources like worksheets and ties to the standards for the content the worksheets cover, but there is nothing I can find that offers teachers without strong backgrounds in science an opportunity for in-service training which will prepare them to teach ecosystems so that they are understandable. The same is true for the in-service support teachers need to attain the conceptual understandings which underlie competent teaching. We, the people who teach, or have taught, in our classrooms are the ones who will have to do this work. We need to start.

I submit that this state of affairs means the NGSS (and CCSS) need to become more expressive; to become useful, descriptive, aids that teachers can rely on to support their efforts in teaching a complex environmental curriculum. We can’t ask the federal or state education organizations to do this, but we can do it ourselves. Taking it one step at a time. Environmental educators know their sites and the science and math involved in understanding them. They may not currently discover and use the curricula which is embedded within their sites. This is where those teachers who, together, have this experience can help. Environmental educators and teachers, working together to exploit curricula which is embedded in natural environments. To learn about ecosystems. What if a few teachers and environmental educators got together to talk about how they could work together to use a study of ecosystems as a vehicle to drive curriculum in other content areas? A conversation in which they cover broad topics students would need to work with in order to learn about ecosystems, coupled with conversation about particulars of other content areas that could be integrated into the study of ecosystems.

martin-quote2For instance, while studying a forest ecosystem, students at any grade level could count the number of each species of tree they find. Then, depending on their math capacity, they could draw a representative of each of the tree species, with the size of each kind based on its population count. They can add the numbers counted to get the total trees counted. They could subtract the number of the first species from the total; then the second, and on to the last. What is left? They can develop fractions and do the division built into a fraction’s structure, to calculate the decimal fraction which says the same thing. They could multiply each divided fraction by one hundred to calculate the percent that kind of tree is of the whole. They could use the counted numbers of trees, their total and the number of each species, in an equation to calculate species diversity. That’s just a smattering of the math curricula embedded in one activity in a natural area. And the concomitant standards embedded there along with them. How do teachers take these pieces of math to a larger mosaic which enables students to attain the conceptual understandings which prepare them to deal with global warming and ecosystems? What can you imagine for all of the other content areas taught in your schools? What we teach is in and of the real world, that place outside the classroom. Can we use it to learn?

Would you be interested in engaging a substantive conversation about how environmental educators and teachers can work together to do a better job of teaching mandated curricula while building students’ knowledge and understandings of ecosystems? If you’d like to contribute to a conversation on this theme, you might write an article for Clearing, write a comment in the space below, start a conversation where you are, or decide to try this yourself. If teachers know environmental educators, or environmental educators know teachers, you can present the concept at environmental education and teacher annual conferences. For myself, I’ll continue to write on this theme. And contact my regional environmental and teacher organizations to suggest it. We all need to do something. The kids need that.

Jim and Dryas Martin 604 E. 28th St. Vancouver, WA 98663 berrywd@teleport.com home.teleport.com/~berrywd/index.htm

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”