Couple some basic curriculum organizers with focused questioning strategies to make your restoration projects coherent and effective environmental education experiences.
by Jim Martin
Environmental education should be a journey, one which captures our interest and imagination and leaves us with the tools to become effective stewards of the place where we live and work. Does it? Perhaps. Mike Weilbacher’s recent articles on environmental education (Weilbacher, 1996, 1997) express his concerns about the knowledge and skills which he believes environmental education should deliver, but doesn’t. He is concerned that we are aware and solicitous of our environments, but do not understand them. Somehow, environmental education hasn’t provided us with the knowledge and skills to think and plan effectively, at least where the environment is concerned.
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I think that developing effective questioning strategies around environmental phenomena is one way to ensure effective learning in environmental education. Asking questions about our environments, then seeking their answers, provides a meaningful context for our learnings, and assures that what is learned will be used and retained. Knowledgeably applied, this process informs us and provides us with a set of tools for effective stewardship.
A type of environmental education activity which is in vogue, and which I think speaks to Weilbacher’s concerns, is the extensive involvement of schools and agencies in restoration plantings. Restoration plantings are popular, done on a large scale, and require little training for their completion. They send a clear message: we, the people, made mistakes, have become aware of them, and are taking steps to make corrections. Plantings like these present a good opportunity for students to engage the environment, do constructive work, and discover the world as it exists, not as it appears on paper or videotape. As an added attraction, nothing is more impressive than a long stretch of restored stream bank fluttering with cuttings and colored flags. Do restoration plantings, in their attractiveness, ease the science out of environmental science? I think they might.
Restoration plantings are too massive. By their sheer volume, they don’t allow teachers and students to engage in a quality learning endeavor. Only one set of students get the hands-on outdoors experience; the classes which follow will never know about, nor will they benefit from them. In addition, most plantings don’t include a study of the site’s biology or soils up front, nor do they provide for longitudinal monitoring after the planting is completed. As currently practiced, restoration plantings are invigorating activities performed in the absence of a curricular context, and fit Weilbacher’s description of a piece of environmental education which needs to be addressed: we have designed an enormous amount of interesting, effective curricular pieces which have left us aware of the environment, but uninformed about it.
This is where the science in environmental science has value. Relevant and coherent environmental education organizers reside in the organisms, the environment, and the science which elucidates them. Couple these organizers with focused questioning strategies to modify your approach to restoration plantings in order to make them coherent and effective environmental education experiences. Start by asking a simple question, “in what soils do cottonwoods grow best?” (A good scientific question should suggest a way to answer it. Does this one?)
Biology as an Environmental Education Organizer
Organisms live in environments. Their biology, studied within the context of their environment, provides a coherent structure for developing environmental education curricula. In their habitats, plants and animals respond to the places where they live by employing discrete physiological mechanisms. For instance, roots employ osmotic mechanisms to move water into a plant’s vascular system; the nature of these mechanisms may determine how far from a stream a plant may live. Some plants use their physiological machinery to produce chemical compounds which inhibit other plants and animals, keeping them away from “their space.” Other industrious plants and their symbionts use their physiologies to mine nitrogen from the air and supply it to other plants. The sum of the employment of these plant (and animal and microbial) physiological mechanisms generates the ecosystemical phenomena we see before us. It is generally at their physiological levels that humans affect living things in their habitats.
To our question: we can query our restoration plant species about the suitability of the soils we expect that they will be planted in by asking questions of their cells. You can phrase your questions so that they examine this phenomenon at an appropriate level among several levels of difficulty, such as the increasingly complex set of activities listed in the next paragraph. First, your students must prepare soil from the site, upland, home, school, scratch, etc., or make up test soils of sand, loam, clay and varying amounts of water.
Using our question, “in what soils do cottonwoods grow best,” to guide your work, employ an activity from the following list to answer it. Modify the question to suit the activity. For instance, if your students will plant cottonwood seeds, their question might be, “In what soils do cottonwood seeds germinate most frequently?” (Test the question” does it suggest how to answer itself?) Here is the list: students can plant cottonwood seeds or cuttings in prepared soils, then observe for seed germination, plant vigor, height, or root length-, measure internodal lengths or rates of growth (nodes are the places where leaves attach, and intermodes are the spaces between nodes); stain and view longitudinal and radial internodal sections; grind and homogenize plant sections to free enzymes, then observe their activity on a substrate like starch or sucrose; do transpiration studies. Test yourself: how would you phrase each of these activities as questions to be answered? Do they suggest designs for their answers? How do they relate to our guiding question? Read through the list again, and find one that you would feel comfortable performing with your students. Do it. You’ll know when you’re ready to learn new materials or move on to more complex observations. Answers to your questions will guide you.
The ultimate organizer of biological phenomena is natural selection. It is one of the forces acting in each environment every day. For instance, those plants whose physiological mechanisms enable them to grow and reproduce in a riparian environment will be more likely to produce another generation like themselves, while those whose physiologies are not as effective in that environment may not be as likely to do so. How do we study natural selection in environmental education, which is generally “hard science” free? Natural selection is an engine which organizes plant, animal, and microbial assemblages. This means that restoration plantings are also potential experiments in natural selection.
You plant an assemblage; then ask how it will organize itself over time by cataloging the plants which live on your site from season to season and year to year. (What is your question now? Does it suggest an observation?) Do this by marking and mapping a large or small study plot at your site. Identify each tree and measure its height, diameter, and other parameters that you think appropriate. What happens to the relative frequency of each species? Do all plants grow at the same rate? Time of year? Does this raise further questions? Just monitoring a planting for a few years will give you and your students insights into how environments come to be, and why some organisms live in the riparian and not others.
We can’t understand the biology of organisms living in their environments without employing the critical thinking and doing processes which have evolved within the scientific community. Our understandings about environments come from applying these processes during our observations of organisms in the places where they live. You can organize the delivery of your restoration planting around them, and make it into a truly environmental education experience.
Process Science as an Environmental Education Organizer
Process science studies the world directly. This should make learning science by employing scientific process skills interesting to students, and to teachers. You employ these skills to focus your efforts and discover facts effectively by using behaviors like observe, question, measure, use numbers, and interpret data to answer the questions that you pose. These processes, which scientists use, are sets of behaviors or skills that all of us can learn; after being learned, they can be employed to learn some more. Acquired and used by teachers and students, they focus our minds on the work of understanding natural phenomena. In the case of restoration work, let these process skills drive your lessons; and let the plantings themselves become the vehicle which propels your students on their journey toward understanding.
By asking questions, then seeking their answers through inquiries which employ scientific process skills, the hundreds of environmental education activities and lessons which litter the landscape become vehicles for understanding the environment and asking the right questions when confronting environmental issues. If you engage your students in process science, you will provide them with the scientific insight necessary to develop meaningful concepts about how organisms live in their environments, and how we affect that living. A key piece in learning to use process science skills in environmental education is the development of effective questioning strategies (Questioning is a scientific process skill!). Posing an effective question entrains the rest of the scientific process skills, and you can address them as they are encountered by your students.
Organizing ourselves around process science, let’s modify our question to read, “What effect do different soils (riparian/upland/school/home/etc.) have on the growth of cottonwoods grown from cuttings?” (Don’t forget to probe: does the question suggest a way to answer it?) In Planning an Answer to the question, we modify soils or take them from different places, plant in them, then observe for an effect on growth. In so doing, we elicit information from the plants and soils; we suppose the information may answer our question. To further focus our work, we might use the scientific process skill of define operationally to define “growth” as the length, in centimeters, of new growth at some particular time interval and “soil” as x grams of Nitrogen, y grams of Potassium, z grams of sterile potting soil base, and so forth. Doing the work in this orderly, prescribed way, focuses your mind onto a single part of the plant and couples that part with an environmental parameter which might affect it. This helps you to target some curricular particulars to supplement your students’ environmental education.
You may be experiencing the dawning impression that teaching environmental education for coherence takes a long time. Especially if you start with pea or bean plants to develop the necessary process skills in relatively short order, then transiate.them to your restoration species. Time-consuming yes, but instead of a one-shot field trip, the planting itself becomes a part of a program of education ( a “course of instruction”), and you must modify the way you teach to accommodate this.
Another scientific process skill which is overlooked in environmental education curricula is that of Communication. In order to deliver their educational potential, restoration plantings should be monitored for many years, which presents problems in communication. What must your students do to communicate information about their project to subsequent classes? Which information should be communicated? How? Focus on this skill of communication; find out what it is, how it works, what it contributes to understanding, and how it relates to other scientific process skills. Start by saving the posters, data sheets, and reports that your students produce. Introduce these to next year’s classes as a valuable resource which they can organize and use to enhance their own work. Ask them for feedback about what was useful, and what else would have been helpful to communicate, and how.
By using scientific process skills to develop understandings about organisms in their environments, we begin to find that there are patterns in their relationships. These patterns, when they are clearly described, resolve into organizers which make ecosystems understandable.
Ecosystem Organization as an Environmental Education Organizer
The main questions I hear at restoration plantings are, “Where are the Shovels” and “Do we plant our tree here?” How about you? When you’re out in the field, do you hear questions like, “What makes cottonwoods live here?” “What is the cottonwoods’ food web?” “Which microorganisms live in the cottonwoods’ soil?” “What kind of symbiotic relationships do cottonwoods engage in?” “How are cottonwood communities distributed in space?” Sometimes students do raise these questions, and sometimes they are passed over by their teachers or volunteer agency adults. Questions like these are germane to the process of discovering the ecology of the organisms who inhabit the environments we plant in. To study ecology, we mentally organize the components of ecosystems into a few basic constructs so that they make sense to us. Among these are nutrient cycles, energy flows, and food webs. They are our bag of tools, conceptions which we use to organize the components of ecosystems when we think about the environments we study. These cycles, flows, and webs are in place in all environments and have similar basic components, such as producers, consumers, and decomposers.
Models of ecosystemal components can be ground-truthed by engaging your students in question-based field and lab work. How do we phrase our question to incorporate an ecological focus? For instance, if your students begin to explore nutrient cycling by taking soil samples in the field and analyzing them for nutrients like the concentration of nitrogen as ammonia using simple soil test kits, then the question might be phrased as, “does the concentration of soil nitrogen as ammonia change from season to season, or year to year, where we plant cottonwoods?” (Check: does the question suggest an observation?) Your students might Plan an Answer to the question by starting a diagram of the nutrient cycle which maintains one of the nutrients at your site, and continuing to fill it in as they find more information. The blank spaces in your diagram create a need to know, which will motivate both you and your students to think about cycles and seek information. Turn each blank space into a question which can be answered by making careful observations. Do it one blank a year. Ask your students to use their actual field observations of plants and animals and library/resource research to find out who eats whom.
Document each element in your growing ecosystemal information base by year, class, students who found the information and other elements you or your students deem important. (You may notice that this amplifies the quality of the class’ longitudinal data.) Keep this information (and incipient food web) where students will have access to it all year. This project may take several years to reach some acceptable level of completion. This is how science is done, one piece of the puzzle at a time. It’s not instantaneous, but the process develops clear sets of connected facts. A novel concept.
Putting this Together to Make Sense
Did you notice that each curriculum organizer we ex
plored incorporates elements of the others? That’s because we study living things (biology) and their interactions (ecology) by observing their lives directly (process science); when we employ environmental education properly, we really study environmental science. You may also have noticed that it takes a long time to teach in this way. We need to think about how we are teaching the people who will be making the decisions that affect our world. Do we teach reams of disconnected facts, or do we teach a few encompassing concepts for understanding?
Give your kids a sense of continuity. All parts of your continuously developing, question-driven restoration planting curriculum don’t need to be in place yet. Just do one or two manageable pieces each year, but work on it each year. Organize your students’ work around simple, categorical questions like, “which organisms spend time on living cottonwood leaves?” Test each question by checking to see if it suggests an observation. Structure next year’s curriculum around the gaps left by this year’s work. Engage your students in the simple act of looking at a plot of ground for the information necessary to fill in a conceptual schema built by seeking answers to simple categorical questions, and you will develop an authentic environmental education curriculum of your own based on information that students at your school have discovered. Not only will you provide them with a relevant and coherent environmental education, but you will have made their world a little more consistent, and given them a concrete sense of their place within it. This is a gift today’s children dearly need. To top it off, you can now use those mountains of environmental education activities to good advantage in your coherent, meaningful, question-driven environmental education curriculum.
A Charge to You:
Mike Weilbacher has presented us with a formidable challenge. I think we can meet it if we work hard, study hard, and become better teachers of environmental education in the process. Doable. Take one step at a time. I work every week with teachers who are teaching themselves and learning with their students. They’re busy, frustrated, and experiencing constant challenge. What more can a good teacher ask? Leaven your environmental education curriculum with environmental science, and you’ll go a long way toward correcting what Weilbacher perceives as weaknesses in environmental education as it is currently delivered. Infuse those ubiquitous environmental education activities with organizing questions and biology, ecology, and process science organizers. Let your search for truth be your curriculum. Choose a simple question to ask of your restoration site, then muster the myriad prepared environmental education activities as vehicles which transport you to the answers.
I’d like to know what you think about coupling simple, categorical questions with ecology, biology (or any scientific discipline), and process science to make environmental education relevant and effective. If you have ideas, experiences, criticisms, demands, get in touch via e-mail. I’ll post all commentaries on the CLEARING web site (http://www.teleport.com/~clearing) in a file named “planting.doc,” which is available to anyone interested. Better yet, write an article and publish it for all to read.
Weilbacher, Mike. 1996. “Don’t Know Much About Ecology: A special report on the class of’96.” Clearing. Issue 95:7-10. November/December 1996.
Weilbacher, Mike. 1997. “Confronting the Enemy Within: Why Our Students are Environmentally Illiterate.” Clearing. Issue 96:17-19. January/February 1997.
Jim Martin conducts teacher-training workshops out of the Center for Science Education at Portland State University. He is the president-elect of the Environmental Education Association of Oregon and is a CLEARING advisory board member. He can be reached at (503) 725-4243.