Mind the Gap: How Environmental Education Can Step Forward to Address the STEM Achievement Gap

Mind the Gap: How Environmental Education Can Step Forward to Address the STEM Achievement Gap

Environmental Education is a broad field encompassing nature centers, school forests, outdoor education facilities, state and national parks among others. This diversity of organization type allows for wide engagement by the public and holds great potential for addressing achievement gaps in the formal education system.

by Robert Justin Hougham, Ph.D,
Isabelle Herde,
Tempestt Morgan,
Joey Zocher, Ph.D.,
and Sarah Olsen, Ph.D

Environmental Education organizations have more power than they realize to affect change. For example, in Wisconsin, Environmental Education organizations employ over 3,100 educators, serve 1.1 million user days of education in the field, and represent over $40 million in direct economic activity. The collective impact of this industry is significant. We advocate for other states and regions to take a similar approach to quantifying the field in order to leverage support and ultimately, affect change. Part of addressing the STEM achievement gap will lay in making the environment an integral part of the approach, while yet another part of addressing this gap will be advanced by focusing the collective impact organizations to build capacity. The work we will go on to describe here has proven valuable and eye opening- we also will lay out some of the steps to replicate this in other states. Doing so is a matter of environmental justice, a call to which many environmental organizations are responding.

Environmental Education to address STEM achievement gaps
Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education does not have equal outcomes among different demographic groups. Racial disparity in science education is an issue nationwide. The 2015 NAEP science assessment noted statistically significant gaps in achievement for U.S. students that identified as black and Hispanic compared to those who identified as white (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As an example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin has the greatest STEM achievement gap in the country (Richards, 2016). Nationwide, schools that serve predominantly black and Hispanic students are less likely to offer higher-level science courses (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2016). All of these facts demonstrate an educational system that fails students of color in STEM.

The pedagogical practices of environmental education have proven to be an accessible approach to science learning for youth of different backgrounds and is thus uniquely poised to address the STEM achievement gap. The field of environmental education encourages students to observe and connect with a place in order to learn. Dominant strategies for teaching include place-based education and an inquiry approach. Place-based education allows students to forge meaningful connections between STEM content, students’ daily experiences and to observe the environment around them (Land & Zimmerman, 2015; Greenwood & Hougham, 2015). These field and inquiry-based approaches in STEM have better educational outcomes for low achieving youth (Blythe et al., 2015). Field experiences have also shown to increase confidence for underserved student populations (Hougham et al., 2018).

However, the field faces its own gaps of knowledge and historical bias. For the environmental education industry to effectively address the nation’s STEM achievement gap, environmental education organizations must understand their position and progress in addressing issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). This includes, but is not limited to, the increase of positive representation of minorities and other underrepresented groups, as well as teaching in a more culturally conscious and responsive manner. This paper will focus on Wisconsin, which faces some of the largest STEM education gaps, and how the lessons learned from a status and needs assessment and the work currently underway to address those findings could be applied to the nation.

In the winter of 2015-16, a digital survey was distributed to environmental education organization leaders around the state of Wisconsin. Our goal was to investigate the statewide status surrounding relevant topics within environmental education such as land management, professional development, visitation trends, budgets, diversity, equity and inclusion and identify organizational needs in these focus areas. In 2019, we updated and re-ran the survey, intending to update and improve our understanding of the status and needs of environmental education in Wisconsin. This article is focused on the enhanced component of the survey questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. Here, we present the set of questions from our 2019 DEI section of the survey to lay out our approach, and also to encourage the use of similar question sets in other states and regions.

The following questions were developed to address diversity, equity and inclusion in our field, defined in consultation with August Ball, Founder/CEO of Cream City Conservation & Consulting LLC. We understand the definition of diversity, equity, and inclusion and its meaning can take different forms. For the purpose of this survey we asked that respondents consider the following definition in their answers:

Diversity: Differences that make a difference.
Equity: A process of ensuring everyone has access to what they need to thrive.
Inclusion: Celebrating, welcoming and valuing differences.

  1. Please estimate the percentage of groups that visit your site or programs that include at least one person with a known disability.
  2. Please check all areas of training provided to your environmental education instructional/ program staff on working with persons with disabilities. How to adapt activities for participants with:
  3. Do you consider your facility to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
  4. Do you consider your programs to be accessible to visitors with disabilities?
  5. Have you conducted a physical accessibility survey of your site?
  6. Does your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners of varying abilities?
  7. Do your curriculum or lesson plans include activity ideas for learners from different cultures or backgrounds?
  8. What level of priority does your organization place on increasing program and facility accessibility at your site?
  9. What level of priority does your organization place on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at your site?
  10. What is the estimated demographic distribution of your staff?
  11. Select the answer that best fits your organization.
    11a. This organization is committed to diversity.
  12. Please read the sentences and select the answer that best fits your organization. These questions were taken from the Diversity Survey (2014) by the Society for Human Resource Management.
    12a. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people a job candidate will meet/see on their first visit to the organization.
    12b. There is cultural and racial diversity among the people represented in our organization’s marketing materials
    12c. Employees from different backgrounds are encouraged to apply for higher positions.
  13. Do you have resources and content available in other languages?
  14. Does your organization provide trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Past iterations of this survey have had positive impacts for Wisconsin environmental education organizations. Solid data is needed to inform decision – making and programming. The closer the data reflect the local context of the industry, the more effectively educators, administrators and our supporters can respond to current trends. However, collecting this data is only one step towards changing the status of the work on the ground.



193 EE leaders representing 173 EE organizations completed the survey. We asked these leaders to describe their organization in a number of ways. For example, whether the organization correlates school program to academic standards (75.3% – Yes), if they considered their location an outdoor tourist destination (44.0% – Yes) and if they regularly partner with other regional or statewide EE organizations (59.5% – Yes).
Of the 93.1% of respondents who considered their organization’s facilities to be accessible or somewhat accessible to visitors with disabilities, half (50.5%) have never conducted an accessibility survey of their site. The most common accessibility-related training that staff receive focus on physical disabilities (65.1%) and ways to encourage communication and interaction among all participants (50%).


Survey participants were asked which subject areas and organizational skills their staff would most benefit from additional training. Shown below are the most common responses:
Top EE Subjects Areas staff need
1. Using STEM as a context for EE (E-STEM)
2. Technology use in outdoor education
3. Understanding school initiatives, speaking school language
4. Community action/service learning
5. ‘Sustainable design/green technologies or buildings’ and ‘Community-based learning’

Top Organizational Skills staff need
1. Diversity, equity and inclusion
2. Grant writing
3. Fundraising
4. Digital presence/website/Facebook/etc.
5. Volunteer management
Analysis: Perception vs Reality: the bubble around inclusion and environmental education

The reported commitment by environmental organizations to DEI does not match the reported actions or steps they have taken towards DEI. For example, respondents from 56% of environmental organizations in the United States reported that trainings focused on diversity should be done (Taylor, 2014). In the Wisconsin status and needs assessment, only 50% of respondents reported actually conducting trainings related to diversity, equity and inclusion (Hougham et al., 2019). Even then, “The small body of empirical research that does exist about diversity trainings suggests that current practices are largely ineffective over the long-term. Therefore, it is imperative to conduct needs assessments to determine what content should be done” (Beasley, 2017, p. 5). Spending time planning, executing and evaluating DEI trainings will be essential in moving this body of research forward and improving the professional development opportunities available to educators in the field.

At Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in Wisconsin, seasonal staff training includes a session on DEI. The session lasts approximately 5 hours and is spread out over 2 days. All levels of leadership were present – from the executive director to seasonal teaching naturalists – for a total of thirteen participants. Different levels of participation were encouraged; staff were given the opportunity to reflect individually and to participate in both small and large group discussions. The training used multiple forms of media including pictures, text, and videos in order to cite experts and incite discussion. Environmental justice framed the training so that our team could understand the larger picture and the role that environmental education could have on its participants. Environmental educators should empower learners to exercise their agency in creating better communities, which includes the environment in which those communities exist. More environmental organizations are embracing the focus on environmental justice in efforts to engage more diverse communities. For example, Camp ELSO (Experience Life Science Outdoors) in Portland, Oregon focuses programs on “grounding the youth experience in environmental justice while elevating the visibility and leadership opportunities for folks of color. ” (Brown, 2019, p. 8). We looked at case studies that explore how environmental justice and environmental education intersect.

The training covered multiple topics such as the elements that make a space diverse, equity versus equality and how to respond to microaggressions as a bystander and as someone who experiences them directly. We talked about agency and how promoting others to exercise their agency creates more inclusive spaces. The training went beyond providing definitions and introductions to vocabulary words. Our staff discussed privilege and the role it has in addressing equity. We spent time talking about how access only approaches to broadening participation fails to hold dominant cultures accountable for the culturally exclusionary language that may exist within the programs they are providing access to (Bevan et ak., 2018). Participants then went through Upham’s lesson plans and identified areas for improvement including how the lesson was framed and a critique of the content. This information was collected and will be used to improve our lessons.

We asked for feedback at the end of the training to help us develop additional modules and activities for staff related to DEI during their contract. While staff training is an integral step towards inclusion, it cannot be the only time an organization supports discussions and activities focused on DEI. The goal of inclusivity needs to be reflected in an organization’s policies, processes, paperwork and infrastructure. Continuous and intentional reflection of staff practices needs to become part of office culture. To create sustainable change we must confront a system that supports the oppression of certain communities and discontinue privileging privilege and focus on supporting those communities that have been historically neglected or oppressed.

For environmental educators, from a pedagogical standpoint, we must not only change what we teach, but be willing to change the ontological underpinnings in the transmission of knowledge. We must shift our role from experts sharing wisdom to members of a learning community with the Earth. This is particularly true for white educators working with marginalized populations, as the dominant culture needs to listen and empower rather than tell and control. Without doing this groundwork in DEI training, we fall into the trap of treating empowerment as giving a voice to the voiceless, rather than listening to those who haven’t been heard. We must shift the notion of DEI as a need to that of an asset, and be willing to use this knowledge to help others create the change we cannot imagine.

Freire (1970) supported the notion that we are moving regardless, and we are either moving to keep the dominant paradigm or to transform it. What better catalyst for change than our urban youth, who are already fueled by being marginalized? Emdin’s (2009) research found, “These students eagerly await opportunities to exercise this power in the creation of a foreseeable new future that is different from an oppressive present” (p. 242). The first question we must ask ourselves is whether our organizations simply want to share what we are doing with diverse audiences or are we eager to embrace this new future as well?

Beyond Diversity: A Roadmap to Building an Inclusive Organization. Green 2.0.
Bevan, B., Calabrese Barton A., & Garibay, C.. (2018). Broadening Perspectives on Broadening Participation in STEM. Washington, DC: Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education.
Blythe, J. M., Dibenedetto, C. A., & Meyers, B. E. (2015). Inquiry-based instruction: Perceptions of national agriscience teacher ambassadors. Journal of Agricultural Education, 56(2), 110-121. doi:10.5032/jae.2015.02110
Brown. S. (2019). Reclaiming Spaces. Clearing: Resources for community-based environmental literacy education, pp 8-10
Emdin, C. (2010). Affiliation and alienation: hip-hop, rap, and urban science education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 42(1), 1-25.
Freire, P. (1970/2005). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum
Greenwood, D. A., & Hougham, R. J. (2015). Mitigation and adaptation: Critical perspectives toward digital technologies in place-conscious environmental education. Policy Futures in Education 13(1), 1-20.
Hougham, J., Morgan, T., Olsen, S., & Herde, I. (2019). 2019 Status and Need report of Wisconsin Environmental Education related Organizations. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Madison Extension
Hougham, R. J., Nutter, M., & Graham, C. (2018b). Bridging natural and digital domains: Attitudes, confidence, and interest in using technology to learn outdoors. Journal of Experiential Education, 41(2), 154-169. doi:10.1177/1053825917751203
Land, S.M. & Zimmerman, H.T. (2015). Socio-technical Dimensions of an Outdoor Mobile Learning Environment: A three-phase design-based research investigation. Education Technology Research Development, 63(2), 229-255. Doi:10.1007/s11423-015-9369-6.
Richards, E. (2016). Wisconsin No. 1 for black-white science achievement gap. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/education/2016/10/27/wisconsin-no-1-black-white- science-achievement-gap/92722730/
Taylor, D. (2014). The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Green 2.o. Retrieved from: https://www.diversegreen.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FullReport_Green2.0_FINAL.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). National Assessment of Educational Progress: Results of the 2015 science assessment. Retrieved from: https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/science_2015
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2016). 2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look. Retrieved from: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/listocr/docs/2013-14-first-look.pdf

Project funding was supported by the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education and the Wisconsin Center for Environmental Education.

About the Authors
Dr. R. Justin Hougham is faculty at the University of Wisconsin- Madison where he supports the delivery of a wide range of science education topics to K-12 students, volunteers, youth development professionals, graduate students, and in-service teachers. Justin’s scholarship is in the areas of youth development, place-based pedagogies, STEM education, AL, and education or sustainability.

Isabelle Herde is the Program Director at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center

Tempestt Morgan is the Expanding Access Program Coordinator at Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center.

Dr. Joey Zochar is an Advisor at Escuela Verde in Milwaukee, WI.

Dr. Sarah Olsen is a curriculum and evaluation specialist for Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center (no photo)

NGSS and Active Learning

NGSS and Active Learning

Maria’s Eye: How do we empower it to engage and understand her world?

by Jim Martin
CLEARING writer and contributor

f I could imagine the best possible classroom in the world, it would be one in which each student is empowered to look out into the world, see something which catches her attention, then know what to do to find out about it. Students engaged, involved, invested, and empowered in their world. My mind’s eye expresses this dream as one of a salmon fry darting quickly into a thick growth of periphyton on a fist-sized cobble, as Maria’s eye turns up and the corner of her mouth sets its sails toward a smile. That, not checking off a cell in a table, is the moment of learning that we teach for. That tells us that all is going to work out; we’ll accomplish this unit, and be ready for the next; empowered to accomplish whatever comes down the road.

How do we recognize that moment, and what do we follow it up with? So far, all of the work on science standards hasn’t clarified an answer to that question. Go to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) website (http://www.nextgenscience.org/) and look for teachers’ resources. And for teachers’ in-service opportunities. What do you find that is cognizant of how teaching and learning actually happen? That offers in-service training on using active learning to engage students in self-directed inquiry. Perhaps we need to work on this ourselves.

How did Maria’s eye get to the place where it turned into anticipation, and an incipient smile expressed a clear message that she was on the way to understanding? Something in her environment invited Maria to explore a concept, and her brain did the rest. Something her teacher anticipated and organized within her students’ work environment so they would engage it. Not a simple thing to do. It takes knowledge, time, confidence, and experience to do this well. And competent mentors. (For about twenty years, I did science inquiry workshops for teachers which began with a casual observation that I hoped would lead participants to notice something. Each time, to the very last I did, this is the moment I felt that this time, it wouldn’t work. Each time it did, and my experience was the thing I relied on the most to trust it would. Takes courage! And experience.)

When students engage the real world, the one outside the classroom, and discover questions embedded in what they find, that process turns on their brain, engages the prefrontal cortex (pfc), and real learning begins. When they do this in partnerships or groups, the medial pfc adds to that learning power by engaging the negotiation of meaning with its power derived from the social interactions involved in exploring, then recognizing a question. Quickly, the whole brain becomes actively involved, and new conceptual understandings are reinforced in long term memory. Can teachers learn to use this wonderful, built-in resource?

How can environmental educators help get them out here? How do we get departments of education (unwieldy bureaucracies) and legislators to recognize the need and support it. Perhaps we can pilot a project which first describes what teachers need in order to appreciate and understand how active learning works, and why. Then provides the in-service support teachers need to feel confident with the content they are teaching, and comfortable with all aspects of delivering content via active learning.

There are educators who routinely use active learning to deliver content – environmental educators. They teach in places which are interesting, and where students can initiate learnings with real-world, concrete objects. A good way to start a learning activity by engaging the brain, especially the pfc. A nice five-to-ten day summer workshop, followed by mentored field trips to nail down specific learnings. What might this pilot look like?

Some teachers are already delivering content via competent active learning. A large number of environmental educators are doing the same. What if we could gather a few of each for a few hours to discuss the idea of helping teachers become comfortable with active learning, and comfortable integrating and aligning their deliveries to their state’s content standards? There are large regional environmental education learning centers which have the infrastructure to support workshops. A collaboration between teachers, environmental educators, and environmental learning centers might have the capacity to deliver a pilot project. I like to think in terms of the long run, so add a comment that this would be a three-to-five year pilot in which initial participants would, where feasible, mentor new teachers each year, periodically review progress and tweak the project, and present their work and findings at annual teacher and environmental education conferences.

It doesn’t take many people to make positive change. I’ve learned over the decades that they simply have to start.

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.”

NGSS and Environmental Education

NGSS and Environmental Education

Use the Real World to Integrate Your Curriculum

In today’s test-driven schools, there’s little room for including the world outside the classroom in the curriculum, even though school is supposed to be based on the real world. And prepare us for it.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor

HawkThis year I watched good classroom programs which involved and invested students in the learning they were doing come to a halt for several weeks so they could prepare for the standards tests. This, during what is the best teaching time of the school year: January through March, when there are very few breaks in the schedule, and teachers can concentrate on the delivery of curricula. Somehow, we have to wake up, get back to our senses, and use this time for learning.

That said, students do need to go out into the world to learn. Let’s look at two possibilities, the first in a stream, the other in a school yard. We’ll do the stream first, since it is the kind of place we ought to be going to. Then the school yard, since it is often the only alternative we have.

There are many places where students can find a streambank to explore. Or a wooded area; an open meadow; some place where they can see and count the organisms who live there. Then learn about them. These are wonderful places for students to engage new content via Active Learning. There is one, a small stream, near where I live. Here’s a list of some of those who live there: Salmon fry (very small, recently hatched, eat copepods); Copepods (eat algae and organic debris); Amphipods (eat organic debris, algae); Mayflies (eat algae, organic debris); Caddisflies (eat organic debris, algae, mayflies); Organic debris (this is dead and decomposing organisms on the streambed); and Algae (plants found on the streambed and submerged rocks). This list of organisms and information about them is abbreviated, mostly out of necessity; this is a blog, not a book!

Why Employ Active Learning?

Active learning is the best way for humans to learn. It entails having a learner-generated reason to find out something, and access to the resources which will help them find out. Finding plants and animals in a riparian area always stimulates students, and easily leads to conceptual learnings. Providing their teacher is comfortable with this way to learn. This is because noticing something in the world outside your body that catches your interest can, if you’re allowed to follow up on noticing, engage your prefrontal cortex and the machinery it employs in critical thinking. That builds brains. We need to do it.

Let’s say you find a stream near your school which has been restored, and supports a small salmon population. Your class can make a round trip to it in 20 minutes, which leaves time to make observations each time they visit. When they make a visit, they’ll group to study macroinvertebrates on the bottom of the stream, algae on the stream bottom and rocks, and animals living in the water column who will fit into a small net. Next, they’ll organize themselves to learn to identify the organisms they’ve found, and find out what the animals eat. This is an opening to several NGSS standards: Let’s look at four, one each from K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. (I haven’t started this yet, but it should be doable. It’s all LS.) So, while they’re gathering data to build a food web, they can also be embarking on an integrated curriculum about diversity, thermal tolerance, diet, a John Steinbeck novel; whatever is coming up.

For K-3, look at K-LS1-1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes, in which students use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive. In this case, building the food web helps students answer the question of what do living things need to survive. That might also lead to learning how some organisms not having enough to eat might affect their food web.

For 4-5, try 5-LS2-1: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment. In this case, when one species becomes scarce in its ecosystem, then is lost, this affects the movement of matter in its food web. In doing this, it also affects species diversity. This might lead to learning more about diversity, how we determine it, and what it provides for the species in a food web.

For 6-8, try MS-LS2-4: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations. This might lead to learning more about how their food web reflects ecosystems, and some of the biotic interactions which affect them. Middle school students might also use their food webs to approach another NGSS standard, MS-LS2-5: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Again, they learn how to assess biodiversity, and apply those learnings to their food web.

For 9-12, try HS-LS2-6: Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics, in which students 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. For instance, they can use their food web to learn about thermal tolerance, and how it might cause the loss of one or more species in their food web. Then they might even search the literature for current evidence that, as species move from one ecosystem to another due to the stressors involved in global warming, they are replaced by other species, more tolerant of the changed thermal regime.

Can you engage active learning?

All of these can be enhanced with lab and field activities. This is in addition to the learning each group of students engages. Because they’re learning about particulars they have engaged in a stream, these learnings will become part of a readily accessible conceptual schematum, rather than a smorgasbord of disconnected facts.

Pick one of these which doesn’t seem overpowering, look it up on the NGSS web site, and try it out. Read what the NGSS says about it, then think of what you understand of food webs, and see how you can put the two together. When you’ve done that, then see what area of science you will soon be teaching, and see how you can use the NGSS description plus what you know of your food web, to integrate all into a workable unit to teach.

While the NGSS documents don’t often refer to food webs, there are some references to them at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. You can just do a search for ‘food web’ to find them. I’ve used the labels and titles, and the descriptions from the NGSS site in this writing. But I’m uncomfortable with the bureaucratic way they describe a very vivacious, dynamic, interesting system. A food web is one place where much science can be effectively addressed. Then, instead of learning facts about systems, students develop conceptual schemata which tie many areas of science together in meaningful concepts, ideas of how the world works.

We’ll use the organisms I found at the stream near my home for the next step; and that is to build a food web for this riparian area. As in all studies like this, the data collected will apply to just my reach, not the whole stream. To be more confident that my sample represents the stream, I’d have to sample more reaches. This collected information can then be used to construct food webs for that extended reach of the stream. Here’s one for the stream near where I live. (I had to look in side channels and slow waters near the stream’s edge to find the fry. Then, lacking time to complete the sampling, I looked up their diets on the web. I used this information to construct the food web in Figure 1.)


Figure 1. A Riparian Food Web. Elements of the food web are organized by trophic level.


While I’ve named each organism just once, I’ve grouped larvae, both young and mature, in one place, even though they might show up within more than one trophic level if I have considered all of the stages in their lives. And for some, there are more than one species gathered under a name. Considering all species and their life stages would make a more complex, but more informative food web if done with more attention to these details. You can take this as far as your students can comprehend or stand. Complexity increases comprehension up to a point. Beyond that, learners are on overload, and their work isn’t effective. This information/concept overload point is different for each student. You can overcome these differences in capacity by parceling out the work according to each student’s capacity and instructional level. And interest!

You’ll find that active learning is evident in the negotiations within groups as they sort out the pieces of their food webs. As they learn more details about the organisms, their conceptual understandings grow exponentially. And their food webs become more complex, and more meaningful.

Now, we’ll go to a school yard to build a food web. It may not be a riparian area, but it is an area we can study nonetheless. (When I taught inmate students in the college program at the Oregon State Penitentiary, they were able to discover and report data on food webs found in the prison’s exercise yard, an ecosystem where there were no trees, shrubs, or streams. We, too, can do this, without going to prison.) Natural areas are the best to study, but as a workable alternative, you can do an effective study in your own school yard. For lots of us, this is a more workable alternative than field trips to a stream or forest. Take a look. What can you find? Jot down their names, or make names up. (As you learn their actual names, update your food web. This tactic works well with students.) Make an initial food web from your observations, then amplify this with information students research. (Food webs are easier to assess in fall and spring, when the organisms are there in greatest number. However, as compost piles remain warm in their interior, you can probably assess them any time. Be sure to cover them back up!)

Here is one I made up as an example. It’s based on what you might find in a compost pile in a corner of the school yard. If you’ve ever rummaged a compost pile, you’ll know that this is a much simpler food web than you’d find in most compost.


Figure 2. A Schoolyard Food Web.


Food webs, by themselves, provide a visible platform for thinking about organisms and their ecosystems in a dynamic, conceptual way. Both species diversity and thermal tolerance can be effectively introduced via a food web. Thermal tolerance can affect diversity as species move from an ecosystem where temperatures have gone from within their thermal tolerance range to one which offers a better thermal regime. Diversity can attenuate the effects of thermal tolerance limits by reducing the effects of losing a food web species. The more diverse the population, the better the chance that other species will utilize the food sources that the departing species exploited. And might be exploited by the same consumer which consumed the species which departed. Like the visible, dynamic structure of a drawn food web, these two biological phenomena effectors of ecosystem stability live in a dynamic relationship with one another.

So, what will they do with their food webs? In the next two blogs, let’s look at diversity first, then thermal tolerance. Both will provide valuable insights into the effects of global warming on living things; which is something our students need to become experts in.

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.”

Jim Martin on NGSS

Jim Martin on NGSS

Active Learning:

Is this something our pre-service education equips us for?

I’m interested in the Resource section on the New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources). At the very end of the materials, there is a link to the Vision Framework table (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVision.pdf) which indicates where science education has been, and where it is expected to go: From teacher-centered/didactic to student-centered/constructivist, along with an emphasis on active learning. My experience and perennial hopes tell me that this is what should happen. In the long run, it will produce a better-educated electorate.

15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVisionOne thing I don’t see is how this change will be effected. There is little evidence of funding to facilitate this movement from teacher-centered to student-centered deliveries, especially when so many science teachers haven’t made the move. And for good reason: a large fraction of teachers don’t have the college-level preparation this change entails. And, historically, this has been the case since I started tracking it in the early 1970s. There is some talk of states taking up this responsibility, but not many states seem willing to spend more on education. As in most education initiatives, it will be up to the teachers to bring themselves up to speed.

That said, my hope is to be able to take a science activity and walk it up the NGSS from K-12. This started with a simple food web, which we’ll continue to use with questions it raises to stray into other areas of the Life Sciences standards. I’ll try to use examples which can be applied at any grade level. I have no certainty that I can do that, but I’ll try.  Several possibilities for assisting teachers to make the transition to effective use of the NGSS in their classrooms are briefly described in the NGSS Resources section, such as the effort the Delaware and Rhode Island (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/DE-RI%20Collaborating%20for%20NGSS%20Alignment%20June%202015.pdf) collaborative effort to build effective ways to deliver the NGSS. Most efforts are still in the works, or pending work. The Delaware and Rhode Island effort’s final statement is instructive: “This work takes time: Participants’ knowledge of the NGSS, the rubric, and what makes for good feedback and suggestions for improvement grew over time, especially through the process of sharing their work with other members of their state team and across state teams.” Progress, but definitely not a final product.

next-genMany Classroom Sample Task plans described in the NGSS Resources section are “coming soon.” In one which is here now, Where Did the Water Go?: Watershed Study – Middle School Sample Classroom Task, the Introduction to the sample task describes what could become a student-centered activity, but the description of how to teach the lessons is largely teacher-centered. Overall, it doesn’t represent a student-directed inquiry, and provides little effective advice for teachers who are employing active learning for the first time. I suspect it will be up to individual teachers to reorganize the NGSS Resources offerings to make them student-centered inquiries. I’m concerned about this because teachers are under the gun to deliver on the NGSS, but are receiving precious little assistance to do so. And so we must train ourselves.

Let’s look at the wording in K-LS-1. Its performance expectation reads, “Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive.” This is further clarified: “Clarification Statement: Examples of patterns could include that animals need to take in food but plants do not; the different kinds of food needed by different types of animals; the requirement of plants to have light; and, that all living things need water.” Then, elements from the Framework for K-12 Science Education are listed: “Analyzing and Interpreting Data – Analyzing data in K–2 builds on prior experiences and progresses to collecting, recording, and sharing observations. Use observations (firsthand or from media) to describe patterns in the natural world in order to answer scientific questions. Connections to Nature of Science: Scientific Knowledge is Based on Empirical Evidence – Scientists look for patterns and order when making observations about the world. LS1.C: Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms: All animals need food in order to live and grow. They obtain their food from plants or from other animals. Plants need water and light to live and grow. Patterns: Patterns in the natural and human designed world can be observed and used as evidence.” Lots of jargon, but it does contain useful information. We can draw on these elements to integrate what we observe in the real world with the semantic world of the NGSS. If we succeed, our students will be learning for conceptual understanding rather than to connect particular standardized test question stems with memorized, but not conceptualized, facts. We need to be able to do this.

We started to use a food chain to begin to address this standard. If we were to use the delivery modalities described in the first row of the Vision of the Framework table at the end of the NGSS Resources web page we would have two choices. One is teacher-centered, “Rote memorization of facts and terminology.” The other is student-centered, “Facts and terminology learned as needed while developing explanations and designing solutions supported by evidence-based arguments and reasoning.” That’s a rather densely concept-populated sentence; a sentence with a top-heavy concept load. (Concept Load is one of the things we all need to be careful about when we’re speaking or writing. It’s certainly a common problem for me.) In spite of that, it does open the door to teachers who allow their students to develop their own questions from time-to-time, and to develop investigations to answer them, collect and analyze data, interpret their findings, and communicate them. (You’ll notice my problem with concept load in that sentence.) In the process, students’ own questions and investigations force them into the books and the web to find needed information. Because they’re not going after it to answer a test question, it will be stored in conceptual memory, where it can be brought out to use when needed. That kind of work fits what the NGSS states it wants students to do. That opens the door to real, competent learning. We need that.

Your best way to master this new way of teaching is to take one piece and work on a way to deliver it via active learning. We’ll give that a first shot here. If we were to deliver the personal food chain activity described in the previous blog with a teacher-centered activity, we would provide students with the names of the plants, and where to place them on paper. Then we’d have the students write their own names above the plants and animals they ate, and draw arrows from each plant or animal to the student’s name. (We might ask them to write the animal names above the plant names and below their own names.) We’d then tell them they’d constructed a food chain, and begin to explain the arrows’ meaning. Whatever else we wanted them to know would be delivered in a similar way. Very little conceptual understandings would connect all of this information in a meaningful way or pattern.

“Pattern” is the operative word here. When we discover patterns, our brain’s Seeking system is activated, and the prefrontal cortex organizes itself to place all of these learnings within a connected conceptual schematum, which draws on information stored in various parts of the brain. The conceptual memory then ‘makes sense.’ Contrast this with memories created during teacher-centered activities, where memories are stored, but with precious few connections; little chance of developing into conceptual memories.

Now, to the right side of the Vision of the Framework table. Each of us teaches differently. I’ll describe this constructivist, active learning activity as I might do it. Think about it in your own way. That’s important. The differences may raise useful questions. Here we go. First, I assigned the homework task, “Tomorrow, write down all of the things you eat for breakfast. We’ll use this to look at one of the ways you’re connected to the world.” This will raise questions in some students’ minds. When a few of those articulate their questions, I’ll phrase in some way my standard response, “What do you think?” If the discussion seems fruitful, we’ll just see where it goes. If not, we’ll continue with what follows.

When they come in with their information the following day, I’ll ask them to work in partnerships to figure out a way to picture a relationship between the things they eat and themselves. After, we’ll report back what we find, discuss what we see and think, and then each group will build a picture to illustrate how they understand the relationship between the organisms they eat and themselves based on what they’ve taken away from the reporting session. That is as long as a fruitful discussion the day before didn’t lead to a better way to do this. Note: I’m talking about kindergarten or, K-1, since that is the level the standard quoted above is directed toward. But this activity does work at all levels with a little tweaking. The idea here is to prepare students’ minds for the learning about food webs that they will embark upon; and, to begin working on the NGSS LS1-1 standard.

We’ll post their pictures, then if I think it’s helpful, I’ll show them the way I did mine. Hopefully, I won’t have to. Since these are young children, I’ll simply say this is the way I thought of to do it. Then I’ll ask if their pictures provide any information about what plants and animals need to survive. This conversation can go many ways. My job will be to see that we learn that we all, even plants, need to eat. (Note: The NGSS K-LS-2 states that plants don’t need to take in food. I disagree with this assertion. Plants take in nutrients from the soil; that’s one of the reasons we compost and fertilize. Plant roots aren’t there just to absorb water and stabilize the plant. Roots work on their own and with microbes and fungi to bring nutrients in the soil into their own bodies. That’s taking in food, which the NGSS standard says plants do not. Oh, well.)

It is more difficult to write a set of standard directions for an activity delivered via active learning than via teacher-centered learning. Active learning allows so much room for minds to explore that it seems to have no direct path to the end. It actually doesn’t work that way, but you have to engage it yourself to discover that. There are little or no standard terminology or conceptual referents that we can use to describe active learning as there are for teacher-centered learning. Perhaps because it’s a relatively new function for most educators. Not for our brain. It learns best when it is seeking a pattern and/or answer to an interesting question. Helped us survive the Pleistocene. Somewhere along the way, school lost the capacity to use this powerful tool. We’re beginning to rediscover it.

In the next blog, we’ll look at the food chains the class produced, then see how we can use them to connect to other curricular areas.

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.”


Teaching Science

Teaching Science

Why kids need ecology now!

Teachers, as well as science majors and graduate students, need to understand the process of science. And they need to be able to argue it, discuss it, suggest novel perspectives, give and respond to criticism. Does our inservice education deliver this to us? Especially critiques of current practice? The Vision of the Framework for K-12 Science Education Vision table and, some of the descriptions of the New Generation Science Standards indicate that all science teachers will need to understand both the process of science and the process of student-centered science education.

by Jim Martin
CLEARING Magazine Associate Editor

G2lobal warming; hot topic, little consensus. What if students were learning the ecology and environmental science they needed to understand the nature of global warming: its history during the tenure of life on Earth, the similarities and differences between this episode we’re experiencing now and others, the nature of food webs and their connections to the concept of species diversity, the connections between temperature and habitat? What would be the effect of this work on students? They are young citizens, and will be among the adults, as will their own children, faced with the results of our generation’s effect on global climate. How much curricular time do we devote to these topics? Are we allowed to? They’re definitely good science; but, are they currently culturally correct education?

Do these topics conform to our expectations of curricula meeting New Generation Science Standards (NGSS)? The NGSS have addressed a relatively small part of their standards to ecology. Students in schools today, and their children, need to know ecology at a level which makes it, especially at the conceptual level, clear and comprehensible; fits the understandings we need to cope successfully with the effects of global warming. They’ll be dealing directly with these effects in their lives. Will they understand and use what they know of, say, food webs and the effects of global warming? Concepts like thermal tolerance? Species replacement? The concept and applications of niche? What can we do to help? Knowledge of environments and their biota are important components of our response to global warming. We do a better job of responding to issues when we understand their pieces.

While the NGSS call for active learning in their delivery, there is no advice in the Resources Section at the NGSS web site (http://www.nextgenscience.org/resources) that assists teachers to employ active learning and learning for understanding in the classroom. They do provide brief descriptions of active learning, but provide no examples. Nor do they provide inservice instruction that will prepare teachers to engage students in active learning and acquire the requisite curricular understandings they will need to do the job well. We need to attend to this.

At the end of the NGSS Resources section[1], there is a table at the end of the NGSS Resources section which describes changes in the way science will be taught when it is aligned with the standards; how science was once taught, and how it will be taught as the NGSS is implemented. The transition moves learning from teacher-centered delivery to active, student-centered, constructivist, self-directed inquiry on the part of students, their preferred delivery modality. My experience teaching, and working with teachers, tells me that this transition is difficult, and needs time and support to do effectively. Done by confident teachers, it is always effective, involves and invests students in their learnings, and empowers them as persons. The didactic, teacher-centered modality is effective when you’re teaching how to use a dissolved oxygen probe, but for most learning, the constructivist, student-centered, active learning modality works best.

I’d like to spend some blogs describing how this transition in delivery modalities might work at the various grade levels. To facilitate this, I’d like to discuss a paradigm which is easily assimilated by humans of all ages, and which helps some of the more esoteric ecology standards make down-to-earth sense: food webs. (Note: Food Webs are also called Food Cycles. Both Food Webs and Food Cycles are composed of Food Chains, which show the chain of animals which eat a particular Producer. I favor Food Web because it infers a complex of interactions, which are the means for maintaining ecosystems.)

We’ll start with students’ (and your) own food chain. I decided to do this to illustrate the process of constructing a food web. After that, we’ll do a food web on a school ground or neighborhood for our initial food web, and amplify it as we move up the LS2 grade levels from K to 12. While we’re working, we’ll use the Vision of the Framework table to see how active learning works, and what we can do to facilitate it. I suppose that this means that there will be many blogs to follow.


Here’s how I constructed my own food chain (Since I’m the only consumer eating what I eat, a food chain will have to act as my food web!): I wrote down what I ate for each meal for a day, then looked up on all package and can labels any ingredients which were included in the prepared foods I ate. They were all derived from plants, so I placed all of the plant species’ names on the bottom row of the diagram, (Figure 1), and the things which eat them above that row. Next, I drew lines from each plant species to what eats it. (Some draw lines from the eaters to what they eat. Either type of placement does the job.) In this case, that was always me. I’ve added salmon and mackerel to my food chain, even though they don’t eat the plants I’ve listed. I did this because I eat those fish too. If I wasn’t on a vegan diet for my health, the list of one label’s ingredients would make my food chain too cumbersome to draw. As it is, the ‘web’ looks like a mess.



            Figure 1. My Personal Food Chain. First Pass.


If you have started your own food web, and got this far, you might entertain the same feeling. Why do you think this, my personal food web, seems so confusing? Unnatural? Perhaps because it is. In the first place, it is a food chain, not a food web. If I were to trace each ingredient to the place where it lived, there would be very few which lived near where I do. Is this true of all organisms living in ecosystems on Earth? Do you know how to find out? Do you know enough about ecosystems to make informed opinions and decisions about our response to global warming? Should our children’s educations provide them with this capacity?

What else do I eat? Some of the food sources listed, prepared or simply harvested, contained microbes, insects, etc., either whole or in part within them. That’s just how food happens. How do I account for them? Another fact about my food chain: The mackerel and salmon I eat are part of other food webs. Do I show them? While they are consumed by me in my own food chain, I affect theirs. Migratory animals’ food webs do this as they move from one ecosystem to another, but I stay where I am. (They become transient parts of those food webs. I’m a permanent part of mine. But mackerel never swim past my house!) These questions suggest to me that my food chain needs attention. (Exploring this might present a nice activity for students of any age.) If we are to survive the effects of over-population and global warming, I think a first thing to understand is that we are members of an ecosystem, and need to be contained within it. At least, as much as is possible. Constructing a food chain is the first step in this process.

So, what will I do? I’ll cut down my producers (plants) to those which grew here. I’ll pretend all of the salmon are from here, but eliminate the mackerel. What does it look like now? (See Figure 2) You may see that this is complex. What I’ve written so far may not seem like exploring what students need to know about species diversity and the connections between temperature and habitat. I think that exploring those two topics will work best if we can envision their effects on food webs. We’ll go through this a step at a time as I do mine, and expand to a food web in a riparian area. (Is this what I will do?)


 Figure 2. My Personal Food Chain. Second Pass.


I could show what Salmon eat, and that would make this a more realistic food web; more informative by placing me within an ecosystem. And I could add the herbivores who also eat the oats in my food chain. (Rest of paragraph needs work.) But, it wouldn’t be Mine! Instead, I would begin to become part of a food web based on the ecosystem I live within. Hmm . . . . Closer, perhaps, to where I should be? A further step: I can add other animals which eat the producers I do, and animals that eat them. I could even show the organisms which decompose them, and those who redistribute our parts when we die or lose them. A more realistic food web, and one which would make me a better-informed citizen when I am engaging or reading about our efforts to compensate for the effects of global warming. Just what today’s students need.


[1] (http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/ngss/files/15-041_Achieve_ScienceChartNewVision.pdf)

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.”