Integration Can Help You Teach More Science and Environmental Education

Integration Can Help You Teach
More Science and Environmental Education

by Jim McDonald
Central Michigan University

The demands on classroom teachers to address a variety of different subjects during the day means that some things just get left out of the curriculum. Many schools have adopted an instructional approach with supports for students that teach reading and math, with the addition of interventions to teach literacy and numeracy skills which take up more time in the instructional schedule. In some of the schools that I work with there is an additional 30 minutes a day for reading intervention plus 30 more minutes for math intervention. So, we are left with the question, how do I fit time for science or environmental education into my busy teaching schedule?


In a recent STEM Teaching tools brief on integration of science at the elementary level, it was put this way:
We do not live in disciplinary silos so why do we ask children to learn in that manner? All science learning is a cultural accomplishment and can provide the relevance or phenomena that connects to student interests and identities. This often intersects with multiple content areas. Young children are naturally curious and come to school ready to learn science. Leading with science leverages students’ natural curiosity and builds strong knowledge-bases in other content areas. Science has taken a backseat to ELA and mathematics for more than twenty years. Integration among the content areas assures that science is given priority in the elementary educational experience (STEM Teaching Tool No. 62).

Why does this matter? Educators at all levels should be aware of educational standards across subjects and be able to make meaningful connections across the content disciplines in their teaching. Building administrators look for elementary teachers to address content standards in math, science, social studies, literacy/English Language arts at a minimum plus possibly physical education, art, and music. What follows are some things that elementary teachers should consider when attempting integration of science and environmental education with other subjects.

Things to Consider for Integration

The integration of science and environmental education concepts with other subjects must be meaningful to students and connect in obvious ways to other content areas. The world is interdisciplinary while the experience for students and teachers is often disciplinary. Learning takes place both inside and outside of school. Investigations that take place outside of school are driven by people’s curiosity and play and often cut across disciplinary subjects. However, learning in school is often fragmented into different subject matter silos.

Math and reading instruction dominate the daily teaching schedule for a teacher because that is what is evaluated on standardized tests. However, subjects other than ELA and math should be kept in mind when considering integration. Social studies and the arts provide some excellent opportunities for the integration of science with other content areas. In the NGSS, the use of crosscutting concepts support students in making sense of phenomena across science disciplines and can be used to prompt student thinking. They can serve as a vehicle for teachers to see connections to the rest of their curriculum, particularly English/Language Arts and math. Crosscutting concepts are essential tools for teaching and learning science because students can understand the natural world by using crosscutting concepts to make sense of phenomena across the science disciplines. As students move from one core idea to another core idea within a class or across grade-levels, they can continually utilize the crosscutting concepts as consistent cognitive constructs for engaging in sense-making when presented with novel, natural phenomena. Natural phenomena are observable events that occur in the universe and we can use our science knowledge to explain or predict phenomena (i.e., water condensing on a glass, strong winds preceding a rainstorm, a copper penny turning green, snakes shedding their skin) (Achieve, 2016).


Generally, when I hear about science and literacy, it involves helping students comprehend their science textbook or other science reading. It is a series of strategies from the field of literacy that educators can apply in a science context. For example, teachers could ask students to do a “close reading” of a text, pulling out specific vocabulary, key ideas, and answers to text-based questions. Or, a teacher might pre-teach vocabulary, and have students write the words in sentences and draw pictures illustrating those words. Perhaps students provide one another feedback on the effectiveness of a presentation. Did you speak clearly and emphasize a few main points? Did you have good eye contact? Generally, these strategies are useful, but they’re not science specific. They could be applied to any disciplinary context. These types of strategies are often mislabeled as “disciplinary literacy.” I would advocate they are not. Disciplinary literacy is not just a new name for reading in a content area.

Scientists have a unique way of working with text and communicating ideas. They read an article or watch a video with a particular lens and a particular way of thinking about the material. Engaging with disciplinary literacy in science means approaching or creating a text with that lens. Notably, the text is not just a book. The Wisconsin DPI defines text as any communication, spoken, written, or visual, involving language. Reading like a scientist is different from having strategies to comprehend a complex text, and the texts involved have unique characteristics. Further, if students themselves are writing like scientists, their own texts can become the scientific texts that they collaboratively interact with and revise over time. In sum, disciplinary literacy in science is the confluence of science content knowledge, experience, and skills, merged with the ability to read, write, listen, and speak, in order to effectively communicate about scientific phenomena.

As a disciplinary literacy task in a classroom, students might be asked to write an effective lab report or decipher the appropriateness of a methodology explained in a scientific article. They might listen to audio clips, describing with evidence how one bird’s “song” differs throughout a day. Or, they could present a brief description of an investigation they are conducting in order to receive feedback from peers.

Social Studies

You can find time to teach science and environmental education and integrate it with social studies by following a few key ideas. You can teach science and social studies instead of doing writer’s workshop, choose science and social studies books for guided reading groups, and make science and social studies texts available in your classroom library.

Teach Science/Social Studies in Lieu of Writer’s Workshop: You will only need to do this one, maybe two days each week. Like most teachers, I experienced the problem of not having time to “do it all” during my first year in the classroom. My literacy coach at the time said that writer’s workshop only needs to be done three times each week, and you can conduct science or social studies lessons during that block one or two times a week. This was eye-opening, and I have followed this guidance ever since. My current principal also encouraged teachers to do science and social studies “labs” once a week during writing time! Being able to teach science or social studies during writing essentially opens up one or two additional hours each week to teach content! It is also a perfect time to do those activities that definitely take longer than 30 minutes: science experiments, research, engagement in group projects, and so forth. Although it is not the “official” writers workshop writing process, there is still significant writing involved. Science writing includes recording observations and data, writing steps to a procedure/experiment, and writing conclusions and any new information learned. “Social studies writing” includes taking research notes, writing reports, or writing new information learned in a social studies notebook. Students will absolutely still be writing every day.

Choose Science and Social Studies Texts for Guided Reading Groups: This suggestion is a great opportunity to creatively incorporate science and social studies in your weekly schedule. When planning and implementing guided reading groups, strategically pick science and social studies texts that align to your current unit of study throughout the school year. During this time, students in your guided reading groups can have yet another opportunity to absorb content while practicing reading strategies.

Make Science and Social Studies Texts Available and Accessible in Your Classroom Library: During each unit, select texts and have “thematic unit” book bins accessible to your students in a way that is best suited for your classroom setup. Display them in a special place your students know to visit when looking for books to read. When kids “book-shop” and choose their just-right books for independent reading, encourage them to pick one or two books from the “thematic unit” bin. They can read these books during independent reading time and be exposed to science and social studies content.

Elementary Integration Ideas

Kindergarten: In a kindergarten classroom, a teacher puts a stuffed animal on a rolling chair in front of the room. The teacher asks, “How could we make ‘Stuffy’ move? Share an idea with a partner”. She then circulates to hear student talk. She randomly asks a few students to describe and demonstrate their method. As students share their method, she will be pointing out terms they use, particularly highlighting or prompting the terms “push” and “pull”. Next, she has students write in their science notebooks, “A force is a push or a pull”. This writing may be scaffolded by having some students just trace these words on a worksheet glued into the notebook. Above that writing, she asks students to draw a picture of their idea, or another pair’s idea, for how to move the animal. Some student pairs that have not shared yet are then given the opportunity to share and explain their drawing. Students are specifically asked to explain, “What is causing the force in your picture?”.

For homework, students are asked to somehow show their parents a push and a pull and tell them that a push or a pull is a force. For accountability, parents could help students write or draw about what they did, or students would just know they would have to share the next day.
In class the next day, the teacher asks students to share some of the pushes and pulls they showed their parents, asking them to use the word force. She then asks students to talk with their partner about, “Why did the animal in the chair sometimes move far and sometimes not move as far when we added a force?”. She then asks some students to demonstrate and describe an idea for making the animal/chair farther or less far; ideally, students will push or pull with varying degrees of force. Students are then asked to write in their notebooks, “A big force makes it move more!” With a teacher example, as needed, they also draw an image of what this might look like.

As a possible extension: how would a scientist decide for sure which went further? How would she measure it? The class could discuss and perform different means for measurement, standard and nonstandard.

Fourth Grade Unit on Natural Resources: This was a unit completed by one group of preservice teachers for one of my classes. The four future elementary teachers worked closely in their interdisciplinary courses to design an integrated unit for a fourth-grade classroom of students. The teachers were given one social studies and one science standard to build the unit around. The team of teachers then collaborated and designed four lessons that would eventually be taught in a series of four sessions with the students. This unit worked to seamlessly integrate social studies, English language arts, math, and science standards for a fourth-grade classroom. Each future teacher took one lesson and chose a foundation subject to build their lesson upon. The first lesson was heavily based on social studies and set the stage for the future lessons as it covered the key vocabulary words and content such as nonrenewable and renewable resources. Following that, students were taught a lesson largely based on mathematics to better understand what the human carbon footprint is. The third lesson took the form of an interactive science experiment so students could see the impact of pollution on a lake, while the fourth lesson concluded with an emphasis on language arts to engage students in the creation of inventions to prevent pollution in the future and conserve the earth’s resources. Contrary to the future educators’ initial thoughts, integrating the various subject areas into one lesson came much more easily than expected! Overall, they felt that their lessons were more engaging than a single subject lesson and observed their students making connections on their own from previously taught lessons and different content areas.

Achieve. (2016). Using phenomena in NGSS-designed lessons and units. Retrieved from

Hill, L., Baker, A., Schrauben, M. & Petersen, A. (October 2019). What does subject matter integration look like in instruction? Including science is key! Institute for Science + Math Education. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Retrieved from:
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.) Clarifying literacy in science. Retrieved from:

Jim McDonald is a Professor of Science Education at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. He teaches both preservice teachers and graduate students at CMU. He is a certified facilitator for Project WILD, Project WET, and Project Learning Tree. He is the Past President of the Council for Elementary Science International, the elementary affiliate of the National Science Teaching Association.

Permaculture Garden

Permaculture Garden

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Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for the Land:

How Springwater Environmental Sciences School Uses Their Permaculture Garden as a Microcosm for the Environment.

Kaci Rae Christopher

At first, starting a school garden that combined permaculture and science seemed like a puzzle. How could I teach garden science classes while simultaneously producing large amounts of food and building a permaculture model for the garden? How could I produce the short-term yields the school craved (food) and the long-term yields (permaculture)? Furthermore, the science that I grew up learning did not fit in to my idea of permaculture practices. They seemed inherently different. How could a process which looks to dissect and separate each small particle support a process which looks at the holistic and interconnected aspects of life?

In August of 2012, I was placed as the School Garden Coordinator and AmeriCorps volunteer at Springwater Environmental Sciences School, through Confluence Environmental Center in Portland. The school garden was a large, grant-built space left fallow without a community leader to organize the tangle of weeds and ideas. But step by step, the garden has been slowly growing and building momentum ever since. And through an aggressive fundraising process, the school has been able to support the School Garden Coordinator (SGC) position with full-time employment.

Springwater Environmental Sciences School is a public charter school for grades K-8th, within the Oregon City School District. Approximately 200 students have the opportunity to learn stewardship, positive land ethic, community involvement, and all their studies through the lens of science.

As the Garden Coordinator, I was tasked with establishing a permaculture garden on the schoolyard that would enhance student scientific learning. It was to be both a laboratory space for the students and produce food for the school. Additionally, I would be teaching garden classes and developing an integrated garden curriculum that would support and supplement student scientific learning.

It took me a while to connect the dots, but eventually I was led to a simple conclusion. There is a seamless connection with science and permaculture. And school gardens are the best to develop it. If we view the garden as an ecosystem and teach the students about it through sciences, they will begin to view the garden through a permaculture perspective. Food, nutrition, and gardening skills extend naturally, without the need for stressing about production.

Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 9.33.06 AMWorking with Nature

Upon arriving at Springwater, I had no established garden, but needed to teach garden classes. The first thing I did, which made my life easier, was work with what was already there—a technique that is essential to the tenets of permaculture. I went to each teacher and asked them to give me their unit themes for the next two years. Because many of the grades are mixed, most staff teach in a two-year rotation of classes in order to provide a holistic and engaging education for the students. I took these themes and the overarching science standards and began to build a small amount of activities that related to each theme. Over the years, I have been able to grow off of this small beginning and find larger connections between student studies and gardening activities.

Now, when the 5th-6th graders study the climatology unit, they simultaneously explore how we capture water in the garden, how permaculture mulching practices conserve water, and how rain gardens can solve so many local water issues. Additionally, they also learn practical garden skills by researching and planting water or drought resistant plants and making changes to the garden space with water in mind, such as designing or altering the water catchment systems.

I started with a small amount of classes and a couple of activities for each trimester. This has grown to 30 garden classes for each grade every year. But we started small, but dreamt big!


The Permaculture Perspective

The second thing I did was take a step back and look at the long-term goals of the school garden program. I had to keep in mind how to establish the sustainability of the garden, as well as the sustainability of the integrated garden activities in the classes. The activities could be relevant to student studies, but could they teach the students how to grow food or about permaculture and science in a holistic way from Kindergarten to 8th grade?

Fortunately, there had already been work done there too. The staff had come together the year before I arrived and laid out a set of goals and commitments for each class. Every grade was committed to a set of yields that would contribute to the sustainability of the school garden (planting a certain number of seeds, mulching, caring for worm bins, composting). Additionally, each class adopted a theme for the year that would focus their studies, so that as the students moved up in the grades they would get closer to becoming mini “Master Gardeners.”

As the coordinator, these commitments were foundational pieces that helped me focus my work. It also allowed me to feel supported by the school community and not have to work from scratch. I knew going into the year that K-1st wanted to learn about seeds and pollinators and were committed to planting 20 seeds per child. Additionally, they would be studying the senses in the fall, phenology in the winter, and insects in the spring. With this information, all I had to do was connect the dots and get creative with my activities.

In garden class, as a supplement to these science units, all students would use their senses to explore the garden and identify plants, dissect and plant seeds in the winter, and study pollinating insects in the spring. I did this matching and reflecting practice with all the classes, starting small with class projects and working towards bigger projects every year.


IMG_2366The Garden Ecosystem

The last thing I practiced was letting go of any notion of what a garden should look like and evaluating the intentions of garden spaces. Did all the plants have to be perfectly spaced out? Why did we need to pick all the weeds in a garden bed? What would happen if we planted certain plants next to each other? Instead, we focused on the garden as an ecosystem. Whether filled with native or non-native species, humans play a role in them and interact with a whole system of insects, plants, and microbes. A garden is the perfect ecosystem model for place-based learning.

But it requires practice in letting go. If you have a bed of carrots in your school garden, harvest them! Enjoy and celebrate. But leave a few carrots in the ground. Watch how the plants produce seeds. What insects flock to the flowers? What feeds on those insects? What does the carrot lifecycle look like? Reevaluate your intentions, let go of your expectations, and nature will show you the garden ecosystem. When we let the weeds go one winter, we discovered that sheep’s sorrel grows abundantly in the garden, and that the students love it! If we are going to have weeds anyway, why not have tasty ones?

Or just look at the slugs. All insects are protected in the Springwater Garden and slugs are a respected part of our garden ecosystem. They allow the students to wrestle with preconceived notions of “good” and “bad” in the environment. When a student expresses disgust or stress that a slug is eating their lettuce, we have a conversation about the role of slugs in the garden, rather than remove it right away from the leaf. We watch the way the slug eats and how it needs moisture to move. We brainstorm what types of predators would eat a slug and how we could build a habitat for such a creature. We watch the slugs a little more and then leave it to its snack.

Through their garden science classes, the students were able to come to similar conclusions. They would look at all the details in the garden and piece together the ecosystem themselves, coming to care about it as a whole. For example, the 2nd/3rd graders learn about the living and non-living elements of soil through intensive scientific exploration for two trimesters. They perform insect surveys, keep track of the bug life stages they encounter, and brainstorm ways to increase habitat for different species. Through hands-on scientific exploration, the students discover that all the parts of the soil ecosystem are valuable to its stability and they learn stewardship skills and practices that can promote healthier ecosystems.

By the end of the school year, their knowledge and interaction with these important elements and living things brings about a level of stewardship and care that they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Through science and active exploration, the students come to their own permaculture conclusions without my direct instruction. The students value the garden ecosystem and become environmentalists in their own way.

With guidance from all of these lessons, our Garden Program has found a balance in maintaining all the goals we had with the space. The students learn about the garden and permaculture practices through a scientific lens. Their learning, creative problem solving, and discovery brings out the inner environmentalist. All I do is facilitate the opportunity to learn these traits in the garden. Food is grown and produced by the students as an extension of their studies. We don’t stress how many pounds of kale we’re producing or if they’re properly spaced apart, but we still manage to feed the students organic food all year long.


Screen Shot 2015-01-28 at 9.32.41 AMA Thriving Garden

The first year ended with half of the garden planted with edibles. The students had been able to eat an early harvest of lettuce, radishes, beets, and berries, but the rest of the plants were still too small. Half of the school had been involved in the garden development so far and my co-teacher and I had a year’s supply of garden activities for K-4th grade students. Half of our goals were accomplished, but I was pleased with every inch that we had achieved.

That second school year, I began teaching an extra gardening class for those students who considered themselves enthusiasts and who wanted to become “Garden Leaders.” They were able to save-seeds, plant winter foods, and begin developing the last stage of the garden. Additionally, I began teaching gardening class from K-8th grade students, inspiring me to energetic and sometimes frenetic curriculum development and research in order to teach these new classes.

In that second year, we finished laying down the foundational garden space, developed more garden beds, and put in an orchard area. In the third year, the garden classes matured into what they are now: weekly focused garden science and exploration for each class, as well as taste-testing and nutrition education throughout the week.

Classes use the garden in their weekly homeroom field exploration to study genetics, plant biology, water movement and cycles, mammals, and phenology. The garden has truly become a living classroom and special retreat at Springwater. The students discover a new land ethic in their garden classes and practice creative problem-solving and responsibility for their actions.


Care for Self, Care for Others, Care for The Land

The tenets of permaculture as established by David Holgrem and Toby Hemenway fit well into the three character traits encouraged at Springwater: care for self, care for others, care for community and land.

These three phrases are now the inspiration and motto for the unique culture at Springwater. Permaculture tenets provide a great framework for building scientific learning in the garden program. For example, the tenets “Diversity is Stability,” the “Edge Effect,” and “Working with Nature,” focus the students on ways to treat the garden, its living inhabitants, and plants themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 12.55.14 PMWhen the 2nd-3rd graders study soil ecosystems, they learn that soil and garden health and stability is directly impacted by the diversity of creatures living there. When 4th-6th graders explore the complexities of composting systems, they know that “Energy Cycling” can solve problems at school and in the larger community. By using permaculture as the lens to explore scientific lessons in the garden, Springwater students are encouraged to be innovative social and environmental minded citizens.

These three tenets help students, and staff, focus on how students treat each other, how they make good choices during the day, and how they play and study on the school grounds. The expectations are flexible to the children’s development and change meaning throughout their studies in the year. They are also helpful tools to focus the students and give further empathetic meaning to the day’s lessons.

The Springwater Garden has flourished with the guidance and gaze of environmental education practices. The space has known no other gardening plan. It was always a dream of the school to have a garden on campus as the heart of the school community and an extension of the school’s place-based initiative.

At Springwater, we have been able to intentionally focus the garden education program from the perspective of environmental education, because of the simple fact that permaculture and science goes hand-in-hand. They are inseparable to the educational experience of our students. Here, nutrition, taste-testing, and practical garden knowledge are included in scientific exploration and study. Here, the garden is a special, wild, place on campus that supports a culture of thoughtful, self-aware, and concerned young citizens.