Environmental Education: The Science of Learning and Doing
by Cecelia Bosma
Trinity Lutheran School
e live on a planet with limited resources that are often consumed without caution. Finding ways to engage students in pro-environmental behaviors that conserve these limited resources rather than take them for granted is a priority for environmental educators. The human population also needs to work on understanding the benefits and risks we take with our daily behavior. Conserving the use of paper towels at home and in public is one easy pro-environmental behavior that will have a positive impact on the environment. Paper towels do not just use up trees, they also require large amount of water for production and they end up in landfills which generates pollution as they slowly decompose. However there are numerous alternatives to using paper towels at home and at school. These alternatives are efficient effective and financially thrifty. Often times conservation practices are rejected because they are time consuming and or costly. Alternatives to paper towels are neither. The financial benefit is an incentive for people that don’t relate to the environmental impact of using paper towels.
Last fall, I designed a project to engage my eighth grade science class in a meaningful scientific inquiry project that assisted in deepening students’ understanding of the importance of conservation action through environmental education. The project action focused on eliminating paper towels in school bathrooms. There are many environmental benefits to reducing the amount of paper towels manufactured. One benefit is the reduction of trash in landfills because generally bathroom paper towels cannot be recycled. Another benefit is the reduction of chemicals leaching back into our soil from decomposing paper towels. This in turn saves trees from being processed into paper towels. Environmental benefits are also found in the amount of water consumed in the manufacturing of paper towels, and the reduced amount of fuel burned transporting paper towels.
Getting started on an inquiry project that is focused on building environmental knowledge through conservation action on the school campus can be a challenge. I have been working middle school students on various inquiry projects to build environmental knowledge for several years. Each time I start a project I am learning right along with my students. This project was no exception. Sharing ideas about inquiry and lessons that motivate students to learn and build knowledge is how we as teachers can help each other build stronger lesson plans that benefit our students and communities.
Educating adolescents about the impact they have on their environment is necessary for nurturing lifelong environmental stewardship (Nancy & Kristi, 2006). In the last twenty years, environmental education has been gaining a stronger foothold in classrooms across America (Stevenson, Peterson, Bondell, Mertig, & Moore, 2013). The purpose of environmental education is to teach students how to make responsible decisions, using critical thinking in order to take action to maintain or improve our environment (Short, 2010). Educators should encourage even small steps toward environmental conservation, as they are building blocks to lifetime environmental conservation action (Short, 2010). Accordingly, the primary goal of environmental education is to instill knowledge that leads to pro-environmental actions and behaviors for individuals, groups and society (Heimlich, 2010). I have found that engaging the learners in hands on actionable learning has a positive effect on the outcome of environmental education.
The burgeoning population of planet Earth has brought about observable changes in the environment both in populated and unpopulated regions of the world (Short, 2010). Scientists have observed these drastic changes in the form of melting ice caps, ozone depletion, deforestation and global warming, all of which can be attributed to human actions (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Therefore, it is society’s responsibility to take action to improve the current environmental status that threatens the very existence of humans (Stevenson et al., 2013).
Additionally, it is important to incorporate positive actions into environmental education (Tidball & Krasny, 2010). Instead of focusing on what is wrong with our environment. Students are motivated by positive changes that help our environment such as recycling. Inquiry style learning is one way to incorporate positive action. Increasing environmental knowledge is a crucial part of environmental education (Grodzińska-Jurczak, Bartosiewicz, Twardowska, & Ballantyne, 2003). This project incorporated the inquiry process into the environmental education program. The students construct their learning by observing, asking questions and problem solving (Crawford, 2000). The inquiry process is a way for students to do science like a real scientist. Educating school children about environmental concerns now will promote action in the future (Evans et al., 1996).
A class of twelve eighth grade students took part in the paper towel conservation inquiry project. The project began with students watching the video that inspired me “How to use a paper towel” (Smith, 2012). Upon completion of the video, students were asked what they thought of the video and if they thought there were other ways that we could conserve paper towels in the bathrooms on our campus. Following the video students took a trip to the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms nearest to our classroom. Science class is at the end of the day, and students observed the piles of used paper towels in the garbage and on the ground.
They were challenged to develop a plan for measuring the volume of paper towels that were used daily for a week. Students worked in pairs to identify a plan which was presented the next day in class. Students then voted on the plan they thought would work the best and took steps to put it into action. One students brought in a scale from home and others created a data sheet for recording the measurements taken daily of the weight of paper towels used in each bathroom.
Table 1 Paper towel weight chart created by students
Table 2 Financial comparison of paper towels versus hand dryers created by students
The students tracked the amount, in pounds, of paper towels used in the 3 sets of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms for 5 days. This data was calculated and graphed to demonstrate the amount of paper towels that our school is disposing into the landfill each day. A total of 288 pounds of paper towels are thrown in the trash each week from the collective school bathrooms (figure 1). Students contacted the person on staff who handles the ordering of paper towels to determine that the school spends about $350.00 on paper towels each month. This information was tabulated into the final graph that compared the expense of paper towels versus the expense hand dryers (figure 2). The graph shown in figure 1 and 2 were developed by students; while it could be perfected it is meant to demonstrate the capabilities of middle school students. Upon completing the charts students noticed that the older students used considerably more paper towels than younger students did.
Students brainstormed alternative ideas to using paper towels. They researched hand dryers, cotton towel dispensers and looked at the practicality of using personal towels. After researching each option, they used the data they collected on alternatives to paper towels to create a presentation to share with fellow students, parents and the church board who has a strong influence on decision making changes. The conclusion of the study resulted in the student recommending the installation of new efficient hand dryers that dry hands in 12 seconds or less. As the students pointed out in their presentation the machines are also designed to kill germs in the air and on the skin (Gagnon, 2007).
The presentation was videotaped and posted on the school website. Posting the video required getting permission from all of the parents. This was worthwhile effort because the students were then able to share what they had learned accomplished and produced with their own community of friends and neighbors. This made it possible to spread the idea of replacing paper towels with hand dryers to the larger community outside of our school.
The final piece of this project was to present a written proposal to the Board of Directors for consideration. Students were given the task and some guidelines and they had to collaborate and compromise to develop a well written proposal that included their research and data results. The objective of the assignment was to persuade the board to approve the installation of hand dryers in the bathroom. The proposal was completed and presented, and is now being considered for implementation.
Action and Reflection
The benefit of inquiry learning is that it provides a method for gaining deeper knowledge about a subject, in this case environmental education, and it also builds students skills in problem solving and analysis. This project provided students the opportunity to conduct science like a scientist. They observed and questioned. Then they looked for alternatives, conducted research, devised an action plan and carried out an investigation. The final part of the project included compiling their findings and presenting to decision makers. Encouraging and guiding students to learn about their environment and then to take action is taken to authentic level when it involves real and actionable projects. It is my hope that the board finds merit in the study and takes the necessary steps to change to electric hand dryers. This action will mitigate the burden, the use of paper towels, puts on our environment.
I know that this project was beneficial in bolstering students’ knowledge of environmental issues. Throughout the project students took ownership of each step and worked diligently to complete the work. The following are several comments from students at the end of the project.
“I liked being able to go outside for science.”
“I hope that hand dryers are installed in the bathrooms”
“I worked really hard on this project because it might be good for our school”
This paper towel action-centered conservation project works to build students conservation and knowledge that works to promote continued conservation action (Stevenson et al., 2013). Schools are looking for ways to keep the material fresh and relevant for the students incorporating inquiry science works towards that goal. We have a planet with limited resources, and an economic system that often ignores that fact. As time goes by the need for action is even more crucial for the survival of all of us. Paper towel reduction is one idea that students can be engaged in environmental education. We have to find ways for students to not only learn about importance of caring for our environment but that knowledge must lead to continued environmental action for the objective to be met.
As a teacher, focusing on improving techniques to guide inquiry learning, leads to discovering ways to make projects authentic and real. Utilizing inquiry in environmental education provides students an enriching learning environment. This is my story of a journey to use inquiry as a catalyst for environmental change. Embrace your story.
Crawford, B. A. (2000). Embracing the essence of inquiry: new roles for science teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(9), 916-937. doi: 10.1002/1098-2736(200011)37:93.0.CO;2-2
Evans, S. M., Gill, M. E., & Marchant, J. (1996). Schoolchildren as educators: The indirect influence of environmental education in schools on parents’ attitudes towards the environment. Journal of Biological Education, 30(4), 243-248. doi:10.1080/00219266.1996.9655512
Gagnon, D. (2007). Paper Trail. American School & University, 80(1), 30.
Grodzińska-Jurczak, M., Bartosiewicz, A., Twardowska, A., & Ballantyne, R. (2003). Evaluating the impact of a school waste education programme upon students’ parents’ and teachers’ environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 12(2), 106-122. doi:10.1080/10382040308667521
Heimlich, J. E. (2010). Environmental education evaluation: reinterpreting education as a strategy for meeting mission. Evaluation and Program Planning, 33, 180-185. doi: 10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2009.07.009
Short, P. C. (2010). Responsible environmental action: its role and status in environmental education and environmental quality. Journal of Environmental Education, 41(1), 7-21. doi: 10.1080/00958960903206781
Smith, J. (2012, March). How to use a paper towel. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/joe_smith_how_to_use_a_paper_towel
Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Bondell, H. D., Mertig, A. G., & Moore, S. E. (2013). Environmental, institutional, and demographic predictors of environmental literacy among middle school children. PLoS ONE, 8(3), 1-11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059519
Tidball, K. G., & Krasny, M. E. (2010). Urban environmental education from a social-ecological perspective: conceptual framework for civic ecology education. Cities and the Environment(1). Retrieved From: http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cate/vol3/iss1/11/
Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children Youth and Environments, 16(1), 1-24.
What’s the Difference…
…between a single performer and an energetic band? Can students teach themselves?
by Jim Martin
CLEARING Master Teacher
n an earlier set of blogs, we followed a middle school class whose science teacher had started them on a project to study a creek that flows at the edge of the school ground. The last time we saw them, groups were analyzing and interpreting the data and observations they collected on their first major field trip to the creek, and preparing a report to the class. The blog focused in on the group doing macros, macroinvertebrate insect larvae, worms, etc., who live on the streambed; aquatic invertebrates large enough to distinguish with the unaided (except for glasses) eye.
They eventually organized themselves into three groups, one to cover the process of collecting the macros, one to describe how they identified and counted them, and a third to find out how to use their macro findings to estimate the health of the creek. Sounds like they’re on a learning curve, moving from Acquisition to Proficiency. They would need some feedback, both from withn the group and from their teacher. She gave each group one more task, to find out what they could about effective student work groups.
The macro group prepared the presentation they would make to the class. Each of their groups prepared their part, then they gave their presentations within the group, and used this experience to tweak them into a final, effective presentation. Their presentation included the interpretation they made based on their collected data that the creek’s current health was Fair, tending toward Good.
They used the rest of their prep time to begin a search for information on effective student work groups. During their web search, they were surprised there was so little there about middle school work groups, since they are finding their work invigorating, and feel they are learning a lot. Some of the sites they visited were confusing, some targeted high schools, but most described college work groups. Among those things related to effective work groups they found and were interested in were those which described the work, maintenance, and blocking roles individuals play within work groups, and those which described how groups can make their work visible while they’re processing by using whiteboards, posters, etc. They saw how these aids would help clarify concepts as they were learning. They decided to report on these two findings, roles group members play and making the work visible so that it is easier to discuss and process.
Of the two group characteristics they decided to report on, the idea that individuals play roles in a group, and these roles affect the work of the group were the most interesting to them, and a bit of a revelation. They were especially intrigued by one of the Blocking roles, which interfere with a group’s capacity to complete its work. The one they found most interesting was the Avoidance Behaver role. Each of them had engaged this role when they were madly fighting for the D-net while first collecting macros. (By joisting to control the D-net and collecting tray, they were avoiding the work in the way in which they behaved. They had employed Avoidance Behaviors; each of them, as they joisted, was an Avoidance Behaver.) They still laughed at the fun they had been having, but also felt the odd juxtaposition of this role with the Work and Maintenance roles they also played to move the work along, clarify the processes they used and identifications they made, keeping communication lines open, and sending out consensus queries about what they thought they were finding out.
They were encouraged that most of the roles they assumed were positive ones which lead to a successful project. As they talked, they also came to consensus that this was a finding of their work as important as their findings indicating that the health of the stream was Fair, tending toward Good. A revelation for them, and would become one for their teacher.
This group has made good progress on their new learning curves, macroinvertebrates and group roles. One curve is facilitating their conceptual understanding of macros; the other curve is empowering them to understand the dynamics of an effective work group. They entered these learning curves because (1) their teacher set them up in the first place, and (2) the Acquisition phase included finding out about macros. And, perhaps inadvertently, their, and their teacher’s discovery of the importance of developing effective work groups. Because the students were first finding macros, then learning about them, they started their work seeking information and patterns which would help them know who was living on the bottom of the creek. They didn’t consciously couch their investigation in these terms, but this is what they were experiencing.
The experience of seeing if they could actually capture macros, and the fun involved in collecting and seeing them stimulated the limbic’s Seeking system in their brains, which added dopamine to the neural soup that facilitates human efforts to make work interesting. These feelings and felt interests, in turn, drove them to the books and the web to follow up on the needs to know generated by their inquiries. Under their own power. First, the excitement of learning how best to capture macros, then residual interest carried them to the manuals to begin to identify who was there. ‘Finding Out’ is a powerful student (and human) motivator, one we stamp out as students move through the grades we teach. Perhaps because many of us don’t understand the content we teach well enough to allow our students to have their own thoughts about it. (Parenthetical comment on the 50%)
We could learn to use this motivator to engage conceptual learnings in ways that involve and invest our students in their learnings, and empower them as persons. There is a big difference between memorizing for a test and trying to find out the same information. The difference between a single performer and an energetic band. One way that difference expresses itself is in our standing in global scales of learning, where we are consistently near the bottom, rarely in the upper half. Our current model of school is memorizing for tests. How well does that work? We need to rediscover this active, group-centered, collaborative way of being human, and exploit it in our classrooms and outdoor sites. Telling students what is before them doesn’t stimulate long-term conceptual memory; helping them find out does. I’d like to say, “Freeing them to find out,” but for many teachers those words, especially the first one, might be intimidating to hear.
Building effective work groups takes time and patience. Fortunately, it goes quicker if the process takes place while the groups are pursuing an inquiry. Engaging in this kind of work develops needs for just the sort of group processes which make inquiries successful. While she may not have consciously planned it, dividing the class into groups, each with its own part of the creek to study, set the stage with students who were ready to learn about effective work groups. They weren’t consciously aware that they were ready, but their needs to do the work did the job for them.
(I’m interested in Jaak Panksepp’s work at Washington State University on the brain’s limbic system’s Seeking System. It’s important to learning for understanding because this is one of the few instances in which engaging the relatively primitive Limbic System leads to effective activity in the cortex, where critical thinking happens. When educators speak of the brain and learning in the same sentence, eyes in just about any audience tend to either roll or glaze over. Even though the brain is our organ of learning, teachers and administrators tend to think of learning and publishers’ products as the only bundle that matters. No room for neuronal bundles. Connecting. In effective ways. Evolved bottom up, and may work best that way.)
First, by sending students to find out, the emotions of the Seeking system move them to the cortex and critical thinking. Then we organize the learners’ environment so the information they (their cortices) need to know is readily available. And we can watch as our students learn for understanding. My experience was this: First engage students in their inquiries, then see how much of the reading I would have assigned or lectured on that they get into on their own. My observations on learners over the years told me that any movement away from total inertia on the part of the student indicates a determined effort to learn even if it’s a small move, say 10% of the way to mastery. Perusing the research on the brain eventually clarified that particular parts of the brain, when they were working, elicited the learning behaviors I observed, and clarified students’ involvement and investment in the learning, and empowerment as persons, and prepared them to form effective work groups.
So, the teacher and her class were learning that one thing which will enhance student performance is to learn how to get group members to interact. You can facilitate this by ensuring that students’ work calls for the communication skills it takes to develop consensual decisions about complex topics. The teacher whose students we just followed did this by asking each group to research information about effective student work groups. They do the work, she gleans the information. Win-win. A further step would be deciding how to include minority opinions in final reports. Simple to do; you just announce that you allow it. In my experience, this helps students achieve ownership of their learnings. A surprise for me was that sometimes students presenting a minority report saw something other groups presented from a new perspective, that of observer, not of learner. Whether that altered their interpretation of findings wasn’t as important as the fact that they were developing the capacity to hear another view and think about it. And validate the right to hold it. And, holders of the majority opinion often did review their thoughts.
The macro group is moving through its own learning curve. Does their progress look like a learning curve? Where did they start? Where are they now? How does the learning curve differ for an individual student vs. an effective work group? I picture this difference as one between a single, good performer, and an energetic band; the interactions between group members, while they’re working, can make a routine school activity become an exciting experience, a performance to be remembered. If you’re a teacher, listen to that last word.
This 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.”
Middle School Students Use Historic Snowpack Data to Gain Inquiry, Graphing and Analysis Experience
by Joe Cameron
Beaverton Middle School teacher
NRCS Oregon hydrologists Melissa Webb and Julie Koeberle measure snow on Mt. Hood. Courtesy of USDA.
What do you get when you mix researchers, teachers, authentic science opportunities and a group of GREAT people? You get three summers of intense work, reinvigorated teachers, new ideas for the classroom and lots of fun!
For the last three summers I was lucky enough to be involved in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s (ONREP) Climate Change Institute where teachers are matched with researchers to bridge the gap between the classroom and field research. The last two years I worked with Oregon State University’s Dr. Anne Nolin and Travis Roth examining snow pack changes in the McKenzie River Watershed. Investigating snow collection sites and collecting data led to discussions on how best to get students involved in authentic research and science inquiry investigations.
Handout for activity below.
One of my goals for the year was to get my students involved in authentic data collection and to gain more experience and practice in graphing. From this, SWEet! was born. SWEet is an activity that engages students in using historic snow data to investigate the SWE, or Snow Water Equivalent, and the changes taking place in the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Students graph and analyze data from SNOTEL sites and compare their findings with others in class to make predictions about future snowpack. In extension activities students choose their own SNOTEL sites in the Western U.S. and monitor snow data monthly throughout the snow year. This type of activity will in turn introduce students to long-term ecological studies in progress and support them to begin studies of their own.
In doing this activity with my students we first investigated their particular sites. I found this helped them personalize the data and they were very involved, especially using this “local” data. Then using their data they were able to create comparative line graphs and look for trends in the data, even with a complex and varied data set. These trends were then used to hypothesize possible effects of changes in the snowpack to their world and the economy and ecosystems found in Oregon.
SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply
Author: Joe Cameron
Time: 50+ minutes
Grade Level: 6-12
SNOTEL-The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) operates and maintains an automated system (SNOwpack TELemetry or SNOTEL) designed to collect snowpack and related climatic data in the Western United States and Alaska in order to develop accurate and reliable water supply forecasts. For over 30 years, data on snow depth and SWE (Snow Water Equivalent) have been collected from SNOTEL sites throughout the western US. This activity will use yearly SWE data from three SNOTEL sites in Oregon to look for changes and relate our snowpack to Oregon’s economy and environment.
Familiarize students with Snow Water Equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water contained in the snowpack. A simple reference for background information is http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/or/snow/?cid=nrcs142p2_046155. Also, you can do a simple class demonstration by taking a 500ml beaker of snow (or blended ice) and melting it using a hot plate. I have students predict how much water will remain after the ‘snow’ is melted. Then, we calculate the percent water in the snow to give them an example of one way to analyze this type of data.
After getting the students comfortable with SWE, you can give them the SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page. When I led this activity, we read through the introduction as a class and then directed the students to graph the data provided, make sense of their plot, compare their results with others in class and then draw conclusions. This lesson leads to discussions of our changing climate and possible changes in store for the people, plants and animals of Oregon.
Students will access long term ecological data.
Students will graph SWE data.
Students will compare their data with data from their classmates.
Students will identify possible effects of a decrease in snowpack.
SWE-Snow Water Equivalent; the amount of water found in snow.
SNOTEL-automated system that records snow depth and related data in the western United States
Trend-a general direction that something is changing
Snowpack-the amount of snow that is found on the ground in the mountains; usually measured at specific sites.
Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
MS-ESS2-5. Collect data to provide evidence for how the motions and complex interactions of air masses results in changes in weather.
MS-ESS3-5. Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.
Oregon Science Standards
Scientific Inquiry: Scientific inquiry is the investigation of the natural world based on observations and science principles that includes proposing questions or hypotheses, designing procedures for questioning, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting multiple forms of accurate and relevant data to produce justifiable evidence-based explanations.
Interaction and Change: The related parts within a system interact and change.
6.2E.1 Explain the water cycle and the relationship to landforms and weather.
7.2E.2 Describe the composition of Earth’s atmosphere, how it has changed over time, and implications for the future.
7.2E.3 Evaluate natural processes and human activities that affect global environmental change and suggest and evaluate possible solutions to problems.
8.2E.3 Explain the causes of patterns of atmospheric and oceanic movement and the effects on weather and climate.
8.2E.4 Analyze evidence for geologic, climatic, environmental, and life form changes over time.
1 500 ml beaker
1 50-100 ml graduated cylinder snow OR chopped/blended ice
1 hot plate
Copies of SWEet! Oregon’s Snowpack and Water Supply activity page
Optional: colored pencils/pens
1. Give students the SWEet! Activity page.
2. As a class, read and review all directions.
3. Students may choose 1, 2, or 3 sets of data to graph. This option allows the activity to be modified to meet the individual students’ abilities. Also, students can create graphs that can be compared to multiple data sets.
4. Students graph the data in a line graph.
5. Students analyze the data. This part can be completed through drawing a trend line(s) on the graph, calculating averages, adding totals and/or comparing multiple data sets looking for similarities and differences. Note: having the students do their graphing using Excel spreadsheets is an option that is not always available in our school but from which the students would benefit.
6. Relate the observed trends in snowpack to possible effects in Oregon. Who/What will be affected? How will/might they be affected?
7. Students pose one other question OR concern they have after looking at their graphs and trends for possible additional exploration.
1-Related current event articles from Science Daily:
Warming Climate Is Affecting Cascades Snowpack In Pacific Northwest
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090512153335.htm
Global Warming to Cut Snow Water Storage 56 Percent in Oregon Watershed
Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130726092431.htm
2-Students can access current snow year data online. They go to SNOTEL website, choose a specific site and collect daily, weekly or monthly data for this site throughout the winter months (the snow year stretches from November to March). Students can also access historic data going back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for their sites.
References Science expertise was provided by the following Oregon State University Faculty: Dr. Anne Nolin – Professor and Travis Roth-Doctoral Student in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Data are from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) SNOTEL website at: http://www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov
Acknowledgements These lessons were created using information learned in the Oregon Natural Resource Education Program’s Researcher Teacher Partnerships: Making Global Climate Change Relevant in the Classroom project. This project was supported by a NASA Innovations in Climate Education award (NNXI0AT82A).
Thanks to Dr. Kari O’Connell with the Oregon Natural Resources Education Program at Oregon State University and Dr. Patricia Morrell in the College of Education at University of Portland for their thoughtful review of this article.
Joe Cameron is a teacher at Beaverton Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. He can be contacted at email@example.com
By Jim Martin
CLEARING Associate Editor
he young woman carefully pours hydrogen peroxide into a graduated cylinder, presses a key on a computer keyboard, then measures ten drops of liver homogenate into the cylinder. The surface of the hydrogen peroxide seems to leap at the first drop of homogenate, then the drop begins to froth and spin as it is carried deep into the cylinder, trailing a growing, spinning plume of bubbles. Each drop increases the frothing turbulence in the cylinder until it seems enveloped in a pulsing explosion of bubbles. Meanwhile, the young woman’s glance moves from a developing graph on the computer’s monitor to the activity in the cylinder and back again. Science is being done.
If we could see into her mind, what kind of thoughts must we find there? What must she have done and thought to get to where she is at this moment? How will her thoughts change when the reaction has gone to completion and she reviews the data? One thing is certain: this young woman has a history of doing process science. Another thing is certain; her work presents her with conceptual schemata which require filling out with specific facts; the work she does generates a need to know. This need can drive her into the books and the web to find out. Can we capture this kind of science in our classrooms? Can we accommodate her experiences into a model of science pedagogy?
How might this scenario play out in a stream, where the young woman is measuring water quality, collecting and identifying macroinvertebrates, and entering her data into an iPad? Is there any substantial difference in her experiences in the two environments? Certainly there are logistical differences, but I submit that these are an emergent phenomenon which arises from our traditional concept of what school is. Is school a journey of the mind, or is it a place with boundaries, where we learn to pass tests? In both places, she is engaging similar mental concepts, and procedural processes. Our bodies and brains are able to work in both environments. The significant thing is that what the mind and body are doing has to be meaningful. In the case of this young woman, what she is learning is related to what she knows of other knowledge; it is being learned within a familiar context. If she were learning for a test, she would learn the facts, but they wouldn’t necessarily be learned in order to understand. The kind of learning this young woman is engaging is active learning, in which she is constantly comparing her experiences with what she knows. Whether she is consciously aware of it, she has learned how to learn. That’s a powerful skill.
In school, we tend to move from one topic directly to another as if this is what education is about. Many of us do this in our personal world, racing through life, leafing through it as we would a magazine in the doctor’s office, never pausing to contemplate what it is, what it means. We should take the time to absorb life so we can live within it. The same goes for school. Instead of zipping on to the next topic as soon as we’ve covered the current one well enough to test on it, we should probe for students’ attainment of the concepts embedded in the topic to see if they’ve nailed them down. We ought to give students a chance to think about what they’re learning, and design a repeat investigation to nail down their understandings. We need to explore ways to transition what we have just learned to what we will be learning. Even though they can parrot words we’ve used, they may entertain misconceptions and may well not actually understand what we assume they know.
This applies also to teachers. Our pre-service preparation and most of our in-service learning was done with this industrial assembly line model, zipping us through a ritual that eventually placed us at the head of a classroom. About twenty years ago, I was doing a wetlands ecology institute for teachers, and a question came up among the staff about what to do after the teacher participants’ first afternoon in a local wetland. One opinion was, “Okay, they’ve done their first study. Let’s get them ready to go to the coast for their second study.” The other opinion was, “They’ve done what amounts to a casual observation, which might have raised some questions they could follow up with a second investigation.” Fortunately, the second opinion won the day; the participants asked questions which arose as they processed their observations, and they used these to design the following day’s study at the same wetland. Having done that inquiry, once at the coast they hit the beach running, the well-oiled machine, and they nailed down what they had been learning about wetland ecology. It took time, but it moved them further up the learning curve.
After their original casual observation, we could have left them where they were, some in the Acquisition phase, some entering Proficiency. This is what many in-service educators do. We assume the teacher will move to Mastery, but only a few have the self-confidence to do so. Instead, we leave them knowing that they could know, but not ready to take the next few steps. Dryas and I had a mutual friend, who was in late middle-age. Let’s call her Sarah. Sarah had decided to leave an emotionally abusive relationship, but had no idea what to do, nor did she have the confidence to try. A few of us located a place where she could stay, and I agreed to meet with her once a week to help her develop a business plan for using art to explore relationships as a way to earn a living. Over a period of three or four months, we’d meet once a week, and she’d bring out what she’d accomplished on the plan. Her Acquisition phase was long, about six weeks, but then she started accelerating into Proficiency. Sarah had been making collages to express her feelings then interpreting them. This is what she planned to teach others. After moving into Proficiency, each week her collages portrayed a bird, first totally enclosed in a sealed room becoming a bird looking out the window, seeing life outside the window, perched on the window sill, and finally freedom – soaring in the air toward the Sun. The slow but steady movement from locus of control far outside the body, to deep within and freedom to live her life. It takes time, but moves us up the learning curve. We need this in our emotional life, but also in our cognitive, conceptual life.
What’s the difference in insecurity about living in a relationship and insecurity about teaching in a content area? You could leave the relationship because the other isn’t likely to change. But, understanding the science means you’re in a win-win situation, and don’t have to leave, much as you would be in the relationship if the other decided to go into counseling. The young woman pouring hydrogen peroxide obviously understands what she is doing and why. She’ll continue this relationship. That’s what we want.
Are we adrift now? The point is that, like all things we do, they’re done by humans. We bring our small, effective human arsenal to bear on a large number of issues, all manageable with what a well-understood arsenal contains. In school, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to teach, just as in your personal life, the secret is your confidence in your capacity to manage a relationship. Likewise, a student’s confidence in the content and concepts determines her ownership of her learnings. We need to bring them to confidence, then we’re all ready to move to the next topic. How do we do that?
Working with Meredith, the middle-school teacher who takes her class out to the creek at the edge of the school yard, we’ve seen how she has learned to have her students repeat investigations to move along the learning curve. Like a booster rocket, they’ve got altitude and velocity; just need that extra push to get them into orbit. The first time through their work on the creek, they figured out how to do it. Setting up more than one station per group, one at a riffle, at a glide, and at a pool, would ensure students had ample opportunity to move to Mastery. At each trip to the creek, students might repeat their observations more quickly, and could move in to explore new curricula in the time saved. While moving their understanding of, say, macroinvertebrate collection, identification, and interpretation to Mastery, they could be moving their understanding of the roles of the rest of that ecosystem in generating a healthy habitat for the animals they are studying through Acquisition into at least initial Proficiency. That puts Meredith in charge of her curriculum. Which is where she should be; on the road to building competent, empowered minds.
This 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.”
Rivers reveal their secrets to Idaho students researching water quality through rigorous scientific inquiry
Photos and story by Suzie Boss
Squiggly blue lines cover the map of Idaho, a state with more than 2,000 lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers. From the perspective of veteran science teacher Bob Beckwith, all that water means that nearly every Idaho student has easy access to a creek, a stream, or a lake. “Probably 95 percent of the state’s population lives along a watershed,” he estimates. And where there’s water, Beckwith can promise you, there’s a science project worth pursuing.
On an early winter morning, for example, Beckwith and fellow Eagle High School biology teacher Steve DeMers loaded three classes of warmly dressed sophomores and armloads of scientific gear onto a school bus and headed off on an all-day investigation of water quality along the Boise River. By the day’s end, students had made four stops to gather data between the mouth of the river and headwaters in the mountains west of Boise. They waded midstream to collect invertebrates and dipped their hands into icy currents to test ph and oxygen levels. They checked and rechecked their measurements, keeping careful track of resulting numbers for future analysis.
Despite the frosty weather and the high spirits that come with escaping the classroom, students resisted the urge to hurl snowballs. And all day long, there was no whining. Every student participating in the trip was there by choice, doing what Beckwith calls “real science.”
Since he began teaching in 1972, Beckwith has been using projects to introduce his students to the scientific method. There’s no shortage of evidence that it’s an effective strategy. Beckwith himself is a past recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in teaching secondary science. Several of his students have won regional and national honors in elite science competitions, and many have gone on to launch careers in engineering, biology, medicine, and other fields that require a deep understanding of science. Even students who aren’t destined for technical careers, Beckwith points out, gain the benefit of “learning to ask a question and figure out the answer. That’s how I define science literacy.”
On the banks of the Boise River, three girls from Eagle High interrupted their fieldwork to explain the appeal of project-based learning. “We learn so much more this way compared to reading a book,” said one. “You get to experience it yourself, so you really understand what something like turbidity means,” added another. “This applies to me,” explained the third girl. “This is a river where I might want to swim or go fishing. The quality of this water matters. It’s important. And I have the tools right here to find out whether or not it’s clean,” she said, holding up a vial of river water she was evaluating for the presence of nitrates. Although she knew there would be more analysis to be done later, back in the classroom, she had already gained one insight from taking snapshots along different parts of the river: “Upstream, away from the city, the water gets cleaner.”
photo, kids gathering specimens from the river bottom
photo, examining a screen for macro invertebrates
photo, testing water quality
photo, giving the results to the teacher
During a winter day spent collecting data along the Boise River, students in hip waders used a kick screen to gather specimens from the river bottom (at top); examined the screen for macro invertebrates; tested water quality; and, finally, reported their numbers to teacher Bob Beckwith (bottom, right, with clipboard).
Through an ambitious effort he launched several years ago, Beckwith also helps other Idaho teachers acquire the skills, equipment, and confidence they need to incorporate project-based learning into their classes. Project SITE—which stands for Students Investigating Today’s Environment—engages students and teachers across the state in projects involving scientific inquiry into water quality, noxious weeds, and other real-world concerns.
Beckwith co-directs SITE with David Redfield, dean of health and science at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Support for the project has come from a variety of sources, including several Idaho colleges, school-to-work partnerships, the state department of education, Idaho Rangeland Commission, and private funders such as the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
More than 200 teachers have gone through SITE training, which immerses them in the same kind of project-based learning they will later orchestrate with their own students. The core of training is an intensive, five-day summer workshop that reminds teachers why science is best understood through active learning. Little time is spent listening to lectures or reading texts. Instead, teachers do real fieldwork, rafting the Salmon River to collect data that relate to water quality or surveying plant life to assess the spread of noxious weeds.
“It’s not lecture/read/do a canned experiment,” Beckwith says. “We might talk for short periods about things they don’t understand very well, then provide them with an experience where they can pose questions and do research to figure out the answers. So it’s a steep learning curve. We model how science works. Science is not a textbook—that’s a history book of facts that scientists have already learned by asking questions. Those facts are an important foundation,” he acknowledges, “but real science involves going out and answering new questions.”
Between Monday and Friday of a typical training week, “teachers learn everything they need to be classroom ready,” Beckwith says. Participants also come away with armloads of gear provided by SITE. “We don’t just train them and then expect them to find a way to buy their own equipment,” he says. “We give them all the stuff they need,” he says, such as test kits, digital cameras, and a manual he wrote in accessible language to guide students through nine scientifically valid field tests designed to measure water quality.
In return, teachers agree to take their students out on data-gathering projects at least three times during the school year. They also bring SITE students together to present their projects during an annual Idaho Student Showcase Day in the spring. By fulfilling their end of the bargain, teachers can earn a stipend.
Providing teachers with such extensive support means that the SITE organizers have had to devote considerable energy to writing grants and reaching out to potential funders. The program invests about $1,500 per teacher on training and supplies, Beckwith estimates. But the investment pays off, he says, by “freeing teachers to focus on teaching.” Water quality —which integrates biology, chemistry, and physics—continues to be a prime focus of fieldwork, but funding for research on weeds has led to new SITE projects in the area of life sciences. “As long as we can collect data, work as a team, and ask questions, then it’s a valid project,” Beckwith says.
To be sure, project-based learning puts high demands on the instructor. “This takes energy,” Beckwith admits at the end of a cold day spent outdoors with a busload of teenagers. But for teachers who enjoy being learners themselves, this style of teaching “helps prevent burnout,” he adds. “It lets teachers engage in questions, too. They have to know enough to help students figure out the answers. As a teacher, you have to allow students to go places even if you don’t know the answers.”
Some teachers need a little “nurturing,” Beckwith admits, to gain the confidence to launch students on challenging projects outside the confines of the classroom. “For others, this way of learning fits so well with their teaching style—it’s natural. They pick it right up.” When Beckwith explains SITE methods to teachers who already believe in active learning, “you just have to put the idea on the table and then run to get out of their way!”
photo, girl using water quality equipment
Students use scientific equipment to measure water quality indicators— not once, but three times. Later, back in the classroom, their numbers will be added to a statewide database. Their first field lesson: accuracy counts.
Shannon Laughlin was in her first year of teaching middle school science when she saw a flyer about Project SITE. She signed up for two weeks of workshops last summer, including a five-day raft trip along the Salmon River.
“You work your tail off,” she recalls, laughing. “You’re on the river nine hours a day, then talk more about science at night. It’s wonderful!” Although Laughlin holds degrees in both plant science and entomology, she had never done fieldwork. “This kind of hands-on training gives you a chance to prepare,” she says, “so you’re ready when it’s time to take your kids out.”
Last fall, Laughlin began introducing her students at Marsing Middle School to project-based learning. For students and teacher alike, Project SITE has been a journey of surprises. “My kids started by asking me, ‘What are we going to find out?'” Laughlin would tell them: “I don’t know. You’re the scientists.” Project SITE is worlds removed from what Laughlin calls “canned labs, where you can guess what the results should be. What’s neat about this is, you don’t know ahead of time what you’re going to learn. I like to do things where I don’t know the answers in advance.”
Laughlin’s students have been using SITE protocols to test water quality along the Snake River, which runs right through their community and is only a five-minute bus ride from the school. “They fish in this river and swim in it. The river is a part of their life. So they have a personal stake in asking: Is it clean?” That question has led them to others, such as: What affects water quality—agriculture? pollutants? animals?
Although Laughlin says SITE has opened the door to powerful learning opportunities that build science literacy, that’s not the only benefit she’s witnessed. Using field-tested SITE methods, she asked her students to break into teams and choose their own captains. “The ones they chose as captains are not necessarily the usual leaders. But these kids blew me out of the water,” Laughlin admits. “Natural leadership does not always show up in the classroom. These kids did a great job, and it gave them a chance they might not have had otherwise to demonstrate their leadership, their competence.” She enjoyed sharing that observation with her principal, who came along on the first field trip and has become an enthusiastic supporter of the project.
Power Of Teamwork
Beckwith knows from experience that teamwork is a valuable component of SITE projects. “The tasks are such that one person can’t do it alone,” he explains. “Students have to work in teams, and team members have to depend on each other.” Back in the classroom, teams share test results as part of their quality assurance. “If the teams get similar results,” he explains, “they know they’re on target.” Because data are entered into a SITE database that students all over the state can access for research, accuracy is critical.
What’s more, the team approach to research allows all learners to contribute, no matter how diverse their skill levels or how different their learning styles. “Out in the field, they all can be active participants,” Beckwith says. “Nobody’s sitting on the bench. When they come back into the classroom, they can share their data. Every number offers some valuable information.
David Redfield, a professor of chemistry at Northwest Nazarene University in addition to being co-director of SITE, is convinced that such projects “are not just for the elite students. It’s amazing to see kids who are not particularly strong in traditional classroom settings step up and take on a leadership role on a team. They all can use their strengths.
At the university, teamwork skills are valued, Redfield notes. The depth of science literacy that SITE fosters should help prepare students for the rigor of college-level work. “By the time they reach the university, we should be seeing students who are further along as scientists,” he predicts.
SITE not only introduces students to the process of scientific inquiry, Redfield says, but also gives them enough practice in fieldwork so they can start to become confident researchers. “It’s important for them to go out at least three times during the school year to gather data,” he explains. “The first time they do the tests, it feels like a lab exercise. They’re just learning how to use the equipment, take the measurements. But by going into the real world to gather data, then returning to the classroom to analyze results, they can start to look for patterns. They ask questions to figure out why they got the results they did. It becomes a real experience—the numbers have relevance.”
As students repeat the data-gathering process, “the repetition builds their skills,” Redfield says. “If the data seem off, they can take a close look at how they’re collecting samples. That’s a problem-solving exercise right there—to figure out how to correct their methods in the field. They start to know enough to question results if the numbers seem flawed or wrong. That takes confidence.” As students repeat the cycle of posing a hypothesis, gathering data, and analyzing results, “it takes them deeper and deeper into understanding what’s happening, and why,” Redfield says. “When they’re confident about their numbers, then they can move on to ask: What are these numbers telling us? Why did the oxygen go down? What else changed? Is there a relationship, a pattern?”
Beckwith also takes a long-term view of where Project SITE might lead. “Once they learn to use this model, students should be able to apply scientific inquiry to questions of their own. There should be some students in every class who get really excited, really curious. They can take off on their own investigations,” he says.
He’s seen it happen. One of his former students became curious about Mars, and went on to design an experiment that won a national competition sponsored by NASA. Another girl had to miss some class time because her family was traveling to India. She packed along a water quality kit and tested samples of the Ganges and other rivers, which she compared to the water quality of Idaho rivers.
Recently, Beckwith received an e-mail from a student, now a junior in college, asking for a letter of reference for graduate school applications. It was in his biology class, doing Project SITE, that she did her first fieldwork and became inspired to become a scientist. Beckwith will know when project-based learning really takes off in Idaho and transforms the culture of the classroom, “because we’ll be flooded with letters like that one. It’s far better than any test score,” he says, “for measuring success.”
What’s in SITE?
Teachers currently involved in Project SITE recently came together for an all-day workshop to share information about their classroom activities. Their experiences show that project-based teaching methods can work in a variety of settings and appeal to a wide range of learners. Among the examples:
At Kuna High School, students can start participating in SITE activities as freshmen, in Ken Lewis‘s ninth-grade biology class. “We focus on ecology, and use SITE to explore biotic indicators like macro invertebrates. Working in groups, they come up with some great hypotheses,” he says. Later, when students take chemistry and physics, they use SITE inquiry methods again. “I see a bump in their understanding,” says teacher Mike Weidenfeld. “They have better techniques, deeper understanding.” In chemistry, for example, he uses SITE “as a springboard.” Collecting water samples “gets kids to ask questions like, Why is ph important?”
Roy Gasparotti teaches a yearlong projects class for seventh-graders at New Plymouth Middle School and says SITE “fits right in. Interdisciplinary projects are part of our curriculum.” He asks students to assess whether water samples “are good or bad. Then they develop PowerPoint presentations with their data. It’s more fun for kids to work with their own numbers, to graph data they have collected. It’s more meaningful to them.” Fellow teacher Craig Mefford works with the same students on writing their hypotheses and making carefully worded observations.
Will Zollman, who teaches agricultural science at Midvale Junior-Senior High, took a SITE training session on weeds last summer, along with his superintendent and a school board member. So district support for project-based learning is a given. “This has added to my teaching,” he says. “It’s made me look at weeds in a different way—how do they affect rangeland? What can we do about them?” Those are questions he hopes to have his students exploring through fieldwork this spring.
Steve DeMers, who teaches at Eagle High School, has been involved with SITE for three years. “I want to take it a step further,” he says, to get students to consider deeper questions after they have gathered data. He has students use their test results to create graphs with Excel software. “Then I ask them to look for trends. What should a graph look like? Can they explain what’s happening, and why? I’m trying to get them to recognize patterns.”
John Pedersen, a middle school teacher in Nampa, took a SITE workshop early in his teaching career and has been using project-based methods ever since. This year, students are doing water and weather studies. “One student trains the next to enter data,” he explains.
Chad Anzen at Fruitland High School is starting to see students who have had the benefit of project-based learning as early as middle school. “We have a middle school teacher who does SITE, and I’m getting those kids now in high school. They take off so much faster. They act like teachers themselves,” he says, “helping their classmates understand how to do field tests.” By the time the same students take advanced biology, he adds, “they’re ready to go to the step of analyzing. It’s exciting.”