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The instruction and learning of science today is particularly critical because society is increasingly more reliant on technology. At the same time, recent studies show that student science scores have not been encouraging. This lack of scientific understanding in general translates into a weak understanding of the principles of environmental science. Pedagogical research within the past twenty years can be applied to meet the challenge of improving student performance and cognition in environmental science.

To understand the challenge of environmental science education, we must first get a better understanding of the students' basic knowledge and thought processes in learning science. Student difficulties arise from various sources including:

  • Their naïve conceptions, misconceptions and preconceptions (qualitative, "common-sense" beliefs) about the physical world;
  • Their fragmented and incorrectly interpreted knowledge;
  • Their lack of awareness of differences between the goals of daily life and the domain of science; and
  • Even the classroom textbooks often lack sufficient qualitative, practical explanations.

Student science cognition troubles can be compounded by emphasis in science education on simply relaying scientific facts or training students to perform quantitative manipulations using formulas to solve typical or "textbook" problems. Such education is conducted without helping students to integrate and apply conceptual knowledge (qualitative inference) based on formal methods and informal reasoning.

Students should be provided real-world examples of challenges and solutions in environmental science from personal experience or the inclusion of guest speakers with "real-world" experience.

For the typical student, learning science does not come "naturally," and will require some proven intervention. Solutions to the student science education dilemma can be found in a variety of didactic methods. In general, the challenge is to teach thinking/organization and problem-solving skills. Specifically, the techniques that can be readily applied to environmental-science instruction include:

  • Problem-solving strategies
  • : Many general and specific strategies exist. For example, a five-step general strategy I have used for environmental technicians to practice solving "word problems" and to especially stress the importance of units of measure includes: 1) Read the problem carefully and think. Understand the information given and determine what solution is desired; 2) Make sure all units are in the same system, either metric or English, and write down the units of the final answer; 3) Find the appropriate equation(s) to solve the problem; 4) Insert appropriate quantities into the equation(s) and solve them documenting how you arrived at your answer; and 5) Ask yourself, does the answer have the proper units and the right magnitude, and does the answer make sense? Students are also encouraged to produce a diagram that depicts the information provided and that indicates the information needed.
  • Guidance from or example of experts ("expert solutions")
  • : Students should be provided real-world examples of challenges and solutions in environmental science from personal experience or the inclusion of guest speakers with "real-world" experience.
  • Organization of complex knowledge (knowledge structure)
  • : Use of hierarchical structure in a given scientific discipline can help students organize, recall, use and retain key information. The scientific knowledge must also be highly coherent, allowing many concepts to be inferred from a few. For example, at a high organizational level, most environmental science issues involving a pollutant that is emitted, dispersed and received can be framed as "Source à Dispersion à Receptor" relationships. Each component can be evaluated separately and their relationship explored with students to help them understand the interdependence of the whole "environmental system."
  • Provision of procedure for generating theoretical problem description
  • : Students need effective ways to describe problems to facilitate the most-efficient problem solutions, while learning to validate their reasoning and solutions.
  • Encouraging students to summarize (self-review), question, clarify and predict
  • : To foster comprehension and to assist students with monitoring their own progress, classroom activities can include student self-review, questioning (composing questions on main ideas), clarifying issues and predicting outcomes. In addition, educators need to help students grasp exact definitions of key terms, so that these definitions can be used to understand and solve problems.
  • Conduct "real-world" field exercises
  • : Such activities can give students "hands-on" experience in air- and water- quality sampling, for example, and can include field trips to local regulatory agencies or firms that make these measurements.
  • View errors as potential sources of learning
  • : From test results or lab work common errors or misconceptions can be analyzed with the class to help students learn from their mistakes and to develop means to avoid typical errors.

Getting students to identify or generate (interpret) an environmental concept properly in a given instance is a complicated cognitive task. The challenge is to present information in such a way as to be as intuitive as possible for students. They should be encouraged to ask questions. Students should be discouraged from memorizing facts as opposed to remembering beneficial scientific information. And, teachers should operate under the concept that there is "no learning without active processing."

The challenge is to present information in such a way as to be as intuitive as possible for students.

To achieve comprehension and retention of even rudimentary environmental technology, thinking exercises (active processing) should be increased in classroom presentations. For example, an explanation of wastewater treatment system operation can begin with a list of the composition of water contaminants. Then challenge students to "design" the components of the treatment system based on their knowledge of the incoming water composition. Provide the students with the typical treatment stages (preliminary, primary, secondary and tertiary) to guide their construction. This helps the students to think through the process for themselves and to decide what makes sense from an efficiency and design standpoint.

Beyond simply a "thinking exercise," high-school students experience a simulated wastewater treatment operations in "Sewer Science," an award-winning, seven-day lab used in California. This lab is a joint project of the city of Palo Alto, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District and South Bayside System Authority. Besides teaching the basic concepts of wastewater treatment, the Sewer Science training module goals include exposing students to water quality analytical methods and linking science and technology to environmental issues, among other things. (See Water & Wastewater Products, May/June 2002 or visit www.city.palo-alto.ca.us/cleanbay/highschool.html for more details.)

Finally, educators often teach too broadly and not too deeply, so students leave class with a shallow understanding of science. This produces a loose grasp of the fundamentals of science that can be problematic in more-advanced science and technical courses. A superficial grasp of science can even limit a student's comprehension of the latest advances in technology, including environmental technology. Thus, whether in school or society, the student suffers from an insufficient science education.


A variety of education assistance programs exist through professional societies. For example:

Air & Waste Management Association (AWMA)

AWMA's Teacher-Training Program utilizes their Environmental Resource Guides (ERGs) - Air Quality and Nonpoint Source Pollution Prevention series. For more information about AWMA's curriculum, materials or teacher-training, visit www.awma.org.

Water Environment Federation (WEF)

WEF's The Water Sourcebook series provides hands-on activities and "covers today's most important water environment topics." Visit www.wef.org for more information on grade-specific activities and resources.

American Meteorological Society (AMS)

AMS's Project ATMOSPHERE and Water in the Earth System project are designed for primary and secondary education levels. These programs address environmental topics, such as human impact on the environment on a local to global scale. See www.ametsoc.org/AMS/amsedu for additional information.

This article originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 13, No. 8, p. 47.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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