A Real World Approach

Improving education in the environmental-science classroom in middle schools and high schools by moving toward a more project-based curriculum

Industry experts are frequently asked by teachers, professional associations, and their own relatives to relay their expertise to the science classroom, either in person or through a site tour. This request for more school participation from environmental professionals will probably increase as the United States strives to deliver more practical examples to students. This article focuses on the environmental-science classroom and provides some insight for a successful class experience from a professional-teacher perspective.

The right atmosphere for learning is necessary in any science classroom, including environmental-science classes. Such conditions include an ambient classroom culture that is nurturing to students' deep understanding of environmental-science and ecological issues. There are many factors that when combined can produce conducive learning conditions. Two will be explored here, appropriate instructional tasks and encouragement of student participation (i.e., learning by participation). First, appropriate tasks and learning by participation will be defined, and then implications and applications of these aspects will be discussed. The two elements will be shown to be part of the classroom system that ideally engages students for improved learning about the environment.

Overall, environmental learning experiences (classroom and outdoor activities) may focus on three goals: students' expectations for the class match instructor expectations (assuming the instructor has appropriate expectations), students "ask questions when clarification is needed;" and students feel the learning situation "is a safe one for them to engage in dialogue" (Michael and Modell, 2003, p. 66). Furthermore, the acclaimed educational theorist John Dewey stated that it is the educator's business to "arrange for the kind of experiences which, while they do not repel the student, but rather engage his activities are, nevertheless, more than immediately enjoyable since they promote having desirable future experiences" (Dewey, 1997, p. 27). Appropriate instructional tasks and encouragement of student participation in those tasks (learning by participation in project-based environmental education) are expected to promote desirable future experiences.

Instructional Tasks
Instructional (or academic) tasks are classroom activities that focus student attention on a particular instructional idea, concept, or skill. Education researchers Stein, Grover, & Henningsen note that instructional conditions of project classrooms they studied "shaped the manner in which high-level tasks were implemented. ... In most of these tasks, the classroom situations were characterized by a wide variety of supports that enabled students to accept and take on challenges in productive ways" (p. 482).

To develop appropriate environmental-instruction tasks, teachers must have a sufficient prior knowledge of students' attitudes, interests, aptitude, developmental level, and physical abilities. The first two conditions, students' attitudes and interests, are important to know because according to the "collaborative inquiry" approach, it is likely that "robust knowledge and understandings are socially constructed through talk, activity, and interaction around meaningful problems, tasks, and tools. In collaborative inquiry, teachers guide and support students as they explore problems and define questions that are of interest to them" (Rosebery, Warren, & Conant, 1992).

Knowledge of students' aptitude and developmental level, the third and fourth condition mentioned above, is important so that tasks are not too easy or too difficult for the class; and, the final condition, students' ability to physically perform tasks, must be considered in order to develop workable instructional tasks.

Once such student conditions are addressed, a teacher must contemplate the goals of his/her tasks and the teacher's own environmental knowledge. A clear understanding of the goal(s) to be accomplished with the instructional task is necessary, because without such understanding development of appropriate tasks is less likely as is knowledge of when the goal has been achieved.

In addition, a successful task-based educational experience is more likely if the instructor has a deep understanding of the environmental material to be taught. In many cases, this level of understanding can be gained by carefully studying the content of the curriculum/instructional material. An instructor who lacks some understanding in the environmental subject matter, however, may actually be at an advantage over an instructor who is an expert in the field, because while developing a deeper understanding of the material, the learning teacher can formulate techniques to help their own learners to learn the material.

Learning by Participation
Besides developing appropriate environmental instruction tasks, teachers must involve students in his or her own learning. One way to involve students is to encourage their participation in the tasks. Learning by participation refers to students being involved in project-based education. Our definition of projects is open-ended problems or questions that involve students in the construction of their own understanding and learning of environmental science. This type of education changes the atmosphere of the classroom. The role of the teacher changes from the provider of facts, knowledge, and procedures to the learning guide. Students' roles change from the passive receivers of this information to active participants and collaborators in their own learning. Can this type of education help the learner to learn? Numerous educational research studies have show that it can. (Boaler, 2002, for example, described two schools using diverse teaching styles with ten year old mathematics students where substantial learning improvement was demonstrated using project-based education.)

A goal of every teacher is to help students to learn. Perhaps a transition away from traditional textbook learning will help achieve this goal. There needs to be a move toward more project-based environmental education, encouraging students' participation in their own learning. Environmental project-based learning can be incorporated into more-traditional "by the book" environmental education, but adjusting the scope of the curriculum and allowing more time for creative, hands-on (and minds-on) project work -- both in the classroom and in the field.

Using Examples Based on Factual Data
The concept of "density" is important to environmental issues. Whether it be the contaminant mass in a volume of water or air, or the amount of solids in a landfill, real-world examples can be relayed to students to help them conceptualize density. For instance, students can gain a concrete understanding of water-quality standards by adding a measured mass (in milligrams) of contaminant to a volume (one liter) of pure water, to produce the equivalent of the standard they discover from a literature/internet search. The flow-weighted average annual salinity below Hoover Dam, for example, has been 723 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Students can readily reproduce this value to experience the qualities of water contamination at this level and explore methods to improve the quality.

Instituting changes in order to achieve meaningful student participation in environmental-science classes has many implications. To successfully achieve the two aspects described in this article will affect the entire structure of the instructional process, most importantly the teacher's instructional goals. Teachers must consider what they want students to learn and incorporate that knowledge into their instructional goals. Otherwise, students could be left to flounder in this new type of environmental-inquiry learning situation. The teacher needs to consider providing students with the appropriate scaffolding (constructive support) to ensure a successful learning experience.

These types of participatory learning activities are different from what exists in most classrooms. Therefore, instructional goals could include "lead up" subgoals such as cooperation and collaboration, problem solving, experimental design, and data collection. Students can find "changes" to traditional types of instruction both perplexing and frustrating. Barab, Barnett, Yamagata-Lynch, Squire, and Keating (2002), in their study of an introductory astronomy course, observed many student tensions due to this "new" project-based course. Students found it very unsettling that the role of the instructor had changed. The classroom had changed from teacher-centered learning to student-directed learning. The tensions in this classroom seemed to have some detrimental effects on student learning. This study exemplifies the need for environmental-instruction goals that include helping the students to learn how to more effectively participate in inquiry types of activities.

According to education researcher Walter Doyle, "An understanding of the classroom factors that shape students' work is essential for addressing meaningfully the issues surrounding curriculum reform and instructional improvement in any subject field." (Doyle, 1988, p. 168) This paper discussed two factors important to improvement of student work in environmental science. Appropriate instructional tasks along with encouragement of student participation in those tasks are two factors shown to assist student learners with their learning and to promote desirable future experiences. But neither of these two aspects can be achieved unless the relationship of these aspects to environmental-instruction goals is addressed. Industry experts can be valuable to classroom experience by providing real-world examples and activities that supplement instructional tasks and attend to instructional goals.

Barab, S. A., Barnett, M., Yamagata-Lynch, L., Squire, K., & Keating, T. (2002). Using activity theory to understand the systemic tensions characterizing a technology-rich introductory astronomy course. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 9, pp 76-107.

Boaler, J. (2002). In Experiencing School Mathematics, Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, pp 24-136.

Dewey, J. (1997).Experience and Education (Rev. ed. orig. publ. 1938). New York, N.Y.: Touchstone.

Doyle, W. (1988). "Work in Mathematics Classes: The Context of Students' Thinking during Instruction." Educational Psychologist. 23(2), pp 167-180.

Michael, J.A. & Modell, H.I. (2003). Active Learning in the Secondary and College Science Classrooms: A Working Model for Helping the Learner to Learn. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Roseberry, A. S., Warren, B., & Conant, F. R. (1992). "Appropriating Scientific Discourse: Findings from Language Minority Classrooms." Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2, pp 61-94.

Stein, M. K., Grover, B.W., & Henningsen, M.A. (1996). "Building Student Capacity for Mathematical Thinking and Reasoning: An Analysis of Mathematical Tasks Used in Reform Classrooms." American Educational Research Journal. 33(2), pp 455-448.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Authors

Kathleen J. (Kathy) Kniff is head of the Secondary Science Department at Greater Latrobe High School in Latrobe, Pa. Kniff is a civil engineer with more than 14 years of experience in high-school education. She is also working toward a PhD in Science Education at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Education.

Anthony J. (Tony) Sadar, CCM is a certified consulting meteorologist (CCM), founder of Environmental Science Communication, LLC, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000). Sadar holds graduate degrees in both environmental science and science education.

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