Study Looks at Students’ Action Competence in Environmental Education March 2012
Effective environmental education seeks to provide high school
students with a greater understanding of scientific concepts, an
increased sense of ownership for the environment, and a drive to
take action on behalf of the environment.
Heidi Ballard, assistant professor of environmental education,
recently completed a study to determine if a combination of
hands-on environmental restoration, classroom engagement, and
writing can increase student understanding of scientific concepts
and drive students’ environmental stewardship.
“Environmental education is often focused on acquisition of
knowledge or behavior change,” explained Ballard. “I am
interested in whether we can move to a different model of
‘action-competence.’ In this model, we can bridge science and
civic engagement to provide opportunities for students to not
only appreciate the natural world but also to understand how they
can solve environmental problems through action.”
For the study, Ballard and education PhD student Erin Hardie
teamed up with colleagues at the Center for Land-Based Learning
to study the learning outcomes of three public high school
science classes (60 students) in the California Central Valley
who attended five days of habitat restoration and wrote pre- and
post-field day reflections on their understanding of the
scientific concepts and outcomes of their work.
Though the study found little quantitative increase in students’
understanding of basic ecological concepts, the results do
indicate that students’ understanding of the impact of their work
in the field and their sense of ownership and competence about
the work did increase.
“The stewardship attitude scores jumped immediately following the
field day, and students themselves pointed out how important
knowledge and understanding was to their sense of ownership and
competence with respect to their restoration projects,” said
Teachers who were interviewed for the study noted the importance
of combining learning of abstract scientific concepts in the
writing prompts with applied experience of the field days.
“I think there is pretty clear-cut evidence that students are
understanding the science,” said one teacher. “They can take what
they learn in the classroom and apply it right away. When you
talk about habitats and nutrient cycles, they can understand it
better than any other AP biology class on campus.”
Ballard and her team present “Building Bridges between Science
Classrooms and Working Landscapes through Collaborative
Environmental Education Research” at the annual conference of the
American Educational Research Association on Friday, April 13,
Heidi Ballard is the Founder and Faculty Director of the Center
for Community and Citizen Science. You can find more information
about her past and current projects, and sign up for occasional
updates at the Center’s website.