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 Ballard.
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, 2012.