Teaching Science, Encouraging Environmental Stewardship, and Developing Student Ethics in the 8th Grade Environmental Science Course at Sidwell Friend
by Doug Ross, Friends Central School
The goal of our 8th grade environmental science course at Sidwell Friends is to help our students understand how natural processes provide for the needs of all living things, how human behavior can interfere with these processes with disastrous consequences, and how we can live sustainably by following Nature’s laws. We do this by teaching science within the context of significant environmental issues.
Because our goals include more than simply teaching science, we face a challenge: maintaining the scientific rigor that the school expects without making the course too “soft” or take class time away from “pure” science. In many schools, “environmental science” is considered to be less rigorous that biology, chemistry, or physics, and is even reserved for the students thought to be less scientifically-capable. In delivering the course, we seek to balance a tension between two important goals—trying to ensure that our students have the knowledge and commitment to adopt sustainable lifestyles while at the same time mastering the science material demanded by our upper school.
We maintain that this is not only possible, but preferable. First, regarding feasibility: So many significant environmental issues exist that teachers can, with a little thought, find just the right issues to frame the scientific concepts they want to cover. In our case, we want to look at a range of topics in biology, ecology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. Some examples of how we fit these concepts into environmental issues:
Issue: Biological Diversity Loss (What categories of life are endangered, where are they found, why are they endangered, what can be done to save them, and most importantly why should we care)
Science Concepts: Ecology – symbiosis, pollination, seed dispersal, food webs, niche; evolution (convergent/divergent evolution explaining the special vulnerability and strangeness of island organisms)
Issue: Global Climate Change
Science Concepts: Review of preliminary physical science concepts – atomic theory, physical/chemical change, the periodic table, the electromagnetic spectrum; energy flow through ecosystems, photosynthesis, the law of conservation of matter and energy, the carbon cycle
Issue: Water Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay
Science Concepts: Nutrient cycles (nitrogen, phosphorus)
Issue: Human Population Growth
Science Concepts: Carrying capacity, Soil formation and erosion
We also strongly believe that framing science concepts within the context of environmental issues is preferable:
Making the relevance of the science course clear to the students is a highly effective motivator. We don’t get comments such as “I want to be a lawyer; why do I need to know this stuff?” Obviously, students are going to focus more consistently and work harder in a subject they feel is important.
We also believe that Quaker schools have a special obligation to encourage wise environmental stewardship. Friends have historically refused to stand on the sidelines in struggles for justice and peace. It is hard to imagine a world in which people can live peaceably, with dignity, and in good physical and spiritual health where the environment is deteriorating and people are deprived of the resources they need to prosper. Simplicity and living sustainably go hand in hand, as does a reverence for life and protecting biological diversity.
It often seems to us that we science teachers forget why we are teaching science in the first place. We maintain that we are NOT in the business of training scientists, engineers, physicians, and pharmacists, any more than we are training lawyers, diplomats, and historians. This is especially evident in middle school. Why spend our time training kids for professions that only a small minority is going to enter? Our job is to help create a scientifically and environmentally-literate citizenry, one that understands important scientific concepts and can think critically and creatively. With this in mind, we avoid vocabulary and skills that only a lab technician or other professional are going to want to know. Instead, we concentrate on material that every citizen really should know. This material is vital to understanding how we can live sustainably, and it’s hard to think of a more important reason to teach science than that.
At course’s end, we give the students a summary of the environmental and scientific concepts that we have covered during the year and ask each to consider the summary and compose a personal environmental ethic statement that describes his/her environmental values and how he/she intends to live his/her life. We take these statements and put them into their 8th grade time capsules – manila envelopes with mementos of their middle school experience. The school gives the time capsules back to the students when they are graduating seniors. In this way, we reinforce the idea that the 8th grade course is meant to be relevant to the students’ lives, not just to prepare them for 9th grade. We also hope that the statements really do remind them, after four years of high school, of the commitments they made to themselves in middle school to work toward helping make the world a better place for people everywhere and for all other living things that share this fragile and beautiful planet with us.
by Doug Ross, Friends Central School
Your argument is consistent with research on the direction we need to be heading in the Information Age or as I prefer, in Carl Bereiter's terminology, the Knowledge Age, that context (or meaningfulness), along with the ability to evaluate and create knowledge will be the driving force of progress and employment in the next decades. Knowing specific, but unconnected facts will not be as useful as demonstrating understanding by using facts and skills to solve problems, or finding, evaluating, and using knowledge in a social context, which is what a strong environmental education course can provide. Memorizing chemical formulas seems redundant when technologically savvy students with access to high speed Internet can find them in seconds. A more pertinent problem lies in being overwhelmed with information. Students can sort through this if they have a sense of the context of why information is important and they have developed good epistemological habits to identify good sources and strong arguments.
"Hard science" is part of the environmental science curriculum and is enhanced if the work students are doing is meaningful. For example, my eighth grade students will submit a final report on the health of the stream we are studying. The best versions will accompany my reports to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The students must develop their own criteria for stream and riparian "health" based on our chemical and biological tests, influenced by our exploration of biodiversity. Their data must be recorded using appropriate significant figures, and they must analyze it with simple statistical tools that are accepted in the community of scientists. Along the way, it is logical that the students be able to make and interpret solubility graphs, understand pH and simple chemical processes, and know the grammar of chemical equations—all accepted as "hard" science. What you are describing is good teaching.
The passion we have for connecting our teaching to an appreciation of nature and an understanding of environmental principals is not just its efficacy. Teaching for a purpose is consistent to the mission of Quaker schools, to prepare not only competent people, but committed, competent people, i.e. students who care about the interrelated global and local communities. Cutting edge science is now focusing on systems. What better way than to consider the ecosystems that sustain all life, including our own!
"In Richard Louv's (2005) recent book, he quotes one of his children as saying, 'What's the relationship between God and Mother Nature-- are they married or just friends?' I'd like to bring that question down to earth ... What's the relationship between School and Mother Nature? Are they divorced or committed to working on a long term relationship?" (in Sobel, David; Childhood and nature: design principles for educators. 2008: Stenhouse, Portland Maine. pp.1)