Research Summary

Ninth grade students’ mental models of the marine environment and their implications for environmental science education in Taiwan

Mental models, or drawings, demonstrates students’ limited ocean literacy

The Journal of Environmental Education
2020

The marine environment plays a vital role in regulating our drinking water, weather, climate, coastline, and our food. Yet, it has faced extreme degradation in recent years, primarily from human activities, which in turn effects human health and wellbeing. Many countries have identified the need to provide youth with the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions about marine environment-related issues. For example, Taiwan has integrated marine education into the K-12 curriculum to increase ocean literacy among young individuals. Although the implementation of marine education is beneficial to increasing ocean literacy, research has shown that students still may not fully understand the interconnectedness of the marine environment. It is essential to assess students’ understanding of the marine environment post-programming to determine how curricula must change to grow individuals’ environmentally literacy. The purpose of this study was to understand Taiwanese 9th grade students’ systematic knowledge of the marine environment through mental models (MMs). Specifically, the researchers sought to answer three questions:
What are participants’ MMs or images of the marine environment?
How do they perceive marine issues?
What is the correlation between the models and perceived marine issues?

Mental models show individuals’ internal and personal representation of reality via drawings. They can identify concepts or issues that someone may not fully grasp through the lack of interconnectedness between their images. For example, someone may create an image of a reservoir, but draw it as an isolated image devoid of life. The lack of vegetation and animals represents a disconnect between the environment and how it impacts living organisms. Mental models are a useful tool to identify areas where curricula may need to be adjusted to create more impactful programming.

This study was conducted at a public school in Taiwan; 128 students (14-15 years old), from three science classes participated in the study. The researchers selected 9th grade because it is the final year of mandatory schooling in Taiwan. The researchers distributed surveys that included a drawing activity and a set of two-tier questions. They provided a prompt for the drawing activity that asked students to draw a picture of what the marine environment looks like with a written description of the image. The researchers analyzed the images with a four-factor rubric-inclusion of humans, other organisms, physical environment, and the designed environment-to determine the score of the image. The researchers scored the MMs on a 0-8 range, with 8 representing the highest possible score. These scores were separated into three levels: Level 1, scores from 0-2; Level 2, scores from 3-5; and Level 3, scores from 6-8. The higher the score an image received, the greater systematic understanding of the marine environment a student had. The researcher then analyzed the additional questions for common themes.

Overall, the study found that majority of the participants did not have a systematic understanding of the marine environment. Most participants were able to identify the marine environment as a natural space that was impacted by humans. However, only a few participants included the concept that humans rely on the ocean for food or resources, or ways in which the currents of the ocean impact the atmosphere and climate. This showed that while students understood the basic structure of the marine environment and ways humans impact it, they did not fully understand it as a systematic unit.

Question 1: What are participants mental models or images of the marine environment?
The majority of participants (63%) created drawings within Level 2. Additionally, the researchers found that majority of participants (86%) did not include humans in their pictures, while many participants (72%) included human-made objects, e.g. trash, sewage. These objects were frequently seen interacting with other factors, such as fish consuming a piece of garbage.

Question 2: How do they perceive marine issues?
The researchers found that participants were concerned about various marine problems and scored many problems as serious issues. Participants most frequently mentioned pollution as a marine issue, followed by global warming and overexploitation of marine resources. Students, however, were less aware of more recently relevant issues such as overfishing, ocean acidification, warming, and coastal land changes. The researchers thought coastal development may have led students to not consider those areas part of the marine environment and noted school textbooks could have influenced students’ understanding of marine issues.

Question 3: What is the correlation between the models and perceived marine issues?
The researchers found that students with a greater systematic understanding of the marine environment perceived a greater range of marine related issues. Those who scored higher on their MMs typically detailed more complex marine issues in their MMs than those with lower scores.

This study had some limitations. The small sample size and location can limit generalizability of the results, particularly in regards to comparing curricula across countries. Additionally, the study took place in a large harbor city of southern Tawain. Students there may have had more exposure to marine related issues than those who do not live near the coast, again limiting the generalizability of the results across countries.

Part of this research shows how mental models can provide a personalized understanding of individuals’ views and knowledge on certain issues. The researchers recommend integrating MMs into curricula to assess students’ environmental literacy. Further, the researchers recommend utilizing MMs throughout the school year to provide teachers the opportunity to observe how students’ knowledge changes throughout the year. This can allow for programming changes based on students’ comprehension of the content. Additionally, the researchers recommend providing educators professional development programs on MMs. Last, the mental models the students produced in this study suggest that environmental science education in Taiwan has promoted a pollution-oriented view of the environment rather than a conceptual view of the environment. Thus, education should focus on building student's awareness on marine environment issues beyond pollution and focus more on the interconnectedness between humans and the ocean.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this study was to understand Taiwanese ninth grade students’ systematic knowledge of the marine environment through mental models (MMs), or images. The study took place in Taiwan, where 128 students completed a survey with a drawing component. The study found that majority of the participants did not have a systematic understanding of the marine environment. .. The mental models in this study suggest that students in Taiwan are less aware of marine issues beyond pollution such as overfishing, ocean acidification, warming, and coastal land changes. Thus, education should focus on building students’ conceptual understanding of diverse and interconnected marine-environment issues. The researchers recommend integrating MMs into curricula, specifically requiring students to complete various MMs throughout the school year to assess students’ environmental literacy and determine if it has improved.