Disadvantaged youth showed improved academic performance after participating in an environmental and science education program using a head-heart-hands approach

Jagannathan, R., Camasso, M. J., & Delacalle, M. (2018). The effectiveness of a head-heart-hands model for natural and environmental science learning in urban schools. Evaluation And Program Planning, 66, 53-62. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2017.09.001

The academic achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students remains disturbingly large despite many programs designed to address the problem. These disappointing results may be due, in part, to low dosages of program treatment. Nurture thru Nature (NtN) was designed to overcome the limitations of some environmental science interventions targeted at disadvantaged youth. Towards this end, NtN was developed around a clear conceptualization of purpose, sufficient treatment dosage, and a strong evaluation design.

NtN seeks to improve the academic performance of students in disadvantaged communities and to increase their interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) careers. The program emphasizes environmental and natural science but also seeks to improve student proficiency in language arts and mathematics. The program is modeled on a Head-Heart-Hands approach, consistent with current efforts to foster environmental understanding and sustainability. This approach is also consistent with John Dewey's philosophy of active learning, which involves the simultaneous engagement of student's intellect, emotions, and body.

Rutgers University, the New Brunswick School District in New Jersey, and the Johnson & Johnson company serve as partners for the NtN program, which includes after-school and summer sessions for elementary students.  During the academic year, NtN is delivered after school for 3 hours a day, 2 days a week; and during the summer months of July and August, the program runs 7.5 hours a day, 3 days a week. Activities – which are project-based and include hands-on experiments –are aligned with the school district's academic curriculum. The schoolyard – which includes a water feature, butterfly and caterpillar gardens, an organic vegetable garden, and a composting station -- is used extensively for many of the NtN activities.

The research component of the project is based on a classical experimental design with random assignment. Seven cohorts of students participated in the study – some assigned to the NtN group; others serving as a control group.  All cohorts participated in the program over a period of 3 to 7 years. One cohort had to be dropped before the end of the study due to insufficient data. Impact measures (based on the six remaining cohorts) included (a) end-of-year grades in mathematics, language arts, and science and (b) scores from a science knowledge assessment, which included questions about student interest in STEM.  Information was also collected on the number of days students were absent or tardy.

While results showed that the program did not have a uniformly positive impact on all the cohorts, there were some significant positive results. Three of the six NtN cohorts showed significant, consistent and positive changes in their math grades compared to their control group peers. Four of the six showed considerable positive and significant changes in their school science grades. All six cohorts showed significant gains in their science knowledge compared to the control groups. These findings indicate that an environmental and science education program using a head-heart-hands approach can improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students.

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