The purpose of this experimental study was to evaluate the effectiveness of a natural science and environmental education program in helping students in disadvantaged urban schools improve their grades and become more knowledgeable in the areas of science and nature. The development of the program – referred to as Nurture thru Nature (NtN) – was motivated by concerns over the achievement gap in science and mathematics between students in New Brunswick, New Jersey's inner-city schools and the state's suburban schools.
Randomly-selected students from four New Brunswick elementary schools participated in a 2-day, 6 hours per week after-school program and a 3-day, 7.5 hours per day summer program from fourth grade through the end of seventh grade. These students served as the experimental group for this study. Randomly assigned, same-age students from the same schools served as the control group. The NtN curriculum emphasized active learning and ecological sustainability. Student activities included the creation and maintenance of NtN naturescapes, labs, and gardens on the school grounds. Principal components of a NtN naturescape include a water feature (typically a pond with a waterfall), butterﬂy and caterpillar gardens, a vegetable garden, and a composting station. The curriculum and related student activities were designed to excite students about the wonders of nature and natural science. This excitement, in turn, could lead to improved science and math performance. The NtN program represented a collaborative community effort involving Rutgers University, Johnson & Johnson, and New Brunswick, New Jersey, public schools. Faculty and students from a variety of disciplines at Rutgers served as instructors for NtN. They also participated in math and language arts tutoring, helped with homework, and trained middle school students to tutor elementary school students.
Researchers collected outcome data at the beginning and end of the academic year, including student grades in mathematics, science, and language arts obtained from report cards and the school system's academic reporting database. The results of an additional science assessment were also used as outcome data. This science assessment was designed by NtN staff and administered by classroom teachers to students in both the experimental and control groups.
The data showed a consistent, positive difference in math, language arts, and science grades between the NtN and control group students that persist from fourth grade through seventh grade. However, statistical significance is not reached in some comparisons, particularly for math. The strongest effect was for science learning outcomes. This research indicates that the NtN program was successful in improving students' grades and knowledge of science and nature. The researchers attribute the program's success to a number of features including reliance on outdoor gardens, naturescapes, personalized science projects, hands-on experiments, and natural science curriculum. They do indicate, however, that conclusive evidence for NtN's impact on reducing the performance gap between disadvantaged and more privileged students requires replications over time and across schools.