Though science education and environmental education (EE) have been considered as separate disciplines, their missions and teaching methods are complementary. Therefore, there is an opportunity to integrate the two disciplines in light of the recent educational shifts in the United States to prioritizing systems-thinking and adaptability in K-12 settings based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). For example, the foundation of science education has moved from learning about science principles to solving problems and making decisions based on science. Similarly, EE has shifted from learning about the environment to learning problem-solving and informed actions for the environment. Some science educators have suggested using storylines as a curriculum tool to help students learn about a science principle. Storylines are learning experiences in which a problem, event, or idea is at the center, and activities build on this central theme or question over time. Storylines engage students through questioning, investigating, analyzing, modeling, and interpreting through science and engineering best practices. This study sought to determine how a storyline curriculum unit could be designed to integrate both EE and science education goals, and whether the unit contributed to higher Nature Relatedness (NR) scores in a science classroom.
The study was conducted between November 2018 and February 2019 in fifth and sixth grade science classrooms in two schools in Illinois. One school was a rural, public K-8 school near central Illinois while the other school was a suburban, private K-8 school near northern Illinois. A total of 81 students (aged 10 to 12 years old) participated, and 65 of them completed the NR pre-and post-surveys. The storyline for the study was based on non-harmful algal blooms and was created using a storyline model and the 2019 NAAEE's Guidelines for Excellence series. Non-harmful algal blooms in freshwater systems are common in Illinois and the content matter is aligned with Illinois learning standards on ecosystems, dynamics, and anthropogenic impacts. At the start of the storyline unit, students were directed to observe photos of water bodies with and without algal blooms and develop questions and a subsequent investigation process into the causes for algal blooms. Then they developed models and grew algae samples. Toward the end of the storyline unit, they were asked to come up with ways to prevent non-harmful algal blooms in the future. The teachers were given detailed lesson plans to guide them over the course of the 11 lessons. These lessons took place over the course of 20 days of classroom learning which spanned about four to six weeks due to the time it took to grow and observe algae samples. Students were also administered NR pre- and post-surveys that included 21 scaled questions to measure each student's attitude and connection to nature as a result of the storyline. The student storyline work and pre-and post-survey results were analyzed by the researchers.
The results showed that the storyline significantly impacted student NR scores as students gained a deeper connection to nature and more concern for environmental issues caused by humans. This was influenced by the storyline's focus on algal blooms, which the lessons showed were largely caused by human activity. Students' storyline work showed they met both science education and EE goals as a result of the storyline curriculum unit, including questioning, planning and executing investigations, modeling. One practice the researchers noted helped support these goals was the numerous investigations in the storyline in which students could build skills while teacher help decreased overtime.
There were limitations to this study. The researchers acknowledged that the study had a small sample size and was limited in scope. In addition, the study aimed to measure the students' attitudes as a result of the storyline and did not aim to measure pro-environmental behaviors as a result, which is also an important indicator of EE programming success. The researchers suggested that live or recorded observations in the classroom during the storyline lessons would have helped identify specific instances of student learning and growth to inform future storylines.
The researchers recommended that storyline units are examples of ways EE can be successfully integrated into formal science education curriculum and school settings to serve as mutually beneficial for science education and EE goals and outcomes. Further, by bringing EE into formal classrooms through tools like storylines, more students can have access to EE, developing a stronger generation of informed and inspired, environmentally-friendly students.
The Bottom Line
<p>There is an opportunity to integrate science education in formal settings and environmental education (EE) in light of the recent educational shifts to prioritizing systems-thinking and adaptability in K-12 settings based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This study sought to determine how a storyline curriculum unit could be designed to integrate both EE and science education goals (questioning, planning and executing investigations, modeling) and whether the unit contributed to higher Nature Relatedness (NR) scores. The researchers developed a storyline on non-harmful algal blooms for fifth and sixth graders in Illinois, and the data was collected from the work the students produced during the storyline and from NR pre- and post-surveys. The results showed the storyline significantly impacted student NR scores. The researchers recommended storylines are a way EE can be integrated into formal science education curriculum to serve as mutually beneficial for science education and EE goals.</p>