Grade 7 Studies Ecology and Stewardship through Eco-XPT

Building Engagement Through a Diversity of Curricular Experiences

By Elizabeth Schibuk

The 7th grade science curriculum at Conservatory Lab centers on understanding the relationship between modern living and the natural world. Through a study of marine ecology, earth science, environmental chemistry, and environmental health students develop the expertise to grapple with the year-long essential question “Is it possible to live in modern society and be a steward of the natural world?”  During our fall expedition, centered on marine ecology, students use a blend of outdoor fieldwork, classroom instruction, and virtual tools to develop a rich understanding of the threats facing our ocean ecosystems, and the complex work of ecosystem scientists.

Framing the Unit

Last June, I met with rising 7th grade students and assigned them the book “World Without Fish” as a summer reading book for science. Over the summer, students journaled about their learning and wonderings as they read about the threats facing our ocean ecosystems. Students came into the year with existing content knowledge from their reading, and with tons of questions, wonderings, and indignation about the environmental threats that loom on the horizon if we continue to live as we have for the past century.

Our expedition is broken into three case studies.  Our first case study focuses on understanding ecosystem dynamics as they should function: exploring the importance of biodiversity, healthy complex food webs, and nutrient cycling. Once students understand what a healthy marine ecosystem should look like, they learn about what parameters scientists can measure to evaluate the health of a marine ecosystem. In this second case study students learn about the factors that contribute to marine ecosystem degradation in an urban context such as ours. My hope is to leave students concerned but empowered to enact change, and so we end the unit with a third case study focused on solutions, so that students know the work being done to intervene in the environmental problems we have learned about.

During our first and second case study students have the opportunity to engage in authentic fieldwork as they visit the nearby small urban salt marsh at Savin Hill Cove. Students engage in inquiry as they learn different types of protocols scientists use to evaluate biodiversity and water quality in an outdoor setting. With a generous gift from the Cedar Tree Foundation, we were able to purchase a variety of probeware for students to use in the field to measure various indicators of water quality. Year after year I find that these outdoor real-world experiences help the content come alive for students, as they come to understand that the work of scientists is much more than reading texts and memorizing terms, as is so often the case in a traditional science classroom, but that science is about asking questions, seeking evidence, and attempting to make meaning of ambiguity. Throughout the fieldwork, students were frequently making connections back to their summer reading, reinforcing for me that their summer work had been a valuable experience in framing important themes for our unit of study.

Technology-Enhanced Curriculum 

The last two years, our 7th grade students have had the opportunity to take part in a research project in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, testing a pilot curriculum, EcoXPT*, designed to give students a richer understanding of ecosystem science and about the true work of ecosystem scientists. Students spend three weeks in a “virtual” ecosystem in which they can conduct similar research to what we did in our fieldwork, but because our work here is virtual students have the ability to gather a more robust data set over several days, and to time travel throughout two months in this virtual world. Students spend the first few days of the curriculum exploring a small pond and its environs, before soon discovering a few days in that mid-summer, much of the large fish in the pond have died.  By design the program takes a constructivist approach to students’ learning, meaning that students are guided in constructing understanding of the content through a set of experiences. There is not a set of directions or tasks students must complete. Each day or two in the curriculum new tools or opportunities emerge for students to engage in understanding what led to the fish dying off. Students learn a series of “thinking moves” (deep seeing, pattern seeking, constructing explanations, etc) that guide them toward constructing as complex an understanding of what is happening as possible, with a clear sense that there is no single “one” answer for them to discover.  One student, in her reflection on the program, wrote “I used to think there was only one main cause for problems, now I think there could be 1000s of causes for one problem.” 

The aim is that students walk away from the program with a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of ecosystems, and of the work ecosystem scientists do day to day. In reflecting on her learning in this program, one student wrote “I use to think that scientists got the right answer all the time now I know that they never know if they got the right answer.” As the teacher, I take the time to make sure that students’ don’t leave the experience with misconceptions or incorrect content knowledge; however I also support them in developing the understanding that often times scientists need to work through ambiguity and uncertainty to assemble a body of evidence for the best possible explanation of a phenomenon they are studying.  Removing the idea of a black and white “single right answer” in science, which is often the focus in a traditional classroom and yet not true in the world of science, build students’ willingness to take risks, explore hypotheses, and “fail forward” when they encounter conflicting or ambiguous evidence.  

Providing a Diversity of Learning Experiences

A science curriculum centered in non-fiction text or a virtual ecosystem is not a replacement for true fieldwork, which is unmatched in its ability to build affection for and in turn a sense of stewardship for the land. However, the combination of the summer reading, the outdoor fieldwork, and the rigorous virtual curriculum has helped my 7th graders build both a sense of urgency for the need to care for our urban ecosystems, and a complex understanding of the variety of factors that impact ecosystems, the interconnectedness of all parts of an ecosystem, and the difficult work ecosystem scientists are faced with as they try to understand what is happening in an ecosystem they are studying. It has been a joy to watch my students’ engagement in science grow as they make connections to the themes and concepts presented in each of these curricular experiences.

The Cedar Tree Foundation’s generous gift allowed CLCS to purchase probeware for students to engage in rigorous scientific data collection during fieldwork. Here students are practicing using the equipment in the classroom before heading out into the field.

Student infographics about what they learned can be found in this PDF.

*EcoXPT is supported by the National Science Foundation, Grant No DRL 1416781 to Tina Grotzer and Chris Dede.  All opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.