March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Science Education: An Ecosystem Approach

Posted: Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

by Laura O’Dell

Though the organisms may claim our prime interest, when we are trying to think fundamentally, we cannot separate them from their special environments, with which they form one physical system.  –Arthur Tansley

As science teachers, our prime interest is teaching, guiding, and mentoring students in making sense of scientific phenomena. In 1935, Arthur Tansley, pioneer of the emerging science of ecology, described how environments function as complex systems comprised of biotic and abiotic factors. In coining the term “ecosystem”, Tansley gave a name to the interconnectedness of living things and their relationship to environmental factors.

Organisms depend on the balance of biotic and abiotic factors in order to survive and thrive. Nutrients, matter, and energy cycle continually throughout ecosystems and a stable balance between biotic and abiotic factors are required to keep the ecosystem healthy. We advocate effective curriculum, facilities, and policies to ensure quality science education but without students, educators, and families, they remain abiotic factors. Similarly we should recognize formal science education as only one component of a student’s education; but what other factors

With the adoption of NGSS and a new state framework, California teachers are rising to the challenge of providing students with a top quality science education. We are all working to promote informed citizenry as well as preparing them for STEM careers. As a community of teachers, we must actively seek out factors, biotic and abiotic, that can round out our educational ecosystem.

The NSTA’s position on informal education describes the critical role informal science plays in education. The California Science Framework states: “one can think about collaboration and partnership work among schools and various science sectors as interrelationships among diverse organizations within an ‘ecosystem’. Ecosystems are not efficient, they evolve over very long time periods, and they constantly change” (National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council 2014, 50).

The Framework recognizes:

  • Partnerships build capacities of teachers.
  • Collaboration with outside agencies can provide tools and structures that support formal education.
  • A well-rounded science educational ecosystem deepens students’ STEM interests over time.
  • Learning and instruction can be supported with out-of-school experiences.
  • Engaging families and communities in support of STEM education.

Informal learning brings to mind field trips to science centers, museums, and community-based organizations. In California we are fortunate to be home to wonderful science-themed organizations and no doubt, we will continue to pursue these experiences for our students. With growing interest in promoting STEM education in all corners of society, exciting, non-formal learning experiences are turning up in unexpected places.

In early October, an ice rink in Ontario, in southern California, turned into the largest classrooms in the state. Over 5,000 students attended the inaugural Education Day with the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League. Students were treated to an education themed game complete with a booklet that helps students link topics in math, science, geography, and history to the sport of hockey. One activity engages the engineer in all of us. The lesson details protective equipment used in the sport. The activity prompts students to think critically how they would improve or develop equipment that makes the game safer. Motion, forces, and friction can be learned by looking closely at the structure and function of ice skates. The evolution of hockey sticks gives students a taste of materials science and the role of engineering in making sports equipment more efficient. This kind of informal learning opportunity supports the way we are encouraging students to make concrete connections extra-curricular interests.

Just as we must seek out science learning in unexpected places, we need to look at the ones closer to home. In their homes, students experience life-long learning experiences. This bring to mind my own experience at my school. At the STEAM Academy at Burke Middle School, we are proactive in building those stronger connections with informal learning. Our Parent Academy started out a few years ago as informal meetings with parents to educate them about our new math program. The Academy has grown and branched out to:

  • General ways parents can best support their children at home.
  • Teachers walk parents through math concepts and samples of problems to show them what is expected of students.
  • Training on various technologies and digital resources for exchange of information and communication with school.
  • Information on Project Based Learning; expectations for students and how parents can support them in the home.

With the goal of building capacity at the school level, each department is finding ways to contribute. The expectation is to show parents ways they can link their child’s sense-making and school-based experiences with informal learning that takes place in the home.

In the end, we have to remember that we do not teach in isolation and students cannot learn in isolation. Just as we cannot expect an organism to live, grow, and thrive without the supports of an active, healthy ecosystem, we cannot expect the same from students. When we integrate formal education with the informal, viewing science education as an ecosystem is not simply an interesting analogy, but rather, a professional imperative. We need to actively seek out and promote informal learning opportunities to complete our ecosystem and make it a place for children to thrive. Additionally, we should be willing to look beyond traditional resources to compliment, support, and enrich formal science education. To truly see change, we have to ensure science education functions as a system where all students thrive in his or her own niche.

Sources

National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council. 2014. STEM Integration in K–12 Education: Status, Prospects, and Agenda for Research. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Tansley, AG (1935). “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts”. Ecology16 (3): 284–307.

Laura O’Dell is a science teacer at STEAM Academy @ Burke Middle School and is a member of CSTA and CSTA’s Membership Committee.

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

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