Culturally relevant ecology

Network News Spring 2009, Vol. 22 No. 1

Learning progressions key to environmental literacy within LTER

Standardized test scores for middle school and high school students indicate a need for improvement in basic environmental science and related mathematical content. Surveys of teachers and science educators indicate a desire for more content-based, focused, and locally relevant professional development. The participation rates in environmental science fields do not reflect the demographics of society as a whole. Each of the preceding statements contributes to the broader dialogue on the need for an environmental science literacy framework. "Environmental science literacy"-the capacity to participate in and make decisions through evidence-based discussions of socio-ecological systems-is essential for many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers and for responsible citizenship. Environmental science literacy requires citizens to understand, evaluate, and respond to multiple sources of information.

In 2008, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a group of scientists and STEM educators within the NSF-funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network a Targeted Mathematics and Science Partnership grant to enhance environmental science literacy. The group is building its environmental science literacy framework around learning progressions within core science and mathematics concepts. The project connects the research and education prowess in the environmental sciences of universities and sites within LTER with teacher professional development in science and mathematics of partner middle schools and high schools. It extends across the nation and involves four LTER research sites-the Shortgrass Steppe, Baltimore Ecosystems Study, Kellogg Biological Station, and Santa Barbara Coastal and their partnering institutions, the LTER Network Office, and a group of 22 K-12 schools and districts that will directly impact over 250 science and mathematics teachers and 70,000 students from diverse backgrounds.

The work focuses on the scientific and educational challenges and approaches that have emerged from within the LTER community and are invoked in the LTER Decadal Plan-coupled human-ecosystem interactions in the context of socio-ecological systems as a framework to develop a culturally relevant ecology from both a scientific and educational perspective. The partnership is ideally suited for addressing three broad challenges facing science education that are aligned with the grand challenges identified by the LTER scientific community: biodiversity, carbon, and water.


Population growth has and will continue to put pressure on our finite fresh water resources. Yet students are only exposed to rudimentary basics that lend themselves to engaging indoor experimentation (e.g. water phase changes and the water cycle) and fact-based assessments. Consequently, the majority of citizens hold on to inaccurate conceptions of where freshwater exists, how it moves, how it gets renewed, and how it relates to biodiversity and climate change. These more critical concepts, unfortunately, do not appear in state content standards or assessments. The goal of the water strand of this project is to develop effective teaching strategies and assessments that are culturally engaging to serve as a model for what could be adopted at state and national levels.


Carbon is integral to key biogeochemical processes in socio-ecological systems at multiple scales, including cellular and organismal metabolism, ecosystem energetics and carbon cycling, carbon sequestration, and combustion of fossil fuels. These processes:

  1. Create organic carbon (photosynthesis)
  2. Transform organic carbon (biosynthesis, digestion, food webs, carbon sequestration)
  3. Oxidize organic carbon (cellular respiration, combustion)

The primary cause of global climate change is the current worldwide imbalance among these processes.

The immediate goals of the carbon strand will be to develop a framework of learning progression that monitors achievement on several progress variables (such as processes and principles), leading to assessments that measure students' progress along this path. The assessments will include interviews and written assessments followed by calibration and validation studies that establish the reliability and validity of the framework and assessments. These products will provide the foundation for further work in the years 2010-13, including a second round of validation studies, materials for K-12 teaching and teachers' professional development, and research on teaching, professional development, and student learning. The assessments will also provide data for program evaluation.


The earth's biodiversity has experienced unprecedented changes in past centuries, largely due to human activities. Yet, evidence suggests that graduating students are not able to draw upon their science education background in ways that lead to accurate understanding of biodiversity, even though much of the science content relevant to biodiversity is already listed in national and state standard documents and school curricula. In the Biodiversity strand of this project, we are working with a range of learners from middle school up through science teachers, focusing on several key elements of biodiversity at multiple scales (e.g. genomes through ecosystems) including:

  1. Structure and function of systems
  2. Tracing information within and between systems
  3. Changes in time and space

There are three components to the project. First, the research component focuses on determining the learning progressions or the descriptions of increasing sophistication in thinking about or understanding these concepts. Students and teachers from within the partnership are being interviewed and assessed using multiple approaches in order to gain a clearer understanding of their progress, and using this to improve on the professional development approaches.

Second, the project will develop models of teacher professional development that engage teachers in the content and research practices of LTER. This will include traditional workshops on biodiversity, carbon, and water, research experiences patterned after the NSF Research Experiences for Teachers program, and a teacher-in-residence program. Finally, the project aims to institutionalize elements of the research and professional development programs.

As members of the LTER community, the project leadership is looking for ways to partner with other sites in the research and professional development activities. If interested in collaborating or if you would like more information, please contact John Moore (SGS), Alan Berkowitz (BES), Charles Anderson (KBS), Ali Whitmer (SBC), or Bob Waide (LNO)