The development and implementation of an inquiry-based poster project on sustainability in a large non-majors environmental science course
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- Schmitt-Harsh, M. & Harsh, J.A. J Environ Stud Sci (2013) 3: 56. doi:10.1007/s13412-012-0090-z
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In the past decade, systematic studies have indicated a significant regression in scientific literacy in nonscience students and students across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines in higher education. Of particular concern, evaluations of introductory lecture-based undergraduate courses have indicated deficiencies in promoting students’ understanding of the role of science and how the scientific community conducts science. In an effort to introduce students to the scientific enterprise, an inquiry-based poster project was developed for a large non-majors environmental science class at a public Midwestern university. Through a term-long project, students (n = 64) worked in a collaborative means to collect and analyze data regarding sustainability topics. Students’ findings were disseminated in a poster presentation during a culminating research symposium that was attended by departmental faculty and university administrators. This paper describes the development and implementation of the inquiry-based project with some preliminary data demonstrating the effectiveness of this activity in promoting student learning and engagement.
KeywordsEnvironmental science curriculaInquiry learningLarge classroomsSustainability education
The inability to generate a scientifically literate public has arguably been one of the most pressing issues facing higher education in the USA over the past two decades. As stated by Goodstein in a National Science Foundation report (NSF 1996), “…the United States has, simultaneously and paradoxically, both the best scientists and the most scientifically illiterate young people: America’s educational system is designed to produce precisely that result. America leads the world in science—and yet 95 % of the American public is scientifically illiterate” (pg. 6). Recognizing this situation, an expanse of educational calls to action have been made by governmental agencies and reform organizations (AAAS 1993; NRC 1999, 2003; NSF 1996; Obama 2010) advocating the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for the maintenance of our technical workforce, national security, and sustainability (Chapin et al. 2011; Orr 2011).
Improving environmental education is commonly regarded as key to equipping society with an educated citizenry of stakeholders who can address the ecological challenges facing humanity (Ehrlich 2011; Kasser 2011). As global environmental issues have moved to the front of social consciousness, there has been significant growth in the number of environmental science courses and programs offered at institutions of higher education (Maniates and Whissel 2000; Vincent 2009; Weis 1990). A recent review from the National Council for Science and the Environment (Vincent and Focht 2009) identified 840 undergraduate and graduate degree-granting environmental programs around the USA, an increase from 500 programs established between 1980 and 1990, and 300 between 1965 and 1975. Despite these trends, relevant research has revealed significant deficiencies in the public’s awareness of environmental issues. In a 10-year assessment of environmental literacy in the USA, the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF)/Roper Reports found that American adults who graduated from college respectively scored 70 and 50 % on quizzes measuring basic knowledge and cause/effect relationships associated with environmental and energy issues (Coyle 2005; NEETF 2002).
The disconnect between environmental literacy and access to environmental programs and initiatives at universities, may in part be attributed to observations that college science courses, in general, are often perceived by majors and nonscience majors to be presented as a litany of facts, covering a vast array of topics which fail to motivate meaningful intellectual engagement (Allen and Tanner 2005; NRC 2000; Seymour and Hewitt 1997). In particular, evaluations of traditional lecture-based introductory science classes have indicated minimal differential gains in conceptual learning (NRC 2000; NSF 1996) and deficiencies in promoting students’ understanding of the role of science and how the scientific community conducts science (Brown et al. 2006; Lederman 2007).
An emerging technique used to promote active student learning and engagement is inquiry-oriented teaching strategies. In contrast to traditional teaching strategies that rely primarily on teacher-oriented practices or stepwise “cookbook” lab activities, inquiry-oriented approaches engage students in experiences that reflect authentic practices comparable to what a member of the field may participate in (AAAS 1990; NRC 2000). Though recent empirical research has documented the effectiveness of inquiry-oriented teaching strategies in the development of students’ literacy in the sciences (Campisi and Finn 2011; Cawthorn et al. 2011; Luckie et al. 2004; McConnell et al. 2003), using inquiry as a core learning tool in general education courses is perceived to be complicated by large classroom sizes and expected breadth in content coverage (Brown et al. 2006).
The project described here was developed in a practical effort to build inquiry into a large general education environmental science class. Through a semester-long project, students (n = 64) worked collaboratively to collect and analyze data regarding local sustainability topics. Student research projects culminated in poster presentations at an internal symposium attended by departmental faculty and university administrators. While this project was designed for a large, nonmajors science course, it has since been adapted and utilized (with topical modifications) in a number of classes including an upper-level urban forest management class, an introductory public affairs class, and a graduate-level applied ecology class. The following sections describe the development and implementation of the inquiry-based sustainability project with some preliminary data demonstrating the effectiveness of this learning activity as an educational tool.
Course background and project description
The environmental science course was a three-credit, general education course with no prerequisites or laboratory component. Offered on a per-semester basis at a large public Midwestern university, the course is intended to introduce students to contemporary environmental issues and their implications for society. Course content focused on (but was not limited to) human population growth and structure, evolutionary biology, biodiversity and ecosystem services, energy and the laws of thermodynamics, food production and biotechnology, and global climate change. The topics covered in this course aligned with the “environmental topics to know” of Paul Ehrlich (2011) and stressed the interdisciplinary nature of environmental science, and the complex interlinkages between and among environmental problems.
The environmental science course was held two times per week, at 75 min per class period. Complementing traditional curriculum whereby lecture and classroom discussions were focused upon, the instructor incorporated case studies, problem-based learning approaches, and outdoor field experiences to promote hand-on, active learning by students. One such field experience consisted of a 2-day excursion into an urban forest system whereby students were taught how to identify and key out tree species, map hydrologic flow, and identify invasive plant species. Student learning was assessed in various ways, including reading reflections, computation-based problem-solving exercises, essays, field-based laboratory reports, and written examinations. Criterion-referenced means of assessment, published in the course syllabus or on rubrics created for each assignment, were regulatory utilized and formative feedback was provided by the instructor and by students’ peers following group assignments.
Given the breadth of topics covered and a typical class size that exceeds 60 students, development of assignments that engaged students to think critically and participate in the process of inquiry had proven challenging. For example, lecture and discussion oriented around genetically modified food most easily resulted in an assignment that focused on identifying the benefits and costs of genetically modified organisms. Such assignments deviated little from classroom discussions, and failed to account for interlinkages within and among environmental problems and the complex sociopolitical complexities of food systems. In the first two semesters of teaching this course, many other assignments were similarly fashioned to be discrete teacher-defined packages by which students utilized knowledge gained from the instructor and their peers through discussion and lecture. As such, very few of these assignments encouraged real connections between and among multiple environmental problems, even though these connections were encouraged in class.
Proposed research questions (n = 11) for student groups to select (on left), and examples of student-led projects, including general methodological designs (on right)
Instructor identified research questions
How sustainable are recycling practices on campus, and how can we improve our use and disposal of recycled material?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [University] students to assess students’ recycling habits and knowledge about recycling, and (2) observed the quantity of recycling bins as compared to trash cans on campus. The second foci relates to issues of accessibility.
How can we improve recycling at athletic events on campus?
(1) Interviewed attendees of football games regarding their recycling habits and awareness of the recycling program at athletic events, (2) observed the number of recycling vs. trash bins at football games, (3) observed tailgate pollution and methods of clean-up, and (4) volunteered for the [University green team for athletics].
How can we decrease food and water waste in the [University] dining services?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [university] students regarding interest in and support of tray-less dining and themed meals, and (2) interviewed cafeteria managers on average daily water use, disposal of garbage, use of plastics in the cafeterias, etc.
Is bottled water consumption on campus a problem, and if so, how can we reduce the prevalence of bottled water use on campus?
(1) Conducted blind taste tests to students to assess student preference(s) for bottled, tap, and filtered water, and (2) observed the amount and spatial configuration of water fountains as compared to vending machines and cafes selling bottled water on campus. The second foci relates to issues of accessibility.
How much carbon is stored in the [University] woodland system, and how can we increase carbon storage on campus?
(1) Identified tree species and (2) measured the diameter at breast height (DBH) of trees within the campus woodland system. The DBH was converted to biomass measures using published allometric equations, and subsequently to units of carbon using standardized techniques.
How can we make food services more sustainable on campus?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [university] students regarding students’ interest and willingness to pay for local and organic food, and (2) interviewed managers and chefs within the [university] dining services regarding geographic origin of cafeteria food, percentage from local sources, percentage under organic production, etc.
How can we make transportation more sustainable on campus?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [university] students regarding transportation mechanisms commonly utilized (e.g., bus, car, zip car), and willingness to pay for higher parking permits to incentivize students to drive less.
What is the [University’s] energy footprint, and how can the [University] attain 20 % of its energy needs from renewable resources?
(1) Assessed the [university] energy footprint from data supplied by the [University Utilities Division]. Data on the electricity, natural gas, and water/sewer consumption per academic building from 2008 to 2010 were analyzed and compared.
How educated are people on campus about sustainability?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [university] students “testing” their knowledge on sustainability issues (e.g., definition of sustainability, meaning of ecological footprint, causes of global climate change, etc.). Surveys mimicked a traditional multiple choice exam, and student literacy was assessed by examining the percent of responses answered correctly.
How can we improve habitat for wildlife on campus?
(1) Mapped the areal extent of campus property designated as mowed lawn as compared to campus woodland areas using Google Earth. Policy recommendations regarding the expansion of woodland areas to improve habitat for wildlife were made.
How “green” are the [University] bookstores and campus markets, and how can they be more sustainable?
(1) Created and disseminated a survey to [university] students regarding their interest and willingness to pay for “green” merchandise and apparel, and (2) observed the percentage of merchandise and apparel sold in [University] bookstores made from recycled goods, organic materials, and/or made in the USA.
Research questions were assigned by the end of the second week of class (Fig. 1) in a 15-min “draft” (akin to the selection of an athlete in a professional draft). Deviating from professional drafts, however, was the rule that each research question was available for selection twice. This rule prevented overlap in research foci while also decreasing the number of instructor-generated research questions from 22 to a more manageable 11. Prior to the draft, students collaboratively ranked their interest in developing each research question and were randomly assigned a number to delineate the order of topical selection. The completion of the in-class draft meant that by the beginning of the third week, each group had a broadly defined research question to revise, refine, and narrow for further study (see Table 1 for example student foci).
Students were given 3 weeks to explore their topic through literature searches, culminating in an annotated bibliography and annotated outline. In preparation for these assignments, students participated in a brief (10–15 min) in-class tutorial and discussion regarding how to search for online peer-reviewed literature, and the importance of credible and objective sources of information. The annotated bibliography required citations for each resource to-be-used in the project, a brief description of each resource’s applicability to the project, and a short evaluation addressing each resource’s reliability, credibility, and objectivity. The bibliography challenged students to think critically about the integrity of information and the importance of selecting appropriate information. Similarly, the goal of the annotated outline was to encourage students to think critically about how best to approach their sustainability topic. Students were asked to explain in detail how their study would be conducted including what materials would be used, how they would be used, how much, how often, what, where, when, and why.
The outline and bibliography, due at the beginning of the sixth week (day 11; Fig. 1), was graded on a pass/fail system but was heavily critiqued and returned to students with suggestions for improvements to their proposed design. For most groups, proposed projects were too broad and as a result, unfeasible for the remaining 10 weeks of class. As such, the instructor worked with each group through meetings, group sessions, and multiple revisions via email (though rarely) to narrow the scope of project(s). The instructor’s involvement in working with students was critical to project successes particularly when students had little to no experience with conducting research independently.
A generic form of the rubric used detailing the assessment criteria for the final poster project
Title: Does the title accurately convey the topica under study? (1 %)
Introduction: Does the introduction clearly state the topic of research, its importance to local and/or global environmental issues, and its relevance to human-environment interactions? Does the introduction use relevant literature to support claims of importance and relevance? (20 %)
Objectives: Are the objectives of the project clearly stated? Do they correspond to the experimental design? (1 %)
Methods: Is the selected methodological approach scientifically rigorous (e.g., multiple-question survey vs. small-question survey, large sample size (n) vs. small n, etc.)? Does the selected methodological approach correspond to the objectives? Is the methodological approach an appropriate and effective means to studying the topic? Is the methodological approach thoroughly documented (e.g., is the experiment repeatable based on information presented on the poster)? (25 %)
Results: Is the data collected correctly analyzed and presented (visually and descriptively)? Are the figures and tables labeled correctly, and referenced in-text? Are the graphics explained/described properly in written form? (20 %)
Conclusions: Does the concluding section interpret the results and describe major findings? Does the concluding section state any limitations or sources of error inherent in the methodological design? (10 %)
Literature cited: Does the literature cited section and in-text citations correctly follow the APA format (or some other reputable format)? Are sources cited consistently in the same format? Are all sources documented, credible, and appropriate to the project? (6 %)
Acknowledgments: Are all individuals who participated in or helped with the project acknowledged appropriately? (2 %)
Writing and esthetics: Are grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors absent? Is the content well-written, organized, clear, and easy to follow? Is the language and writing style appropriate and professional? Is the poster attractive in terms of design, layout, and neatness? (15 %)
On the final day of class (day 29; Fig. 1), the final draft of the inquiry-based poster project was due and the informal poster symposium occurred. An announcement was made to the departmental listserv inviting faculty, staff, and students to attend. The symposium was held during a regular 75-min class period. In advance of the symposium, students were instructed to prepare a 3–4 min presentation of their project for faculty, students, and the instructor. The presentations were ungraded; however, in future iterations of this poster assignment, more points will be allocated toward this presentation to stress the importance of communication and clarity in communicating information. It was clear that many students had not prepared a concise informative presentation as directed, as group presentations ran 5–8 min on average. Thus, while the 75-min class period provided ample time for students and faculty to interact, more time was needed by the instructor to engage in dialog with each student group (an issue likely avoided if presentations were graded).
Faculty in attendance at the symposium were invited to evaluate student posters using the instructor-designed criterion-based rubric (Table 2). This encouraged students to engage with the faculty in attendance and created greater dialog between students and faculty. The poster was evaluated as a function of content (∼85 %) and delivery of information (e.g., organization, poster design, graphics, etc; ∼15 %; Table 2). The entire project, including drafts, self and peer evaluations, and the final poster was worth 25 % of the total course grade. Example student poster projects are available electronically in “Online Resource 1”.
Preliminary assessment of inquiry project effectiveness
To indirectly assess the effectiveness of the inquiry project in promoting learning and comprehension of course content, institutionally sponsored course evaluations administered at the end of the term were analyzed. Student responses were compared to student and course data from a prior term (2009) when the inquiry project was not utilized. While an inherent level of natural variation can be assumed in student populations (e.g., academic interests, personal attributes) and instruction between semesters, the inclusion/exclusion of the inquiry-based sustainability project was the primary variant as course content, materials, and teaching strategies remained relatively constant.
How do you feel the poster helped (or did not help) you learn concepts related to classroom topics?
How do you feel the poster helped (or did not help) you learn about the scientific process?
What did you like most and least about the sustainability poster project?
Fifty-seven students completed the instructor-designed evaluations. In response to question 1, the majority of students (n = 43) indicated positive learning outcomes associated with the collaborative inquiry project. Representational comments such as the project “helped me to grasp a better understanding of sustainability” and “helped to make the topics real through hands-on surveys and research” suggest the effectiveness of the poster project in promoting student learning of topics introduced in the classroom through real-world application. While most students responded positively to the inquiry project, a subset of the class (n = 6) negatively cited that the project failed to relate to course content as classroom time did not explicitly stress their individual topic in as much detail as desired. Of the remaining students (n = 8), responses for this item were unclear or unanswered.
In a similar fashion, responses to the second question followed that most students (n = 41) positively related project-related activities with learning and/or practicing the scientific process, while seven students cited the project did not advance their knowledge of the scientific enterprise. Those that indicated only minimal or no conceptual gains commonly cited that the project did not help them learn the scientific process as they previously knew what it was prior to the class. Of the remaining students (n = 9), responses for this item were unidentifiable or unanswered.
Student responses to the question “What did you like most and least about the sustainability poster project?”
The students most liked…
No. of student responses
Learning about local sustainability issues
Having independence and creative control in the research process
Participating in hands-on research
Applying and learning about general course content
Working in groups to solve problems
Having an alternative means of assessment
The students least liked…
The time and effort required to conduct research
The stringency of project grading
The open-ended nature of research tasks
Having an alternative means of assessment
Working in groups to solve problems
Constructing and presenting information in a poster format
Reviewing the student data, several dichotomies emerged regarding the nature of the project. First, the responses diverged in the perception of group work and the use of a poster as opposed to a standardized report or traditional exam. Second, some students expressed frustration regarding the open-ended nature of and time required for the research tasks and poster preparation. In contrast, others enjoyed the creativity and ownership of the process. For example, one student stated “I liked coming up with ideas, doing research, and putting it all together” while another student stated that “not enough direction was given as needed”. In an effort to advance science inquiry skills through authentic practice (Reeves et al. 2002), projects were intentionally open-ended to allow students the freedom to design their project, collect and interpret data, and communicate results via a poster. However, such flexibility may have overwhelmed students who had little to no experience in identifying their own unique tasks and linking those tasks to the process of scientific inquiry. While instructor expectations were made clear at the beginning of the course and in the syllabus, the importance of independent and creative thinking should be stressed throughout the course.
Finally, the frequently cited “likes” seemingly centered on content- and process-based learning gains (e.g., learning about local sustainability issues, “hands-on” research), while common “dislikes” stemmed from performance (e.g., grading) and time and effort considerations. To an extent, such “dislikes” can be expected among collaborative projects which require students’ out-of-class time and efforts. Taken collectively, we believe the identified outcomes (Table 3) converge with aspects of inquiry learning in that students were engaged in forming interrelationships between ideas, concepts, and processes through meaningful learning tasks, comparable to what members of the professional community participate in (Ausubel et al. 1968; Lave and Wenger 1991).
Considerations of faculty commitments
A central feature in the effective facilitation of this project, as alluded to through the course of this article, is the investment of faculty time in support of students as they navigate the inquiry process. Given the initial concerns of the primary author, and college faculty more broadly (Brown et al. 2006), in terms of the time required to facilitate inquiry-based projects, it seems appropriate to discuss this issue here. It is clearly recognized that the upfront investments of time in conceptualizing and developing the project framework (e.g., research question formulation, associated materials, student expectations) were substantial. However, once the framework was put in place, the upfront costs for further iterations of the project in other courses (e.g., an advanced graduate-level ecology course), taught by the primary author, were significantly reduced to a level comparable to that of other more traditional assignments. Likewise, the time allocated to the inquiry project within the walls of the classroom was equivalent to, or spent in conjunction with, other conventional assignments.
The largest foreseeable time commitment with the project framework introduced here, is in the interaction with students. In the course of the project, a relatively high amount of time was invested in student–faculty interaction (both in-person and electronically). However, in retrospect, the time commitment for this inquiry project was noted by the instructor to be relatively comparable to the level of interaction with students in other semesters when the inquiry project was not a central element of the course. Furthermore, in most instances, the time required for project interactions was reallocated from other course responsibilities. As an example, the time spent grading more traditional assignments that were replaced by the project was redistributed to providing feedback on inquiry elements such as question formulation, experimental design, and so on. It should be noted, however, that faculty time commitments from student interactions will be highly variable and dependent on a number of factors such as class size, group size (and number of groups), and students’ literacy and prior knowledge of the sustainability topic(s) under investigation.
Overall, we believe that the time commitments required for working in small group settings with students was mutualistically beneficial. The primary author found the opportunity for such “hands-on” interactions to be professionally satisfying, and while there was no direct measure of student gains as a result of the collaborative engagement with the instructor, prior research has demonstrated that student–faculty involvement is a strong predictor for student learning gains, satisfaction, degree attainment, and enrollment in postgraduate education (e.g., Astin 1993).
Recommendations for improvement
From student responses on self- and peer evaluations, as well as directed conversations with groups who identified internal conflicts, two pieces of the project require revision. The first is in reference to group work and instructor-led assessments of individual contributions to the final group product. Of the 22 groups, three reported difficulty in working with their peers and holding their peers accountable for their work. Social loafing and “free riding” have garnered considerable attention in the literature where they are described as common and significant barriers to group work (Davies 2009; Ruël et al. 2003; Strong and Anderson 1990; Watkins 2004). In an effort to prevent nonperforming group members from reaping equivalent benefits as those of performing group members, future implementation of this project will incorporate the use of group contracting (Davies 2009). The instructor will institute a pro forma contract1 which will aid students in developing guidelines for member participation including consequences associated with failure to participate. This contract, alongside the criterion-based rubric (Table 2), will be used to assess individual and group contributions to the final product.
The second project revision revolves around experimental designs and facilitating productive discussions regarding sound methodological practices. Given the wide range of topics studied and professed flexibility in designing an experiment, little classroom time was devoted to detailing specific qualitative and quantitative experimental approaches. During individual meetings with student groups, project-specific methodological designs were discussed and problems ironed out; however, greater investments of time detailing scientifically sound and unsound practices within the walls of the classroom may better equip students with the tools they need to conduct a scientific experiment. In particular, greater focus will revolve around survey development and the importance of developing analyzable questions, as survey creation and dissemination to [university] students was a common approach, as seen in Table 1.
Despite the rapid growth of environmental science and studies programs in the USA, significant barriers have persisted in the advancement of nonscience students’ understanding of basic environmental issues, and the process of science more broadly. Traditional teaching approaches which rely primarily on teacher-centered strategies and “cookbook” activities are often perceived to be ineffective in motivating meaningful intellectual engagement within the sciences, and as such, the integration of alternative instructional practices have been widely called for in college science (NRC 2003; NSF 1996). This paper addresses the curricular design and implementation of an inquiry-based poster project, which was enacted to provide general education students the opportunity to engage in genuine research activities within the context of a local sustainability issue. As inquiry-based learning remains largely underutilized in the college science environment (NRC 2003), this work adds to the rising literature of how long-term, inquiry-motivated projects can be incorporated into large environmental science classrooms.
While focus was given here to a nonmajors science course, by design, the described inquiry-project is readily adaptable and can be used as a short- or long-term project, tailored specifically to course objectives and curriculum for other science and nonscience classrooms. For example, in the past year, this project was modified and utilized in an upper-level urban forest management course, an introductory public affairs course, and a graduate-level applied ecology course.
From the instructor’s and students’ perspective, the inquiry project successfully engaged students in the learning process, challenged students to think critically, and contributed to students’ integration of class topics with real-world applications. Comparable to short-term service learning experiences (Cawthorn et al. 2011), this project also improved some students’ appreciation of local environmental problems and sustainable solutions. Given the positive benefits for students, we strongly encourage environmental science faculty to look to supplement traditional curriculum with research-oriented poster projects. In particular, as introductory environmental science courses commonly fulfill general education science requirements, the exposure of nonmajors to such inquiry-based activities will hopefully provide students a better view of science and how science is done.
We would like to gratefully acknowledge the efforts of Adam Maltese in reviewing this article and Burney Fischer for his enthusiasm and support for the design and implementation of this project.