Change Thinking for Global Science: Fostering and Evaluating Inquiry Thinking About the Ecological Impacts of Climate Change

This project draws from the expertise of a fully collaborative educator-scientist team to create learning progressions, curricular units and assessment instruments towards large scale research on the teaching and learning of climate change and impacts by 7-12th graders in primarily under-resourced schools. Products include eight week curricular units, IPCC-compliant simplified future scenarios, an online interface with guided predictive distribution modeling, and research results.

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Project Evaluator
Dr. Amelia Gotwals
Full Description


It is increasingly important for all American students to become sophisticated thinkers of science. The Center for Essential Science at the University of Michigan is conducting educational research to engage and support complex thinkers of science and to improve science learning in high-poverty, urban, elementary and middle school classrooms, with particular focus on the Detroit Public Schools. Our previous work focused on fourth through sixth grades, a period when the performance of American science students falls significantly behind that of students in other countries. In this grant, we extend our learning progressions and associated curricular materials, visualization technologies and educational research from fourth to the tenth grade. In particular, this grant is focused in two areas:

  • the development and empirical evaluation of eight to twelve-week curricular units and associated technologies to promote students' deep understandings of the impact of climate change on ecosystems dynamics and animal interactions, and
  • the exploration of new ideas in educational assessment leading to tests that evaluate students' complex reasoning with science.

A Sense of Urgency on Learning Ecological Impacts of Global Climate Change

The modern world is experiencing substantial and rapid changes that are reshaping not only human societies but natural ecosystems worldwide. During the lifetimes of our current middle and high school students, it is likely that our planet will undergo more anthropogenic change than it has during all of human history to date.  While scientists from many disciplines are modeling, monitoring, predicting, and analyzing climate change, understanding the impacts and consequences of climate change cannot be left to scientists alone.

While scientists are aware of the sense of urgency to develop scientific understanding of the impacts of global climate changes, science education resources and sound research on students’ development of complex reasoning about ecological impacts of global climate change are scarce, despite recognition from scientists and policy makers of the importance of this topic. Several factors contribute to this absence. First, global climate change is an extremely multi-disciplinary domain that does not easily fit into existing K-12 disciplinary boundaries of earth science, life science, and physical science. The American Institute for Global Change Research defines global change as “the interactions of biological, chemical and physical processes that regulate changes in the function on the Earth system, including the particular ways in which these changes are influenced by human activities” (American Institute for Global Change Research, 2008). Second, scientific information associated with global climate change is relatively new and emergent, disallowing strong representation in science standards, high stakes tests, textbooks or curricular units utilized in classrooms. Our previous research suggests that the complexity of content coupled with almost no representation on high stakes tests leads to a low priority for many classroom teachers and consequently little to no classroom time. (S. Blum, personal communication 11.6.08). Third, global climate change is a dynamic topic that might be best addressed with resources that couple curricular activities which guide the development of complex inquiry reasoning and modeling/simulation resources to represent the dynamic nature of the science. While modeling and simulation resources exist for professional scientists (e.g., Lifemapper designed by proposal co-PI), neither the guided curricular activities nor the modeling and simulation resources are widely available for middle and high school audiences.

Together, a sense of urgency exists to build a solid, research-based foundation about a new and essential focus area within pre-college science education: students’ complex inquiry reasoning about the impact of global changes on ecosystem dynamics. This sense of urgency can be addressed through the combination of three research-based activities addressed in this proposal: (1) the extension of existing 4-6th grade curricular units towards the development and empirical evaluation of a 4-10th grade curricular progression focused on complex reasoning about biodiversity and the impact of global changes on populations of animals and ecosystem dynamics; (2) the development and evaluation of ecological simulation and modeling resources to accompany the middle and high school units; and (3) sound educational research to provide strong empirical evidence of both growth spurts and plateaus, as well as documentation of how and when complex inquiry reasoning occurs among middle and early high school students in these focus areas.

The program outlined will serve as the major research vehicle for research questions in several interrelated areas. We propose a research design with a series of quasi-experimental studies that will complement each other and provide multiple lenses for understanding complex questions such as these. Our research questions are:

1. Which scientific content and reasoning skills are essential for 7-10th graders’ complex reasoning and modeling of the ecological impacts of climate change? How are these manifested in content and inquiry reasoning progressions?

2. What dynamic visualization and modeling resources support the development of deep thinking about the ecological impacts of climate change?

3. What scaffolding and instructional activities support the development of deep thinking about the ecological impacts of climate change, including both content (ecological impacts) and complex reasoning components (science practices) of this knowledge, within cohorts of 7-10th graders in two new curricular units?

4. Utilizing quantitative (growth curve models, cross sectional studies) and qualitative (think aloud interviews) analyses, what learning outcomes and growth trajectories are realized by 7-10th intervention and control students as measured by both traditional standardized items and assessments focusing on complex thinking about ecological impacts of climate change?

We believe the greatest contribution of our work will be clear empirical information (growth spurts, growth plateaus and achievement information) associated with middle and high school students’ learning of complex and dynamic science associated with the ecological impacts of global climate change. We see the empirically driven development of learning progressions, curricular units, assessment instruments and professional development resources as important secondary contributions. The hypotheses we wish to test are the following:  Do Detroit, rural and small city students who work with coordinated scaffold-rich inquiry programs and visualization resources focusing on impacts of global climate change develop deep conceptual understandings as compared to matched cohorts students?  As determined by growth curve analyses, what do their learning trajectories look like? What new insights about the design of scaffold-rich curricular units and visualization technologies can be gleaned from an analysis of students’ growth trajectories and summative achievement results?  What kinds of assessment instruments are needed to provide reliable and valid measurement of learning progressions in these focus areas? What can we learn about the design of a series of multi-year, coordinated learning resources from the empirically driven development of learning progressions associated with an important emerging science, the ecological impacts of climate change? 



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