Earth and Environmental Science

This Spotlight features DRK-12 innovations and research designed to help students understand complex earth and environmental science topics such as natural phenomena, ecosystems, and human impact on our environment.

In this Spotlight...

Blog | What is Environmental Literacy?

Karen Hollweg, Former PI, NAAEE

Karen HollwegFrom climate change to loss of biodiversity, the environmental issues of our times are indeed wicked ones. And educating upcoming generations to understand and make informed decisions about them is a challenging responsibility. Increasingly, educators, parents, and the public at-large expect the education system to address these issues. But, what is needed to enable students to become environmentally literate? And what is environmental literacy?

In 2011, with support from a DRK-12 grant, I worked with a team of environmental and science educators, assessment experts and researchers on Developing a Framework for Assessing Environmental Literacy. Our goal was to present a comprehensive, research-based description of environmental literacy and to guide developers of large-scale national and international assessments of environmental literacy in developing assessments for gauging progress in transforming our preK-12 education system to achieve that end.... Read more

Featured Research

Developing a Generalized Storyline that Organizes the Supports for Evidence-based Modeling of Long-Term Impacts of Disturbances in Complex Systems

PI: Steven McGee | Co-PIs: Anne Britt, Amanda Durik
Grades: 6-8
Target Audience: Teachers and students
Subject: Environmental Science

Project Description: The Journey to El Yunque curriculum introduces students to disturbance ecology, with a focus on both ecosystem resilience and ecosystem change. Each page is beautifully illustrated by Puerto Rican artist Robert Casilla to connect students with Puerto Rican culture as well as help generate curiosity and interest as students move through the curriculum. Students use interactive models to explore how limiting factors, such as the availability of food or shelter, impact the population dynamics of different species following a hurricane. Students figure out that some species are better adapted to post-hurricane rainforest conditions. For example, the fast-growing yagrumo benefits from new canopy gaps created by hurricanes, which allows it to temporarily outcompete slower growing trees. Similarly, the coqui frog benefits from hurricanes because the increase in debris on the forest floor provides additional shelter from predators. While many students initially see hurricanes as threats to rainforests, the exploration of limiting factors and population dynamics helps students understand that hurricanes can temporarily change which organisms are favored for survival, thereby supporting increased biodiversity in the rainforest. Students also figure out that there can be too much of a good thing: if hurricanes become too frequent and too intense, rainforest ecosystems may pass a “tipping point,” leading to irreversible change and a loss of biodiversity. These concepts underlie the intermediate disturbance hypothesis, which is an ecological theory indicating that moderately frequent disturbance events maximize biodiversity within an ecosystem.

Students engage with interactive models of population dynamics that are based on real-world data gathered by our partners at the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research program in Puerto Rico. The data from these models serve as evidence for students’ scientific arguments about the impact of hurricanes on specific species in the rainforest. By using these models, students can take on the role of legitimate peripheral participants in the community of practice of rain forest ecology. The models enable students to grapple with complex and cutting-edge questions, and are regularly updated based on new findings in rainforest disturbance ecology. This project is a collaboration among The Learning Partnership, University of Puerto Rico, and Northern Illinois University.

Initial Findings: Using the El Yunque rainforest research as a case study is important for shaping student engagement and learning, both in terms of supporting development of scientific identity (McGee, Durik, Zimmerman, McGee-Tekula, and Duck, 2018) and providing engaging background materials (McGee, Durik, and Zimmerman, 2015).


  • McGee, S., Durik, A. M., and Zimmerman, J. K. (2015, April 11-14). The Impact of Text Genre on Science Learning in an Authentic Science Learning Environment [Paper presentation]. 2015 National Association of Research in Science Teaching Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL.
  • McGee, S. & Zimmerman, J.K. (2016). Taking students on a Journey to El Yunque. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 7(1), 86-106.
  • McGee, S., Durik, A. M., Zimmerman, J. K., McGee-Tekula, R., & Duck, J. (2018). Engaging Middle School Students in Authentic Scientific Practices Can Enhance Their Understanding of Ecosystem Response to Hurricane Disturbance. Forests 9(10), 658.

Practitioner Products: Journey to El Yunque Investigations (teacher materials can be requested from | Videos

NGSS Alignment:
MS-LS2-1. Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for the effects of resource availability on organisms and populations of organisms in an ecosystem.
MS-LS2-4. Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.

EcoXPT: Learning about Ecosystems Science and Complex Causality through Experimentation in a Virtual World

PI: Tina Grotzer
Grades: 6-8
Target Audience: All Learners
Subjects: Ecosystems, Environmental Science

Project Description: EcoXPT is a three-week middle school curriculum focused on how ecosystems work. Students explore an immersive simulation of a pond ecosystem traveling between different days and locations. Eventually, they discover an environmental puzzle that they attempt to explain by using virtual tools, observing organisms in the world, and by collecting and graphing data. For instance, they can take measurements of water quality, temperature, and population levels of microscopic and macroscopic organisms. Students collect data, graph their findings, and learn from a variety of representations that help them to reason about variables, visible or not, in the world. Students meet virtual ecosystem scientists and use authentic modes of ecosystems experimentation—both in a virtual lab and out in the virtual world. They use an online concept map to make claims, collect evidence, and to offer reasoning in support of their claims as they develop explanations.

The EcoXPT activities are designed to align well with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in K-12 science education. The primary focus is on Cause and Effect and Systems and System Models; students explore data in patterns and then engage in experimentation to investigate whether relationships are correlational or causal.

EcoXPT invites students into a pond ecosystem and encourages them to engage in “deep seeing” to observe and to begin to understand what is in the environment. Eventually, they discover and start to investigate (using other thinking moves such as “evidence-seeking” and “pattern-seeking”) an issue in the environment (the death of the larger fish in the pond). They use epistemologically authentic forms of experimentation to figure out the causal dynamics of what has happened. The evidence eventually leads them to realize that human actions within the watershed near the pond set off a complex set of events that resulted in a fish die-off.

Initial Findings: Studies of EcoXPT in the classroom revealed the following findings. In a study contrasting the performance of students using EcoXPT with the experimental tools that ecosystems scientists use to students using a version that omitted the experimental tools, both groups made significant gains in understanding ecosystems content, dynamics across space and time, causality, experimental methods, and attitudes towards science. However, those with the experimental tools demonstrated significantly greater understanding of experimental methods and the differences between correlation and causation. Tested against a paper-based curriculum focused on a similar ecological puzzle, EcoXPT students made significant gains in attitudes towards science, experimental methods, and causality, while students using the paper-based version made significant gains only in attitudes towards science. Case studies contrasting EcoXPT to other technology-based programs suggest that EcoXPT is especially helpful in supporting students’ understanding of the connectedness and complex dynamics of ecosystems. A case study testing a focus on developing strong body of evidence for explanations led to students initially making fewer connections but having deep and varied support for each connection that they made. The work also resulted in new methodologies for coding how well teachers implement inquiry-based learning curriculum.

Instruments: We used assessments that were modified from earlier work of the project team. The instruments were modified to reflect how Ecosystems Scientists frame experimentation (as we researched and published in Kamarainen & Grotzer, 2019 in BioScience) and scientific explanation. The instruments focused on assessing complex causal understanding and how ecosystems scientists engage in explanation when Control of Variables forms of experimentation are not possible.  There were no existing instruments which is why we developed our own or modified earlier instruments from our Causal Learning in the Classroom Project (CLiC). We also developed a method to consider fidelity of teaching an inquiry-based immersive simulation. This instrument is forthcoming in a publication by McGivney et al. 

Publications & Presentations:

  • Reilly, J., Grotzer, T.A., & Dede, C.J. (submitted). Learning from log files: Novel uses of student log file data in immersive virtual environments for science education.  Journal of Science Education and Technology.
  • Gonzalez, E., Grotzer, T.A., McGivney, E., & Reilly, J. (in press). Details matter: How contrasting design features in two MUVEs impact learning outcomes. Technology, Knowledge, and Learning.
  • Kamarainen, A. Grotzer, T., Thompson, M., Sabey, D. & Haag, B. (in press). Teacher views of experimentation in ecosystem science, Journal of Biological Education.
  • Grotzer, T.A., Gonzalez, E., & Schibuk, E. (in press). Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Prediction. In J. Nordine & O. Lee (Eds.) Crosscutting Concepts: Strengthening Science and Engineering Learning. NSTA: Arlington, VA.
  • Grotzer, T.A., Gonzalez, E., & McGivney (in press). Teaching students to grasp complexity in biology education using a “Body of Evidence” approach. In O. Ben-Zvi Assaraf & M.C.P.J. Knippels (Eds.) Complexity in Biology Education, NY: Springer Nature.

View All Publications | View All Presentations

Practitioner Product(s): The full curriculum includes lesson plans, PowerPoints, a set of six Thinking Moves (aligned to the NGSS) with supporting videos, an extensive teachers’ guide, and two sets of Professional Development workshop sessions.  EcoXPT is available for free download and use by classrooms around the world at this link: In addition, there are two teacher workshop modules (only accessible when logged in):

  • A self-guided  PD workshop in book format: Sagar, S., Gonzalez, E., & Grotzer, T.A. (2020). Bridging the Gap: Helping Students Use Claims, Evidence and Reasoning (CER) to Formulate Causal Explanations. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.
  • Guide with accompanying PPts to a set of workshop sessions: Peh, H. with Gonzalez, E. (2020). EcoXPT Professional Development Introductory Workshop for Educators: What if Students can Form a Deep Understanding of Ecosystems Without Leaving the Classroom? A Professional Development Guide for Teachers Thinking about Teaching EcoXPT: Facilitator’s Guide. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Standards Alignment: In addition to EcoXPT's NGSS Alignment, EcoXPT also includes a set of Understanding Goals related to what is called a “Body of Evidence (BOE) Approach”: 

  1. It is not always possible or desirable to conduct an experiment.
  2. In these cases, ecosystem scientists use an approach where they systematically look for lots of different types of evidence. (They call this a “Body of Evidence” approach.)
  3. The more evidence that can be gathered in support of a claim, the more likely it is that that the claim will be accepted. The evidence should be from as many different and varied sources as possible.
  4. In addition to trying to find out what makes something happen, scientists try to collect as much information as they can on how the cause and effect relationship varies—the range of possible outcomes. (For example, a variable might cause an outcome when it reaches a certain amount, but not at lesser amounts.  It also might not cause more of an outcome as you keep adding more.  Or it might be that the amount of outcome increases step-wise with the amount of the causal variable.)
  5. Sometimes nature “conducts experiments” that scientists can interpret.  They use these as natural opportunities to learn about what happens. This can be helpful in cases when an experiment is not possible or desirable.
  6. Scientists talk about how much certainty they have in a set of findings.

EcoXPT also includes Disciplinary Content Understanding Goals and Key Concepts (not elaborated here but explained in our Teachers’ Guide) related to Food Webs and Energy Transfer; Phosphates, Nitrates, and Eutrophication; Populations and Communities; Balance and Flux; Thinking about Spatial Scale and Action at a Distance; Matter Recycling; and Interactions between Biotic and Abiotic Worlds.

Model-Evidence Link LogoEngaging Students in Scientific Practices: Evaluating Evidence and Explanation in Secondary Earth and Space Science

PI: Doug Lombardi | Co-PI: Insook Han
Grades: 6-12
Target Audience: Middle and high school students and seachers, as well as introductory undergraduate students and instructors
Subjects: Earth & Space Science, Environmental Science

Project Description: The purpose of our project is to promote students' scientific thinking when confronted with controversial and/or complex Earth and space science topics. We do this by using an instructional scaffold called the model-evidence link (MEL) diagram. We are currently adapting this scaffold to enable students to build their own MEL diagram, which we call the build-a-MEL (baMEL). Topics for MEL and baMEL activities include: climate change, earthquakes and fracking, wetlands use, formation of the moon, extreme weather, fossils and Earth's past, freshwater availability, and origins of the universe. For a given MEL, students are presented with the scientifically accepted model and an alternative model. They evaluate four lines of evidence that either support, strongly support, contradict, or have nothing to do with the model. Students then complete an explanation task describing their reasoning for how they connected the lines of evidence to the models. We are currently adapting the instructional scaffold to enable students to build their own MEL diagram, which we call the baMEL. With the baMEL, students choose two models from a set of three that they find to be most plausible to explain a given scientific phenomenon. They then choose four lines of evidence from a larger set. Once again, they evaluate the lines of evidence, connecting them to the models with arrows that indicate whether the evidence supports, strongly supports, contradicts, or has nothing to do with each model. During the process of building their MEL and baMEL diagrams, students work in groups discussing the models, the lines of evidence, and the rationale for their choices. MEL and baMEL activities may help students to critically evaluate connections between evidence and explanatory models. At the conclusion of a MEL or baMEL activity, students may revisit their original ideas and deepen their understanding of scientific concepts and practices as they are led through a discussion of the scientifically accepted model of the phenomenon and associated lines of evidence.

Initial Findings: We conducted an analysis of pilot data collected in Years 2 and 3. In this analysis, we compared the two instructional scaffolds, (a) the Wetlands pre-constructed MEL and (b) the Freshwater Resources baMELs. Repeated measures ANOVA showed that both activities engaged middle and high school students’ (N = 108) evaluations and differentially shifted students’ plausibility judgments and knowledge. A structural equation model suggested that students’ evaluation may influence post-instructional plausibility and knowledge: when students chose their lines of evidence and explanatory models (i.e., when using the baMELs), their evaluations were deeper, with stronger shifts toward a scientific stance and greater levels of post-instructional knowledge. The results suggest that both scaffolds may help develop students’ scientific evaluation skills, a practice that is key to understanding both scientific content and science as a process. Although effect sizes were modest, the results provided critical information for the final development and testing stage of these water resource instructional activities. We published these results, with associated theoretical framework and subsequent discussion, in a peer-reviewed journal (Medrano et al., 2020).

We also conducted a study examining the intricate process and potential patterns of negotiation between students during scientific argumentation. In this pilot study, we investigated pre-service science education students’ negotiations when participating in the climate change pre-constructed MEL. We theoretically grounded this research via the broad perspective of social constructionism, and specifically used Halliday’s model of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) within a Discourse Analysis framework. We analyzed transcripts of student conversations during the pre-constructed MEL activity to analyze patterns of negotiation. An Interpersonal analysis centering on Mood and Moves revealed students’ ability to engage in the negotiation component of scientific argumentation to make assertions about relations between evidence and models. Effective collaboration resulting in group consensus of the relationship (categorized as supports, strongly supports, or contradicts) was facilitated by the use of interrogatives, modulation and a balanced contribution between group members. Conversely, negotiation that did not reach consensus featured less balanced discussion amongst group members, contained more interruptions and double polarity clauses. These results suggest that not only is SFL a useful framework from which classroom discourse can be studied, but that classroom practice through abductive reasoning (i.e., reasoning toward the best explanation) activities and collaborative argumentation can facilitate students’ understanding. This paper has been accepted, with major revisions, for publication in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching (Governor et al., 2021).

We also conducted a mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) examination of discourse patterns and argumentation during implementation of the preconstructed MEL and baMEL instructional scaffolds. We specifically investigated the influence of agentic elements of instruction on individual and collective engagement within three small group discussions when participating in these activities. By linking discourse analysis to social network analysis, we found that including elements of agency and choice in the activity distributed engagement in critical evaluation and argumentation among all participants in a collaborative working group of middle school students. Our results show emerging patterns of how students shifted from one centralized student facilitating much of the knowledge construction in the MEL activity, to more distributed collective engagement by the baMEL, χ2 (3) = 52.3, p < .001. The findings not only show shifts in density of interactional turns during argumentation between students, but also show fewer teacher interactions by the final baMEL, suggesting increased student agency. The findings provide preliminary support that the baMEL results in increased student agency to share the process of knowledge construction. We are currently preparing a manuscript that features these mixed-methods results.


Practitioner Products: Project WebsiteTeaching Resources | Professional Development Materials

GEODE: Geological models for Explorations of Dynamic Earth

PI: Amy Pallant | Co-PIs: Hee-Sun Lee, Scott McDonald
Grades: 6-12
Target Audience: Middle and high school Earth science teachers and students
Subjects: Earth Science, Geology

Project Description: The Geological Models for Explorations of Dynamic Earth project, also known as GEODE, produced a Plate Tectonics Module that changes how students investigate Earth’s plate system. The module contains two embedded, dynamic computational models as well as associated visualizations. Designed to transform the way middle and high school students learn about plate tectonics, the module focuses on having students investigate patterns of topography, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and hypothesize how plate motion along boundaries might explain these phenomena. Rather than teaching one boundary at a time, disconnected from other boundaries, the curriculum aims for a more holistic understanding of Earth’s moving plates as a dynamic system. The five-activity module incorporates real-world data, case studies of particular locations on the planet, and the use of two simulations to help students answer the driving question, “What will Earth look like in 500 million years?”

The module includes, Seismic Explorer, an easy-to-use data visualization tool that allows students to investigate patterns of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and plate motion on Earth. The Tectonic Explorer is a unique 3-dimensional interactive plate tectonics computational model and simulation that helps students explore how the motion of plates in different arrangements can result in a variety of land formations. Both tools include a 3D cross-section feature that provides students with the unique ability to zoom into any plate boundary and see below the surface of the Earth as tectonic plates shift and interact over vast lengths of time. While working through several examples presented in the module, students learn to identify the distinct patterns of earthquakes and volcanoes present at convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries. They also relate geologic processes to the formation of mountains, ocean trenches, and other landforms.

Initial Findings: The goal of the GEODE curriculum is to help students develop causal, mechanistic explanations of tectonic phenomena based on the whole-earth plate system perspective. We developed and tested a construct that captures students’ underlying ability to explain the formation of landforms (mid-ocean ridges, ocean basis, high mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, and volcanoes), the occurrence and formation of seismic activities, and the motions of plates near convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries based on thermodynamic and gravitational forces. To validate the Tectonic Plate System (TPS) construct, we developed an instrument consisting of 25 items (16 multiple choice items and 9 open-ended explanation items) and analyzed 1,179 middle and high school students’ responses to the instrument. We psychometrically validated the TPS construct by applying the Rasch-Partial Credit Model analyses. Results indicate that the construct is unidimensional, fits the Rasch-PCM model, and has a reliability of 0.88.

During the 2019-2020 school year, more than 14,000 students taught by 265 teachers accessed the Plate Tectonics module. Among these teachers, we are currently analyzing 26 focus teachers whose 1098 students took the TPS instrument as pretest and posttest. We analyzed students’ performances on the 16 multiple choice items. A total score for the 16 multiple choice items was 26. According to the pairs-sample t-test, students made statistically significant gains from the pretest (M = 9.58, SD = 3.54) to the posttest (M = 13.72, SD = 5.25), t(1097) = 28.28, p < 0.001. The effect size estimated using Cohen’s d was 0.92 SD. We applied repeated measures According to Wilcoxon signed ranks tests, students made statistically significant gains in each of the 16 multiple choice items, p < 0.001.

In the 2020-2021 school year, over 18,000 students and 500 teachers have used the Plate Tectonics module.


Practitioner Products: Project Website | Plate Tectonics Curriculum Module | Seismic Explorer | Tectonic Explorer | Blog Posts

NGSS Alignment:

Science and Engineering Practices:

  • Developing and Using Models
  • Constructing Explanations

Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Patterns
  • Cause and Effect: Mechanism and Explanation
  • Systems and System Models

Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  •  ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions
    • Maps of ancient land and water patterns, based on investigations of rocks and fossils, make clear how Earth’s plates have moved great distances, collided, and spread apart. (MS-ESS2-3)
    • The radioactive decay of unstable isotopes continually generates new energy within Earth’s crust and mantle, providing the primary source of the heat that drives mantle convection. Plate tectonics can be viewed as the surface expression of mantle convection. (HS-ESS2-3)
    • Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at Earth’s surface and provides a framework for understanding its geologic history. (ESS2.B Grade 8 GBE) (secondary to HS-ESS1-5),(HS-ESS2-1)
    • Plate movements are responsible for most continental and ocean-floor features and for the distribution of most rocks and minerals within Earth’s crust. (ESS2.B Grade 8 GBE) (HS-ESS2-1)
  • ESS1.C: The History of Planet Earth
    • Tectonic processes continually generate new ocean sea floor at ridges and destroy old sea floor at trenches. (HS.ESS1.C GBE),(secondary to MS-ESS2-3)

GeoHazard Image

GeoHazard: Modeling Natural Hazards and Assessing Risks

PI: Amy Pallant | Co-PIs: Elaine Larson, Hee-Sun LeeCarla McAuliffe, Scott McDonald
Grades: 5-12
Target Audience: Earth science teachers and students
Subjects: Earth Science, Environmental Science

Project Description: The goal of the GeoHazard: Modeling Natural Hazards and Assessing Risks project is to use Earth system models to help students evaluate natural hazards holistically. This project allows students to investigate the factors that influence natural hazard formation, progression, and severity and that contribute the most to potential risks. The project has designed and developed three curriculum modules focused on the movement and growth of hurricanes, the propagation of wildfire, and the development of inland floods. Each module contains embedded unique, data-driven Earth system models that allows students to explore the factors that affect each of these natural phenomena. Throughout the module, students experiment with the initial conditions of the models, run the models to gather evidence, and then reason about the impacts and risk these natural hazards bring. Students also dive into real-world case studies and consider how natural hazards impact people and their communities.

Initial Findings: Students who participated in our 2019-2020 classroom implementations of the Hurricane Module made significant gains on understanding hurricane hazards, risks, and impacts as measured by our hurricane instrument. One hundred ninety-three students completed the pretest and posttest. Among them, 52% were male, 35% non-white students; 6% were English Language Learners; 94% used computers for science learning prior to the hurricane module. The hurricane hazard instrument consisted of 29 items: 13 multiple choice items, 6 true/false items, and 10 open-ended explanation items. The reliability among the items was 0.78 using Cronbach’s alpha. The mean of pretest scores was 27.5 with a standard deviation of 5.9 and that of posttest scores was 34.2 with a standard deviation of 6.6. The Effect Size for the student pre-posttest gains (measured in Cohen’s d =mean difference divided by the pooled standard deviation) was 0.97 SD. We also applied the Wilcoxon matched-pair signed rank test to each item to see whether students made significant changes at the item level. On 22 out of 29 items students made significant gains from pre to posttest. Students made significant gains on expressing their reasoning about hazards, risks, and impacts in all explanation items.

In the 2020-2021 school year, the Hurricane Module was used by over 3,000 students and 94 teachers. The Wildfire Module was used by 1,100 students and 21 teachers. The Flood module will be pilot tested in Spring 2021.


Practitioner Products: Project Website | Hurricane Model, Curriculum, & Resources | Wildfire Model | Blog Posts

NGSS Alignment:

Science and Engineering Practices:

  • Developing and Using Models
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Crosscutting Concepts:

  • Patterns
  • Systems and System Models

Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  •  ESS2.D: Weather and Climate
    • Weather and climate are influenced by interactions involving sunlight, the ocean, the atmosphere, ice, landforms, and living things. These interactions vary with latitude, altitude, and local and regional geography, all of which can affect oceanic and atmospheric flow patterns. Because these patterns are so complex, weather can be predicted only probabilistically. (MS-ESS2-1 GBE)
    • Global climate models incorporate scientists’ best knowledge of physical and chemical processes and of the interactions of relevant systems. They are tested by their ability to fit past climate variations. Current models predict that, although future regional climate changes will be complex and varied, average global temperatures will continue to rise. (HS.ESS2.D GBE)
  • ESS3.B: Natural Hazards
    • Some natural hazards, such as volcanic eruptions and severe weather, are preceded by phenomena that allow for reliable predictions. Others, such as earthquakes, occur suddenly and with no notice, and thus they are not yet predictable However, mapping the history of natural hazards in a region, combined with the understanding of related geological forces can help forecast the locations and likelihoods of future events. (MS-ESS3-1 GBE)
    • Natural hazards can be local, regional, or global in origin, and their risks increase as populations grow. Human activities can contribute to the frequency and intensity of some natural hazards. (HS-ESS3-3 GBE)
    • Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems. (HS-ESS3-5 GBE)

Integrating Chemistry and Earth Science (ICE)

PI: Alan Berkowitz
Grades: 9-12
Target Audience: High school administrators
Subjects: Science/Chemistry

Project Description: ICE is a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop units for the new Baltimore High School chemistry curriculum that brings earth science into the chemistry curriculum. It includes concepts, datasets and protocols for addressing the question, “How does chemistry shape the physical environment of Baltimore?

Integrating earth science into high school chemistry can help engage students with compelling local phenomena, especially in districts like Baltimore, MD, that are short on high school Earth Science courses and teachers.  In the ICE project, we are developing 3D, NGSS aligned curricula on ocean acidification (in Acids and Bases Unit), urban heat island and energy transfer at local-to-global scales (in Thermochemistry Unit) and the life and death of Baltimore’s mountains (in the culminating Earth Chemistry unit). Students design and carry out investigations in the local urban environment and lab, analyze large datasets from the Baltimore Ecosystem Study and other local science projects, and use conceptual and quantitative models to make sense of the physical science involved in these phenomena.

A group of Teacher Fellows meets monthly to provide feedback on the new chemistry curriculum, suggest changes and improvements and receive professional development related to the new Earth science content. Project Partners include the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Baltimore City Public Schools and George Washington University.

Initial Findings: Initial analyses of student learning data indicate that students are developing proficiency with the scientific practice of modeling and provide evidence of students’ ability to integrate chemistry and Earth science content when explaining local phenomena. Additionally, we have documented changes in teachers’ perceptions of the curriculum toward a position that values the integration of chemistry and Earth science content for supporting student learning. As teachers become more familiar with the goals of the curriculum and implementation efforts, their engagement has also shifted from basic implementation toward a critical and evaluative stance to further refine and modify the curriculum experiences to meet the needs of their students.  

Instruments: We have created templates to support students as they develop explanatory models for the local phenomena explored during the curriculum. We also created rubrics that teachers and researchers can use for scoring students’ models. The rubrics are aligned to a model-based framework for interpreting and responding to students’ models. 

Publications & Presentations:

  • Grooms, J., Fleming, K., Berkowitz, A.R., and Caplan, B. (2021, April). Enhancing Student Modeling within an Integrated Chemistry and Earth Science Curriculum. Paper presented at the 2021 Annual International Conference of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST).
  • Fleming, K., Grooms, J., Berkowitz, A.R., and Caplan, B. (2021, April). Teacher Change during Integrated Curriculum Reform as Evidenced by Episodes of Pedagogical Reasoning. Paper presented at the 2021 Annual International Conference of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching (NARST).
  • Grooms, J., Fleming, K., Berkowitz, A.R., and Caplan, B. (2021, April). Student Learning and Teacher Practice during Curricular Reform to Integrate Chemistry and Earth Science. Paper presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Practitioner Product(s): Video | Project Website | Curriculum materials are coming soon!

NGSS Alignment: Our curriculum materials are not yet available for public view, however the three units in the high school chemistry curriculum where Earth science and chemistry integration are most notably featured, are aligned to NGSS standards for Physical and Earth/Space science.  Specific standards and indicators include: 

Unit 4:

  • PS1.B HS4. In many situations, a dynamic and condition-dependent balance between a reaction and the reverse reaction determines the numbers of all types of molecules present.
  • HS-PS1-2. Construct and revise an explanation for the outcome of a simple chemical reaction based on the outermost electron states of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of patterns of chemical properties.
  • HS-PS1-2 1.a.iii. Construct an explanation for the outcome of a given reaction that includes the outermost (valence) electron configuration and the relative electronegativity of the atoms that make up both the reactants and the products of the reaction based on their position in the periodic table. 

 Unit 6: Thermochemistry

  • HS-ESS2-3. Develop a model based on evidence of Earth’s interior to describe the cycling of matter by thermal convection.
  • HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems results in changes in climate.
  • HS-PS1-2. Construct and revise an explanation for the outcome of a simple chemical reaction based on the outermost electron states of atoms, trends in the periodic table, and knowledge of the patterns of chemical properties.
  • HS-PS1-4. Develop a model to illustrate that the release of absorption of energy from a chemical reaction system depends upon the changes in total bond energy.
  • HS-PS3-1. Create a computational model to calculate the change in the energy of one component in a system when the change in energy of the other component(s) and energy flows in and out of the system are known.
  • HS-PS3-4. Plan and conduct an investigation to provide evidence that the transfer of thermal energy when two components of different temperatures are combined within a closed system results in a more uniform energy distribution among the components in the system (second law of thermodynamics).

Unit 7: Chemistry and Baltimore's Mountains

  • HS-ESS1-5. Evaluate evidence of the past and current movement of continental and oceanic crust and the theory of plate tectonics to explain the ages of crustal rocks.
  • HS-ESS2-1. Develop a model to illustrate how Earth’s internal and surface processes operate at different spatial and temporal scales to form continental and ocean floor features.
  • HS-ESS2-5. Plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes.

Learning in Places: Field Based Science in Early Childhood Education

PIs: Carrie Tzou, Megan Bang
Grades: PreK-3
Target Audience: Teachers and educators in out-of-school spaces, families, PreK3 students, community-based organizations
Subjects: Ecology, environmental science, biology, earth science, science education, learning sciences

Project Description: Learning in Places (LiP) is a partnership between Seattle Public Schools, Tilth Alliance, the University of Washington Bothell, and Northwestern University. We collaborate with PK-3 children, families, educators, and community based organizations to co-design equitable, culturally based, field-based science education utilizing outdoor places, including gardens. We are working to reimagine how children can engage in seasonal field-basedscience driven by “should we” questions that cultivate ethical deliberation and decision-making about socio-ecological systems, and that are consequential to children, their families, and their communities.

LiP is guided by what we call the LiP Rhizome. A rhizome is an underground stem that grows horizontally, and it is the main stem of a plant. We use this as a metaphor for the commitments and principles that guide all aspects of LiP. Dimensions of the LiP rhizome include: (a) complex socio-ecological systems, (b) culture, families, & communities, and (c) field-based science learning, (d) nature-culture relations, and (e) power and historicity. LiP centers power and historicity and nature-culture relations in place-based science education and by doing so, refuses anti-Blackness, Indigenous erasure, and deficit frames on children, families, and communities. LiP supports learning and being in place that deeply engages children, their families, communities, and educators with learning, wondering, questioning, investigating, deliberating, and decision-making grounded in these various dimensions of the rhizome.

We have also developed three storylines that can be thought of as choreographed learning engagements. All three storylines represent a suggested sequence of bundled activity embedded in a variety of activity systems (classrooms, outdoor spaces, homes and communities) that support learning. Learning in Places has developed a family storyline, a classroom storyline (for educators in schools and also in other learning environments), and a garden storyline. Learning engagements within each storyline contain background information, learning tools, suggested prompts and questions to support learning, connections to LiP-developed educator frameworks and other learning engagements, and ideas for connecting with others to deepen learning. The various tools in the LiP ecosystem are meant to be used together, not in isolation from each other.

Initial Findings: Our research explores different dimensions of the LiP model and project, including children, teacher, and family learning. Our findings-to-date stem from initial analyses of our cognitive task interviews, family tools used in the classroom storyline, and implementation data (e.g., video and audio-recordings) collected as children and educators engaged and navigated the LiP classroom storyline.

For example, one preliminary analysis focused on educators’ engagement with power and historicity and racialized dynamics in partnership classrooms. An aspect of our work has been to raise educators’ awareness of the ways that they communicate about Indigenous peoples, Black people, and other people of color as well as how they interact with students and families of color. We engaged educators in a series of reflections about these issues utilizing our educator frameworks (e.g. Power & Historicity framework) and watched videos of partner teachers engaging students in discussions related to our instructional storyline. We also examined educators’ disproportionately escalated responses to black boys' behaviors in outdoor spaces. Our analyses of data have shown remarkable shifts in educators becoming attuned to these dynamics and engaging in what we think of as micro-repairs in real-time instruction.

With respect to analysis of family tools in the classroom storylines, findings highlight, for example, that family stories and responses to histories of places they identified as meaningful to them “toggled” across multiple temporal and spatial scales. Engaging in this type of toggling is key to complex socio-ecological systems learning.

With respect to analysis of interviews, preliminary findings highlight, for example, significant differences in the range of relations that students attended to in ecosystems, as well as their understandings of the function of different species and phenomena in ecosystems. More specifically, there are statistically significant increases in students’ reasoning about interspecies relations, species’ behaviors, and species’ functions and impacts on ecosystems as a result of the  learning engagements our project team designed. For Kindergarten students, we are finding significant increases in their engagement with causal relations, and with second graders we are finding significant increases in their reasoning about balancing or feedback loop relations.

Pilot Findings from Pre-service Teacher Training
Overall we found that pre-service elementary teachers reported that the LIP model transformed their interest, agency, and desire to teach science. However, closer analysis of their beginning models of socio-ecological systems reflected a need for deeper attention to key systems features, attention to reasoning across scales and to relational specificity. Interestingly, pre-service teachers’ initial models and the models in students’ pre-interviews are somewhat aligned. In this project we focus on refining the pedagogical practices that scaffold educators’ model development.


  • We have developed a set of cognitive task interviews (example findings described above) that elicit children’s observational and explanation practices, as well as their understandings and reasoning about relations and functions in ecosystems, and their reasoning about perturbations in socio-ecological systems.
  • As part of our family storyline, we have developed a set of what we’re calling “family tools” for field-based science sensemaking. We are using these tools (all available on our website) to study families’ place-based sensemaking.
  • As part of our educator frameworks, we have developed what we call educator self-assessments that educators can use to reflect on their teaching practices related to the topic of any given framework. Educators can also use these self-assessments to identify elements of the frameworks that they want to incorporate into their teaching practices and/or use to modify their existing teaching practices.


  • Bang, M., Tzou, C., Nolan, C.M., Pugh, P., Sherry-Wagner, J., Bricker, L. & McGowan, V. (2020, June). Learning to facilitate and support the exploration of complex socio-ecological systems: A teacher and teacher learning workshop. A pre-conference workshop presented at the annual meeting of the International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS), Nashville, TN. [conference held remotely due to the novel Coronavirus]
  • Bang, M., Tzou, C.T., Bricker, L., & McGowan, V. (December 2020). Learning in Places orientation for pre-service teacher educators. Online professional development for preservice teacher educators.


Practioner Product(s): On the Learning in Places website:

*The classroom seasonal storyline is aligned with the NGSS. Each lesson plan in every learning engagement contains specific learning goals, connections to disciplinary core ideas, scientific practices, and crosscutting concepts, as well as information about assessment opportunities.

Life Right Here and Everywhere: Case Studies of a Suite of Next Generation Science Instructional, Assessment and Professional Development Materials Implemented in Two Diverse Middle School Settings

PI: Nancy SongerCo-PIs: Tanya Dewey, Michelle Newstadt | Postdoctoral Scholars: Kirby Whittington, Tamara Galoyan
Grades: 6-8
Target Audience: Middle school students utilizing remote learning and affiliated with under-resourced urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Salt Lake City.
Subjects: Ecosystems, Engineering, Environmental Science, Life Science

Project Description: The global pandemic and climate change have led to unprecedented environmental, social, and economic challenges with interdisciplinary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) foundations. Even as STEM learning has never been more critical, few instructional programs prepare students to apply classroom learning in STEM topics to the engineering design of solutions. Our program is unique in the concurrent fostering of 3D NGSS life science and engineering learning and the ownership students have of their eco-solutions that can potentially impact their local neighborhood's biodiversity.

This project focuses on designing and evaluating a Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) curricular unit implemented within a data backbone learning system called Gooru's Learning Navigator. The system provides opportunities to customize feedback and learning resources tailored to support 3D science and engineering learning specific to each learner. The instructional materials are designed for middle school students and teachers in a range of culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse schools, including Philadelphia, PA., New York City, NY., and Salt Lake City, UT. 

Our learning approach, eco-solutioning, fosters student learning of 3D environmental content through science and engineering practices, e.g., constructing solutions that impact the local environment. The curricular unit concludes with student presentations of their eco-solution plans and prototypes to local stakeholders. Example eco-solution plans include strategies to reduce invasive species, such as the Spotted Lanternfly, in their neighborhood. Case study research provides results on students' learning, teachers' classroom practices, and the Gooru Learning Navigator platform's benefits and challenges.

Initial Findings: We implemented a beta-test of our instructional program with one classroom of urban students in the northeastern United States. Student teams created posters and infographics describing their eco-solutions that were designed around community-based ecosystem problems. See two examples of eco-solutions to address invasive species Spotted Lanternfly invasion (right image).

 Student interviews revealed student articulation of the eco-solutioning process as, “We went through the lessons by conversating and figuring out solutions from what we learned. For me, it felt very student led.” Summer 21 learning results are forthcoming.


  • Songer, N.B., Kali, Y. (in press) Science education and the learning sciences: A coevolutionary connection. Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.3rd edition.
  • Songer, N.B., and Ibarrola Recalde, G., (2021) Eco-Solutioning: The design and evaluation of a curricular unit to foster students’ creation of solutions to address local socio-scientific issues. Frontiers Educ. 6:642320. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2021.642320/
  • Songer, N.B., Newstadt, M., Luchessi, K., & Ram, P. (2020) Navigated Learning: An Approach for Differentiated Classroom Instruction Built on Learning Science and Data Science Foundations. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies. (2) 1. 95-103


  • Life Right Here and Everywhere. Presentation in symposium, Opportunities and Challenges of Facilitating Educators’ Understanding and Use of the Next Generation Science Standards. NARST annual meeting April 9, 2021.

Practitioner Products: Our instructional materials, assessment instruments, and student artifacts are in cycle two of iterative development. Final versions of our instructional unit and teacher professional development resources will be available by July 2021 on our project website

NGSS Alignment: The five-week curricular unit supports deep engagement with two 3D performance expectations:

  1. MS-LS-2-4 Construct an argument supported by empirical evidence that changes to physical or biological components of an ecosystem affect populations.
  2. Create an eco-solution plan for maintaining local biodiversity and ecosystems.

Additional Projects

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