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Environmental Science and Biocomplexity: A Case-based Approach to Learning about Complex Systems

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Gillian Puttick

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Background
Biocomplexity has emerged as an umbrella science that helps us understand how humans are an integral part of nature. Thinking about humans as agents within and for ecosystems as opposed to external actors who produce an impact is a radically different way to think about people in the world, and brings a number of new perspectives to the practice of ecology.

The Biocomplexity and the Habitable Planet project was funded by the National Science Foundation to bring this new perspective to high school environmental science and ecology instruction through a high school capstone course. It incorporates an integrated framework to study the myriad relationships and reciprocal interactions that link human economic and social systems to natural systems of the planet. The curriculum consists of four six-week units designed around cases in urban, agricultural, tropical, and polar systems. It integrates core concepts of ecology, environmental science, the social sciences, biogeography, geography, economics, and anthropology and uses a range of science tools to address the consequences of the choices that humans make about the land, water, and biological communities that we inhabit.

The curriculum embraces the vision and goals of the NGSS and Framework: Each unit focuses on a few disciplinary core ideas, and each learning experience builds on the ones before. Students engage in the practices of science, collect observational and quantitative data, develop and use qualitative and quantitative models, and analyze and interpret data. They build on their data and experience to construct explanations, build a case for the solution they choose for the case, and communicate it. In addition to disciplinary core ideas and science practices, the materials address all of the cross-cutting concepts.

Documented Results
The curriculum has been piloted and field tested nationally in 39 classrooms with over 700 students across the country. All classrooms showed statistically significant gains in student learning. Teachers were overwhelmingly positive with respect to their implementation of the unit, using adjectives such as “challenging,” “innovative,” “valuable,” and “usable.” The majority of teachers commented that students were engaged with the content, particularly with the hands-on investigations and the software. One teacher commented, “I really love the mix of media, tasks, readings, and thinking involved. It is really engaging!”

Analysis of student artifacts showed a comprehensive understanding of complexity, as evidenced by the integration of levels of biological organization; consideration of abiotic, biotic, and social phenomena; recognition of system interactions, dynamics, and feedbacks; the treatment of “trade-offs”; and student ability to articulate the ecological and social implications of their chosen case solutions. One challenge of incorporating social science into a STEM curriculum is to provide support for students to understand what constitutes rigor in the social sciences, and to distinguish values and opinion from scientific thinking. Teachers reported that the majority of their students could readily identify points of view in constructing their cases, and could differentiate between values and scientifically supported evidence.

Potential Applications
The curriculum has been flexibly designed so that it can be used in several ways. All four units constitute a yearlong advanced level ecological/environmental science course, while the units—Urban, Sprawl and Agriculture, Tropical (Amazonia), and Polar (Arctic)—can be used on their own as drop-in modules. In addition, field-test teachers and expert teachers who reviewed each unit have observed that many individual lessons can be used as stand-alone “mini-units.”

The curriculum is currently in preparation as a digital and print-on-demand text from It’s About Time publishers. A comprehensive Teacher Guide supports classroom implementation. In addition, the Sprawl and Arctic units are available in a Universal Design for Learning format.

For More Information

See the UDL version at biocomplexityUDL.terc.edu, user name 'student1' and password '123456'.