Engaging Middle School Students in Authentic Scientific Practices Can Enhance Their Understanding of Ecosystem Response to Hurricane Disturbance

October 22, 2018


Steven McGee

The Learning Partnership

Amanda M. Durik

Northern Illinois University

Jess K. Zimmerman

University of Puerto Rico

Randi McGee-Tekula

The Learning Partnership

Jennifer Duck

The Learning Partnership

Ecosystem response to hurricane disturbance is complex and multi-faceted. The likelihood of increased frequency of severe hurricanes creates a need for the general public to understand how ecosystems respond to hurricanes. Yet, opportunities to study disturbances to complex systems are rare in U.S. K–12 schools. Educators and researchers in the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research program used the results of research on ecosystem response to hurricane disturbance in the Luquillo Experimental Forest as a foundation for the development of Journey to El Yunque, a web-based, middle-school curriculum unit. The program engages students in using models as evidence to develop explanations for how particular species respond to hurricane disturbance. Prior research in education has shown that engaging students in a particular role, like that of a scientist, could have detrimental effects on students’ abilities to transfer what is learned from one context to another. In this research, we sought to understand whether having students engage in authentic scientific practices could support transfer of knowledge to the abstract context of a standards-based assessment. Students were randomly assigned to engage in the program in the role of a scientist or in the role of a student learning about an ecosystem. The dependent variables included students’ comprehension of the background readings, their predictions of population changes, and their overall learning of ecology. The results indicate that taking on a scientist role during the learning activities had an indirect effect on general ecology knowledge by increasing the quality of students’ notetaking during background reading. The results also indicate that students struggled to use their knowledge to develop a robust explanation for how species respond to hurricane disturbance. Journey to El Yunque provides a framework for engaging students in authentic investigations of hurricane disturbance. Future research will examine how to improve the quality of students’ final explanations.

Suggested Citation

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. https://doi.org/10.3390/f9100658

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