.|  Baltimore Ecosystem Study
Investigations in Ecology Teaching

We are exploring the roles of schools and other institutions in fostering understanding and the flow of knowledge and information. We will continue, refine and expand the current effort to assess how ecology is being taught in target schools to include all schools in Watershed 263, BES partner schools (Green Schools, etc.), and schools in other areas where BES work is concentrated. We would like to complement this work with an assessment of the general public in these same areas to determine the important sources of environmental knowledge and information for various groups, including the roles of schools, other education programs and other sources (e.g., media). This effort will depend on additional funding for new proposals based on our long-term data. Members of the Demographics/Social Science Team will continue to explore questions about information transfer and the functioning of knowledge networks, and analyses of historical case studies where environmental knowledge was applied to decision making and management. Education research projects in ecology teaching include:
  1. The Responsive Teaching Study
  2. The Ecology Teaching Study
  3. Investigations in Student Thinking and Learning
The Responsive Teaching Study
The Responsive Teaching Study: What Influences teachers’ modifications of curriculum?
People Involved:
Janet Coffey, Andy Elby, David Hammer, Sandra Honda, Matty Lau, Dan Levin, Anita Sanyal, Xiaowei Tang (University of Maryland, College Park)
Alan Berkowitz, Bess Caplan (Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies; Baltimore Ecosystem Study)
Additional support from NSF Grant #ESI 0455711, David Hammer, PI
Despite developers’ best efforts to insure “faithful” implementation, teachers generally modify curricula — skipping, adding, and rearranging sections, changing emphases, and so on (Ruiz-Primo, Shavelson, Hamilton, & Klein, 2002; Tobin & McRobbie, 1997). Understanding how and why teachers make modifications can help curriculum developers and teacher educators design materials and professional development activities that foster more effective modifications. These modifications come in many grain sizes, ranging from on-the-fly adjustments in the classroom to structural changes in the written materials themselves. Although some such modifications hinder students’ learning, others are potentially beneficial because they respond to the specific needs of the students (Hammer & Schifter, 2001; Lampert, 2001). Professional development and curriculum reform efforts should focus on promoting effective curricular modifications (Barnett & Hodson, 2001; Kelly, Brown, & Crawford, 2000).
We are guided by the following questions:
  1. What types of modifications do teachers make, and what influences them?
  2. Of the modifications we see, do any types tend to be more effective?
  3. Can we promote more responsive modifications through professional development activities designed to foster careful attention to student thinking?

We begin the study with the hypothesis that modifications made in response to the substance of student thinking will be more productive in terms of student learning outcomes and ideas about the nature of science.
Now completing our second year, we are working with three groups of teachers in the project: 1) high school biology teachers in Montgomery County, 2) high school physics teachers in Montgomery County, and 3) middle and high school environmental science teachers in Baltimore. It is this third group that forms the focus of the BES work on the project. We are addressing questions such as: How do teachers modify their curriculum and teaching in response to student thinking? To what do teachers attend, in terms of student thinking, in environmental science classrooms? What professional development strategies foster greater and more productive attention? Notes and video from classroom observations and regular follow-up conversations with teachers, transcripts of these meetings, reflections written by teachers, and artifacts from teachers’ classrooms comprise the data for this study. Our preliminary results revealed less evidence of attention to student thinking and fewer examples of responsive modifications than we’d anticipated. Many responses teachers made were to correct “incorrect” statements by students. This focus on the correctness of ideas actually may detract attention from substance and the nature of student reasoning which, if listened to, could be tapped and built upon. Our study demonstrates a useful approach to describing teacher attention to student thinking; the combination of videotaping classroom practice and reflecting on these episodes with peers and education researchers is yielding a useful framework for responsive teaching. Furthermore, we are learning ways in which these same research approaches can foster increases and shifts in teacher attention to student thinking in biology and environmental science, at least among a subset of our teacher participants. Teachers’ commitment to a broader set of student outcomes than just scientific understanding (e.g., student agency in solving environmental problems) can lead to less attentiveness to student thinking about science. However, it also can lead to teachers recognizing productive prior knowledge about the environment among their students, and to instructional steps that use this as a foundation for student growth in both science and agency for problem solving.
Honda, S., Hammer, D., & Grant, T.E. 2007. The generative nature of teacher attention to student thinking. Presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, April 10, 2007, Chicago, IL.
Coffey, J.E., Hammer, D., & Elby, A. 2007. Everyday assessment: To what do teachers pay attention. Presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, April 10, 2007, Chicago, IL.
Tang, X., Levin, D.M., Coffey, J.E., & Tang, X. 2007. A well designed investigation or wry and decomposed inquiry? Presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Conference, April 10, 2007, Chicago, IL. (I'm not sure this title is correct, but it's what the online abstract says.)
Berkowitz, A., Coffey, J., Honda, S., and Gordon, J. Submitted. Methods for describing and fostering diagnostic assessment in high school environmental science classrooms. Environmental Society of America/Society for Ecological Restoration Joint Meeting Aug 2007.
  The Ecology Teaching Study

The how’s, what’s and why’s of ecology teaching in Baltimore’s high schools
People involved
  • Alan R. Berkowitz, BES Education Team Leader, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies – Project Director
  • Janet Coffey, BES Co-PI and Associate Professor, University of Maryland College Park
  • Carol Rinke, BES Education Intern and Graduate Student, University of Maryland College Park
  • Janie Gordon, BES Education Coordinator, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
  • Rebecca Bell, Director of Environmental Education, Maryland State Department of Education
  • Elaine Henry, Graduate Student, University of Maryland College Park
  • Stephanie Marudas, BES Education Intern
  • Claudia Mausner, Data Analyst, Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Key Questions:
  • How is ecology being taught in Baltimore area schools?
  • What instructional practices and materials are being used in teaching ecology (for example, are students learning from fieldwork, real data-sets, real-world contexts, scientist role models)?
  • What content and skills are emphasized in ecology teaching (for example, are students taught about urban ecosystems)?
  • What are the major factors explaining the variation in the way ecology is being taught? What enables and constrains ecology teaching?
  • What are the challenges and opportunities for improvement so that all students have a chance to learn ecology?
Description of the High School Ecology Teaching Study
What is the contribution of the formal K-12 Education System to the development of an understanding of the metropolis as an ecological system? Do schools serve as the main conduit for development of ecosystem understanding in urban areas? To begin to answer this question, one must first ascertain if urban ecology is taught in schools. If it is taught, who teaches it and how do they teach it?
We created the High School Ecology Teaching Study to examine these questions. Through the Urban Resources Initiative, we provided an internship experience to a graduate student in the College of Education at the University of Maryland College Park. She designed and piloted a survey to assess the extent of ecology teaching by Baltimore City and County high school teachers of biology and environmental science. Additional piloting took place with elementary school teachers in west and southwest Baltimore (Watershed 263); a target program area for the Parks & People Foundation, a participant in BES. In-depth classroom observations and teacher interviews at an environmental science high school were also conducted as part of a case study.
Based on a literature review, inventory questions were designed to assess the steps deemed necessary to reach desired teaching outcomes; (1) an interested teacher (ecologically literate with skills for inquiry teaching), (2) working in an environment that supports and rewards teaching outcome, (3) with self-efficacy (confidence), and (4) an expectation of positive results (motivation) will result in positive teaching outcomes.
Surveys were sent to all high school biology and environmental science teachers in Baltimore City and County public and private schools in 2005. We received responses from teachers from 82% of the Baltimore County public schools (105 teachers), 63% of the Baltimore City public schools (38 teaches), 24% of the Baltimore City private schools (5 teachers) and 8% of the Baltimore County private schools (2 teachers) for a total of 150 responses.
Brief Summary of Findings
  • Influences on Teachers’ Ecology Knowledge
    • Other teachers, the Internet, college courses and books are the most important sources of ecology information.
  • Adequate Support For Ecology Teaching
    • Other teachers are the most important positive support for ecology teaching, with administrators also being positive.
  • Other Factors Influencing Ecology Teaching
    • Lots of support, resources and access are reported. However, inadequate access to parents, time for field trips and time to teach in the schoolyard or neighborhood are noted.
  • Motivation For Teaching About The Environment
    • Top ranked motivations are (1) to demonstrate relevance to everyday life, and (2) to encourage students to be active in protecting the environment.
  • Teacher Interest and Confidence
    • High levels of comfort in teaching, administrative support and student interest are reported.
  • Teaching Practices of Interest
    • Teaching indoors more than outdoors, in the schoolyard more than field trips more than the neighborhood is reported. Little use of outside experts, limited stewardship projects, some use of data from scientists or the Internet
    • Most frequently used practices do not involve direct interaction with organisms or the environment except demonstrations and projects.
  • Topics Emphasized
    • The Chesapeake Bay is most frequent topic while local watershed, plants, parks, and Baltimore City are ranked low.
These findings demonstrate that high school educators teach ecology with enthusiasm and confidence and with much support from their school system (faculty, administrators and curriculum). However, there is room for improvement in school-based ecology teaching; particularly as it pertains to engaging students in field based urban ecosystem learning experiences.

Figure 1. Summary of responses to item: Please indicate how often you use the following activities or approaches in your ecology teaching. Percentage of teachers reporting to use each approach with each of the five frequencies listed is shown as stacked bar graphs. Practices are sorted from those done most frequently on average at the top of each graph, to those done least frequently on the bottom. The top panel shows use of approaches of particular interest for fostering urban ecosystem literacy, while the bottom panel shows the use of more traditional teaching approaches.
Figure: Alan Berkowitz

Figure 2. Summary of responses to the item: Please indicate how much emphasis you place on each of the following topics. Circle a score for each item, using the scale shown below. For items you scored 1-4, please note in which subject area it is most often discussed.
1 = major emphasis, e.g., it is a major theme for the entire course
2 = moderate emphasis, e.g., it is a major theme for a whole module or section of the course
3 = minor emphasis, e.g., it is a minor theme for a part of the course
4 = it is just touched on once or twice in the course
5 = not addressed at all in the course

Figure: Alan Berkowitz

Figure 3. Summary of responses to the item: What is the main reason you teach about the environment? Please rank your top three (1=most important, 2=second most important, 3=third most important). Motivating factors are sorted from those with the lowest mean rank at the top (i.e., most important to the respondents), to those with the highest mean rank at the bottom.
Figure: Alan Berkowitz

Figure 4. Summary of responses to the item: Please indicate your level of concern and your students’ level of concern about the following environmental issues in the community surrounding your school. Factors or sorted from those of most concern to the responding teachers at the top, to those of least concern at the bottom. This same ranking was used for the lower panel, which shows the teachers’ assessment of their students’ concerns about the some issues.
Figure: Alan Berkowitz

Berkowitz, A., Coffey, J., Gordon, J., C. Rinke, C., Marusdas, S., and Bell, R. 2005. How is Ecology being Taught in Baltimore Schools? A Preliminary Report from the Ecology Teaching Study. Posted abstracts. Baltimore Ecosystem Study, Annual Meeting, October 20, 2005.
Berkowitz, A. 2004. The Ecology Teaching Study: Learning about the Environment in Baltimore Schools. Talk. With Rinke, C., Marudas, S., and Gordon, J. Urban Ecology Collaborative Education Strategic Planning Meeting, Washington, DC. September 23, 2004.
Berkowitz, A. How is Ecology Being Taught in Baltimore Schools? A Preliminary Report from the Ecology Teaching Study. Talk. With Rinke, C., Marudas, S., Bell, R., Coffey, J., and Gordon, J. Baltimore Ecosystem Study Annual Meeting. Baltimore, MD. October 20, 2005.
Berkowitz, A. How is Ecology Being Taught in Baltimore Schools? A Preliminary Report from the Ecology Teaching Study. Invited Talk. With Rinke, C., Marudas, S., Bell, R., Coffey, J., and Gordon, J. Annual Environmental Education Briefing. Maryland State Department of Education. Patuxent, MD. November 28, 2005.
Berkowitz, A. 2006 How is Ecology Being Taught in Baltimore Schools? A Preliminary Report from the Ecology Teaching Study. Talk. Cornell Graduate Student workshop at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Millbrook, NY. May 1, 2006.
Rinke, C.R. (2007) Veterans are from Mars, novices are from Venus: Generational perspectives in professional learning. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, New York, NY.
Rinke, C.R. and Coffey, J. (2005) Goals, purposes and perspectives in urban science classrooms: Lessons from Environmental High School. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.