Environmental Science for All? Considering Environmental Science for Inclusion in the High School Core Curriculum

Article excerpt

A compelling argument is made for incorporating environmental science into the high school core curriculum to improve students' perceptions of science while preparing them both for the use of science in their lives and for postsecondary education.

Introduction

With the dramatic growth of environmental science as an elective in high schools over the last decade, educators have the opportunity to realistically consider the possibility of incorporating environmental science into the core high school curriculum. Environmental science has several characteristics that make it a candidate for the core curriculum. It is: important for students and society; representative of contemporary science; an opportunity for students to experience an applied science; a particularly engaging context for learning fundamental science. In this paper, I consider the possibility of a reform with the goal of achieving widespread adoption of environmental science as a required subject for high school by: arguing for the value of environmental science, examining the rationale for the status quo, exploring what a high school core curriculum that includes environmental science might look like, and considering which of the elements that would be required to implement this reform are in place. I conclude that many of the elements to support broad adoption of this reform are in place, but several are not, so additional groundwork would need to be laid before a large-scale reform effort targeted at integrating environmental science into the core high school curriculum could be successful.

An Opportunity

In recent years, environmental science has gained an increasingly prominent place in the high school curriculum. Data gathered by Horizon Research, Inc. as part of the National Survey in Mathematics and Science Education show that between 1993 and 2000 the percentage of high schools teaching environmental science increased from 24% to 39% (Smith et á/., 2002). In fact, as of 2000, the number of schools offering environmental science exceeded the number offering Earth science (34%).

Through informal data gathering, I have begun to put together a picture of how this growth in environmental science teaching has taken place. In conversations with numerous teachers and administrators from around the U.S., I have heard a variety of stories about why and how schools have made the decision to begin offering environmental science. The most common story is that a specific teacher or teachers lobbied in favor of offering environmental science and volunteered to teach it. Teachers cite their own interest in the subject or their belief in the importance of environmental science for their students as the reasons for taking that initiative. These teachers frequently report that they are able to successfully engage students in environmental science classes that have not engaged or been successful in prior high school science courses. A second-but less common-ly told-story is of schools and districts that have introduced environmental science as a top-down initiative under the leadership of an administrator. In these cases, a commitment to the importance of environmental science on the part of the initiator is often the reason, but other reported reasons are: to serve as a ninth grade introductory science in the role that general science has often played in the past; or simply to offer an additional elective to students. On a few occasions, I have heard that unsolicited student demand played an important role in the initial decision to offer environmental science. The fact that the College Board introduced an Advanced Placement (AP®) exam for environmental science in the late 1990's also appears to have played an important role in the decision of schools to offer environmental science. Schools have introduced environmental science as an advanced placement course because they have found that there is a population of students qualified to take AP science that would prefer to take environmental science over a second year of biology, chemistry, or physics. …