The Corals Connection: Building Personal Connections to Environmental Issues

By Plankis, Brian; Klein, Carolyn | The Science Teacher, February 2010 | Go to article overview

The Corals Connection: Building Personal Connections to Environmental Issues


Plankis, Brian, Klein, Carolyn, The Science Teacher


While there have been significant advances in environmental education and literacy in the last several decades, fostering environmentally literate and engaged citizens remains a challenge. As environmental issues continue to increase in number and severity, it is important for teachers to engage students with these issues.

In this article, we describe a research program--Connecting the Ocean, Reefs, Aquariums, Literacy, and Stewardship (CORALS)--that helps students connect global environmental issues to local concerns and personal choices. During the 18-week program, students strengthen their understanding of coral reef decline through a classroom aquarium activity, communicate with science experts, and create digital videos about the process. This combination of activities helps students build the motivation and ability to manage environmental needs and contribute to sustainable development.

Environmental education

Environmental literacy is characterized by Roth (1992) as "basic functional education for all people, which provides them with the elementary knowledge, skills, and motives to cope with environmental needs and contribute to sustainable development" (p. 23). There has been considerable progress in environmental education and literacy since the 1960s (Weiser 2001; Willis 1999), but some researchers believe that the central purpose of environmental education--to cultivate environmentally literate and engaged citizens--has not been fully realized (Hungerford and Volk 1990; Jurin and Fortner 2002). Furthermore, some have expressed frustration that environmental education produces citizens who are environmentally aware, but only initiate token environmental behaviors (Jurin and Fortner 2002)--such as occasionally recycling paper or shopping with reusable bags (instead of making them consistent habits)--or show an unwillingness to take action to conserve and protect the environment (Volk, Hungerford, and Tomera 1984).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The ultimate goal of environmental education is to change behavior (Hungerford and Volk 1990; Marcinkowski 2001). The activity in this article is part of the CORALS research program, which combines elements of the Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions (IEEIA) model with classroom aquariums and technology tools (Figure 1, p. 48; Hungerford et al. 2003; Marcinkowski 2001). The primary focus of the IEEIA model is to take "a structured approach to ... the development and application of investigation and evaluation skills to environmental problems and issues" (Marcinkowski 2001, p. 98).

The IEEIA model is focused on developing higher-level reasoning skills and evaluation of a problem's root causes. It guides students in developing skills they can use to investigate, evaluate, and take action on a range of environmental issues. Through the successful completion of IEEIA activities, students demonstrate greater personal motivation to take steps toward reducing environmental decline. This skill set can then be applied to any other issue of concern to a motivated student.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Four high school science teachers (from three different states) and their students participated in the 18-week CORALS program, which blends the IEEIA model with a controlled aquarium study of coral growth. Teachers, students, and marine science experts communicated through an online discussion forum, and students presented the results of their IEEIA investigations through digital storytelling videos.

Connecting students to CORALS

Each CORALS class ran an aquarium inquiry experiment to examine various species of corals' growth at different temperatures. The purpose of the classroom experiment was to increase student familiarity with coral reef animals, specifically coral, and the positive or negative changes caused by temperature increases. The CORALS program engaged students in a global issue that seemed removed from their lives inland.

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