An Analysis of the Themes of Environmental Sustainability in the National, State, and Local Science Content Standards

By Tenam-Zemach, Michelle | Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue, January-December 2010 | Go to article overview
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An Analysis of the Themes of Environmental Sustainability in the National, State, and Local Science Content Standards


Tenam-Zemach, Michelle, Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue


"Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species--man--acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world" (Carson, 2002, p. 5). Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, first stated these portent words in 1962. Her words remind us of the importance of educating students to understand environmental and sustainability issues that, without this understanding, will continue to empower humanity to "alter the nature of his world" in dramatically negative ways. Today it is clear that the earth can no longer sustain the current rate of consumption of resources (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005). A number of indices, all of which suggest that humans' current practices and behaviors are unsustainable, demonstrate the degradation of the earth's systems. In fact, Krebs (2008) argues that we need to study ecological systems "because our future lives will be affected by the ecological changes we cause" (p. 4).

Does the United States have an informed citizenry who can navigate intelligibly through the vast number of issues and problems confronting the earth and the environment? Orr (1992) argues that we have "a generation of yahoos without a clue why the color of their rivers is related to their food supply, or why storms are becoming more severe as the planet warms" (p. 87). He contends that this crisis is a result of schools and society failing to develop ecological literacy in our students. When these students become adults, Orr asserts, they are the same people who

   will create businesses, vote, have families, and above all,
   consume. If they come to reflect on the discrepancy between the
   splendor of their private lives in a hotter, more toxic and violent
   world, as ecological illiterates they will have roughly the same
   success as one trying to balance a checkbook without knowing
   arithmetic. (p. 86)

Orr cogently argues for the necessity of understanding what we are currently requiring our students to learn in a standards-based educational world. Thus, two questions arise: (1) Are we preparing current and future generations to think ecologically, environmentally, and for sustainability? and (2) Are these students learning the skills necessary to problem solve, work interdependently, and think holistically?

Before we can begin to answer these questions, we need to investigate what students are to learn in terms of the standards that teachers use to develop their curriculum and lessons. Consequently, this essay reports the findings that examined the extent to which the discourse of the national, state, and local science content standards present the themes of environmental sustainability (ES). These themes included: (1) climate change indicators (CCI), (2) biodiversity (BD), (3) human population density (HPD), (4) impact and presence of environmental pollution (IPEP), and (5) earth as a closed system (ECS). The premise of this study is that both frequency and context of keywords in texts can reveal the presence and significance of particular themes and patterns within the texts' discourses (Krippendorff, 2004). The study also addresses the extent to which the discourses of the national, state, and local science content standards are aligned with the discourse of ES and an ecological paradigm.

ECOLOGICAL PARADIGM

All data regarding the themes of ES were analyzed through an ecological paradigmatic lens to determine the implications of each keyword in context. However, what does this paradigm look like, and how can it be identified? Krebs (2008) points out that "the essential message of ecology is that changing one component in an ecological system usually changes others" (p. 4). Accordingly, Krebs explains the ecological world view/paradigm by listing five principles: "(1) You cannot alter just one component of an ecological system; 2) Human actions can have long-lasting ecological impacts; (3) We can learn from history; (3) Conservation is essential; and (4) Evolution continues" (p.

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