Science in the 21st Century: More Than Just the Facts: An Urban Ecology Curriculum for the High School Classroom

Article excerpt


In gearing up science education for the 21st century, five key skills have emerged as especially important: adaptability, complex social and communication skills, nonroutine problem-solving skills, self-management and self-development, and systems thinking (Figure 1; Hilton and NRC 2010, p. 3). These skills not only help students prepare for the rapidly changing technology- and media-infused workplace, but are also key for participatory citizenship. (Note: For more on these skills, see the "Editor's Corner" on p. 6 of this issue.)

One of the ways we've worked to meet the demands of the 21st century is through the Urban EcoLab, an urban ecology curriculum based on the National Science Education Standards. Urban EcoLab emphasizes the local and community-based nature of science; it's also freely available for teachers to view, download, and use (see "On the web").

As part of this curriculum, we developed two frameworks--the Four Ways of Knowing Science and Action Planning--that teachers can use to help students meet the challenges of the 21st century. Though we developed these frameworks with the ecological sciences in mind, they can be used in any field of science education. In this article, we describe the frameworks in more detail and provide examples of how one teacher used them in her classroom.


Many issues in contemporary civic life--such as global climate change, deforestation, and shrinking biodiversity--require a deep understanding of ecological concepts, processes, and outcomes. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009, p. 3) identifies environmental literacy as a core 21st-century content area for student learning. Hodson (2003) has similarly acknowledged human impact on the environment as the key driver to his "areas of concern" in 21st-century science. Ecology--which is, by nature, interdisciplinary and draws upon biology, Earth science, chemistry, and physics--provides a base of materials and real-world applications in which to engage students. The frameworks described in the following sections can be used to teach 21st-century skills in the ecology classroom.

The Four Ways of Knowing Science

The first framework, the Four Ways of Knowing Science, includes 21st-century skills that can be integrated in a variety of science curricula to support student learning. This framework seeks to address content knowledge and the skills needed to participate in and adapt to changing times.

The four ways of knowing are understanding, doing, talking, and acting on science (Figure 2, p. 38). Taken together, the four ways of knowing not only provide a conceptual knowledge base upon which students can build, but also a framework for using and communicating that knowledge. Figure 3 (p. 39) provides an overview of the framework and activities that correspond with each of the four ways.

Understanding and doing science are fairly traditional features of a 21st-century science curriculum. Talking and acting on science, however, are often overlooked and underused, and exemplify the 21st-century emphasis on using knowledge to meet a purposeful goal. We have found that, together, the four ways of knowing are a helpful guide for planning learning goals, selecting materials, shaping activities, and structuring assessments. The following sections describe each area of knowing in greater detail.

Understanding science

Understanding science provides a conceptual knowledge base for students. It requires that we integrate different fields of science and consider the social aspects of how scientific understandings are acquired and applied. This interdisciplinary approach helps students develop the 21st-century skill of systems thinking--they recognize the interdependent, evolving nature of science concepts and models and how science overlaps with, is influenced by, and informs the public sphere.

Understanding 21st-century skills. … 


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