Banishing Bradford Pears: A Creative Role-Play Activity Helps Students Examine All Sides of an Environmental Issue

By Deaton, Cynthia; Cook, Michelle | Science and Children, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Banishing Bradford Pears: A Creative Role-Play Activity Helps Students Examine All Sides of an Environmental Issue


Deaton, Cynthia, Cook, Michelle, Science and Children


Imagine a classroom full of students engaged in a debate about a local environmental issue. The students are taking turns arguing their points while other students are respectfully listening to each student's argument. Students are referring to research they conducted about the environmental issue as they argue their viewpoint. Next, imagine a group of students convening to determine a solution for the environmental issue and weighing in on the arguments presented by the other students. What you are imagining is what can happen when you engage students in environmental science through role-play. The scenario above illustrates how role-play provided our local fifth-grade students with the opportunity to develop meaningful connections to environmental science concepts and understand how those concepts relate to their community. Role-play also builds students' communication skills and increases their understanding of the attitudes of science. By participating in role-play, teachers develop a learning community that respects and values diverse opinions while constructing a deeper understanding of local environmental issues.

Teachers in a professional development exercise on environmental science developed the following role-play to engage fifth-grade students in understanding scientific inquiry, ecosystems, diversity, and risks and benefits. While our teachers focused on the topic of Bradford pear trees as invasive species affecting their community, any environmental issue can be the catalyst to engage students.

What Is Role-Playing?

Role-play activities allow students to take on the role of another person and voice the opinions and views of their character (van Ments 1999). With environmental science issues, students take on roles such as environmental activist or farmer. Then, they research their role and develop an understanding of how their character views the environmental issue. Through role-play, students begin to understand and empathize with different viewpoints (McLennan 2007). The process of researching roles and participating in role-play activities can enhance students' creativity, self-esteem, and motivation for learning science (Gill and Hayes-Butler 2001; McLennan 2007). It also supports students in developing communication skills and understanding abstract concepts (Gill and Hayes-Butler 2001; McLennan 2007). Providing students with opportunities to learn and practice skills and attitudes of science support the building of a classroom learning community.

Setting the Stage

Classroom environments are important in effectively facilitating role-play activities. Students must feel valued and safe in order to take on their character, express their views, and participate (McLennan 2007). To set the stage for role-playing, revisit classroom rules for behavior and emphasize that all viewpoints are valued and worthy of respect. Setting and discussing guidelines for students' behavior and participation helps create an atmosphere of respect. This atmosphere can be further enhanced by allowing students to help you determine guidelines on how to act in class that show respect to all students. Encourage students to have ownership in role-play activities by allowing them to help in the selection and use of props, collaborating on guidelines for conducting the role-play, and identifying possible characters. During the role-play, challenge students to use science content and science process skills they learn in class by providing adequate time for them to investigate the role-play problem and interact with other class members (McLennan 2007). Require students to use correct science terminology and make connections between evidence discussed in the role-play and correct scientific knowledge. When using environmental debates as the focus of role-plays, showcase multiple views of the issue being presented.

Establishing Context

Our role-play focuses on community activists trying to discourage people from planting nonnative plants (i. …

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