Challenging the Anthropocentric Approach of Science Curricula: Ecological Systems Approaches to Enabling the Convergence of Sustainability, Science, and STEM Education
As we enter the Anthropocene, it is apparent that Earth has been severely impacted by human activities and the very systems that sustain life are challenged (Crutzen, 2002; Zalasiewicz et al., 2010). There is a call for increased awareness and action relating to degraded ecological systems particularly in the approach to the education of children and young people. Science curricula often promote anthropocentric/technocentric attitudes toward the environment. In fact STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in minority countries such as Australia and the United States is seen to be driven by neoliberal values where government economic agendas cultivate individualistic and competitive behaviors (Carter, 2016, p 33). With this neoliberal “technical growthist” perspective predominating in science and STEM education (Smith & Watson, 2016, p 5), how can deep respect and understanding of the Earth’s systems be fostered within education? There have been calls for decades to shift thinking in science education from looking at components of the Earth’s environment separately, such as looking at humans as being apart from nature, to, instead, looking at the components “within the context of the whole” (Capra, 2007). The systems concept can be difficult to grasp, but the emphasis is always on the “wholeness” and the “harmonious integration of the various components” (Orr, 2014). In an ecological systems approach, humans are just one of numerous, interdependent, and diverse life-forms in an ecological system, and there is no separation of childhood and nature, as they are one. Such an alternative view has an impact on how science education is manifested. This chapter challenges an anthropocentric (or technocentric) approach to science curricula. Research into approaches in science and STEM education that are ecologically sustainable and holistic in nature and incorporate relevant socio-scientific issues is explored. A science education that offers young peoples’ knowledge, values, and firsthand experiences of ecological systems in their everyday lives and the incorporation of intercultural approaches to science education are promoted. Ecoliteracy, ecological literacy, and ecological thinking are examined in a science education context. Elements of the more recent posthumanist theoretical approach underpin this chapter which takes an ecological systems approach in contrast to Bronfenbrenner’s socioecological theory.
KeywordsEcological systems Ecoliteracy Childhoodnature Science Young people
It is now evident that we have entered the Anthropocene, an era where humans have severely impacted the Earth, and as a consequence the very systems that sustain life are challenged (Crutzen, 2002; Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen, & Crutzen, 2010). In 1992 David Orr warned that “we have a decade or two in which we must make unprecedented changes in the way we relate to each other and to nature” (p. 3) to ensure life as we know it exists into the next century. As we now progress through the twenty-first century, there is clear evidence of the climate changing such as 2016 being the hottest year on record (Steffen, Hughes, Alexander, & Rice, 2017), marine temperatures rising leading to coral bleaching; sea levels rising, recent extreme flooding events, and intense forest fires (Steffen et al., 2017). However, despite these clear signs of a changing climate, many politicians and others are questioning the reality of human-induced climate change while they continue to view the Earth as a resource to be consumed. This way of thinking fails to see the interrelationship of human actions and the Earth’s ability to sustain life (Capra & Luisi, 2014); the very realization that we depend on all other living things is lost (Lovelock, 2000). It is becoming more apparent that people need to understand how the Earth’s systems maintain themselves and how human actions impact these systems. Unfortunately, science and technology have been, and continue to be, central to the human quest to conquer nature (Orr, 1992); however, science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education have the potential to introduce a change in thinking toward an ecological systems approach. Scholars have long argued that in order to move toward environmental literacy, particularly an understanding of human impact on the Earth’s systems, young people need to understand the scientific concepts that underpin the Earth’s natural processes. Ecological systems thinking can assist young people to move toward a more sophisticated understanding of the Earth’s natural processes particularly in real-world contexts (Assaraf & Orion, 2005; Sterling, 2003). With an emphasis on an ecological systems approach in science and STEM education, practices such as water conservation, energy efficiency, and sustainable waste management can be introduced in a holistic context rather than in isolation. An example of a holistic approach is where young people learn about the Earth as a dynamic system with natural cycles where water use and pollution impact waterways and groundwater (Assaraf & Orion, 2005; Batzri, Assaraf, Cohen, & Orion, 2015) and greenhouse gas emissions impact ecological systems. This chapter challenges the anthropocentric approach to science education, where humans are perceived to be separate from other living things and where environmental conservation practices are for the benefit of humans. Instead a more holistic ecological systems approach to science education is promoted within a posthumanist lens framework. Traditional socioecological systems theory fails to promote holistic systems thinking relating to the interrelationship of humans and nonhuman other. The socioecological systems and the posthumanist theoretical underpinnings of this chapter are elaborated on further in the following section.
Socioecological Systems Approach and Posthumanism
Urie Bronfenbrenner’s socioecological systems theory, first developed in 1979, dominates systems thinking applied to human systems and has been foundational in education, particularly early childhood education. Bronfenbrenner’s model includes four, and subsequently five, nested interconnected systems relating to external influences on the growth and development of the child over a lifetime (1994). The innermost system of the model is the microsystem which includes the child’s immediate relationships, such as family, friends, and school systems. The meso- and exosystems surrounding the microsystem include factors that might influence a child such as the relationships between the school and the family or relationship between family members and their workplace. The child may or may not enter these systems, but these systems may impact the development of the child. The outer system is the macrosystem, which includes cultural or policy factors that influence the development of the child (Bronfenbrenner, 1974). Later Bronfenbrenner introduced the chronosystem which relates to changes in the person’s life or social environment, including changes in family structure or marked changes in society that might influence the person’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1994).
Bronfenbrenner’s socioecological systems theory however is not true ecological systems thinking, as it is human centered and in fact almost silences the essential connection of the child with natural ecological systems. This chapter takes an ecological systems approach which differs from socioecological theory, as the ecological systems approach taken here is underpinned by a posthumanist lens. It is important to move away from the human as central in our world in order to fully understand an ecological systems approach. The posthumanist approach decenters humans as being “the measure of all things” and shifts thinking to humans as just one organism in relation to all other organisms and other elements, therefore reversing the traditional view of being human (Braidotti, 2013, p. 1). Malone (2018), taking a posthuman/new materialist approach, describes the relationship between the human and more than human world as “existing in an ecological collective of messy entanglement” (p. 19). This describes a world where humans, other organisms, rocks, air, and water interrelate. It does not make sense to consider young people as somehow being separated or disconnected from nature as young people are part of nature. We cannot separate ourselves from the air that we breathe. In fact, the human body itself is populated by a multitude of organisms that are essential to living a healthy life, such as bacteria and other microorganisms, and these organisms are part of who we are (Malone, 2018). The wastes and contaminants that are the products of industry and the human lifestyle, such as plastics, heavy metals, and radioactive waste, become part of nature, and that means they enter the human body as we are nature. The human body is part of and entangled with systems and networks of a multitude of natural organisms and elements, and when we pollute nature we pollute ourselves (Malone, 2018).
To be aware of our place in nature is central to the concept of childhoodnature, where young people gain understanding of how and why humans are an integral part of nature, as are all other living and nonliving elements in the Earth’s systems. In education it is important to embrace this holistic systems approach toward nature where there is no separation between humans and other (Capra & Luisi, 2014). This holistic approach is in contrast with the anthropocentric view that predominates much of traditional science education, a view where humans are separated from the untamed, wild, natural world (Rodriguez, 2016) and the dimensions of the world are compartmentalized into biological, chemical, physical, and geological components (Gough, 2011). This traditional view attempts to separate young people from nature, but that is not the reality as children are part of nature.
The following section elaborates on the holistic nature of ecological systems that promotes the interconnection of biological and physical systems and highlights the key ideas behind ecological systems thinking that frame this chapter. This section explores systems thinking generally, with an outline of the Gaia theory of the Earth as a dynamic system and consideration of the terms “ecology” and “ecosystems.”
The term “system” is broad and can relate to natural systems, social systems, or technological systems (Assaraf & Orion, 2005). Systems thinking is not new and emerged in Europe in the 1920s, in a number of fields, but largely in the area of biological sciences (Capra & Luisi, 2014). Systems thinking more recently is commonly used in relation to organizational change, particularly in business (Sterling, 2003).
Therefore “relationships, connectedness, and context” are at the forefront of systems thinking (Capra, 2007, p. 12).
Relational rather than non-relational; systemic and connective rather than linear and fragmentary; concerned more with process rather than substance, with complex dynamics rather than limited cause-effect, with pattern rather than detail, with wholes rather than parts. (p. 102)
When we walk out into nature, living systems are what we see. First, every living organism, from the smallest bacterium to all the varieties of plants and animals (including humans), is a living system. Next, the parts of living systems are themselves living systems. A leaf is a living system. Every cell in our bodies is a living system. Finally, communities of organisms, including both ecosystems and human social systems such as families, schools, and other human communities, are living systems. (Capra, 2007, p. 11)
To think in terms of systems means understanding and interpreting these complex systems (Evagorou, Korfiatis, Nicolaou, & Constantinou, 2009, p. 655).
Systems theorists emphasize that in systems thinking “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 64) as the properties that define the system as a whole are different to the properties of the individual elements in the system (Assaraf & Orion, 2005). Therefore if systems are pulled apart and analyzed separately, some of these properties are destroyed (Capra & Luisi, 2014). By reducing a system to its parts in isolation gives an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate picture. Thus systems thinking requires “contextual thinking” within the context “of the larger whole” and is the opposite of “analytical thinking,” where something is pulled apart in order to understand it (Capra & Luisi, p. 66). An example of the importance of interactions and/or processes as essential elements of systems is feedback processes. Feedback loops occur in systems, where each element impacts on the next and eventually the last element feeds back to the first. With such feedback loops, the whole system is regulated and the first element in the system, “input,” is impacted by the last element in the system, “output” (Capra & Luisi, p. 89). Norbert Wiener in 1932, alluding to the theory of “cybernetics,” describes how in a natural system the feedback is part of “homeostasis” that enables the system to regulate itself and maintain a balance (as cited in Capra & Luisi, p. 91). Without systems thinking such important processes may be ignored in deconstructive, component-based approaches.
Some examples of feedback loops occur in Australian sclerophyll forests after fire disturbance (Sclerophyll: refers to trees and shrubs with hard, stiff (sclerophyllous) leaves. Sclerophyll forests are prevalent in Australia with dominant species such as Eucalyptus, Acacia, and Casuarina (Harden, McDonald, & Williams, 2006).). Many Australian Eucalyptus trees have dormant epicormic buds that are protected from the fire under the bark, but with the heat of the fire disturbance, they are stimulated to grow. This fire-regulated system promotes the growth of leaves and branches and enables the trees to survive and regrow after fires. The Australian sclerophyllous communities also have other regulation mechanisms for fire disturbances such as the woody seed pods of some Eucalyptus and Banksia species that open and release seeds following the heat of a fire. The release of seeds and the heat and/or smoke of the fire often results in the prolific germination of seedlings that grow up to restore the forest system. Fires are an integral part of much of the sclerophyllous Australian landscape and play an important role in the regulation of the system to keep it healthy and in balance. However rising temperatures associated with climate change are resulting in changes to the frequency and intensity of fires, so these sclerophyllous ecological systems are challenged and threatened (Steffen et al., 2017). If the fires are too intense or more frequent than the plants’ regrowth feedback system can cope with, the trees do not survive, and this impacts the whole ecological system that is based on the resources and habitat the trees provide.
Within this dynamic Earth system are networks of systems interacting with other systems. A wetland ecosystem could illustrate this interconnection. The interaction of geological, atmospheric, biological, and hydrological systems, on a micro (local), meso (regional), and macro (continental) level, over time resulted in the formation of the wetland system. These interactions of systems continue to maintain the wetland system. Each organism in the wetland ecosystem is itself a system composed of subsystems. The network of interacting organisms within the ecosystem, such as plants, animals, and other microorganisms, is interdependent for food, oxygen, and habitat. The waste from one organism in the ecosystem is food for another (Capra, 2007). Any disturbance in one component of the system, such as prolonged drought or diversion of water for farming purposes, might cause a chain reaction within the wetland system and interrelating systems. It is important for young people to explore the interconnection of micro-, meso-, and macro-systems relating to the transfer of energy and matter between the systems rather than looking at microsystems in isolation (Assaraf & Orion, 2005). In this chapter the term the “Earth’s systems” refers to the Earth’s ecological systems encompassing macro-, meso-, and microsystems.
A complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet. The maintenance of relatively constant conditions by active control may be conveniently described by the term ‘homoeostasis.’ (Lovelock, 2000, p. 424)
Sterling (2003) argues that systems thinking requires a “change of consciousness…to some degree” (p. 103), and in some parts of society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, moves toward more ecological systems thinking were taken up (Sterling, 2003). The Gaian principles of the Earth as a self-regulating system are behind “Earth system science or geophysiology” (Lovelock, 2000, p. 146). However, despite ecology being part of the curriculum in many countries, the paradigm predominantly in school science teaching and learning appears to be “analytical thinking,” where science is segregated into separate disciplines which are analyzed in isolation (Jacobson & Wilensky, 2006; Gough, 2011). In this compartmentalized model of science education, it is assumed that young people make connections and understand the interrelationships between the different components, such as the connection between geology and living organisms, but often they fail to see the connection (Evagorou et al., 2009). Mathematics, technology, and engineering skills fit well within a systems approach. By integrating the disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics within STEM education, science curricula could break out of the traditional compartmentalized model of science education. However, there are concerns from environmental educators relating to the drivers of STEM and how this impacts STEM education as discussed below.
STEM Education and Economic Growth
The acronym STEM has been used since the 1980s and originated within the American National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1990s (Bybee, 2010, p. 30) although some anecdotal evidence suggests that the term was coined earlier in the 1980s (Carter, 2016). The term is predominantly used with a mathematics and science focus, and the technology and engineering aspects are often downplayed in education (Bybee, 2010). STEM education is being widely promoted internationally, and the value that is placed on STEM is echoed by the Australian Chief scientist, Alan Finkel: “Our best future is a future that builds on technology, innovation, ideas and imagination. It is a future with STEM. And it is a future that is ours to build” (Office of Chief Scientist [OCS], 2016, p. iii).
Australia’s STEM is respected for its contribution to international solutions to global challenges, especially in systems science where, for example, oceans, atmosphere, space and epidemiology are global responsibilities. (p. 23)
The economic growth and prosperity focus of STEM is seen by environmental educators as problematic, as it is recognized that rapid economic growth along with increased carbon emissions is impacting climate and degrading natural ecosystems (Thiele, 2016). Just looking at consumption alone, the goods that are consumed, predominantly in minority countries, have components requiring resources extracted from often fragile ecosystems across the world. These components require energy for processing and transportation involving numerous countries, and the discarded waste that is produced in these processes impacts ecosystems far into the future (Thiele, 2016). Building on the idea of Volkmar Lauber, Orr (1992) states “growth makes the wealthy more so, but it also gives substantial power to government and corporate elites who manage the economy, its technology, and all of its side effects” (p. 86). Orr (1992) sees economic growth as having a fundamentally flawed ideology where “the faster a growing volume of materials flows from mines, wells, forests farms, and oceans through the economic pipeline into dumps and sinks the better” (p. 11). It is the emphasis on economic growth as central to STEM education with sustainability or reference to the Earth’s systems being scarcely mentioned or tokenistic that has led to wide criticism of STEM education from environmental educators (Smith & Watson, 2016).
Improving mathematics and science education in the United States belongs near the top of the policymaking agenda. America’s role as a leader in the world’s economy and its capacity to produce wealth and quality jobs for its future citizens depend directly on the ability of our education system to produce students who can compete in the math- and science- dominated industries of the future. (cited in Carter, 2016, p. 35)
Exploitation of resources (including human resources)
Cheap energy sources (coal, oil, and gas being at the forefront)
Development in technologies including mechanization, communication, transportation, and infrastructure
Population growth resulting in demand for products and services
Despite numerous initiatives and actions by various governments, organizations, and citizens in the area of sustainability and protection of the Earth’s systems, the sentiment described in Cook’s quote appears to still dominate in the twenty-first century. Neoliberalism, the political paradigm that has predominated internationally in the past six decades, particularly in the minority world, has continued the “economic growth at all costs” sentiment. Carter (2016) described neoliberalism as:
The concept of limits to growth threatens vested interests and power structures; even worse it threatens value structures in which lives have been invested. (p. 198, cited in Daly, 1996, p. 35)
One of the principles of the Earth Charter Initiative (ECI), which is a universal expression of ethical principles, is to:
The deliberate intervention by government to encourage particular types of entrepreneurial, competitive and commercial behaviour in its citizens with the market as the regulatory mechanism. It is also the management of populations to cultivate individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and entrepreneurial behavior. (p. 33)
Neoliberalism is at odds with this viewpoint, and with Ghandi’s philosophical observation, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed” (cited in Krishna, 2014, p. 156).
Adopt patterns of production, consumption, and reproduction that safeguard Earth’s regenerative capacities, human rights, and community well-being. (ECI, 2000, Principle 7)
Carter believes that neoliberal thought has been “naturalized, normalized and ritualized” (2016, p. 34) to such an extent that this ideology is the only way we know and science itself is largely shaped by neoliberalism. Science organizations and scientific communities over the past two decades have shifted from an ideology of “advancement of knowledge” to the “creation of wealth” (Krishna, 2014, p. 142). Science, particularly STEM, has been associated with neoliberalism; Carter warns that this neoliberal agenda in science has intensified “to the exclusion of all else” (p. 34).
In order to see the significance of science education and, more recently, STEM education in the context of childhoodnature and sustainability, it is important to be aware of the history of the science education and environmental education relationship.
The Relationship of Science Education, Environmental Education, and Sustainability Education
There has long been tension between environmental educators and science educators. The term environmental education was used from the 1960s where it mainly focused on the study of nature or ecological/biological studies and at that time people generally looked to science to solve environmental problems. During the 1970s environmental education emerged in its own right (e.g., international conferences tracking the emergence of environmental education: United Nations at Stockholm, 1972; UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)) at Belgrade, 1975; UNESCO and UNEP (United Nations Education Program(UNEP)) at Tbilisi, 1977), and even at this early stage, some scientists identified that science alone could not solve the emerging problems associated with the environmental degradation taking place on a global scale (Gough, 2011). As early as 1970 scientists looked to environmental educators to bring about environmental awareness in young people. At an Academy of Science Conference in Australia in 1970, Boyden emphasizes the urgency for education in schools to inform young people about the detrimental effect of human activities on the Earth’s systems resulting in “social and biological problems” (as cited in Gough, 2011, p. 265), but this detrimental impact was related more to the impact for humans rather than for the Earth’s systems. During the 1980s the term sustainable development came into use, and in the 1990s the term “environmental education” was frequently replaced with education for environment and sustainability or education for sustainable development. The term “sustainability” kept the environmentalists happy, and the term “development” kept the business community and “bankers” happy (Orr, 1992, p. 23).
Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
the concept of ‘needs,’ in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], Chapter 2, IV)
It is important to note the anthropocentric context of this definition of sustainable development, where the emphasis on human “needs” is in contrast to a holistic context where the Earth is a dynamic system and humans are one organism with needs in the system. In fact, the term “sustainability” can be quite problematic as it has numerous interpretations. David Orr (1992) coined the terms “technological sustainability” and “ecological sustainability.” The technological sustainability viewpoint (also referred to as a technocentric or anthropocentric viewpoint) sees the Earth as a resource for human benefit, and technical and market solutions can be applied to solve any associated environmental or social problems (such as sophisticated nuclear technology or carbon sequestration to address the energy crisis) (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2011; Orr, 1992). With a “technological sustainability” mind-set, humans have dominion over nature and shape nature for their needs. A “technological sustainability” mind-set promotes economic growth as being essential for sustainable development, whereas “ecological sustainability” is a mind-set where the Earth’s systems are valued, nature is a model, and ecological principles set the agenda (Cutter-Mackenzie, 2011; Orr, 1992). An ecological sustainability viewpoint sees human activity as upsetting the balance of the natural systems unless it fits within the “carrying capacity of the natural systems” as “ecological systems are the only systems capable of stability in a world governed by the laws of thermodynamics” (Orr, 1992, p. 35). Linking back to the previous section on STEM education and economic growth, ecological sustainability is where throughput is kept in check – a mind-set that aligns with ecological systems thinking.
This statement by Fien and Tilbury, relating to the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development, highlights a “technological sustainability” perspective (or an anthropocentric viewpoint) where human needs are at the forefront. In contrast the environmental education goals outlined above by Knapp (2000) are more in line with “ecological sustainability” where ecological principles are at the forefront. The period from 2005 to 2014 was declared by UNESCO as the decade for education for sustainable development. However more recently the terms, environmental education, education for sustainable development, and education for sustainability, have been used interchangeably, particularly in Australia (Malone & Somerville, 2015). The term sustainability generally has been adopted widely by governments and in the case of Australia has been incorporated into the national curricula. Despite sustainability being a focus in the Australian Curriculum, actually incorporating sustainability elements into the classroom is problematic, as is demonstrated through the Australian example.
The hope that the impact humans have on the earth and the way we organize the flows, production and distribution of resources and wastes can be mitigated in both the short and the long-term. The idea of sustainability asks governments, communities and individuals to consider the needs of future generations in what political scientists define as the essential questions of public policy. (1996, p. 9)
Curricula Incorporating Sustainability: The Australian Example
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2017) statement goes on to proclaim:
Sustainable patterns of living meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Actions to improve sustainability are individual and collective endeavours shared across local and global communities. They necessitate a renewed and balanced approach to the way humans interact with each other and the environment. Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living. It enables individuals and communities to reflect on ways of interpreting and engaging with the world. (ACARA, 2017)
At first glance the statement above appears to be a positive step in moving toward an education system that promotes ecological sensitivity and responsibility as well as informed action toward an ecologically sustainable future. This is particularly pertinent in the Australian context with its unique, fragile ecological systems and ongoing loss of biodiversity resulting from human impacts on the Earth’s systems (Whitehouse, 2011). Ecological systems thinking underpins the first set of key concepts behind the sustainability curriculum priority:
Sustainability education is futures-oriented, focusing on protecting environments and creating a more ecologically and socially just world through informed action. Actions that support more sustainable patterns of living require consideration of environmental, social, cultural and economic systems and their interdependence.
The biosphere is a dynamic system providing conditions that sustain life on Earth.
All life-forms, including human life, are connected through ecosystems on which they depend for their wellbeing and survival.
Sustainable patterns of living rely on the interdependence of healthy social, economic, and ecological systems. (ACARA, 2017).
Despite having this strong underpinning of environmental, social, and economic sustainability, the Australian Curriculum fails to translate to subject level. In the four main curriculum areas of mathematics, English, history, and science, there is only one mention of “sustainability” in an elaboration of the descriptors within the curriculum throughout all Foundation to Year 12 Level curriculum descriptions (Kennelly, Taylor, & Serow, 2011).
Some aspects of environmental sustainability are embedded into the science curriculum with reference icons to the sustainability cross curriculum priority (such as with the curriculum descriptors, “Energy from a variety of sources can be used to generate electricity”; and “The growth and survival of living things are affected by the physical conditions of their environment” (ACARA, 2017)). However, there are no explicit elaborations in the curriculum descriptions, and so when implementing science lessons, teachers are left to make the sustainability connection guided only by the presence of the icon that indicates the link. The curriculum largely falls short of its intention for Australian education to develop “the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living” (ACARA, 2017) and is left to individual teachers or schools to enhance this mind-set in their teaching (Kennelly et al., 2011). An Australian national study into education for sustainability carried out by the Australian Education for Sustainability Alliance (AESA), looking at the preparedness of Australian teachers to integrate the sustainability curriculum priority into their lessons, revealed that 80% of practicing Australian teachers “don’t comprehensively understand education for sustainability,” 35.9% of teachers were unaware that sustainability was a cross curriculum priority, and less than 2% were effectively integrating education for sustainable practices into their classroom (AESA, 2014, pp. 89, 90). Furthermore, the Australian science curriculum is quite conservative in its traditional and analytical breakdown of the sciences to biological, earth, chemical, and physical sciences (Gough, 2011). This curriculum promotes a largely anthropocentric or technocentric position. This is evident in Rodriguez’s (2016) review of science in the Australian Curriculum, where she revealed the separation of humans and other animals or living things and the absence of values of care for other animals. In this curriculum humans are placed as “managers and administrators of nature and other species” with the Earth as a resource for the benefit of humans (Rodriguez, 2016, p. 1018).
In contrast, David Orr (2012, p. 2) argues passionately for school curricula that trigger environmental change and transform communities, where the connection between “people, places, and nature” is evident. David Orr sees ecological literacy at the heart of building sustainable societies.
The failure to develop ecological literacy is a sin of omission and of commission. Not only are we failing to teach the basics about the Earth, and how it works, but we are in fact teaching a large amount of stuff that is simply wrong. By failing to include ecological perspectives in any number of subjects, we are teaching students that ecology is unimportant to history, politics, economics, society, and so forth. From television they learn that the Earth is theirs for the taking. The result is a generation of ecological yahoos without a clue about why the color of the water in their rivers is related to their food supply, or why storms are becoming more severe as the climate is unbalanced. The same persons, as adults, 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 and the realities of life 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. (Orr, 1992, pp. 83, 84)
In 1992 Orr uses the terms “environmental literacy” and “ecological literacy” interchangeably, redefining environmental literacy (originally coined by Roth in 1968) to emphasize the building of sustainable communities and to reform education (McBride, Brewer, Berkowitz, & Borrie, 2013). Orr sees the ecological crisis that the Earth is experiencing as being linked to education, and he believes that in order for citizens to become ecologically literate, there needs to be a change in the education system, particularly in the minority world. He poses ecological literacy as underpinning the building of sustainable societies as this capability is based on an understanding of the interdependence and interrelationship of species within the Earth’s systems (McBride et al., 2013). In 1997, building on Orr’s work with ecological literacy, Capra conceived the term “ecoliteracy” which he defined as “an understanding of the principles of the organization of ecosystems and the application of those principles for creating sustainable human communities and societies” (McBride et al., 2013, p. 14). There is a view that to become ecologically literate we need to think “from the parts to the whole, from objects to relationships, from quantities to qualities” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 353). Capra’s connectedness view is in stark contrast to the fragmented science education practices in Australia. In ecological literacy the strong emphasis is on developing knowledge about, and competence toward, the Earth’s systems where we are encouraged by a sense of wonder about our Earth (Orr, 1992, p. 86). To study single organisms in isolation from other organisms and their environment is failing to grasp a complete understanding of the organism (Orr, 1992). The understanding of how ecosystems have evolved over time to become organized systems is central to “ecological literacy” (Capra, 2007, p. 10). Ecological literacy is at the heart of ecological systems thinking and the “wisdom of nature is the essence of ecoliteracy” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 353). Learning about environmental problems in isolation, such as water pollution, without looking at the connected hydrological, geological, biological, and atmospheric systems, does not provide young people with a comprehensive understanding in order to make informed decisions about environmental issues (Assaraf & Orion, 2005). Aspects of systems thinking are evident in science curricula, such as the study of ecosystems in the biological sciences or the study of the hydrological cycle in Earth and space/geological studies. However, as demonstrated earlier with the Australian Curriculum, science curricula tend to promote discipline-based science, and the young people are left to make the connections between the disciplines, which they often fail to do (Gough, 2011), for example, between a rainforest ecosystem and the hydrological cycle.
Strategies for Incorporating Ecological Systems Thinking in Science Education
Identification of the elements of a system
Identification of the spatial boundaries of a system
Identification of the temporal boundaries of a system
Identification of several subsystems within a single system
Identification of the influence of specific elements of the system on other elements or the whole system
Identification of the changes that need to take place in order to observe certain patterns
Identification of feedback effects in a system (Evagorou et al., 2009, p. 663)
Introducing the basic steps of systems thinking in primary school
Introducing a basic systems approach in primary school, such as the ability to identify at least two components in a system, provides young people with the foundations to move toward more complex systems understanding in secondary school (Assaraf & Orion, 2005). Hung (2008) emphasizes how systems thinking can help young people move toward complex understandings of concepts that they often find challenging, such as complex ecosystems, and is particularly successful in providing them with understanding relating to the interrelationship of living organisms with nonliving elements (Evagorou et al., 2009; Riess & Mischco, 2010). There are few research studies relating to systems thinking with young people at primary school as most studies have focused on systems thinking with young people at secondary school or students in higher education. However the few studies that have been undertaken with young people at primary school do indicate that they can move toward systems thinking (Evagorou et al., 2009). In a study in Cyprus with young people at primary school, Evagorou et al. (2009) found that most participants developed some systems thinking skills when supported by an appropriate learning environment catering to their cognitive abilities.
Inquiry-based approach where young people explore and discover
When implementing systems thinking in science education, it is important for young people to work with an inquiry-based approach. With an inquiry-based approach, the young people are provided with the opportunity to explore, question, investigate, make decisions, and build on their prior knowledge, in contrast to the passive learning of facts where teachers are at the center of the classroom (Assaraf & Orion, 2005; Evagorou et al., 2009). An effective inquiry-based approach assisted the young people in Assaraf and Orion’s (2005) research study to move from having “islands of knowledge” of the Earth’s systems to conceptual understanding where they made links between the systems. The big question behind the program was, “How should we act in order to preserve our water resources?” (Assaraf & Orion, 2005, p. 524). The young people worked collaboratively throughout the program to answer the question by exploring the Earth’s systems and the interrelationships between the systems including the impact of humans.
Working with young people in outside settings
Young people often fail to see the relevance of science to everyday contexts (Bybee & McCrae, 2011); therefore it is important to connect science with the young people’s everyday lives. Bybee and McCrae’s research demonstrates that taking the young people outside enabled them to grasp systems thinking more effectively and connect their understanding with firsthand examples in their everyday lives. Assaraf and Orion (2005) identify ways to make use of outside settings; this included firsthand experiences such as visiting local waterways or ecosystems to enable young people to experience the Earth’s systems and put their learning into context. Orr (1992) emphasizes experiencing the Earth’s systems firsthand as being key to understanding these systems and connecting young people to their local place. Ecological systems thinking strengthens the childhoodnature position that young people are interconnected with all other living things and nonliving things in the Earth’s systems. Young people are systems or networks themselves within systems like all other living things; in fact young people are nature.
Knowledge integration activities
Assaraf and Orion (2005) identify using tools to integrate knowledge throughout the learning cycle as an important aspect to assist young people in moving toward the conceptual ideas in a systems approach. These activities included “concept maps, drawings and summarizing the outdoor experiences”, in order for the young people to understand the water cycle as a “dynamic, cyclic system” (p. 525) and create relationships and connections between the components of the system and subsystems. Using diagrammatic representation and summaries of their experiences can assist the young people to consolidate their ideas and understand the relationships between the systems.
Utilizing computer technologies
A number of researchers advocate the use of computer technologies when introducing a systems approach in the classroom. In 1999, in the early days of computer implementation in schools, Wilensky and Resnick implemented a computer StarLogo modeling language to introduce a systems approach in science lessons, and they found young people developed rich understandings, particularly between the connections in ecosystems (1999). Evagorou et al. (2009) integrated a systems approach using computer simulations where the young people worked with a forest ecosystem system to develop basic systems thinking skills. Riess and Mischo (2010) also found a forest ecosystem computer simulation worked well in developing systems thinking with young people in junior secondary school in Germany, particularly when incorporated with other modes of implementing systems lessons.
Incorporating indigenous views
Providing young people with the opportunity to experience living systems and to learn from the people who have lived by the “grace of these systems” (Orr, 2012, p. 1) can be effective in connecting science with the young people’s everyday life. Indigenous science knowledge tends to be more relational and applied to everyday contexts in contrast to mainstream science education which tends to be non-relational and compartmentalized (Augare et al., 2017). Therefore, indigenous ways of thinking are holistic and more in line with systems thinking as Aboriginal peoples “of many societies” demonstrate a balanced and harmonious relationship with the Earth’s systems (Fien & Tilbury, 1996, p. 22). Countries with colonial oppression and the strong Eurocentric curricula are positioned within a colonial (conquering) mind-set such that incorporating indigenous (relational) views into science, particularly ways of living in nature, has not been readily taken up (Aikenhead & Elliot, 2010; Lowan-Trudeau, 2018; Whitehouse, 2011). In Australia “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures” is a “cross curriculum priority” for all subject areas within the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2017). However, it requires teachers to bridge the divide of the traditional indigenous ways of knowing and science worldviews in order for both indigenous and non-indigenous young people to make this connection (Gondwe & Longnecker, 2015). Gondwe and Longnecker advocate going beyond tokenistic activities to incorporate cultural worldviews and how these worldviews influence values, attitudes, and beliefs of peoples of other cultures: for example, the contrasting values, attitudes, and beliefs toward humans’ interrelationship with the Earth’s systems. Aikenhead and Elliot refer to indigenous views in science as “wisdom tradition” of “thinking, living, and being” in contrast to the traditional Eurocentric views of disconnected “intellectual thinking” (p. 325). In Australia, indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders use the term “country” that “means far more than ‘land’, ‘landscape’ or ‘environment’. Country is a relationship — a contiguous way of seeing, being and acting. Country is tens of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and understanding,” and with country there is no separation between humans and other (Whitehouse, 2011, p. 230). Orr (1992) and Capra (2007) emphasize the extensive knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples over thousands of years of being in their local areas as being important to ecological sustainability. Learning traditional indigenous knowledge is a benefit to all young people; it can lead them to move toward a more holistic understanding of local areas, and in particularly it increases the knowledge and engagement of the local indigenous young people (Augare et al., 2017).
Debating and discussing socio-scientific issues
In order for young people to move to more holistic thinking about the Earth and to understand the significance of human impact on the Earth’s systems, it is important to involve young people in debating and discussing socio-scientific issues in the science classroom. Young people need to look critically at our society and its values and, furthermore, how it could be changed to “achieve a more socially just democracy and ensure more environmentally sustainable lifestyles” (Hodson, 2003, p. 654). Research has revealed that even though young people in minority world schools may be interested in scientific issues that they perceive to be relevant to their lives, such as health issues or environmental issues, they often see little connection between science in the classroom and the socio-scientific issues that link to, or impact, their everyday lives (Bybee & McCrae, 2011). Such connections can be achieved by providing the opportunities for young people to study, discuss, and debate issues that confront them and that are relevant to their lives (Hodson, 2003) and can be enhanced using an ecological systems approach. This socio-scientific connection with everyday lives was evident in a school in Chicago (United States) where young people identified the problem of their local river system being polluted due to illegal rubbish, soil, and rocks being dumped on the banks of the river (Bouillion & Gomez, 2001). The young people voiced their desire to address the pollution problem, and they worked collaboratively with teachers, local council, community, and scientists to clean up the riverbank. The teachers encouraged the students to use an ecological systems approach in this project where they explored their own connection to ecological systems. The students investigated scientifically the impact of pollution on the river system (by measuring oxygen levels and investigating the impact of low oxygen levels on fish and other living organisms in the river) (Bouillion & Gomez, 2001).
The following vignette outlines an ecological systems program that incorporates six of the seven strategies identified above for integrating a systems approach into science lessons. Using computer simulations was the only strategy not utilized in the following education program.
Learning About Ecological Systems in Science Education: The Big Scrub Rainforest Program
This place and community-based program in the North Eastern region of the Australian state of NSW involved 120 young people from four schools, three primary and one high school. The young people investigated their local critically endangered subtropical rainforest ecological system, The Big Scrub Rainforest, and learning took place within the whole community (Smith & Sobel, 2010). This example illustrates the cyclic nature of ecosystems where nutrients are continually recycled along the feedback loop pathways and where organisms have evolved over time to “use and recycle the same molecules of minerals, water, and air” (Capra & Luisi, 2014, p. 354). The Big Scrub Rainforest program in the schools was facilitated by the Northern Rivers Group of Environmental Educators (Cindy Picton, Tamlin Mackenzie, Simone Blom, Lyn Thomson, Barbara Jensen, Georgina Jones, Linda Tohver, Ian Judd, Graeme Patterson) and the Custodian of Nyangbul Country (Lois Cook). Funding was provided by Australian Association for Environmental Education and the NSW Government’s Environmental Trust.
The Big Scrub Rainforest ecosystem is an ecological community with geological links to the supercontinent, Pangea (325 million years ago) and subsequently Gondwana supercontinent, when Australia was linked to Antarctica and other continents (Holland, 2017, p. 34). When the continents broke apart, tectonic activity resulted in the formation of volcanoes. The lava flows from this volcanic activity in the Big Scrub region are important as they are “conduits” for the aquifers that give rise to the springs which drive the hydrological systems behind this ecosystem (Holland, 2017, p. 35). The soils of the Big Scrub area result from a combination of eroded basalt from Wollumbin (a volcano that formed in the area 23 million years ago) and soils that originate from Pangean and Gondwanan times. The soils support a rich rainforest ecosystem with a multitude of organisms including tall trees, shrubs, vines, palms, herbs, epiphytes (high up in the canopy), birds, invertebrates, bats, marsupials, humans, fungi, microorganisms, and other plants and animals, some of which are endangered.
Prior to European settlement, the Big Scrub Rainforest was the largest continuous lowland rainforest in Australia (Parkes et al., 2012). The Big Scrub Rainforest is part of the land of the local Widjabul people from the Bundjalung nation, who lived in this area for “many thousands of years and cared for the country” (Gordon, 2017, p. 26), and is also significant to the Nyangbul people and all the Bundjalung tribes. The peoples from the Bundjalung nation “lived with their environment,” and their cyclical relationship with this land is closely tied to “seasonal changes and renewal” (Gahan, 2017, p. 104).
After colonization of Australia, new settlers viewed this rich ecosystem very differently to the local Bundjalung peoples who had an interconnectedness with this ecosystem – their country. The rich diversity of the Big Scrub was seen by the settlers as a resource to use as they wished. The magnificent red cedars that had grown to a great height on the volcanic red soils, with girths of over 3 m (Gahan, 2017), were prized for valuable timbers. Following the “cedar getters” in the second half of the nineteenth century, “spurred by imperialist and capitalist ideology,” the Big Scrub, with its rich fertile rainforest soils, was cleared for agriculture largely by colonists from England, Ireland, and Scotland (Gahan, 2017, p. 108). During this period, the NSW Government encouraged free selection so any colonists could obtain land in the area if they “occupied and improved” their chosen land, in other words cleared the land for agricultural purposes (Gahan, 2017, p. 109). By the end of the nineteenth century, the rainforest was reduced to less than 1% of its original extent, with the remaining remnants scattered throughout the Big Scrub area (Parkes et al., 2012). This lowland rainforest is listed as an endangered ecological community under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act 1995) and as a critically endangered ecological community under the Federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act 1999) (cited in Parkes et al., 2012). The rainforest consists of scattered remnants that contain threatened animal and plant species, some being close to extinction (DECCW, 2010).
Implementation of the Big Scrub Rainforest Program
Strategy 1: Introducing Systems Thinking in Primary School
Young people in both primary and secondary school were included in this Big Scrub Rainforest program where they explored their local ecological system over time. The young people identified the elements of the interrelating systems. The feedback systems were explored relating to the mechanisms that enable this critically endangered system to regenerate.
Strategy 2: Inquiry-Based Approach Where Young People Explore and Discover
A strong inquiry-based approach was employed where young people worked collaboratively with their peers, to build on their knowledge about this ecological system and build on their ecological literacy. Botanists, bush regenerators, environmental educators, and Landcare representatives worked with the young people to answer their questions and provide background information relating to the geological, atmospheric, hydrological, and rich biological systems surrounding this ecosystem.
Strategy 3: Working with Young People in Outside Settings
Young people worked outside in rainforest remnants within, or close to, their school where they identified plants, animals, and microorganisms, and assisted with regeneration processes. The young people supported regeneration of the rainforest by planting rainforest species (Fig. 1) and carrying out rehabilitating exercises (such as weed removal in the remnants and riparian [riverside] plantings). By exploring the rainforest remnant systems close to their schools and helping to regenerate the forest, the young people discovered the biodiversity of the forests and saw examples of the interdependence of the elements of the rainforest ecosystem.
Strategy 4: Knowledge Integration Activities
Diagrams, concept maps, and drawings were used by the young people to explore the interrelating systems over time and to assist them with their understanding of the spatial and temporal boundaries of the rainforest.
Strategy 6: Incorporating Indigenous Views
A local Aboriginal custodian of the Nyangbul Country worked with the young people to discuss the significance of the Big Scrub Rainforest to her people and shared “dreamtime” (indigenous lore) stories.
Strategy 7: Debating and Discussing Socio-scientific Issues
The young people addressed socio-scientific issues surrounding the clearing of vegetation for human use. The devastation of the clearing of the Big Scrub, particularly on the biological systems, was discussed. The impacts of the removal of vegetation on the geological and hydrological systems were also reviewed. The young people explored both calls to protect this rainforest and protests that were conducted in the area dating from the late nineteenth century to the present day (Gahan, 2017). Poems, raps, artworks, and media releases surrounding the protests and the clearing of the rainforest were created by the young people.
The rainforest used to be quiet. Birds sang quietly to themselves in the trees and unseen creatures rustled the leaves that lay undisturbed on the ground. The wind whistled and we whistled back, and everything stayed silent, the same. That was until some new creatures arrived. They were bigger than others and they feared them. The new creatures were loud. They trumped around as if they owned the land. They made light that ate wood. It flickered. The forest flickered back. Then they brought their tools. Cold iron sliced the forest apart. Leaves curled and died. They started a war. They lay our fallen friends in the river and washed them away. The river raged. They raged back.
As a result of taking part in the program, the young people built on their knowledge about this local critically endangered ecosystem. The majority of young people agreed or strongly agreed that they had learnt a lot of things about the Big Scrub Rainforest (86%), that they cared about the future of the Big Scrub Rainforest (83%), that they liked planting trees and shrubs (88%), and that they had a deep understanding of how their actions affect the natural world (77%).
I knew nothing about the Big Scrub Rainforest now I know a lot.
We have spread the word and planted trees.
I now feel a connection.
I love this Big Scrub rainforest so much now.
I think it is an important forest that preserves invaluable habitat for native animals.
The Big Scrub Rainforest is amazingly beautiful and sacred. We need to keep it from disappearing forever.
I think it is a very precious and fragile part of Aboriginal landmarks.
The young people were working with the rainforest in their school grounds and in some cases their own neighborhood. The following response from a young person demonstrates being able to identify their own local forest after participating in the program: “I now know that the massive rainforest behind my house is the big scrub.” By addressing the key strategies for implementation of an ecological systems approach in science education, these young people had the opportunity not only to build on their ecological knowledge but also to develop values and attitudes toward, and their interconnection with, their local ecosystem. Young people’s appreciation of their interconnection with the Earth’s systems is the essence of childhoodnature.
This chapter has considered ecological systems and how a systems approach could be incorporated into science curricula. In the minority world where Eurocentric curricula dominate science and STEM education, and economic prosperity is at the heart of a system driven by neoliberal ideology, science education traditionally tends to be compartmentalized into separate disciplines, and learning is centered around the Earth as a resource for the benefit of humans. This economically driven curricula tend to dominate, despite moves to incorporate sustainability and, in some countries, indigenous cultures and values into curricula. By looking at science curricula through a posthumanist, systems thinking lens, in contrast to the anthropocentric view of mainstream science education, a holistic approach is encouraged where humans are not viewed as separate, but we, like all other organisms, are interdependent on other living and nonliving elements in the Earth’s systems. Incorporating an ecological systems approach in science education encourages young people to look at the Earth as a dynamic system with subsystems such as the geological, atmospheric, hydrological, and biological systems rather than looking at the Earth’s systems in isolation. With a systems thinking approach, young people can begin to see how the behavior of every organism in an ecological system depends on the behavior of many others and how humans impact ecological systems.
Ecological systems-based science and STEM education can draw on tens of thousands of years of indigenous knowledge, attitudes, and values, to enrich science education and learning about first people’s interconnection with the Earth’s systems. Through inquiry-based approaches, young people explore and investigate ecological systems in everyday contexts and connect with their local ecological systems, even within the school grounds or on balconies, and move toward ecological systems thinking. It is important to provide opportunities for young people of all stages, from early childhood to secondary, to debate and discuss current issues that impact their lives, particularly the significance of the Anthropocene.
I am not suggesting that increasing scientific knowledge relating to environmental degradation will lead to environmental action (Selby & Kagawa, 2010). However it is argued that by enabling young people to build on their knowledge, values, and attitudes relating to complex scientific concepts in a holistic way through ecological systems thinking, particularly in the context of their local region, they will begin to move toward childhoodnature understanding, that is, the inseparability of themselves and nature.
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