COS 90-5 - Guiding college students to become more ecologically literate through writing activities

Thursday, August 6, 2009: 9:20 AM
Picuris, Albuquerque Convention Center
Meena Balgopal, Education, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, Steve Dahlberg, Science, White Earth Tribal and Community College, Mahnomen, MN and Alison Wallace, Biosciences, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Moorhead, MN

As the US promotes "green" behaviors, ecologists and science educators agree that people must first have a sound understanding of ecological concepts that inform their practices. We define an ecologically literate person as one who can recognize the relevance and application of ecological concepts to understand human impacts on ecosystems. The objective of this study was to test variations of an instructional model in both college biology majors and nonmajors courses. Using our writing-to-learn model (CAB-WTL), students wrote several iterations of reflective essays in response to articles about an ecological phenomenon. Two cohorts were given in-class, guided instruction, and two other cohorts were provided with written instruction. We scored each essay based on the writer's 1) demonstration of understanding ecological concepts with supportive evidence (objective); 2) discussion of personal connection to the concepts and/or emotional responses (subjective); and 3) explanation of dilemmas that might arise after considering the ecological phenomena and possible decisions on how to resolve the dilemma (authentic). In order to determine if the authentic writers had become more ecologically literate, we also used pre-post tests and concept maps. Each essay was read by two researchers; discrepancies were discussed until we came to agreement.

Results/Conclusions In cohorts with only written guidance, 4/5 of the biology majors were objective or authentic writers on all three essays.  Nonmajors exhibited more variability: nearly 2/3 wrote at least one authentic or objective essay, 1/2 a subjective essay, and 1/4 a superficial (inadequate conceptual understanding or personal connection) essay. However, 2/3 of both groups wrote authentically in at least one essay; hence, the model appears to be effective, although in different ways. Over 1/2 of the biology majors were “stuck” in the objective mode for the first two essays, but most became authentic writers by the third essay. Nearly 1/2 of the nonmajors displayed evidence of authentic understanding in the first two essays, but this declined by the third essay. It seemed like they tired of explaining conceptual understanding and personal connections, while biology majors repeatedly displayed conceptual understandings and also made personal connections by the third essay.  In contrast, when a different cohort of nonmajors received in-class guided instruction, they were more likely to demonstrate authentic understanding of the concepts with each successive essay. A third nonmajors population, Native Americans from a nearby tribal college, demonstrated that they were initially subjective writers and remained so, despite some instructional guidance.

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