Research Summary

Students of Action? A Comparative Investigation of Secondary Science and Social Studies Students’ Action Repertoires in a Land Use Context

Curriculum Sends Different Messages in Science and Social Studies Classes

The Journal of Environmental Education

According to this recent research, students take away different messages from a curriculum depending on whether they receive the instruction in a social studies or science class. The researcher examined three social studies and six natural science classes (a total of 900 students in grades 9-12) as they used a curriculum unit on sustainable land use. Three science classes that did not receive the curriculum served as a comparison group.

Using pre- and post-tests and interviews with open-ended questions, the research revealed that the students were no more likely to report having taken environmental behaviors in support of sustainable land use after being exposed to the curriculum in either class.

But the researcher did find changes in the students’ knowledge of things they could do. Students who were taught the curriculum as part of the social studies class increased listing rates of possible future actions to support sustainable land use from pre- to post-test, while science students showed no change.

For the most part, teachers did not use the action components included in the curriculum, although the science teachers did use some of the civic action portions. Nevertheless, science students did not seem to make the connection between that content and knowledge of actions they could take in the future. But social studies students—who largely did not receive the action instruction—seemed to make more gains in their action knowledge.

The researcher notes that the students were far more likely to list individual actions than group actions. She says, “Regardless of course subject, group or collective actions are simply not salient for students; they tend to think of actions in terms of individual behavior. Given the collective nature of many environmental and social problems and solutions, this is a disheartening finding, yet also an opportunity to emphasize the role of groups in civic actions.”

The Bottom Line

This study suggests that students learning about environmental issues in social studies classes, where they focus on topics such as sustainable land use, may more readily incorporate civic action concepts into their mental frameworks than when they learn about environmental issues in science classes. This suggests that EE may fit well within social studies courses, whose goal is often to increase student citizenship skills. This finding runs somewhat contrary to the frequent and close association of EE with science courses.