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European Ecology Course Wins Science Magazine Prize

Students in the ECO mission course measure light intensity and dissolved oxygen level in water.
[Image courtesy of Margus Pedaste]

As a young student in Estonia, Margus Pedaste was very interested—and quite brilliant—in biology. In seventh grade, he conducted his first real research, and by the time he left high school he had won his nation's annual biology olympiad three times. Still, he rankled at all the memorization required of him in biology classes and couldn't understand why he would ever want to know, for instance, the names used to describe the reproductive anatomy of 20 different animal groups.

"I'm a very practical person," said Pedaste, who is a technology education professor at the University of Tartu in Estonia. "I was always thinking, 'why would I need that? It's not very interesting and not effective.'"

Wanting to improve on how biology is taught, Pedaste worked with the Science Created by You (SCY) project, which is funded by the European Union, to help create a course module called the ECO mission. The mission course, an investigation of ecosystems that involves Web-based and hands-on experimentation, has won the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.

The prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching introductory science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students' natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing "module," the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about the ECO mission was published on 28 June.

"We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them," said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief emeritus of Science. "At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy."

Pedaste grew up in Tartu, but as a child he spent all of his summers in the countryside with his grandparents. It was there that he developed his initial interest in plants and animals. He studied biology in college and after earning his first degree in ecology he decided he wanted to prepare himself to help younger generations of science students. Turning to education, he spent 14 years as a biology teacher for students aged 13 to 19.

Over the years, Pedaste's conviction that rote memorization was ineffective as a science education tool only strengthened. Memorization was, however, the main approach of classes in Estonia. "There were too many facts for students," said Pedaste.

Even science teachers often lacked a coherent understanding of science that would allow them to support inquiry-based learning with an emphasis on process. They, too, had learned long lists of scientific terms. They couldn't explain why, for instance, photosynthesis is important or necessary. "There were so many different terms for things, many of them synonyms, but the processes that should be understood were somewhere in the background," Pedaste said.

Realizing how difficult it would be to train and influence science teachers, Pedaste and his colleagues decided to approach students directly. The means for that was creating Web-based learning environments, so that students could experience "problem-based and inquiry-based" instruction, Pedaste said.

"We found it was really helpful, and our research found that specific support on inquiry skills, whether Web-based or involving an actual experiment in the lab, had a great effect on students' learning."

Incorporating Web-based learning held the advantage of allowing educators to track student learning. In a classroom of 25 students, one teacher could only spend a few minutes per student. When part of their instruction occurs with the help of instructional software, Pedaste said, "their computer can actually analyze their learning, and we can support every student according to their needs."

The ECO mission, designed for high-school students, looks specifically at the ecosystems of a freshwater lake. It starts by asking students to create a "concept map" representing their initial understanding of the different processes in the body of water and how they relate. Pedaste said such a map or visualization helps students think about the relation between different scientific processes and concepts. Such a holistic, conceptual framework is often lacking in students' understanding because science is often taught in separate piecemeal units.

What follows in the ECO mission is a combination of approaches. Students assess the role of light in the level of photosynthesis through a hands-on experiment. They see the effect that the composition of the lake bottom could have on the pH rise in the lake from acid precipitation stemming from acid rain. Students use computer simulations, however, to understand nutrient concentration and food chains.

Such a combination of approaches is ideal, Pedaste said. "Simulations are helpful," he said, "but students still need to touch things and do something real in the lab."

The simulations allow students to study processes with experimentation that could otherwise only be conducted over more time than is available throughout a high school science class.

"Using the ECO mission, students were able to collect and analyze data in a way that would have been impossible in real time," said Melissa McCartney, associate editor at Science.

For the students, the most important benefit is experiencing the wonder of scientific research as it is done by scientists. "Through the learning environment, we are trying to show students what science is," said Pedaste. "It's not memorizing. It's doing something; it's doing research work, and it's really attractive to students who are by their nature interested in finding something new."

Pedaste said he hopes his winning the IBI prize and having an essay about the SCY ECO mission will help it to gain traction in the education community.

"The best result would be if teachers from several countries would find that this is something for their students," Pedaste said. "Then I think we will have done our job."

Read the essay, "Investigating Ecosystems as a Blended Learning Experience," by Margus Pedaste and colleagues.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.