Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



Basche, A.D., Genareo, V., Leshem, A, Kissell, A. Pauley, J. 2016. Engaging middle school students through locally-focused environmental science project-based learning. Natural Sciences Education. 45(1): 1-10. doi 10.4195/nse2016.05.0012


Open access


Increasing scientific literacy through education is one way to promote awareness of current environmental challenges, and can be enhanced through project-based learning (PBL), a pedagogical approach in which students explore authentic topics and demonstrate their learning publically. The National Science Foundation–funded GK–12 program at Iowa State University partnered doctoral-level graduate students (fellows) with middle and high school science teachers. This study analyzed results from one such middle school partnership in Iowa, where a PBL approach was implemented. Classroom practices focused on local environmental case studies of energy development, water pollution, soil science, climate change, plant biology, and ecology. Results from a student survey (n = 101), following a year with the PBL curricula, revealed significantly more positive attitudes and greater levels of engagement and confidence in scientific material relative to GK–12 peers (n = 329). Publicly submitted student letters to a government agency responsible for approving an oil pipeline project were also analyzed for scientific themes and levels of comprehension (n = 65). Overall, 60% of students demonstrated the ability to construct arguments by citing specific data and scientific evidence in the letters, and also incorporated topics covered in previous units (4–5 themes addressed on average per letter). Results demonstrate that a PBL approach in a middle school science classroom is a method to stimulate attitudes, engagement, confidence, and comprehension in the study of environmental topics. Discussion follows about improving K–12 science education to enhance public understanding and engagement around environmental policy issues.