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Addressing the Science Literacy Challenge through Educator Professional Development

The Issue

It is imperative that individuals be able to make informed decisions about the science and technology in everyday life, yet national and international assessments reveal that the levels of science literacy among youth in the United States are well below those of other developed nations—and the problem is worsening.
The root cause of this problem lies in relying on lectures and demonstrations to teach science. These methods provide only a surface level understanding of the nature and processes of science and do not promote critical thinking skills. Furthermore, lectures and demonstrations tend to alienate youth who perceive science as too complicated and irrelevant.
Youth science literacy can be improved with the use of Experiential Learning (EL), a strategy that involves direct experience and builds understanding through inquiry and reflection. Experiential Learning is similar to hands-on learning, yet goes much farther by including the discussion and analysis of experiences that deepen and broaden understanding.
Teaching strategies such as EL encourage youth to use their own thinking to test ideas, reflect on and analyze information, and predict outcomes. Research indicates that youth retain and learn more when they are taught through experience because they are actively engaged in activities with visible outcomes and demonstrate their knowledge through practice.
Those who train educators must model EL as an alternative and effective approach to teaching science. Otherwise, future youth educators will remain unprepared and unwilling to use EL and will continue to teach science with methods proven to be ineffective.

What Has ANR Done?

A subcommittee of the Science, Technology, and Environmental Literacy (STEL) Workgroup developed, tested, and evaluated a series of three EL workshops to be used to educators in formal and community-based education programs and provide an online resource.
STEL members A. Michael Marzolla and Martin H. Smith initiated presentations and EL training workshops at professional meetings such as annual conferences of the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). They offered a bilingual workshop at the NAAEE Annual Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that attracted 55 participants, including educators from Mexico and South America, and a two-day pre-conference workshop at the NAAEE Annual Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, that involved 16 educators from across the United States and Canada.
In both workshops, participants were engaged in learner-centered EL activities, discussed current research, and explored opportunities to apply EL strategies to programs and projects associated with their organizations or institutions.

The Payoff

ANR Extends Experiential Learning Strategies Nationally and Internationally

Post-survey data indicated that workshop participants gained an understanding of EL and the Learning Cycle, inquiry methods, and strategies to develop new experiential materials or modify existing curricula. Data also revealed that participating educators gained an understanding of the importance of learner-centered instruction and how providing time for reflection affords opportunities to deepen student understanding.
Workshop participants indicated a variety ways they could apply what they learned in the workshops to their own education programs. For example, one participant from an urban environmental education facility in Montreal, Canada, reported that she intended to use the knowledge and skills she gained to help assess the EL content of the curricula her center uses in order to help make them more learner centered.

Clientele Testimonial

I’ve gained an understanding of the difference between hands-on and Experiential Learning. EL puts the experience in a relevant context for students through incorporating reflection and application.

I appreciated the discussion about how skills acquired through EL and inquiry are, in many ways, more important than the content. This is an important point that should be highlighted even more. Teachers often get swept away with content and forget the skills.


Supporting Unit: 4-H Youth Development Program

Veterinary Medicine Extension
Martin H. Smith
Associate Specialist in Cooperative Extension
Veterinary Medicine Extension
University of California - Davis

A. Michael Marzolla
4-H Youth Development Advisor and Master Gardner
UCCE Santa Barbara