"Integrated" or "interdisciplinary" education evolved in the United States from the progressive education movement of the early 20th century. Integrated education features a student-centered approach to teaching that engages students and teachers as co-planners of learning experiences.
In the early 21st century, American educators are being challenged to incorporate integrated curriculum strategies into primary and secondary schools while satisfying ever-stricter national and state educational standards. Controversies in many American school systems now focus on access to meaningful learning experiences to help students keep up with academic standards and perform well on exams, the primary form of standardized measurement.
Environmental education, defined as any educational activity that had a goal of producing citizens who had knowledge of the environment and its problems, as well as a motivation to solve those problems, is rooted in integrated education. It has become a popular and relevant addition to K-12 classrooms throughout the world. One example of an integrated environmental curriculum used in K-12 schools is the National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) Schoolyard Habitat Program (SYHP). The SYHP grew out of an already existing NWF program called the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program that fostered the creation of backyard wildlife habitats by private landowners. In the SYHP, backyard wildlife habitats must also be used as an educational teaching resource.
The ultimate purpose of the SYHP was to connect students, teachers, schools, community, wildlife, and the local environment. SYHP gave teachers opportunities to offer powerful learning tools to improve students' environmental and ecological literacy in addition to the basic principles of core academic subjects. The goal of the SYHP was to create a cross-curricular learning environment while teaching about wildlife habitat and conservation.
To address concerns that using an interdisciplinary and integrated approach to curricula detracts from students' abilities to perform on standardized tests, P.E. Danforth, T.M. Waliczek, S.M. Macey, and J.M. Zajicek recently undertook a study of fourth grade students in Houston, Texas. The objective of the study was to determine if participation in the National Wildlife Federation's Schoolyard Habitat Program (SYHP) had an effect on standardized test scores of fourth-grade students.
Study results showed that students who participated in SYHP had significantly increased math scores when compared with peers from schools that used a more traditional curriculum. Interestingly, few differences were found in comparisons of reading scores of those students taught with SYHP and those taught using a more traditional curriculum. These findings support related studies of students' academic achievement when an interdisciplinary or integrated curriculum, particularly one with an environmental slant, was imposed.
Addressing difference in ethnic group participation, the study authors stated: "This study showed that, although the Caucasian sample of students outperformed others on the standardized tests, the most significant improvement of overall test scores was from improved scores for Hispanic students. However, although there was a statistically significant improvement in math scores between control and treatment schools, the improvement attributable to the SYHP was only evident in the predominantly Caucasian sample school pair, indicating that students in predominantly minority schools do not gain the same level of benefit from this program."
- Danforth, P.E., Waliczek, T.M., Macey, S.M., Zajicek, J.M. The Effect of the National Wildlife Federation's Schoolyard Habitat Program on Fourth Grade Students' Standardized Test Scores. HortTechnology, 2008; 18: 356-360 [link]
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