Between 2006 and 2011 CEES worked with high-poverty middle schools in Brooklyn, NY to enhance their ability to pursue inquiry-oriented, project-based learning focused around authentic natural and social science investigations. During this period, over 1600 students from 6 schools participated in IEC activities, and we equipped 120+ teachers to apply our approach to thousands of other students who will pass through their classrooms over their careers.

Quick Links:

Building School Capacity: Curriculum Development, Training, and Logistics
Our Goals: Scientific and Environmental Literacy, and Academic Engagement
Gauging Progress
Evolution of IEC, and our Partner Schools
A Deeper Look at Why IEC Works

Our Core Curricular Approach

The Integrated Ecology Curriculum (IEC) program developed by CEES represents a unique approach to middle school education that uses topics in environmental science as a framework for problem-oriented, place-based learning. Ecology becomes the conceptual  "hook", placing disciplinary content in a larger context, encouraging cross-disciplinary collaborations among teachers, and providing motivation for academic pursuit.

In developing this program, CEES mission was to increase scientific and environmental literacy, promote awareness and stewardship of local ecosystems, and bolster student academic engagement and commitment to learning. We did this by helping teachers develop and deliver integrated, cross-disciplinary projects based around authentic scientific exploration of nearby natural locations. We provided teachers with intensive training on project curriculum and implementation, outdoor and field education, and environmental concepts and skills.

Authentic field investigations

The IEC curriculum is focused around field research and hands-on activities that provide middle school students with opportunities to carry out authentic investigations in nature. We want middle school students to learn to apply real world skills and strategies to answer real world questions and tackle real world issues.

Integrated Project-Based Units

The field component of the program was the centerpiece of a more extensive, integrated project that provides background, context, and content knowledge and skills needed to successfully carry out the fieldwork. Non-field activities ranged from readings and reflective writing, to hands-on investigations of natural objects, to focused field trips designed to guide the student through an intellectual path that deepens their understanding of information, issues and methods. Projects were developed together by CEES staff and partner teachers, who were trained to repeat and replicate project units and package the methods for their colleagues. Each unit was modified to fit the needs of the participating school. Social science, ELA, and math skills were woven into the many project activities.  Some schools also implemented Integrated Projects Week (IPW), a way to join the entire school in an intensive week of field-oriented projects, culminating in a showcase of student work.


Building School Capacity: Curriculum Development, Training, and Logistics

Curriculum Planning and Development

CEES staff worked intensively with teachers, directly in the schools where they work every day.  Our curriculum specialists spent an average of one day per week at each school, to:

  • Tailor the curriculum modules we provide to their existing curriculum
  • Attend regular planning sessions with all involved teachers
  • Introduce and demonstrate activities and lessons needed for field- and project-basedunits
  • Support the teachers as they implement IEC lessons on their own
  • Plan for Integrated Projects Weeks (IPWs)

We promoted a thematic approach to learning that involves multiple teachers and subjects in integrated units, sometimes team-teaching and sometimes linking lessons separately.

Teacher Training

CEES trained teachers in the same content and skills they would be expected to impart in IEC, guiding them in innovative teaching methods so that they would feel comfortable applying them independently. We provided:

  • Workshops and retreats offsite, where teachers practice carrying out field studies and hands-on activities, and reflect on the teaching approaches they will use to instruct their students in such projects.
  • Background information, classroom resources and materials that cover topical areas they may not yet have fully mastered.
  • Training in using informal education settings such as museums, parks and zoos; and identification of locations nearby that can serve as field sites.
  • Model- and co-teaching in the classroom to demonstrate pedagogical methods teachers may not have previously tried.
  • Introduction to contacts and organizations ranging from scientists to community gardens to NGOs who can act as a resource in project learning.

School-Wide Efforts

CEES worked to build a professional learning community throughout each school, that would provide mutual support and promote ongoing reflection and adaptation of curriculum and teaching. To this end we offered very practical support, such as:

  • Ensuring administration support and buy-in.
  • Identification of a point person within each school as a liaison.
  • Providing material resources and funding for planning time and trainings.
  • Focus on low-cost activities that can be continued within the school budget.
  • Provision of non-consumables and/or technology that can be used long term.
  • Ensuring the documentation of all student work and teacher planning, so that units can be replicated by other teachers.

Our Goals: Scientific and Environmental Literacy, and Academic Engagement

Environmental Literacy and Connection to the Natural World

Through ecological field study, students gained an understanding of scientific inquiry and also a sense of connection to the natural world, studying nearby ecosystems and environmental issues in their own neighborhoods and city. We hoped this would inculcate a sense of belonging to their school community, to their neighborhood, and to the place we call New York. In turn, we hope they will embrace stewardship of the natural resources and processes that surround them.

Higher Cognitive Skills through Science

CEES promotes environmental education, but the benefits of IEC go beyond science, strengthening academic outcomes across subjects. Field investigations provide a means to gain very specific skills: sustained observation, inference, developing testable questions, gathering, evaluating, and synthesizing information, and analysis and presentation. More generally, we want students to develop inquisitive habits of mind, and to think meta-cognitively: to understand "how we know what we know." These skills are transferable to any subject and indeed, to any profession, and mastery will serve students well in their academic and work careers and as private citizens facing a highly technical, quickly changing society.

Providing Motivation and Opportunity for Student Engagement

Project-based, integrated education also promotes student academic engagement, which extensive research shows is consistently highly correlated with academic outcomes and graduation rates.  Engagement includes behavior, attitudes and cognitive strategies that demonstrate a student's investment in learning. From staying on task, to feeling positive and motivated, to figuring out how to solve a problem, engaged students do what's needed to succeed academically. And IEC provides precisely the type of learning that studies show engages students:

  • Authentic work with real-world relevance, that allows for the development of products
  • Opportunities for greater attention and support from teachers
  • Collaboration (among students, and among teachers)
  • A variety of tasks and experiences to showcase different talents and skills
  • Sense of community and membership - to a project group, classroom, or entire grade or school
  • Choice and autonomy in learning: opportunities to "own" what one learns and creates
  • High academic expectations and use of higher cognitive skills

Gauging Progress

The results for student achievement and engagement at our first pilot school-MS88- were extraordinary. Test scores improved immediately, such that the school was removed from probationary status at the end of the first year. Over the duration of the 3-year program standardized test results continued to improve by leaps each year until by 2008-9 nearly 75% of students were earning a 3 or 4 on both ELA and Math tests.  The school was recognized each year for exemplary gains made by the lowest third of students by performance. A primary goal of increasing engagement was borne out in increased rates of attendance over the program duration, rates that outpaced increases in city, borough and district attendance by 150-200%.  Percentage of 8th graders required to attend summer school plummeted to 21% from 33%, and the school earned an "A" report card grade for student progress two years in a row. Impressive as these results are, they pale in our own view in comparison to the changes in school culture and student attitudes we observed. Collaboration became the norm as teachers prepared for IPW every semester and reviewed the fully mapped curriculum during grade meetings. Students eagerly looked forward to IEC/IPW, and Facebook entries to teachers from alumni extol it as one of their fondest and most valuable experiences of middle school.

As for our subsequent 5 partner schools, we are proud to report that all of our schools made large gains in Math and ELA scores during the 2008-9 year (see box below; and Appendix B for detailed data). However, changes in the NYC standardized tests over the following 2 years generated controversy regarding possible inconsistency in the difficulty of tests, rendering comparisons potentially invalid. Moreover, research indicates that standardized test scores may provide only an imperfect gauge of students' future academic success and likelihood of graduating from high school. Instead, student engagement is shown to be predictive of success in high school.  Informed by research on middle school engagement, we tracked three alternative indicators identified in the literature as predictive of high school dropout: attendance in middle school; behavior (reflected in suspension rates) in middle school; and core ELA or Math course failures (as opposed to failures in standardized test scores).

By collecting data on these indicators for our partner schools pre- and post-IEC implementation, we were able to see if the number of students exhibiting one or more of these flags declined. Such a decline would logically suggest a decline in the risk of students dropping out. When we compiled the data for our partner schools, the results were very positive. After 9 to 18 months in each school, depending upon the indicator, the percentages of students exhibiting grade specific indicators of risk declined in 18 of 24 (75%) cases, and with them presumably the risk of dropping out.

Details of the results summarized above and the research that underpins their use can be found here.


Evolution of IEC, and our Partner Schools

Bringing the science and economics of environmental change to future public and business leaders is critically important to future actions by individuals, governments and the private sector--but it's not enough. These stakeholder groups will fill their ranks from below, with graduates who either have a deeper understanding of environmental issues, or do not. It is essential to bring the knowledge we produce to students who have yet to reach college age.

The IEC program emerged from this conviction, and developed at first from a simple coincidence of mutually reinforcing goals among partners.  Our goal to promote environmental and scientific literacy dovetailed neatly with the poverty alleviation mission of a major funder, the Robin Hood Foundation.  The Foundation believed field-based education would better engage students, and thus increase attendance in middle school, which in turn is known to increase the rates of high school graduation and ultimately, economic self-sufficiency.

Attempts to translate our adult level field programs to a secondary school setting proved logistically difficult, requiring substantial curricular and schedule changes, and time outside school walls.  Curriculum integration using ecology concepts better fit existing school culture and structures. Applying concepts both in integration and in field-based ecology, our IEC curriculum was created and refined initially via a 3-year pilot with Middle School 88 in Brooklyn.

Establishing IEC at our Pilot School

MS88 is a large school of 1000 students with a fairly typical curriculum and school schedule. The key to our success there lay in providing a "test run" that would provide proof of concept, build confidence, and demonstrate how IEC would work in practice. The test --dubbed Integrated Projects Week (IPW)-would later become a cornerstone of IEC, and of the school culture. During IPW, regular classes are suspended so that groups of students and teachers can work together on projects driven by an ecology framework.  These projects are team-taught and allow integration of knowledge across all the disciplines. They feature guest speakers, field study, and experimentation, and a final product or event.

The success of IPW paved the way for full integration of 6th through 8th grade curriculum at MS88, planned during faculty retreats and phased in semester by semester. Three and a half years later, our collaboration with MS88 was complete, with IEC assimilated into the school community and culture. IPW is institutionalized and eagerly anticipated each semester; a science coordinator helps new teachers gain any needed scientific literacy; and Assistant Principals support teachers to work on the ongoing integration of lessons over time.

Expanding Across Brooklyn

Beginning in September 2008, the IEC Program expanded to five additional schools to attempt implementation of IEC in a shorter, 18-month period.  Each school was carefully selected based on Title I status and their willingness to undertake an integrated, project-based approach to curriculum. The partners all implicitly value project-based learning as evidenced by the links between disciplines outlined in their school-wide goals. Each school has a unique curriculum, culture and structure that lend itself to different formats for Integrated Project work. The flexibility of the IEC approach allowed us to meet the needs of different sized schools, improve buy-in and broaden our partnership model.


A Deeper Look at Why IEC Works

Learning by Doing

IEC promotes learning by doing, and teachers did exactly that: they learned how to create and teach project-based curriculum by delivering it to their students. Thus through the IEC program students got the full benefit of immediate access to innovative learning methods. We used essential concepts and questions to connect different subject areas, and to provide both conceptual and real-world context for the skills and content students learn. The aim was to motivate students, by making the "why" of learning, and the value of their output, self-evident as they answered questions and solved problems. Projects also allowed students to display strengths not always evident in conventional classroom lessons. Activities are more varied, with opportunities to demonstrate learning via vocal, artistic and kinesthetic expression in addition to writing. This can boost the confidence of students who may have weak literacy or math skills, encouraging them to participate where they may have otherwise retreated into apathy or acted out disruptively.


The IEC approach holds students accountable for their project work, because it is part of the normal curriculum, and is graded and counted toward evaluation of their academic performance for the marking period. Project units (whether IPWs or marking-period length projects) link to the regular academic scope and sequence and, while they are centered on field-based ecology investigations, the deliverables that students produce demonstrate skills across all subjects. Students are expected to practice higher thinking skills and scientific habits of mind, ranging from detailed and thoughtful observation and record-keeping, to development of questions and hypotheses, to evaluation of information and building arguments. 

We are very pleased with the progress the teachers and students in our partner schools made. During the most recent round of partnerships, we provided hundreds of hours of personalized training and planning in and out of the classroom, with 15 grade-wide projects delivered.  A list of our partner schools, and a rubric detailing the various projects can be found here.

Added Support for Literacy

CEES made special efforts to address literacy through our projects, as this was identified by all of our schools as critical to bolster academic achievement.  The IEC requires cross-disciplinary collaboration and reinforcement of basic skills no matter which subjects/teachers are the designated partners for our program. Thus all of the projects required extensive reading, such as read-aloud texts, readings for content and comprehension, and shared readings. There was constant practice of literacy skills, even in non-ELA classes. In at least two science classrooms, the teachers instituted a wholly new policy of assigning a text associated with the lesson for every class session. These may be readings for comprehension, readings to understand vocabulary in context, readings to gather facts and background, or readings for discussion and context. Students were asked to take notes rather than copy notes from the board, for example. The former, obviously, requires them to understand the main points of what they read, evaluate the most salient facts and messages, and synthesize this into their own words.

IEC is Designed to Promote Engagement

CEES developed and refined a program of curriculum development specifically designed to both create the conditions for engagement in our partner schools, and provide intensive training to teachers to effectively implement and replicate curricula conducive to engagement.

Creating Curriculum That Engages

We strove to create supportive learning communities in our schools among students and teachers who participated on a grade-wide level in projects that integrate different subjects and promote collaboration among teachers. Our projects were explicitly designed to address real-world processes and questions, and to provide opportunities for authentic exploration and practice of authentic skills. Students are motivated to use what's learned in the classroom when its in service to solving a problem they care about. We chose current, topical issues of the day, and gave students tools to address these issues themselves. Whether gathering data as a citizen scientist, evaluating advocacy efforts, working in a community garden, or writing journalistic articles, we showed students they can be influential and that their work matters. They can learn the skills and tools to make a difference in whatever arena they so choose. Students were given open-ended investigations - such as a beach survey, leaf litter investigation, or neighborhood transect activity - where the outcome is not pre-determined and student work provides self-generated insight into genuine questions. High-level cognitive skills are required as students are led through a carefully designed unit that introduces them to skills and concepts that they are asked to apply at ever-higher levels, with increasing independence, as the unit progresses.  Within each unit students are offered choices for assessments and roles in activities. They can choose their role in a survey team or report group; select the object of observation, description, or drawing; or decide between different texts and topics for literacy assignments. Group work has the benefit of creating motivation and cooperation as well as "academic press" from peers and teachers as members work to complete the task at hand. Choice of role and activity allows students to build confidence and gain recognition for different types of output than might be possible in traditional classroom activities. Finally, a broad range of activities, locations, trips and speakers maintains variety and interest even as these are continually related back to a unifying theme or essential question that reinforces primary concepts and skills. We worked to ensure that units are challenging but with sufficient scaffolding along the way, and that student work was elevated and showcased in products that promoted pride, accountability and perceived value and usefulness.

Preparing and Supporting Teachers

It takes careful and thoughtful planning, to create such curricula, as well as a cadre of appropriately trained and supported teachers. CEES used the Understanding by Design method of backward planning to ensure that each and every activity and task was created with end goals and competencies in mind. Teachers require support and dedicated time and resources to work on curriculum and CEES staff were on hand for planning meetings, in-class guidance and model-teaching, logistics support for trips and speakers, and ensuring support from the administration. Our modules gave enough of a framework for teachers to work with immediately but were completely modifiable to adapt to the schools' particular schedule and identified needs as well as the preferences of the teachers and students. Curriculum specialists presented an array of resources, locations, and activities and were adept at helping develop new ones if necessary. In this way, teachers were freed from the time-consuming ‘legwork' of designing a new unit so that they could focus on the "brainwork" of targeting needs, integrating concepts and skills, collaborating with other teachers, and learning new methods. The space to think, experiment and practice techniques is invaluable for teachers to assimilate best practices. Too often curricula are provided or recommended to teachers but the training needed to properly implement them is lacking. Teachers may need guidance and support in conducting lessons in the field, or in constructing embedded assessments, or identifying useful external resources. We allow the teacher to develop a unit that he or she can take ownership of, to practice techniques in a supportive atmosphere, to try new types of activities and assessments, and to relate to students in new and hopefully more rewarding ways. Project work allows for more personal interactions with students and a joint sense of mission helps develop a supportive classroom ethos. At the school level, teachers and administrators work together as part of a community effort to contribute to better teaching and practices.



Share |