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Revisioning an elementary school science course through a sustainability lens

Series contributors: Emily Sprowls, Faculty Fellow, Midhat Kiyani, Student Fellow, Sage Comstock, Student Fellow

We are three Sustainability Education Fellows that worked together to revision a course for preservice teachers in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education. Emily (Faculty Fellow) is a Faculty Lecturer and course coordinator for the science program in elementary education. Midhat (Student Fellow) is a PhD student in Education. Sage (Student Fellow) recently graduated with their MA in Education and Society, with a concentration in Gender and Women’s Studies, and a focus on sex education.  

As a team of three, we worked together to re-imagine the introductory course on Elementary School Science (EDEE 270). The course covers science pedagogy and teaching methods while reviewing primary-level science skills and content. The course is required for second year undergraduates in order to complete their B.Ed. in Kindergarten and Elementary Education; thus, the course provides a unique opportunity to integrate sustainability into McGill’s teacher certification program. 

Incorporating interdisciplinary dimensions of sustainability 

The process of redesigning the Elementary School Science course highlighted the challenges of integrating the interdisciplinary dimensions of sustainability learning into a class with the explicit objective of teaching the academic discipline of science. To meet the requirements of teacher certification set by the Ministry of Education, the course must address both the subject area and the Quebec Education Program (QEP) professional competencies. Our work in the Sustainability Education Fellows program provided an opportunity to address the complexity of aligning the QEP competencies with the sustainability competencies (Redman & Wiek, 2021) that framed the fellowship.  

Attempting to integrate multiple aspects of sustainability into a formal course structure has been a complex, messy process with many layers. We juggled among sustainability competencies and QEP cross-curricular competencies, and we worked back and forth between Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) and the Broad Areas of Learning outlined in the QEP to develop learning outcomes that integrate across these many layers. To do so, we found it necessary to go beyond the usual intellectual or cognitive learning goals that are the focus of many university courses and extend our course objectives and pedagogical strategies to include psychomotor and affective outcomes. 

Integrating social sustainability in a natural science course 

Organizing learning outcomes as cognitive, psychomotor, and affective allowed us to tackle the challenge of integrating social dimensions of sustainability in a course meant to familiarize teachers with the practices and knowledge of natural sciences. This organizational schema translates well to elementary school language of Head, Hands, and Heart, and corresponds with aspects of the QEP. The Head-Hands-Heart framing emphasizes that science is not just thinking and talking about natural phenomena, but also about doing science, answering real-world questions, and taking on issues of concern. For example, doing elementary science is not just about making and diagramming electrical circuits, but also about implementing scientific knowledge to solve real-life problems, such as local power outages and global energy needs by designing and building simple electronic light sources. 

Example learning outcomes for Elementary School Science 

  • Head: Explore how elementary science connects with other ways of knowing and examine how these connections inform sustainability content and pedagogy. 
  • Hands: Plan and implement lessons that connect science with real-world sustainability issues. 
  • Heart: Feel prepared to engage with socio-scientific sustainability issues that elementary students care about.  

This framework has allowed us to keep in view the broader impacts of redesigning a course for sustainability and focus on teaching students to make an impact in their communities and be sustainable citizens. While this reframing has been an important step towards addressing social sustainability in elementary teacher preparation, room remains to further integrate equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization (EDID) in how we approach science and sustainability education in the course. Moving forward, we hope to cultivate additional co-design spaces where we are more intentional in integrating values of inclusion and diversity. 

Collaborative approach to include diverse perspectives and resources 

Our collaborative work through the Sustainability Education Fellowship facilitated the inclusion of more diverse voices into the course design. In particular, the Student Fellows added important global and gender perspectives on elementary science education. We each brought our own insights and values from our respective experiences in classroom teaching, engineering design, and sex education in different parts of the world to our elaboration of the pedagogical strategies and assessments in the course. Furthermore, we sought to involve everyone with a stake in the intervention by surveying current students, past TAs and instructors, and elementary school science consultants to collect their suggestions about integrating sustainability into Elementary School Science. As we envisioned the future science learning spaces and strategies, we leveraged these diverse perspectives to redesign the course. 

This Fellowship created an important opportunity to involve graduate students as assistants in course design rather than as traditional teaching assistants (TAs). The Student Fellows were enabled to take on roles different from the prescribed roles of TAs, whose hours are often subsumed by course management tasks and grading. Fellowship funding provided an authentic way to involve graduate students as collaborators and underlined the value of a cooperative approach to co-planning and co-design.

Reflexive process of implementing affective learning outcomes and values 

Prompted by the SEF team, we began the revisioning process by identifying the values underlying our motivations to redesign the course for sustainability. This focused our efforts on implementing pedagogical and assessment strategies around affective learning outcomes. Our reflexive process helped us anchor our interventions in the sustainability values at the Heart of the course. We had to let go of the expectation that we might line up learning outcomes, pedagogies, and assessments in neat rows and columns, but instead engaged in cycles of design, feedback, and reflection. This cyclical process reflects the value of adaptability and resilience in hands-on, real-world learning for sustainability.

Just as one of the learning outcomes for students in the course is to reflect on their own identities in order to examine how personal experiences and perspectives inform science teaching and learning, it also was an outcome of this fellowship as we reflected on our own identities and how our perspectives on science and sustainability have informed our roles in course design. In designing ways to assess students’ personal reflections on their science identities, we also asked ourselves what it means to think, talk, and do science. With each other, we enacted pedagogical strategies for ongoing reflections of our own roles as science teachers and sustainable citizens given our own intersectional identities.

Affordances of Sustainability Education Fellowship 

This fellowship afforded the three of us the time and space needed to revision Elementary School Science through the lens of sustainability. The recurring sessions with the SEF and other Fellows helped us keep the over-arching goals and values in mind and dedicate time to the effort of course re-design. The first time teaching a course is always a lot of work; without the nudge of the regular meetings with SEFs, the push to incorporate sustainability would have easily been lost to the immediate pressures of course delivery, assignment feedback, and laboratory preparation. The campus-wide initiative plus financial support for the work at the University level added legitimacy and the impetus to revision the future of a required course that has been offered at McGill for years. It also offered chances for both graduate and undergraduate students to take an active role in shaping the education they will receive or would like to see happen in the future. 

Learn more about including sustainability in your course content, teaching, or assessment approaches, by exploring the Sustainability Education Resources article in Teaching and Learning Services’ Teaching and Learning Knowledge Base.

Read more blog posts in this SEF series and find information about the McGill University Sustainability Education Fellows Program.

Photo credit: Image created from “Sustainable development goals still life” by freepik and “Chemist researcher injecting strawberry with organic dna liquid while working in pharmaceutical farming laboratory” by DCStudio on Freepik

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