June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW3

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Creating a Down-to-Earth Approach To Teaching Science, Math and Technology

Down-to-Earth is an innovative award-winning instructional resource that focuses on gardening through the use of the scientific method. This resource helps youth ages 9-12 bridge a gap between informed decision-making and responsible stewardship. The goal of Down-to-Earth is to enrich critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The program allows youth educators to draw on a rich mixture of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary topics. The effectiveness of Down-to-Earth is demonstrated through increased academic achievement, attitudinal and behavioral changes. This educational program is adaptable for all ages, with a variety of learning style preferences, and from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Robert Williamson
Extension Specialist - Natural Resources
Internet address: robertw@ncat.edu

Ellen Smoak
Extension Specialist - Textiles and Apparel
Internet address: smoak@ncat.edu

North Carolina A&T State University
Greensboro, North Carolina

Background Information

Science, mathematics, and technology (SMT) can provide youth with a foundation for understanding how concerns about economic viability and ecological concepts are interconnected. Significant reasons underlying these concerns today are the state, national, and international deliberations on environmental safety, health, and stewardship issues. The cause and effect relationship between human behavior and the environment, and the economics of that relationship must be well understood by decision-makers and other leaders who are willing to ensure quality of life for all people (North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), 1996; North Carolina Department of Environmental Health and Natural Resources (NCDEHNR), 1995).

An opportunity now exists to instill a conservation ethic and a sense of responsible stewardship into the choices facing future decision-makers in business, industry, and government (NCDEHNR, 1995). To build this cadre of informed decision-makers, people must understand that when something affects one component of the environment, other components also experience the impact (Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1996). For example, major human health and safety issues can arise from the misuse of techniques employed to alter or manage ecosystems (NCDEHNR, 1995). Because environmental issues affect and are affected by virtually every area of human endeavor, the importance of building conceptual and curriculum bridges between those issues and youth education in formal or non-formal settings cannot be overemphasized (NCDEHNR, 1995; Rusky & Wilke, 1994; U.S.Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1994).

Although youth may receive exposure to environmental education in school, Horton and Hutchinson (1997) report that it is rarely in a way that bridges those learning experiences to understanding such things as sustainable food and fiber production without harmful human effects. According to the North Carolina Environmental Education Plan (1995), hands-on experiences are the best way for students to develop an understanding of their complex world and their place in it.

As a society concerned with complex safety, health, and related issues in our near environment, we must realize that too many youth grow up taking environmental quality for granted (NCDEHNR, 1995). A critical need exists for youth to gain a better awareness and understanding for key life supporting issues. Armed with an understanding of these issues, youth will be better prepared to take future action to sustain our natural resources for now and for generations to come (Carlson & Maxa, 1997; NCDEHNR, 1995; Rusky & Wilke, 1994).

The Down-to-Earth Program

Recognizing that both formal and informal youth educators frequently lack a positive attitude or "comfort level" for teaching environmental education (NCDEHNR, 1995; EPA, 1996), a program was designed, developed, pilot-tested, and evaluated to help bridge this gap. Down-to-Earth (DTE) is a "user-friendly" instructional resource for youth educators that contains strategies to improve particular SMT skills while exposing educators to a myriad of educational opportunities. Youth are engaged in "hands-on" and "fun" experiential learning that allows for active and challenging development of "new" knowledge.

The primary purpose of the DTE program is to introduce youth to sustainable agriculture and environmental education using the scientific method as a conceptual and hands-on learning process that stresses critical thinking, reasoning and problem solving. The ultimate goal of Down-to-Earth is to enrich critical thinking and problem-solving skills among youth. A unique feature of this program is that it allows youth educators to draw on a rich mixture of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary topics (agriculture, natural resources, environmental management, health and human safety, horticulture, etc.)

DTE integrates various theoretical perspectives to promote learning experiences with lesson plans related to the environment, health, human safety, and plant growth. This resource gives any youth educator the analytical information needed to help youth learn how to formulate their own decisions about their near environment. Teachers are encouraged to use a non-competitive approach when getting youth to focus on completing DTE requirements.

Whole learning experiences are designed to provide youth, ages 9-12, with an opportunity to use experimentation, fact-finding, and related methods to explore SMT with a major focus on sustainable agriculture. DTE is designed to appeal to all youth including those with limited educational and social opportunities. This resource gets to the heart of understanding sound decision-making and responsible stewardship of managed ecosystems through a shift to constructivism. It uses gardening as a knowledge building tool.

The DTE educational package includes background information, specific concept objectives, learner competencies and a student guidebook. Attitudinal and academic assessments are included to measure the learner's behavioral change and achievement toward understanding ten major topics (growing plants, soil, fertilizer, pests, sun, safety, water quality, careers, etc.). Delivery methods incorporated into the project include, but are not limited to, the use of classroom discussions, small group and hands-on activities, videos and outdoor activities.

Program Implementation

As an introduction to Down-to-Earth, youth are given a scenario in which the fictional planet Azor's resources are near depletion. The youth become part of a team of earth scientists called upon by the Azorians to discover the best way to grow food or fiber crops with the least amount of harm to the environment. The scenario provides the problem component necessary to working with the scientific method.

To decide which growing technique is best, young people plant, maintain and monitor experimental research plots. In the following weeks, youth test their hypotheses by collecting data to observe the effect of different growing conditions. The process also involves completing background research, establishing and conducting an experiment, recording and analyzing data, making conclusions, and reporting discoveries. Eventually, participants complete the project by comparing the yields of the different plots and using the results to draw conclusions and make recommendations on the best growing technique.

Besides the scientific method, throughout the project, an emphasis is placed on respecting the environment and food chain. Youth learn that their world is one composed of complex, connected systems.

The transferability of DTE allows youth from rural, suburban, and urban neighborhoods an opportunity to understand the complex relationships that exist between humans and the environment. As an educational resource, DTE serves as a supplemental instructional guide for youth educators working with youth organizations, nature centers, community groups, or by parents with their youth. The program is easily adaptable for people of all ages, with a variety of learning style preferences, and from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Each DTE activity is rich in disciplinary content and can supplement existing classroom lesson plans in science, agriculture, home economics, mathematics, social studies, and language arts. The lessons are aligned with content, teaching, and assessment standards set forth in the North Carolina Competency Based Teacher Handbook for K-12 Science. Additionally, DTE advocates educational goals identified in The North Carolina Environmental Education Plan and Shaping the Future: A Strategic Plan for Natural Resources and Environmental Management. It also coincides with the experiential model being used by youth educators in 4-H nationwide.

Program Evaluation

Strategies to implement environmental education in formal and non-formal settings should contain essential assessment characteristics. First among these are opportunities for youth to strengthen their knowledge and skills the key areas of agriculture, science, mathematics, technology, ecology, social studies, and communication.

The effectiveness of Down-to-Earth is demonstrated through increased academic, attitudinal, and behavioral changes. Assessment instruments for evaluating academic achievement and attitudinal changes were developed by a team of external evaluators. The instruments were pilot- and field-tested for reliability and validity with diverse groups of youth. Pilot-test results, teacher anecdotal reports, and impact data from county Extension agents suggest that DTE is helping youth educators develop a positive attitude (comfort level) for teaching science and technology and is developing a cadre of future leaders who can make responsible decisions about agricultural and environmental issues (Crawford & Harman, 1997). DTE also contributes to both student social and educational development. Additional success of the program may occur on a longitudinal basis.


Carlson, S., & Maxa, S. (1997). Science guidelines for nonformal education. St. Paul, MN: Center for 4-H Youth Development, University of Minnesota.

Crawford, S. S., & Harman, P. H. (1997). Down-to-Earth. Unpublished final report.

Horton, R. L., & Hutchinson, S. (1997). Nurturing scientific literacy among youth through experientially based curriculum materials. Columbus, OH, Center for 4-H Youth Development, The Ohio State University.

North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE). (1996). Environmental Education Materials: Guidelines for excellence. Troy, OH: Author.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Health and Natural Resources (NCDEHNR). (1995). The North Carolina Environmental Education Plan. Raleigh, NC: Author.

Rusky, A., & Wilke, R. (1994). Promoting environmental education. (Published for the 1994 National Environmental Education Advocacy Project). Stevens Point, WI: The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Foundation Press, Inc.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). (1994). Shaping the Future: A strategic plan for natural resources and environmental management education. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (1996). Report Assessing Environmental Education in the United States and the Implementation of the National Environmental Education Act of 1990. Washington, DC: Author.