A Joint Science– Humanities Project
By Elizabeth Schibuk and Melissa Psallidas
We work in a school where conversations around race, income, and equity are integral to everyday learning. These topics serve as the foundation of our curriculum and drive the “why” of each unit of study. We felt it was both natural and necessary to end the year with an interdisciplinary unit that addressed environmental injustice and its disproportionate effect on individuals and communities of color.
Research has shown that using real-world contexts to teach science content can improve both motivation and achievement in science (Kuhn and Muller 2014). For two weeks, we integrated our seventh-grade science and humanities classes, creating an extended “project block” where we co-taught a large combined class of two seventh-grade sections. Students went to their project-block class for 2.5 hours a day for a series of learning tasks that we co-designed and co-taught. In these two weeks, students in seventh grade learned about large themes in the study of environmental justice and became deep experts in one of four case studies in environmental racism. Students discovered and unpacked the layered implications of environmental racism, the notion that exposures to environmental risks are not equally distributed by race and class (Mohai, Pellow, and Roberts 2009). Their culminating task was to create both a feature article that highlighted their case study as an example of environmental racism and an original watercolor protest piece. Together, these two work products would demonstrate their understanding of environmental justice as it applies to their case study and empower them to create artwork to express their reactions and share their voice on this issue. Figure 1 maps out the timeline for the project, each step of which is explained in greater detail in the article.
Building background knowledge
Case study research and mentor text analysis
Creating final products
Celebration of learning
Although many schools might not have the scheduling flexibility to organize the instructional day for science and humanities team-teaching, our hope is that science and humanities teachers interested in interdisciplinary learning could lift pieces of this project in ways that work well in their teaching context when and where possible (see Wonder Week Student Overview in Online Supplemental Materials).
The project began with a set of experiences designed to build students’ awareness of the relationship between environmental health and factors such as race and income in the United States.
Students built background knowledge about the upcoming content by analyzing various images, artwork, maps, and graphs that pertained to environmental racism. Examples include photographs from abandoned industrial waste sites, infographics about the history of environmental justice, photographs from environmental protests, and a variety of artwork. The images were sorted into six stations, through which students rotated and gathered observations and curiosities in their note-catchers (see Gallery Walk Note-Catcher in Online Supplemental Materials). At the end of the gallery walk, students were prompted to define environmental racism using nothing but their inferencing skills and what they had gathered from the sources. At this point in the process, students were able to gather that there were clearly differences in the overall environmental health of communities of color and predominantly white communities, but they hadn’t yet dug into how or why.
Following the gallery walk, students dug deeper into the issue of environmental racism through a data analysis task (see Environmental Racism: Exploring the Data in Online Supplemental Materials). Students were given tabulated data about industrial chemical and hazardous waste exposure and release sites in Massachusetts, as a function of income bracket and of race. Students began by studying the data and deciding what type of graph to make, then were coached in creating two double bar graphs (one for income and one for race). Because the two data sets (industrial chemical and hazardous waste exposure) have different units and different orders of magnitude, students needed to create two y-axes. Students were coached in creating one y-axis on the left for weight of industrial chemical exposure and a second one on the right for the number of hazardous waste release sites (see sample graph in Figure 2). Students were also asked to look for patterns in a map (see Figure 3) that similarly addressed the relationship between hazardous waste exposure and race, and in so doing working toward grades 6–8 application of the crosscutting concept of patterns in science.
The initial idea for this graphing task came from the graphs available in the Teaching Tolerance activity “Biases in Exposure to Pollution in Massachusetts,” but the activity was rewritten and expanded so that students were creating their own graphs. The graphing task played an instrumental role in supporting students in building out their working definition of environmental racism on the basis of pattern seeking in data analysis and not strictly in reading or note-taking.
We read a common text about the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010 to continue to build a stronger foundational knowledge base about environmental racism before splitting into differentiated case study groups. Students read excerpts from the article “The Gulf Oil Spill: An Environmental Justice Disaster” by Julie Weiss from Teaching Tolerance and from the article “Why Oil Spills are a Racial Issue” by Cord Jefferson, published in The Root (see Resources for links to both articles). This study solidified the notion that a natural disaster itself may not be an act of racism, but the circumstances in the aftermath, or the negligence and indifference beforehand, can be. Students concluded that the impact of the spill was felt most keenly by low-income families and people of color, not because of the coincidental and accidental location of the spill, but because of the intentional disposal of oil-related debris. After the reading assignment, students revisited their original definition of environmental racism, making edits and additions on the basis of what they had learned in the article.
We hosted an environmental justice panel driven by questions that students had generated from the gallery walk and graphing task. We invited a local college professor who specializes in environmental justice, a local reporter who has written about relevant topics, and a faculty member who was living in Puerto Rico during hurricane Maria. Students had time to ask questions of the visitors to deepen the knowledge they had already begun building in reading the common texts.
In our last background-building learning task, we watched “Rise” (Season 1, Episode 1: Sacred Water: Standing Rock Part 1), a film about the Dakota Access Pipeline and conflict around water pollution and indigenous land rights (see “Rise” film assignment in Online Supplemental Materials). We used this film screening as an opportunity to discuss the concept of a “case study” as an approach to learning about an issue.
In preparing for the project, we curated resources for four different case studies in environmental justice:
To transition from building background knowledge to case study research, we previewed the four case study options for students through a gallery walk where they could peruse some of the research artifacts such as video clips, article excerpts, graphics, and images that would become source material for each case study.
Students were given the opportunity to express their case study preferences and then were assigned a case study based on their stated preference as well as their current reading level as some case studies had more accessible source material prepared. We then gave each student a research folder with preselected print research materials and guided note-taking sheets for their case study. We were able to guarantee each student either their first or second choice, and students readily jumped in with their assigned group.
Students were grouped on the basis of their STAR Reading scores and Fountas and Pinnell data. Lexile (L) levels of assigned informational texts were informed by STAR Reading reports. The Maquiladoras and Tar Creek groups had heterogeneous mixes of all students reading at or above grade level, and all reading materials ranged from 1095L–1465L (grades 10–11). Students in the Hurricane Katrina group were reading slightly below grade level, around 1030L (grade 7). Students in the Asthma group needed additional reading and writing supports, and read texts around 950L (grade 6). All reading instruction was guided by seventh-grade informational text reading standards.
Students in the Maquiladoras and Tar Creek groups were assigned a reading partner within their group. In each pairing, there was at least one student who read above grade level and one student who read at a seventh-grade level. During daily reading time, these students read a vocabulary preview to introduce words in the text that would be difficult to define solely using context clues and background knowledge. Each day students had different instructions for their “during reading” task, but they could mostly guide their own learning as a case study team from the materials and written instructions provided (see Asthma Texts with Stop and Jots, Hurricane Katrina Articles with Stop and Jots, Maquiladoras Texts with Stop and Jots, and Tar Creek Texts with Stop and Jots, all in Online Supplemental Materials).
Students in the Hurricane Katrina group needed more support to access their assigned research materials. Each day the Katrina group began with teacher guidance in previewing important vocabulary from that day’s text. This group also received reading instruction, but students were guided through the process (using modelling and think alouds) for the first few paragraphs of their assigned text before being left to do it as a group without a teacher. They then continued the process on their own after the teacher left the group.
Students in the Asthma group received guided instruction from a teacher or support staff at most times during the research process. Although most of their research materials were also rigorous texts with seventh-grade vocabulary and text structure, they also had supplemental visual and multimedia resources that allowed them to gain background knowledge before approaching the daily text. By previewing the text content with accessible resources, students were able to more effectively make meaning of grade-level texts.
At the end of every class, students shared their groups’ new findings as they pertained to the topic of environmental justice. After these closing share-outs, students would revisit their working definition of environmental racism and again make necessary edits or additions based on their new knowledge.
The final stage of the students’ research process was to work through a self-directed series of science content learning tasks (available in the linked resources) that asked students to use text and audiovisual resources to build scientific background knowledge related to their case studies (see Science Background Research: Asthma Case Study, Katrina Case Study, Maquiladoras Case Study, and Tar Creek Case Study, all in Online Supplemental Materials). The assignments are similar for the four case studies, but the materials and some of the questions are tailored specifically to the relevant science content of each case study.
In their case-study science work, students were asked questions designed to guide them to the understanding that the environmental degradation described in each of these case studies is the result of urbanization and development happening without an ethic of environmental stewardship.
These science tasks also supported students in building supplemental knowledge in human physiology such that they could understand the impact of relevant pollutants on the human body. Students were given an opportunity to choose a relevant body system that they were most interested in learning about and using the Scholastic Study Jams video series to build their knowledge of how this organ system is meant to function. The Study Jam films are freely available online and present content in an accessible student-friendly manner, filled with visuals and contextual anecdotes. By using film, students can watch, take notes, and digest the content at their own pace. Students made connections back to their case study reading to build their understanding of how exposure to toxins in the affected populations impacted the physical health and wellness of those exposed.
Situating the science content research at the end of the case study research gave a compelling reason for students to deeply engage with the readings and films, as they had already developed an interest in understanding the injustices done onto those affected in their case study through their research. Students were being asked to learn about environmental degradation and human physiology to help them better understand the implications of the relevant toxins on the populations they were studying, and in turn to strengthen the feature articles they would then be writing. Students were asked to consider how human activities were at the root of each environmental justice issue and thus consider growing human impact on the environment.
With their background case-study reading and science learning complete, students were ready to begin their feature articles. Students became journalists, drafting feature stories that shared their insights on their particular case study. The articles drew connections between the environmental hazards detailed in the case study and the role of race and class. Feature article instruction was approached in two different buckets: first structure, then style. Students analyzed the structure of a number of feature articles, observing everything from the font size of subheadings to the reasoning for shorter, chunked paragraphs that enhance readability and flow. All instruction about structure and organization of feature articles was delivered through analysis of mentor texts (exemplar feature articles to develop understanding of format and content; see Feature Article Mentor Text Notes in Online Supplemental Materials). Students incorporated case study research into their feature articles as they aimed to elevate the voices of those affected by the environmental injustice at hand, while sharing and citing reliable research studies and data.
Before thinking about style and craft, students dedicated two days of writing workshop time to organization and structure. They analyzed purpose and structure of feature articles, then brainstormed the purpose of their own article (see Feature Article Brainstorm and Outline in Online Supplemental Materials). Once they determined their own purpose for writing, they began organizing their ideas into separate sections with headings. By sifting through their research folders—rich with annotated articles, notes from multimedia sources, and exit tickets—students were able to synthesize key ideas from their research and organize them into different sections of their feature article. They also ordered these sections in such a way that would intentionally reveal important information to the reader and enhance the purpose of their article. To transition from the brainstorming process, which mainly focused on synthesis and organization, to the drafting process, where they would be focusing on craft and style, students drafted the topic sentence for each section. Once each student’s topic sentences were approved, they began drafting their articles.
The Maquiladoras, Tar Creek, and Hurricane Katrina groups all received writing instruction together, while the Asthma group received separate, more scaffolded instruction. The Asthma group needed support synthesizing the information from multiple resources into a few paragraphs organized by topic and delivered in a purposeful order. They used a graphic organizer that held space for exactly three sections (whereas the other three groups had free range about the amount of sections they felt necessary, and some students drafted up to six separate headings). They were instructed to create a first section that would give important introductory knowledge to the reader, essentially defining asthma and listing its causes. Through guided small-group instruction, they sifted through their learning materials to find at least one quote that would fit into this section. Then they jotted down bullet points of other information they would include that belonged under this first heading. They were then instructed to draft a section explaining who is mostly affected by asthma. Last, they came up with the topic of the third section on their own. Essentially, there was a gradual release process as they worked to draft the first section, then the second, then the third, which was done independently.
At the end of the drafting process, students from all groups participated in a peer-revision activity. Students received a partner in their own group for the first round and a partner in a different group for the second round. They provided feedback by marking up a printed copy of their partner’s feature article with colors that indicated area of growth in a particular part of the rubric (see Feature Article Rubric: Maquiladoras, Hurricane Katrina, Tar Creek in Online Supplemental Materials). This color-coded revision process allowed for students to give their peers guided, rubric-based feedback, without simply making the revision for them.
As a school with an arts-focused mission, we seek opportunities to harness our students’ passion for art as a lever for engagement and for building a sense of personal connection to the curricular content. In creating a rigorous visual art component for this assignment, students are asked to consider how they can leverage visual imagery to engage and invest their audience in the content, which in turn reinforces their own sense of investment and attachment to the content. In addition, in writing their artist statements, students are provided with another learning opportunity to synthesize their learning and its broader meaning.
We began the visual arts component of the project around the time students were beginning to write their feature articles. This allowed us to break up the 2.5-hour project block into smaller components, split between art studio and writer’s workshop. We opened our studio time with a gallery walk studying examples of environmental protest art (see Environmental Protest Art, Gallery Walk Note-Catcher in Online Supplemental Materials).
After the gallery walk, students completed an art planning document that was designed to help them think about how to create their own environmental protest art that explicitly references and responds to what they had learned about their case study (see Art Project Planning in Online Supplemental Materials). The art planning document asked students to gather the three most compelling stories, facts, and questions they encountered in their research, and from there to brainstorm three symbols and three phrases they could use to communicate this learning in their work. Students were challenged to intentionally and purposefully use symbolism to teach and make a statement about environmental racism in the context of their case study, a process they then wrote about in their final artist statements (see student artwork in Figure 4 and Artist Statement Directions in Supplemental Online Materials).
Our school follows the EL (formerly Expeditionary Learning) model. One of the core foundational tenets of EL is that expeditions culminating in public displays of student work “compel students to reflect on and articulate what they have learned, how they learned, questions they answered, research they conducted, and areas of strength and struggles” (EL Education n.d.). Celebrations of learning are a core ritual at our school, and nearly every major project or learning expedition culminates with a public display of student work. The formats vary depending on grade level, content, and type of work. Consistent, however, is the notion that students know from the beginning that their work will be made public for their peers, faculty, administrators, parents, and friends of the school. The celebration of learning is not just a display of work, but a learning experience for students where they practice reciting, synthesizing, and reflecting on their learning.
Students at our school take leadership roles in planning and curating celebrations of learning, building authentic ownership over their work and a true sense of pride. Students were invited to participate in a voluntary planning committee for the celebration of learning. We do not screen for student skill level or work quality in the celebration of learning committee—it is entirely voluntary and open to all students who are interested. We frame participation as optional, not for extra credit or any other transactional reward, and a leadership opportunity. All students plan and prepare for the event, and are active participants on the day of the event, but inviting interested students into the fold in planning the logistics of the event further builds investment and excitement across the class community.
The celebration of learning for this project took the format of a gallery exhibit. Students set up a gallery of their artwork, organized into clusters by case study, with their printed artist statements and printed feature articles on display (see One-Page Story Sample and Student Artwork with Artists’ Statements in Online Supplemental Materials). Students stood by their work during a 45-minute block while guests from across the school community came to observe students’ artwork, read their feature articles, and ask students questions about their learning.
Students’ work in this project was assessed not according to performance expectations but rather to the Next Generation Science Standards science and engineering practices: analyzing and interpreting data, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NGSS Lead States 2013). As this project was a multidisciplinary experience meant to sit separately from the main curriculum, we welcomed the invitation to focus assessment on the applications of science and engineering practices to more deeply understanding a socio-scientific issue.
Students were explicitly assessed in analyzing and interpreting data in the introductory graphing activity where they created two double-bar graphs using data sets about local environmental health exposure concerns. When writing about their graphs, and the relationship between income, race, and exposure to industrial chemicals and hazardous waste, students needed to demonstrate their ability to see and discuss patterns in data (see Environmental Racism Data Task Rubric in Online Supplemental Materials).
Students were also assessed in obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information through their final written feature article (see Science Background Research Rubric in Online Supplemental Materials). In this work they were engaging with the (grades 3–5) application of this practice, as they were expected to read and understand grade-appropriate scientific texts. In a future iteration of this project, we would push to the (grade 6–8) application of this practice by providing students with complex data sets relevant to their case studies and guiding them through the analysis of this data and its connection to their case study.
As we think forward on how to improve students’ learning in this project, we believe that a more explicit introduction to the purpose of journalism and feature articles, specifically science journalism, could have enriched students’ writing. Additionally, we noticed that students needed support in learning how to fluently integrate science content into their feature writing. Some students were able to authentically weave in their knowledge of human physiology and the impact that modern life is having on the natural world, while others left out their science content knowledge entirely. In the future, we would take additional time to have students explicitly study how science journalists weave science content explanations into their work in the context of a broader piece whose main focus is a human interest story, but one grounded in science.
Elizabeth Schibuk (email@example.com) is a middle school science teacher and Melissa Psallidas is a middle school humanities teacher, both at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Jefferson, C. 2010, September 2. Why oil spills are a racial issue. The Root. https://www.theroot.com/why-oil-spills-are-a-racial-issue-1790883618
Weiss, J. 2010. The Gulf oil spill: An environmental justice disaster. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/the-gulf-oil-spill-an-environmental-justice-disaster
Art Project Planning—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Artist Statement Directions—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Asthma Texts with Stop and Jots—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Environmental Protest Art, Gallery Walk Note-Catcher—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Environmental Racism Data Task Rubric—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Environmental Racism: Exploring the Data—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Feature Article Brainstorm and Outline—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Feature Article Mentor Text Notes—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Feature Article Rubric: Maquiladoras, Hurricane Katrina, Tar Creek—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Gallery Walk Note-Catcher—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Hurricane Katrina Articles with Stop and Jots—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Maquiladoras Texts with Stop and Jots—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
One-Pager Story Sample—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
“Rise” Film Assignment—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Science Background Research: Asthma Case Study—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Science Background Research: Katrina Case Study—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Science Background Research: Maquiladoras Case Study—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Science Background Research: Tar Creek Case Study—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Science Background Research Rubric—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Student Artwork with Artists’ Statements—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Tar Creek Texts with Stop and Jots—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
Wonder Week Student Overview—https://www.nsta.org/online-connections-science-scope
EL Education. n.d. Celebrations of learning: Why this practice matters.
Kuhn J., and Muller A.. 2014. Context-based science education by newspaper story problems: A study on motivation and learning effects. Perspectives in Science 2 (1-4): 5–21. doi: 10.1016/j.pisc.2014.06.001
Mohai P., Pellow D., and Roberts J.T.. 2009. Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34 (1): 405–430. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348.
NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Jefferson C. 2010, September 2. Why oil spills are a racial issue. The Root.
Weiss J. 2010. The Gulf oil spill: An environmental justice disaster.
Feature Article Brainstorm and Outline—
Feature Article Mentor Text Notes—
Feature Article Rubric: Maquiladoras, Hurricane Katrina, Tar Creek—
Gallery Walk Note-Catcher—
Hurricane Katrina Articles with Stop and Jots—
Maquiladoras Texts with Stop and Jots—
One-Pager Story Sample—
“Rise” Film Assignment—
Science Background Research: Asthma Case Study—
Science Background Research: Katrina Case Study—
Science Background Research: Maquiladoras Case Study—
Science Background Research: Tar Creek Case Study—
Science Background Research Rubric—
Student Artwork with Artists’ Statements—
Tar Creek Texts with Stop and Jots—
Wonder Week Student Overview—