How ecoliterate is a five year old?
18 February 2010
Can five year old children understand something as complex as ecology? Do they grasp the concept of biodiversity? With dwindling ecosystems and vanishing species a troubling feature of the last two decades, can we teach conservation and sustainability to children from their very first day in the classroom?
These are the questions being asked by Melissa Slarp from the University of Sydney, who is investigating the ecoliteracy of young children as part of a Masters of Science conducted through the School of Biological Sciences.
'Ecoliteracy' describes a person's understanding of ecological concepts such as habitat, distribution, biodiversity and food webs. For her investigation into the ecoliteracy of five year olds, Melissa is studying children in kindergarten classrooms to first ascertain their baseline ecoliteracy and if this ecoliteracy can be improved with classroom activities.
So how exactly does one study the ecoliteracy of students who cannot yet read or write?
Melissa Slarp says: "Of course, we can't ask a Kindy student to write an essay. So what do we do instead? Something that they love - we ask them to do a drawing. We simply ask students to draw everything they know about penguins, keeping in mind where they live and what they need to live. By coding and analysing students' drawings, as well as interviewing them, I will be able to gather quantitative and qualitative data for my research."
The study will take place early this year and will involve kindergarten classes of schools in Sydney's Inner West. The ecological content for the study will centre around penguins, as from Melissa's preliminary trials this has proven to be an animal that young children can relate to.
Initially, Melissa will find out each student's pre-existing knowledge on penguins. Then she will expose students to three lessons, called 'interventions', which will be based on five ecological concepts: habitat, biodiversity, behaviour, food chains and environmental issues.
At each stage - pre- and post-intervention - students will be asked to do a drawing. After drawing a picture, students will be interviewed by Melissa so that they have the opportunity to explain items in their drawing. From their interviews and drawings, Melissa will score their understanding of ecological concepts.
"For example, a student would gain points if their drawing depicted a penguin hunting fish in the water, as this conveys an understanding of the prey, behaviour and habitat of penguins. On the other hand, a student would score no points if their picture included polar bears whose strictly northern hemisphere distribution does not overlap with southern hemisphere penguins - a common misconception," explains Melissa Slarp. "I hope that through the methods employed in my study, we will learn whether students as young as five are able to understand ecological concepts at a level that is currently underestimated in the curriculum," says Melissa.
A pilot study conducted last year, in which Melissa determined the pre-existing ecoliteracy of kindergarten students by asking them to do a penguin drawing, revealed that some young children already have a good grasp of ecological concepts.
Melissa says the inspiration for the Masters project came in 2006 when she was working as a children's science educator for Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand's national museum.
"I designed a recycling program for 0-5 year olds, called Conservation is Cool! The program was highly successful and it made me realise that children as young as five can grasp more than we give them credit for!"
Contact: Katynna Gill
Phone: 02 9351 6997