Fostering Agents of Change: Can a local water crisis shift students' values, goals, and priorities?
An overarching goal of the environmental science (ENS) curriculum is to foster a sense of agency and social responsibility. While many ENS students recognize the significance of global threats like climate change and deforestation, fewer are equipped to see themselves as agents of change regarding local environmental issues.
To address this problem, we analyzed the impact of a place-based unit on students' metacognitive processing (goal-setting and self-evaluation). Specifically, we addressed the following questions: (1) Does this unit help students recognize themselves agents of change in their local community? (2) Does participation in the unit shift their values, goals, and priorities? (3) Do students understand the real-world implications of the course overall?
Before starting the unit, students completed goal-setting and reflection activities in which they detailed their values, personal and professional goals, and reflected on the skills needed to reach those goals. They also related their goals and values to the broad concepts covered in the unit (water cycle, water quality, etc.). During the unit the students investigated an ongoing environmental issue: local residents being exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water. They studied the urban water cycle, analyzed field and laboratory data collected by local scientists, and debated the perspectives of stakeholders (e.g. residents, town commissioners, industry leaders, and state and federal agencies). Throughout the unit the students explored ways to engage in advocacy and partnering with the local community. At the end of the unit students completed a second reflection activity in which they discussed the ways in which their knowledge, values, and goals changed.
To address our research questions, we completed a qualitative analysis of students' self reflection and goal-setting activities prior to and after the unit. Our results illustrate the impact of guided metacognitive processing and local community engagement on students' development as environmental stewards.