New Jersey Increases Coverage of Human/Environment Interactions in Education Standards

Kim Kastens
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published Jun 22, 2010

A few years ago, Margie Turrin and I plunged up to our eyebrows into the gory details of the science education standards for 49 U.S. states. We were trying get a handle on how the country was answering the perplexing question "To what extent should human/environment interactions be included in science education?" We coded and tallied instances in which teachers were being told to teach about ways in which the environment impacts humans (e.g. natural hazards or ecosystem services) or humans impact the environment (e.g. pollution.) We wrote two papers from the resulting data, saying in short that there was no consensus on this question, that there was more emphasis on humans impacting the environment than the environment impacting humanity, more emphasis on impacts caused by collective entities (e.g. "society," "industry," "agriculture") than by individuals, and that fragments of human/environment education were strewn across the curriculum in disciplines as disparate as health, character education, tech ed, and geography, as well as science.

Although our lab is in New York, the New Jersey state line is just 100m or so away, and many New Jersey teachers come to our education programs. So when New Jersey undertook a massive revision of their science standards, we couldn't resist taking a look. We found much to admire in the new standards:

  • Earth Systems Science is given equal billing with Physical Science and Life Science.
  • The shift from "Earth Science" to "Earth Systems" is sincere, backed up with thoughtful strands on "Energy in Earth Systems" and "Biogeochemical Cycles."
  • Earth Systems examples are used to flesh out concepts in Physical Sciences (e.g. "Describe the flow of energy from the Sun to the fuel tank of an automobile") and, conversely, Earth Systems explanations draw on Physical and Life Sciences (e.g. Explain how chemical and physical mechanisms (changes) are responsible for creating a variety of landforms.")
  • "Interaction with authentic data" and "Access to large databases" are featured prominently. The part about "databases" is important for us in geo-ed because so many Earth phenomena are too big, too old, too slow, too far away, too dangerous, or too expensive to study via student-collected data.
  • The standards go all the way down to pre-K, and the progress indicators and example activities for these youngest students have a strong "No Child Left Inside" feel to them: for example, "dig outside in the soil to investigate the kinds of animal life that live in and around the ground."
  • The skill of articulating a scientific claim and supporting it with evidence is revisited frequently (e.g. "Represent and explain, using sea surface temperature maps, how ocean currents impact the climate of coastal communities.")

If I had to voice a criticism of the revised standards, it would be that some of the standards are mind-numbingly ambitious. To take a somewhat extreme example, 12th graders are supposed to be able to "Demonstrate, using models, how internal and external sources of energy drive the hydrologic, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and oxygen cycles." I couldn't do this myself, with a PhD in geosciences and decades of post-PhD learning. Well, of course I could read up on it, and put together a credible story given a few days of lead time, but this is beyond the level of knowledge and understanding that I currently carry around in my head. And that's only one of 25 Earth System standards at the 12th grade level.

Now, to return to the topic of human/environment interactions, the subject of our previous analysis: In every one of our coding categories, and in every grade band, New Jersey has increased their attention to human/environment interactions. Integrating across all grade bands and coding categories, New Jersey increased the number of elements pertaining to human/environment interactions from 11 to 32, which puts it squarely into the middle of the states.

Here are examples of elements from the new NJ standards that we coded as "Environment Impacts Humanity." This coding category includes both positive impacts on humanity (sometimes called ecosystem services) and negative impacts (such as natural hazards).

  • By the end of Grade 6, Life Sciences strand: [CS] All animals, including humans, are consumers that meet their energy needs by eating other organisms or their products.
  • By the end of Grade 8, Physical Sciences strand: [CPI] Model and explain current technologies used to capture solar energy for the purposes of converting it to electrical energy.
  • By the end of Grade 8, Earth System Sciences strand: [CPI] Evaluate the appropriateness of increasing the human population in a region (e.g., barrier islands, Pacific Northwest, Midwest United States) based on the region's history of catastrophic events, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and floods.
Here is an example of an element that we coded as "Humanity Impacts Environment." This coding category includes collective impacts of "society," "humanity," "industry," "cities," "agriculture," or other non-individual actions and decisions:

  • By the end of grade 12, Earth System Sciences: [CS] Human activities have changed Earth's land, oceans, and atmosphere, as well as its populations of plant and animal species. [CPI] Assess (using maps, local planning documents, and historical records) how the natural environment has changed since humans have inhabited the region.

NJ Standards 2000 to 2009 Env Impacts HumanityFigure is adapted from Kastens & Turrin (2006). Each data point equals one state. Solid line is a 1:1 line; dashed line is regression line. Red arrow shows change from 2001 to 2009 in the New Jersey standards.
The new NJ standards pay more attention to both how humans affect the environment and how the environment affects humans than did the old standards. The old NJ standards were more heavily weighted towards considering humanity as an active agent, shown by the position of NJ-2001 close to the horizontal axis on the graph. The current standards are more evenly balanced in this regard.

Here is an example of an element that we coded as "Individuals Impact the Environment."

  • By end of grade 2, Earth System Sciences: [CPI] Identify and use water conservation practices.

Individuals impact environment in State science standardsFigure is adapted from Kastens & Turrin (2006). Each data point equals one state. Solid line is a 1:1 line; dashed line is regression line. Red arrow shows change from 2001 to 2009 in the New Jersey standards.
There is less emphasis on individual impacts than on collective impacts of humanity, shown by the position of all states close to the horizontal line in this graph, including both the 2001 and 2009 NJ standards. The NJ elements coded in this category fall in the younger grades, as was typical in the other states.

I look forward to seeing what other states do as they revise their state education standards over the coming years. I would be interested in hearing from New Jersey teachers about how the new standards are playing out in your school districts.


Kastens, K., and Turrin, M., 2006, To what extent should human/environment interactions be included in science education?: Journal of Geoscience Education, special issue on Earth System Science Education, v. 54, p. 422-436.

Kastens, K. A., and Turrin, M., 2008, What are children being taught in school about anthropogenic climate change?, in Ward, B., and Menezes, S., eds., Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators, Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, University of Rhode Island, p. 48-49.


The redesigned NJ standards include both a Content Statement (CS) and a Cumulative Progress Indicator (CPI), which is considered an integral part of the standard. Both parts of the standard were considered in coding.

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