Mapping Sustainable Practices


December 20th, 2012

Contextualizing Science Learning and Motivation in Rural and Indigenous Adolescents through Mapping Sustainable Practices (The MSP Project) is based at the University of New Hampshire and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program (DRL-1223703).  This interdisciplinary research project will explore and address the disconnect that many indigenous and majority adolescents residing in rural communities often experience between science and their home/community lives.  The project will investigate how contextualizing science learning to these adolescents’ culture and community relates to their science knowledge, motivation, and attitudes toward science. Dr. Eleanor Abrams, the project’s Principal Investigator, explains “When students learn science in a way that’s connected to their daily lives and personal interest, they are more likely to be engaged and motivated to learn.  The MSP research team wants to create science learning opportunities deeply connected to adolescents’ lives and to investigate the impact of participation on their science learning and motivation.” Over 2,000 rural majority and indigenous youth in the New England region will map sustainable practices found in their community as part of their community-based youth group activities, all of which take place outside of traditional classroom settings (such as in 4-H groups).

Rural and indigenous children experience higher dropout rates, perform worse on science achievement tests, and are underrepresented in science careers as compared to non-rural students, according to the researchers. The MSP project is based on the premise that children are always motivated to learn although they sometimes engage in behaviors that both hinder their academic performance and as a result establish identities as unmotivated students.  “Rural majority and indigenous students may benefit from relevant science experiences that go beyond superficial connections and reside in their ability to be productive members of their community,” according to project co-PI Dr. Michael Middleton.
The MSP Project
On a small scale, sustainability science1 programming has been shown to be successful in helping students learn by integrating key information and community practices through place-based learning2. MSP is designed not as a single prescribed activity or curriculum, but as a way to contextualize science learning by providing a unifying framework while allowing each community-based youth group to create approaches based on local strengths and interests.  Each youth group will complete a community-based asset survey compiling the sustainable practices in their community.  The group will then select one sustainable practice to investigate more deeply.  Students will map or draw how the ecological, cultural, and economic systems work, including the resource pools, inflows, outflows, and positive/negative feedback loops.  They will also look for overlaps in the systems to determine how the sustainable practice is created and sustained. Some examples of sustainable practices are maple sugaring, local egg production, or hunting and fishing practices. The youth group will collect data on their sustainable practice and present how that practice is sustained in their community on a Geographic Information System (GIS) interactive database.  Each group will determine how much of their sustainable practices they will share with other youth groups in the MSP project or with the public.  The ability to determine which information to share is an important feature of this project because indigenous communities’ cultural practices have been historically misrepresented through the lens of dominant culture. Hence this approach is designed to mitigate the traditional deficit perspective sometimes imposed by researchers and educators.

Youth sharingOver three years, the project team plans to examine changes in the knowledge, attitudes, and motivation of rural majority and indigenous youth for learning sustainability science as they participate in MSP projects and share the results of those projects with youth in other communities.

Building on what is known about students who have fluid, multi-faceted identities influenced by the cultures they engage in (Hickey, 20033;Nolen & Ward, 20094; Walker, 20075) the project’s research is focused on factors that will strengthen the students’ identities as science learners. Developing an identity as a science learner is one of the six strands of science learning supported by informal learning environments that were identified in the 2009 Learning Science in Informal Environments report published by the National Academies6.
The interdisciplinary project team includes two educational psychologists, an earth scientist, a science education researcher, sustainability scholars, and indigenous and rural youth development experts. The research addresses the following questions through the course of the three-year project:

  • In rural majority and rural indigenous communities, how does participation in a community-based Mapping Sustainable Practices (MSP) project contribute to adolescents’ knowledge of, attitudes toward, and motivation for learning sustainability science?
  • How does presenting their own, and viewing other MSP projects, impact  these adolescents’ knowledge, attitudes, and motivation toward sustainability science?
  • Does participation and the effect of participation vary across communities, gender, family, and community background?
  • What features of MSP do these students identify as impacting their understanding and view of sustainability?

The project team will apply hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to determine what macro and micro contextual factors within the project influence students’ identities as science learners. HLM is a method of statistical analysis that focuses on relationships between data associated with hierarchical structures. By using HLM, researchers on the MSP project can look at outcomes both within and across groups of learners.

Learning Innovations at WestEd will be conducting the project’s external evaluation.  WestEd is facilitating the development of a logic model early in the project with the project team based upon the research goals and outcomes of the project.  The evaluators will provide continuous feedback to the project team, enabling them to make adjustments in implementation and highlighting project successes. Some examples of formative evaluation questions may include: 1) How does the team address participation attrition and encourage retention of participating youth?; 2) How do site organization and community-level issues impact the research plan implementation?; and 3) What unanticipated outcomes emerge over time?

An overarching goal of the project is to inform best practices for enhancing achievement in science, to create a model that may be scaled up to other communities, and to promote sustainability practices (1).  The researchers plan to share the results of the project — effective MSP approaches and descriptions of the learning contexts and student products — with science educators through a project-sponsored conference and interactive GIS website.


[1]  The project team’s definition of “sustainability science” is based upon Higgs & McMillan’s principles of sustainability, including:

  • Cultural Preservation and Transformation
  • Responsible Local/Global Citizenship
  • The Dynamics of Systems & Change
  • Sustainable Economics
  • Healthy Commons
  • Natural Laws and Ecological Principles
  • Inventing and Affecting the Future
  • Multiple Perspectives
  • A Sense of Place

See Higgs, A. L. & McMillan, V.M. (2—6). Teaching through modeling: four schools’ experiences in sustainability education, The Journal of Environmental Education, 38(1), 39-53.
[2] Research cited includes the following sustainability studies:

  • Barnhardt, R. (2007).  Local Diversity: Place-based Education in the Global Age. Greg   Smith and David Gruenewald (Eds.),  Hillsdale, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Cajete, G.  (1999).  Ignite the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Curriculum Model.  Asheville, NH:  Kivaki Press.
  • Powers, A.  (2004).  An evaluation of four place-based education programs, Journal of Environmental Education, 35(4), 17-32.
  • Smith. G. (2007).  Place‐based education: breaking through the constraining regularities of public schools, Journal of Environmental Education, 13:  189-20

[3] Hickey, D. T. (2003). Engaged participation versus marginal nonparticipation: A stridently sociocultural approach to achievement motivation. The Elementary School Journal, 103, 401-429.

[4] Nolen, S., & Ward, C. (2009). Sociocultural and situative approaches to studying motivation. In T. Urdan (Ed.), Advances in Motivation and Achievement (Volume 15): Social Psychological Perspective on Motivation and Achievement. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[5] Walker, R. (2007). Sociocultural perspectives on academic regulation and identity: Theoretical issues. Paper presented at the 12th Biennial Conference of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction. Budapest, Hungary.

[6] Bell, P., Lewenstein, B., Shouse, A. W., & Feder, M. A. (2009), Ed. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.