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Teaching Environmental Education through PBL: Evaluation of a Teaching

Intervention Program

Article  in  Research in Science Education · April 2010

DOI: 10.1007/s11165-010-9192-3


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Clara Vasconcelos
University of Porto


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Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232
DOI 10.1007/s11165-010-9192-3

Teaching Environmental Education through PBL:

Evaluation of a Teaching Intervention Program

Clara Vasconcelos

Published online: 15 September 2010

# Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Abstract If our chosen aim in science education is to be inclusive and to improve students’
learning achievements, then we must identify teaching methodologies that are appropriate
for teaching and learning specific knowledge. Karagiorgi and Symeo (2005) remind us that
instructional designers are thus challenged to translate the philosophy of constructivism into
current practice. Thus, research in science education must focus on evaluating intervention
programs which ensure the effective construction of knowledge and development of
competencies. The present study reports the elaboration, application and evaluation of a
problem-based learning (PBL) program with the aim of examining its effectiveness with
students learning Environmental Education. Prior research on both PBL and Environmental
Education (EE) was conducted within the context of science education so as to elaborate
and construct the intervention program. Findings from these studies indicated both the PBL
methodology and EE as helpful for teachers and students. PBL methodology has been
adopted in this study since it is logically incorporated in a constructivism philosophy
application (Hendry et al. 1999) and it was expected that this approach would assist
students towards achieving a specific set of competencies (Engel 1997). On the other hand,
EE has evolved at a rapid pace within many countries in the new millennium (Hart 2007),
unlike any other educational area. However, many authors still appear to believe that
schools are failing to prepare students adequately in EE (Walsche 2008; Winter 2007). The
following section describes the research that was conducted in both areas so as to devise the
intervention program.

Keywords Competencies . Environmental education . Intervention program .

Middle school . Problem based learning

C. Vasconcelos (*)
Department of Geosciences, Environment and Land Planning, Centre of Geology of Oporto University,
Faculty of Science of Oporto University, Rua do Campo Alegre, 4169-007 Oporto, Portugal
220 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

Setting the Theoretical Context of the Intervention Program

PBL is a student-centred method based on the principle of using problems as the starting
point for the acquisition of new knowledge (Lambros 2004). The same author refers to the
need to introduce students to real problems that stimulate the search for new information
and its synthesis within the context of the problem scenario. By focusing on multiple
solutions rather than correct answers, this methodology offers alternative solutions and
explores open-ended problems (Goodnough and Cahsion 2003). According to PBL
methodology and socio-constructivism theory, learning is a social and collaborative
activity. Several studies have documented collaborative work as helpful to the construction
of knowledge (Enghag et al. 2007; Cartney and Rouse 2006; Boud and Lee 2005) and
research shows that it can aid the development of competencies and skills (Strachan and
Wilcox 1996; Killacky and Hulse-Killacky 2004; Cartney and Rouse 2006). This suggests
that using group work to enhance communication, contact and interaction, improves the
learning environment. This process is aided by peer collaboration, a tutor and intervention
programs that support collaborative problem solving and interactive decision making. This
approach requires students to work in small groups of five or six (Boud and Feleti 1997;
Woods 2000) so as to accomplish their learning objectives and to increasingly take
responsibility for their own learning process (Reigosa and Jiménez-Aleixandre 2007). This
collaborative work also helps students to develop communication skills and more
sophisticated interpersonal competencies (Lambros 2004; Prince et al. 2005). Working in
small groups develops self-directed activities and increases participation in discussions
(Barrows and Tamblyn 1980). Teacher based guidance allows students to be fully engaged
in knowledge building (Tarhan et al. 2008). As the problem scenarios are derived from the
real world and since the students determine their own learning needs, the learning that
occurs is highly relevant. This helps to keep students’ interest, to develop a deeper
understanding of contents, to retain information and to develop competencies. It highlights
conceptual understanding rather than memorization of facts, it preserves knowledge and it
improves learning in relation to high order skills (Wong and Day 2008). It is also beneficial
to use student-centred strategies and to provide learning experiences within a meaningful
context (often the context in which what is learned is to be applied) so that students may
practise transfer of knowledge through its application within a realistic context (Engel
1997). Several studies suggest that active learning methods, such as those promoted in
PBL, increase learning achievements by requiring students to play an active role in the
learning process (Tarhan et al. 2008; Simons 1997; Slavin 1997). PBL has been considered
useful to science education (Tarhan et al. 2008), since it is a student-centred approach that
focus on competencies that are important for life-long learning (self-directed learning, the
ability to apply knowledge and skills in problem solving, reflexivity, self-evaluation, peer
assessment and collaborative group work). In fact, PBL has been successfully implemented
and it has been demonstrated that it produces favourable results in science education
(Saunders and Shepardson 1987; BouJaoude 1992; Huffman et al. 1997). Researchers have
found that PBL is useful in teaching different subjects such as chemistry (Chandrasegara et
al. 2008; Tarhan et al. 2008), biochemistry (White 2001; Dods 1996); forensic science (Belt
et al. 2002), physics (Gürses et al. 2007), earth science (Chang 2002); mathematics (Taylor
and McDonald 2007); and others. However the amount of work dealing with PBL
application involving direct evidence of Environmental Education achievements is scarce
Cusick (2008). Although the literature related to Environmental Education has evolved both
in number and different directions (Rickinson 2001), there are still insufficient answers to
the wide scope of difficulties that emerge during its application in the classroom. As such,
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 221

the aim of this study was to examine the effectiveness of this methodology in teaching
Environmental Education.
Although the 2004–2015 decade has been designated by the United Nations as the decade of
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), experts in the field still encounter difficulties in
integrating Environmental Education (EE) into academic programs. In fact, EE has
progressively evolved from a marginal status in the curriculum to an awareness that education
for sustainability is central to the future environment. However it has been difficult to adapt
strategies and activities in a manner serious enough to be worthy of implementation in the
classroom, partially because of the lack of professional development in providing effective
environmental education (Parlo and Butler 2007). Since the Rio Conference in 1992, the
Agenda 21 has emerged as an action plan for progress, emphasizing sustainability as a key
aspect of environmental education. In chapter 36, EE was broadly defined as an essential and
priority part of that plan. As one of the pillars of sustainable development, EE is a means of
producing an environmentally literate citizenry, empowered and motivated to solve
environmental problems (Parlo and Butler 2007). However, “for too many people the word
environment still signals ‘green’ and fails to convey its social, economic, political and cultural
components” (Smyth et al. 1997, 175). On the other hand, “the word education also continues
to be misunderstood by many outside the profession and even by many within it” (Smyth et
al. 1997, 175). It is expected that the diversity of themes addressed in environmental
education classrooms will empower students to assume responsibility for creating a
sustainable future — that is, promoting decision making and actions whereby the needs of
people today are met without compromising the ability of people in the future to meet their
own needs. Nevertheless, there are some urgent tasks that need to be undertaken so as to
ensure and give substance to Agenda 21. One of them is to explore methodologies and
strategies to make environmental education effective. For example, research evidence
suggests that students tend to associate some school subjects (geography, earth sciences) with
learning about the environment (Walsche 2008; Lima et al. 2010). However, according to
Palmer (1998) this perspective of learning about the environment represents only one out of
three approaches (about, in and for) to teaching and learning in environmental education. The
core of those three dimensions will ensure a base of formative influence which, through a
combination of life and formal education programmes, will allow students to develop the
necessary range of knowledge and competencies that foster personal concern and enable the
ability to act in pro-environmental ways and for sustainable development (Palmer 1998).


Purpose of the Study

For the purpose of training students in modern science, methodologies should be used to
improve their thinking competencies in order to help them make connections with events,
concepts and scientific operations (Dogru 2008). To encourage the promotion of EE (and
ESD), methodologies and strategies need to be created or rethought, so that students create
a holistic concept of environmental phenomena (Jeronen et al. 2009). Current research has
started to reveal a link between EE and an increase in science achievement and
understanding, motivation and interests (Parlo and Butler 2007). The same authors also
stated that, according to NEETF (2000), the gains in student achievement and motivation
are attributed to the nature of EE, which uses disciplined integration, problem solving and
hands-on activities.
222 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

The latest Educational Reform in Portugal began in 2002/2003 and required the teaching
of a new theme integrated into the Natural Science curriculum and during the compulsory
education stage (students between 12 and 15 years). The intention was to incorporate EE
into the Natural Science Curriculum, namely by referring to aspects related to natural
resources and alternative energies, which required new methodologies and strategies. The
referred theme — “Earth Sustainably”- prescribed in the Natural Science curriculum, was
chosen for the intervention program to teach Environmental Education through PBL to the
students engaged in this study. Given the success of PBL in many science classes, the
purpose was to examine the effectiveness of a PBL program on students learning EE. So as
to achieve this goal, a PBL intervention programme was considered effective when capable
of both promoting the acquisition of knowledge (for example, knowledge related to natural
resources or environmental impact) and developing general competencies (such as the
ability to apply knowledge and skills in daily environmental problem solving, the oral and
written ability to communicate, the self-directed learning, the ability to search and organize
information, the ability to select the proper strategy to solve environmental problems,
autonomy, responsibility and the ability to carry out collaborative group work).
Classification of what would be effective learning in EE through the implementation of
an intervention programme was determined by resorting to the work on Competencies for
Education for Sustainable Development undertaken by the OECD (2008). This document
suggests that an EE approach can be applied to students by placing them within the context
of relevant systems (in this case, a fieldtrip to an abandoned gold mine with economic,
environmental and social problems). This document also emphasizes the need to integrate
the teaching on the interaction between the economic/environmental pillars, the economic/
social pillars and the social/environmental pillars. This concern was contemplated in our
intervention programme.


This evaluation study, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative methods involving a
convenience sample of 24 students (12–15 years old) in a Portuguese middle school,
investigated students’ outcomes when studying EE through a PBL intervention program,
particularly in terms of development of competencies. Students worked in small groups of
six, heterogeneous in terms of gender and age. Groups were selected by the teacher who
already had prior knowledge of the students from previous years. The teacher chosen was
the students’ Natural Sciences teacher and his aim was to facilitate the students’ learning
rather than to convey knowledge. As stated by Neville (1999), one benefit of self-directed
learning includes enhanced opportunities to elaborate one’s knowledge through active
involvement and the practice of competencies needed in life long learning. The teacher
involved was familiar with EE (and ESD), had received specific training in PBL from the
researcher outside school hours. During the training phase the participant teacher had the
chance to share with the investigator his own views and professional experience of group
work and problem solving activities. The students and tutor had little experience with PBL.

Intervention Program

As already stated, the intervention program was incorporated into the prescribed instruction
program for the Natural Science curriculum. Normal procedures of consent and
confidentiality were followed during data collection. Parents were informed and gave their
permission for the researcher to study the students’ academic achievements, for both the
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 223

intervention and evaluation phase. Embedded within the wider curriculum, the program
comprised 10 lessons (of 45 min each) and one field trip. The instruction was implemented
within a period of approximately 6 weeks (2 lessons per week and a field trip).
As far as the intervention program is concerned, the problem and curricular activities
were designed by both the researcher and the tutor and implemented in the classroom.
However, prior to their implementation both the activities and corresponding material were
thoroughly and critically discussed by the teacher and the researcher in terms of both their
perceived feasibility and their efficacy. It is important to remember that students were
involved in the design of the problem but prior information and contextualization was
prepared by the researcher and teacher of the classroom.
The elaboration of the program took into account some of the key variables that
influence how students learn in PBL presented by Schmidt and Moust (1995): the amount
of prior knowledge, the quality of the problem, the tutor’s performance, the group’s
dynamic, the amount of time spent in individual study, the interest in the subject matter and
the final achievement. The 6 week course was based on the three main phases considered as
the compulsory axis in any PBL program: (a) Involvement in the program, i.e. making
students aware of the problem as well as of the group mechanism involved and the tutor
performance; (b) Solving the problem within group work, i.e. group inquiry-oriented
approach; (c) Evaluation of the learning process, i.e. assessment of the construction of
knowledge and development of competencies.
Phase 1 was focused on the discussion of a real environmental problem by small groups
of six with the support of the teacher. In phase 2, students worked collaboratively as a
group guided by the tutor. A field trip took place in order to present the problem within its
context, and students were given learning materials directing them towards the development
of knowledge and competencies. Phase 3 was concerned with assessing not only the
knowledge that was acquired and the competencies developed, but also the learning
Trying to involve students with the PBL methodology, the problem that was chosen was
related to the future of old gold mines located at Castromil, a region in northern Portugal.
These mines were intensively explored, at least since the Roman occupation of the Iberian
Peninsula. Today, they are abandoned, constituting an interesting example of the negative
environmental impacts of a place once economically explored for its geological resources
(gold, silver, kaolin). It should be mentioned that this was a very relevant location for
geology and mining. Furthermore, it bears witness of the importance that the mining
industry once had in Portugal. These mines display countless remnants of Roman mining.
This historical legacy is worth looking at in the open-pits, underground galleries and shaft
(Lima et al. 2010), and it is now possible to do so, as a result of recent exploration.
As such, the choice of the problem was not random, since a fieldtrip to the abandoned
Castromil gold mines was intended. This rationale resulted from the need to establish
effective contextual learning in EE. Accordingly, jointly with the 10 lessons of the
intervention program, the fieldtrip allowed students to learn in the environment (the
Castromil gold mine), about the environment (curricular conceptual knowledge) and for the
environment (environmental, economic and social pillars). A previous study (considering
non-formal education) carried out in the Castromil gold mines (Lima et al. 2010) revealed
that a field trip in this area would aid the promotion of EE by stimulating a more informed
citizenry capable of mobilizing intellectual resources to the promotion of sustainable
environment. This field trip also promoted EE by reflecting upon the environmental
impacts of mining and educationally exploring the local features that remind students that
there are other relevant issues that come alongside economic profit and mining exploration.
224 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

The students engaged in this previous study specifically stated that they considered it
important to preserve the study area for didactic purposes and that the field trip helped them
to understand the importance of their role, as citizens, in the preservation of the
From both the field trip and the four problem–questions elaborated during the
intervention program, it was expected that this study would embrace the social, economic
and environmental pillars of ESD.
After being aware of the problem, the students proceeded with the drafting of a set of
lists (Lambros 2004) comprising the whole of the work involved — the PBL monitoring
lists. One listed those Facts which should be itemized for the problem resolution.
Thereafter, the students developed a list called Need to Know where they listed all
information they would like to have to better understand the problem. The Learning Issues
list comprised those issues they needed to look up, research or explore in order to move
forward with problem resolution. Following the exploration phase, students were required
to list the Possible Solutions.
The curricular activities of the intervention program included the following:

Phase 1. Involvement in the program (2 lessons). Small groups of six reading and
discussing an environmental problem presented in a text (Castromil Gold
Mines: From a golden past to an uncertain future). The problem presented was
a real life situation related to abandoned mines and the associated environmental
impact problems and related economic and social consequences. After reading
and discussing the text, students proposed four questions to be solved in the
second phase of the program: (1- What is the meaning of concepts like
mineralization, open-pits, underground galleries and shaft...?; 2- What is the
social interest of the geological resources (gold, silver and kaolin) found in the
mines?; 3 –What was the negative environmental impact during mine
exploitation? 4- If it is impossible to reopen because of the low economic
profitability or due to the negative environmental impact, which activities could
be promoted to preserve the abandoned mines?).
Phase 2. Solving the problem through group work (6 lessons and 1 field trip). Students
identify their own learning needs (PBL monitoring Lists) and the appropriate use
of available resources. Using stimulus material to help students discuss
questions raised (powerpoint presentations, textbooks, internet research, lecture).
In this phase students worked collaboratively as a tutor-guided group. The tasks
of this phase of the program involved strong peer coaching and encouraged
more group work involvement than the other phases. To stimulate a real life
problem, a field trip to Castromil gold mines was completed. This phase
involved 4 tasks, each developed to solve the four questions elaborated by the
students in the previous phase.
Phase 3. Evaluation of the learning process (2 lessons). Small groups and whole class
discussion concerning the: (i) different ways of solving the environmental
problem; (ii) construction of Environmental Education knowledge, and; (iii)
development of competencies. This phase involved self-assessment and peer-
assessment since students will be engaged in regular peer assessments
throughout their life, sometimes formally and others times informally. The
students had to elaborate a conceptual map so that the tutor could assess the
construction of knowledge.
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 225


Data was obtained on students’ development of knowledge and competencies through the
application of several instruments such as small questionnaires, lesson diaries; a grid to
evaluate group work, a grid to evaluate the development of competencies and a conceptual
Table 1 outlines the instruments used to collect data.
The instruments were applied in different phases according to the aims of each task. In
phase 2 the application of both evaluation grids was justified because students were actually
involved in solving the problem, which implied group work and the development of
competencies. In phase three, the grid to evaluate group work was not applied because the
conceptual map was an autonomous and individual task. All instruments were subjected to
content analysis and some descriptive statistics were determined.
The grid to evaluate the development of competencies comprised the following: (i) the
ability to apply knowledge and skills in daily environmental problem solving; (ii) oral and
written ability to communicate, (iii) self-directed learning; (iv) ability to search and
organize information, (v) ability to select the correct strategy to solve the environmental
problem; (vi) autonomy and responsibility; and (vii) ability to do collaborative group work.
The short questionnaire completed by the students in phase 1, and the 4 questionnaires
completed in phase 2 (related to the four questions that were raised) allowed a quick
assessment of the process in study and incorporated four aspects: (i) positive aspects of the
lessons, (ii) negative aspects of the lessons, (iii) what was learned in the lessons; and (iv)
what could be changed in the lessons. The lesson diaries were written at the end of each
phase enabling the description of the tasks of each phase and promoting a better awareness
of the difficulties that the teacher faced and the limitations and achievements of the
students. The group work was self-assessed and peer-assessed, bearing in mind the
importance of knowing how well our own assessment goes with the others. The conceptual
map allowed the tutor to evaluate the construction of knowledge in Environmental
Education under the chosen theme — Sustainability of the Earth.

Results and Discussion

Data analysis was carried out instrument by instrument, so as to give an overview of the
evolution of students’ achievements during the intervention.
The content analysis of the aspects referred to in the short questionnaires applied in each
phase, helped to identify some answers that were categorised, as well as determine the

Table 1 Overview of techniques and research instruments

Instrument Respondent Phase

Grid to evaluate the development of competences tutor 2 and 3

Grid to evaluate group work students 2
lesson diaries tutor 1, 2 and 3
small questionnaires students once in phase 1
4 times in phase 2
conceptual map students once in phase 3
226 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

frequency with which they were mentioned by students. In each phase, the student could
give different answers that were included in the respective category, which explains some
high frequencies observed in some categories. An examination of the frequency shows
higher scores in categories like: building knowledge (f=82), inappropriate behaviour when
working in groups (f=39) and developing the ability to search internet information (f=46).
The item “building knowledge” was the one that achieved the highest score, implying that the
knowledge developed by students potentially substantiated the pillars stated by EE/EDS. For
instance students mentioned having understood the relevance of sustainable management of
resources, the implications of their exhaustion and the related economic loss for the country as a
whole (economic pillar). They also mentioned the contamination of water and soil by arsenic
(material that results from mining activity) (environmental pillar). Finally but equally
interesting is the recognition of the social relevance of using abandoned mines as didactical
spaces, thereby promoting an economic alternative for abandoned mines (social pillar). It was
not surprising to also see the high frequency obtained in relation to the field trip (f=24) since
fieldwork enhances student learning by improving students’ understanding of the subject
(Fuller 2006; Van Loon 2008). On the other hand, the control of the discipline seemed to be a
problem when implementing this methodology (noisy behaviour: f=30). Finally, students
seem to appreciate working collaboratively in small groups (f=29).
The tutor was asked to keep daily records of his planning and thoughts regarding the
lesson he taught in each phase. The content analysis of the teacher reflection diaries made it
possible to define some typical concerns in the three phases that are mentioned and
analysed, in Table 2. Data analysis therefore focussed on students’ and teacher difficulties
and achievements with the PBL. The lack of familiarity of the teacher and students with the
methodology may justify some of the difficulties encountered.
Analysis of the lesson dairies revealed that students were reasonably motivated to work in
small groups but often relied on the tutor for guidance or information. One intention of PBL is to
change a teacher’s role from a teacher centred-methodology to an interaction-oriented
methodology (Dahglgren et al. 1998). However, Neville (1999) mentions that it is often
observed that students who have little or no experience with PBL rely more heavily on their
tutors. On the other hand, the same author states that when the tutor is unfamiliar with PBL, he/
she tends to give more information and less guidance. According to the tutor, the groups
worked collaboratively although the best students immediately tried to project a prominent
position. As research evidence states, group roles are distributed between members and roles,
and relationships between and among members emerge (Belbin 1993; Cartney and Rouse
2006). The time spent in the resolution of the tasks was not identical in all groups but all
students experienced many difficulties in completing the PBL monitoring lists. As they needed
to have a meaningful context to the problem, the tutor was asked to take them on a field trip to

Table 2 Overview of results of teacher’s lesson dairies

Teacher difficulties Students difficulties

Controlling discipline during group work Researching on internet without relying on tutor
Managing group interaction The need to have a meaningful context to the
Guiding students without giving information Oral communication to the class
Developing the grid to evaluate the development Elaborating PBL monitoring Lists
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 227

the gold mines. Research evidence shows that fieldtrips included in the earth science curriculum
help students to learn better about the environmental problems (Lima et al. 2010)
At the end of phases 2 and 3, the tutor had to complete a grid to evaluate the
development of competencies, such as: (i) the ability to apply knowledge and skills in daily
problem solving; (ii) oral and written ability to communicate, (iii) self-directed learning;
(iv) ability to search and organize information, (v) ability to select the correct strategy to
solve the problem; (vi) autonomy and responsibility; and (vii) ability to do collaborative
group work. Each student was evaluated in each competency which was scored through a
Likert scale of 5 points (1 — meaning not developed, increasing to 5 — meaning very
developed). Following this procedure, the group average was calculated.
The competency “ability to collaborative work” obtained the highest average in both
phases and in all groups. Although the value x ¼ 3 is not very high, it does demonstrate
that throughout the activity students improved in peer coaching. As far as this
methodology was concerned, the students’ inexperience may explain the low values
obtained (Table 3). Nonetheless, note that small improvements did occur, in some
competencies and in some groups, when moving from phase 2 to phase 3. Considering
that almost all activities were individual in phase 3, it was surprising to obtain the higher
punctuation in that competency in this phase. This may be explained by the unfamiliarity
of students with PBL, suggesting that they were engaged in effective group work only in
the last phase of the program. This recalls that transfer of content learnt and competencies
that are developed take some time to be assimilated and mobilized by students. This may
also justify the noisy behavior observed during lessons (we know that group work always
causes a greater disturbance in class that usually translates into a higher noise). A grid to
evaluate group work was applied only at the end of phase 2 (this was the phase in which
the tasks involved asked for a stronger peer coaching) All students had to self-assess and
peer-assess the work done through a Likert scale of 4 points (1-unsatisfactory; 2-
satisfactory; 3-good; 4-very good). Only one self-assessment had less than 2 points. It
was interesting to observe that the self-assessment and peer-assessment scores had almost
no conformity (in the total 120 self-assessment and peer-assessment responses only 7
were equal). However, the use of a strategy to provide individual group members the
opportunity to appraise their own and their partners’ performance is considered as a
positive experience that ultimately benefits students (Strachan and Wilcox 1996; Dyball
et al. 2007).

Table 3 Group average in the development of competencies

Competencies Phase 2 Phase 3

Group Group Group Group Group Group Group Group

1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Ability to apply knowledge and skills in 2.2 2.4 2.2 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.5
daily problem solving
Oral and written ability to communicate 2.1 2.5 2.0 2.2 2.3 2.3 2.3 2.4
Self-directed learning 2.1 2.2 1.9 2.1 2.2 2.2 2.3 2.3
Ability to search and organize information 2.0 2.0 1.9 2.0 2.2 2 2.2 2.3
Ability to select the correct strategy to 2.1 2.2 2.1 2.2 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.4
solve the problem
Autonomy and responsibility 2.1 2.2 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.2 2.4 2.3
Ability to collaborative group work 2.7 3.0 2.6 2.8 2.8 3.0 2.8 2.8
228 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

Since it was also important to evaluate the construction of knowledge, in phase 3 students had
to elaborate a conceptual map related to EE together with an oral communication dealing with the
possible solutions to the problem. Some authors state that a concept map can be used as an
assessment tool in science teaching (Íngeç 2009) or as a research tool for science educators
(Freeman and Jessup 2004). Little work has investigated students using concept maps (Walsche
2008), particularly in EE, although they have been frequently used in the science classroom.
However it was believed that a greater learning occurs in the classroom through the use of
methodologies that incorporate instruments for both learning and evaluation. The analysis of the
conceptual map was developed so as to study the learning process of scientific contents that
took place during the intervention. It was assumed that a greater number of relations between
ideas/concepts in different segments of the map would indicate a “good” map, since it showed
how the different ideas on the map were interrelated (Derbentseva et al. 2007). This presence of
cross-links was used as one of the parameters in map scoring. The other parameters were related
to the hierarchical conceptual relationships and the cyclical structure of the maps. According to
Safayeni et al. (2005) these two parameters are appropriate for organizing and representing
static relationships between concepts and to encourage representation of functional relationships
between concepts and to stimulate dynamic thinking, respectively.
Following the above mentioned study (Derbentseva et al. 2007), we assumed that a
conceptual map with a cyclic structure (rather than a hierarchic one) showed the production
of more dynamic relationships. Thus, a conceptual map with a cyclic structure was given a
higher score than a conceptual map with hierarchical one. Note that the latter is regarded as
a static conceptual relationship. Figure 1 represents sections of two concept maps made by
different students. In Fig. 1a) the concept map represents a cycle structure of the
possibilities related to a didactical approach to abandoned mines (social/economical
systems). In Fig. 1b) the hierarchical tree structure with a cross link represents a possible
interconnection between different map segments.
The same authors underline the relevance of the question that is proposed to students so as to
construct the conceptual map. This question should encourage the formation of functional
interrelationships among concepts from the outset, thereby helping the construction of the map.
The process-oriented focus questions tend to suggest more dynamic properties and interdepend-
ences of the concepts. In this particular study, the conceptual map was constructed answering the
question “how can Castromil Gold Mines contribute to Earth sustainability”. The focus of the
question (sustainable development) produced a direct effect on the nature of the concepts and
propositions of the conceptual map. This process-oriented focus question led students to present
dynamic relationships and to increase the cross links between concepts. The cyclic structure that
was obtained reflected the environmental, social and economical pillars of EE/EDS. Note that the
answers obtained in the questionnaires also showed evidence of construction of knowledge
related to these three issues.
After a detailed analysis of the concept map, without using a priori coding, the tutor
evaluated the concept maps and gave the corresponding score. Within the 24 concept maps
analysed, the average of the scoring obtained was 78. 5% and only two students had less
than 50%. This result suggests a successful achievement in the construction of knowledge.

Conclusions and Instructional Implications

This study intended to evaluate the success of a PBL intervention program when trying to
improve students’ outcomes. The positive impact obtained allowed us to advance some
conclusions and instructional implications regarding teaching EE through PBL. The results
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 229

explored as
exploitation of


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negative impact

exploitation of


converted in



Fig. 1 a Cycle structure, b Hierarchical tree structure with a cross link

obtained, especially in the students’ questionnaires and conceptual map, allowed us to

verify that students did learn about the environment and its social and economic relevance.
However, due to the size of the sample (n=24) used in this study, no generalization of the
conclusions should be made. Instead, the technique of triangulation of data allowed us to
obtain indicators of the success of an application of a socio-constructivist approach into an
environmental education classroom. It fact, and as referred in previous pages, this study
supports the idea that PBL is a process with learning and peer coaching potential.
Moreover, it defines the challenge of learning and solving the problem as a feature of the
proximal zone development.
230 Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232

According to the analysis of the results, the program achieved some degree of success
for it appeared to contribute to the improvement of various outcomes associated with PBL,
namely constructing content knowledge and developing general competencies. Competen-
cies are considered as ‘knowledge in action’ (Perrenoud 1995). This means that a
competency is present when the student is capable of mobilizing knowledge and integrating
it correctly to solve a problem. The general competencies analysed in this study (ability to
apply knowledge and skills in daily environmental problem solving; oral and written ability
to communicate, self-directed learning; ability to search and organize information, ability to
select the correct strategy to solve the environmental problem; autonomy and responsibility;
ability for collaborative group work) were apparently all developed to a certain degree. As
students build a holistic view of environmental issues and have developed diverse
competencies, they can start to mobilize both as citizens to contribute to the economic,
social and environmental issues. Construction of knowledge and development of
competencies both enable students to act for Sustainable Development.
The less expected results of the study were related to the difficulties experienced by
the tutor in applying PBL. On the one hand, we find the answer to this question in the
relative unfamiliarity of students and the teacher with the methodology, although it was
not expected that this would be so prominent at the end of the intervention. The two
main difficulties encountered, were: (i) tutor control of behaviour and (ii) students’
fulfilment of the PBL monitoring lists. It would be expected that the difficulties
experienced by students in solving tasks (for example the elaboration of PBL monitoring
lists) decreased with the course of the intervention, but this did not occur in a linear way.
Furthermore, there were some difficulties in managing time and discipline in the
classroom. This was a particular result of the new spatial organization imposed by the
group work which was considered an operational difficulty. Group work always implies
an increase of noise, although the insufficient number of computers also contributed to
that situation.
Through an effective contextual learning approach and the implementation of an
intervention programme, it was possible to provide students with a solid understanding
of basic concepts, be them economic (e.g.: exhaustion of natural resources),
environmental (e.g.: contamination of water) or social (e.g.: abandoned mines).
Moreover, this approach made it possible to explain various interactions between
relevant systems, such as sustainable management of resources (environmental/economic
systems) and possibilities related to a didactical approach to abandoned mines (social/
economical systems).
In terms of instructional implications, we: 1) in this study, PBL methodology
helped students to develop collaborative group work and to learn from real
environmental problems; 2) PBL can be one dynamic and active methodology
capable of helping environmental education become the key to sustainability, that is,
embracing the social, economic and environmental pillars (as required by the United
Nations); and 3) fieldtrips represent a strategy that can be embedded within the PBL
methodology when teaching environmental education. This study contributed to our
understanding of which characteristics and emphases of the PBL methodology
impact student’s EE learning. Future research regarding fieldtrips as a strategy
integrated in PBL will provide a more in-depth investigation into their relevance to
EE learning.
These claims are consistent with much of the evidence and arguments referred to in the
literature (Palmer 1998; Jeronen et al. 2009; Lima et al. 2010). In fact, PBL seems to be a
powerful method that can work with almost any curriculum (Lambros 2004).
Res Sci Educ (2012) 42:219–232 231


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