Date of Award

Fall 2020

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Educational Studies

First Advisor

Christine Lotter


This study used a design research framework to teach secondary high school science students about environmental sustainability. A high school teacher and researcher collaborated to design a two week environmental science unit to help students make sense of complex environmental sustainability issues. This dissertation study sought to answer the following research questions: Using Design Research and various instructional tools, how do students develop an understanding of systems thinking and relate it to environmental sustainability; How does analyzing personal and classroom data on paper or plastic usage and recycling influence high school science students’ understanding of global environmental sustainability issues through the lens of systems thinking; and How do students come to understand the impact of the effects of individual behaviors on broader issues of environmental sustainability? Supported by a constructivist learning theory, various instructional strategies and learning activities were presented to the students to help them build on their knowledge of sustainability and to reinforce their understanding of environmental systems. The instructional activities were grouped into several learning schemes including: foundational knowledge about systems thinking and environmental systems such as biogeochemical cycles, metacognition and use of graphic organizers, graphing and modeling skills for data collection and predicting, inquiry/experimental design, and real world connectedness: making environmental sustainability personal and something students care about. This study helped to fill a gap in the literature by designing and testing a series of teaching strategies that emphasized student learner responses related to systems thinking and environmental systems while involving students in activities that stimulated problem solving of environmental sustainability issues and increased self-awareness.

Students were surveyed throughout the study to assess their understanding of systems thinking, and sustainability as well as to determine their level of engagement, and which of the activities were most beneficial. An effort to affect a change in student attitudes and personal behaviors as they relate to sustainability was also attempted through the learning experiences, especially students’ independent inquiry investigation of paper or plastic use and opportunities to reflect on their own perspectives. Students presented their findings to their classmates, participated in class discussion and two small focus groups. A critical component of this educational design research project was daily checklists and feedback from the classroom teacher to reflect on how student activities met the learning objectives and research questions. During the project the classroom teacher and researcher developed a design research curriculum that could be modified or amplified for future iterations. Student work samples and responses to surveys and focus group interviews suggested the students increased their understanding of systems thinking as it relates to environmental systems by examining a complex sustainability issue (paper or plastic manufacture and use), they have improved graphing and experimental inquiry techniques, and also generated greater concerns about their values and behaviors regarding sustainability. The results of the project suggest that a series of classroom activities can be designed to both develop greater systems thinking, particularly related to environmental systems while also engaging students in meaningful and enjoyable learning.