Research Article

Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem

Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 2021, 17(4), e2254,
Full Text (PDF)


There is a nationwide focus in science education in the United States on the ability of students to develop and use models. Using the Contextual Model of Learning that considers learning is inseparably bound to the context in which it occurs, this study looks at drawings of the longleaf pine ecosystem created by 293 4th Grade students prior to and again after their multiple day visits to an environmental education center in the southeastern United States. Using flora and fauna processes considered as indicative of the ecosystem by ecologists, seven distinct mental model categories were developed from student artifacts. Comparison of the pre to post-frequencies in each model demonstrate a statistically significant increasing level of sophistication in the mental models to more closely approximate the conceptual models of ecologists after participation in instruction at the Center. Progression to more sophisticated mental models was documented even when addressing these models and their development was not a direct intent of the instruction. These data also support the importance that context can play in the learning of ecological concepts and the significance of including informal experiences to the formal K-12 curriculum.


environmental education informal education drawings mental models conceptual models longleaf pine ecosystem


Dentzau, M. (2021). Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 17(4), e2254.
Dentzau, M. (2021). Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education, 17(4), e2254.
Dentzau M. Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. INTERDISCIP J ENV SCI ED. 2021;17(4):e2254.
Dentzau M. Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem. INTERDISCIP J ENV SCI ED. 2021;17(4), e2254.
Dentzau, Michael. "Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem". Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education 2021 17 no. 4 (2021): e2254.
Dentzau, Michael "Student Mental Models of the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem". Interdisciplinary Journal of Environmental and Science Education, vol. 17, no. 4, 2021, e2254.


  1. Bamberger, Y., & Tal, T. (2007). Learning in a personal context: Levels of choice in a free choice learning environment in science and natural history museums. Science Education, 91(1), 75-95.
  2. Bowker, R. (2007). Children’s perceptions and learning about tropical rainforests: An analysis of their drawings. Environmental Education Research, 13(1), 75-96.
  3. Brooks, M. (2009). Drawing, visualization and young children’s exploration of “big ideas”. International Journal of Science Education, 31(3), 319-341.
  4. Cachelin, A., Paisley, K., & Blanchard, A. (2009). Using the significant life experience framework to inform program evaluation: The Nature Conservancy’s wings & water wetlands education program. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(2), 2-14.
  5. Cobb, P. (1994). Where is the mind? Constructivist and sociocultural perspectives on mathematical development. Educational Researcher, 23(7), 13.
  6. Cobern, W. W. (1993). Contextual constructivism: The impact of culture on the learning and teaching of science. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 51–69). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  7. Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
  8. Cronin-Jones, L. 2005. Using drawings to assess student perceptions of schoolyard habitats: A case study of reform-based research. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 10(1), 224-240.
  9. Ellenbogen, K.M., & Stevens, R. (2005). Informal science learning environments: A review of research to inform K-8 schooling. A paper commissioned by the National Research Council. As retrieved from
  10. Falk, J.H., & Dierking, L.D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  11. Falk, J.H., & Storksdieck, M. (2005). Using the contextual model of learning to understand visitor learning for a science center exhibition. Science Education, 89(5), 744-778.
  12. Flowers, A.A., Carroll, J.P., Green, G.T., & Larson, L.R. (2014). Using art to assess environmental education outcomes. Environmental Education Research,
  13. Frost, C. (1995). Four centuries of changing landscape patterns in the longleaf pine ecosystem. In S. I. Cerulean &R. T. Engstrom (Eds.), Proceedings 18th Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference, May 30-June2, 1991 (pp. 17-43). Tallahassee, FL: Tall Timbers Research, Inc.
  14. Glaser, B.G., & Strauss, A L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago: Aldine Pub. Co.
  15. Glynn, S.M., & Duit, R. (1995). Learning science meaningfully: Constructing conceptual models. In S. M. Glynn & R. Duit (Eds.), Learning science in the schools: Research reforming practice, (3-33). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  16. Greca, I.M., & Moreira, M.A. (2000). Mental models, conceptual models, and modelling. International Journal of Science Education, 22(1), 1-11.
  17. Greene, J.C., Caracelli, V.J., & Graham, W.F. (1989). Towards a conceptual framework for mixed-methods evaluation designs. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 11(3), 255-274.
  18. Guillemin, M. (2004). Understanding illness: Using drawings as a research method. Qualitative Health Research, 14(2), 272-289.
  19. Johnson-Laird, P.N., Girotto, V., & Legrenzi, P. (1998). Mental models: A gentle guide for outsiders. As Retrieved from
  20. Judson, E. (2011). The impact of field trips and family involvement on mental models of the desert environment. International Journal of Science Education, 33(11), 1455-1472.
  21. Kalvaitis, D., & Monhardt, R. M. (2012). The architecture of children’s relationships with nature: A phenomenographic investigation seen through drawings and written narratives of elementary students. Environmental Education Research, 18(2), 209-227.
  22. Knapp, C.E. (1992). Lasting lessons: A teacher’s guide to reflecting on experience. Charleston, WV: ERIC.
  23. Lewis, D., & Greene, J. (1983). Your child’s drawings: Their hidden meaning. London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd.
  24. Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E.G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  25. Mogashoa, T. (2014). Applicability of constructivist theory in qualitative educational research. American International Journal of Contemporary Research, 4(7), 51-59.
  26. National Research Council (NRC). (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academy Press.
  27. Nersessian, N.J. (2002). The cognition basis of model-based reasoning in science. In P. Carruthers, M. Siegal & S. Stich (Eds.), The cognitive basis of science (133-153). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  28. Nersessian, N. J. (2008). Model-based reasoning in scientific practice. In R.A. Duschl and R.E. Grandy (Eds.), Teaching Scientific Inquiry: Recommendations for Research and Implementation (pp. 57-79). Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense.
  29. NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Achieve, Inc. on behalf of the twenty-six states and partners that collaborated on the NGSS.
  30. Norman, D. A. (1983). Some observations on mental models. In D. Gentner & A. L. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models (pp. 7-14). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  31. Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
  32. Reith, E. (1997). The child’s understanding of the dual reality of pictorial representations. In A.M. Kindler (Ed.). Child development in art, pp. 59-79. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
  33. Roseler, K. (2013). Exploring the contributions of informal science experiences to learners science identity development. Retrieved from Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 8879.
  34. Shepardson, D.P., Wee, B., Priddy, M., & Harbor, J. (2007). Students’ mental models of the environment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44, 2, 327-348.
  35. Thomas, G.V., & Silk, A.M.J. (1990). An introduction to the psychology of children’s drawings. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf
  36. Thomas, J.A., Pedersen, J.E., & Finson, K. (2001). Validating the draw-a-science-teacher-test checklist (DASTT-C): Exploring mental models and teacher beliefs. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 12(4), 295-310.
  37. Tobin, K., & Tippins, D. (1993). Constructivism: A paradigm for the practice of science education. In K. Tobin (Ed.), The practice of constructivism in science education (pp. 3–21). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  38. Vosniadou, S. (2019). The development of students’ understanding of science. Frontiers in Education, 4, 1-6.
  39. Vosniadou, S. (2002) Mental models in conceptual development. In: Magnani L. & N. J. Nersessian (Eds), Model-Based Reasoning (pp. 353-368). Springer, Boston, MA.
  40. Vygotsky, L.S. (1971). The psychology of art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  41. White, R.T., & Gunstone, R.F. (1992). Probing understanding. London: Falmer.
  42. Whitney, E., Means, D.B., & Rudloe, A. (2004). Priceless Florida: Natural ecosystems and native species. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, Inc.


Creative Commons License
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.