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.
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