There is a need for secondary schools to provide more authentic, hands-on experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and, specifically, project-based investigation environments in the classroom that manifest the next generation science standards (NGSS) following practices they prescribe. This study investigated how, and to what extent, a contextualized aquaponics project-based investigation (APBI) 10-week model unit affected high school students’ understanding of standard-based ecological relationships and concepts concerning interactions in ecosystems and, specifically, the phenomena carrying capacity and bacterial nitrification process. Using a quantitative method, quasi-experimental research design, three different student groups who participated in the authentic, hands-on APBI curriculum (i.e., treatment groups) and a control group were given a pre- and post-content-aligned test (n=88), which measured changes in students’ ecological knowledge. The results in this study revealed that the curriculum was an effective method to provide meaningful learning and content understanding of standard-based ecological concepts and relationships. The evidence from this study suggests that authentic instructional experiences can facilitate students’ understanding of standard-based ecological concepts and knowledge of ecosystems, as the three treatment group students showed statistically significantly higher mean difference (improvement) sum scores after taking the pre- and post-content-aligned assessment when compared to the control group. Overall, the gain in understanding can be attributed to the project-enhanced unit implemented in this study. The implications of this study suggest APBI models may create authentic science learning environments that promote student learning of scientific concepts. In addition, APBI can offer engaging curricula that articulates NGSS.
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