A Case Study of the Development of Environmental Action Projects from the Framework of Participatory Action Research within Two Middle School Classrooms

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The purpose of this study was to understand student and teacher empowerment through a socially critical environmental education perspective. The main research question guiding this study was: How do participants make sense of a learning experience in which students design and carry out an environmental action project in their community?

This study used participatory action research and critical theory as practical and theoretical frameworks. These frameworks were relevant as this study sought to examine social change, power, and relationships through participants' experiences.

The context of this study was within one seventh and one eighth grade classroom participating in environmental projects. The study was conducted in spring 2005 with an additional follow-up data collection period during spring 2006. The school was located in a densely populated metropolitan suburb. Fifty-three students, a teacher researcher, and three science teachers participated. Data sources were written surveys, scores on Middle School Environmental Literacy Survey Instrument (MSELI), observations, interviews, and student work.

This study used a mixed methodological approach. Quantitative data analysis involved dependent samples t-test scores on the MSELI before and after the completion of the projects. Qualitative data were analyzed using an inductive analysis approach.

This study has implications for educators interested in democratic education. Environmental action projects provide a context for students and teachers to learn interdisciplinary content knowledge, develop personal beliefs, and learn ways to take action in their communities. This pedagogy has the potential to increase cooperation, communication, and tensions within school communities. Students' participation in the development of environmental action projects may lead to feelings of empowerment or being able to make a difference in their community, as an individual or member of a group.

Future research is needed to discern why participants experience this type of educational experience differently, for example, how does the type of environmental action project influence individual and group empowerment?