Life-Cycle Thinking in Inquiry-Based Sustainability Education – Effects

Life-Cycle Thinking in Inquiry-Based Sustainability Education – Effects

c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013 varia Life-Cycle Thinking in Inquiry-Based Sustainability Education – Effects on Students’ Attitudes towar...

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c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013


Life-Cycle Thinking in Inquiry-Based Sustainability Education – Effects on Students’ Attitudes towards Chemistry and Environmental Literacy Marianne Juntunen*1 and Maija Aksela2

• The aim of the present study is to improve the quality of students’ environmental literacy and sustainability education in chemistry teaching by combining the socio-scientific issue of life-cycle thinking with inquiry-based learning approaches. This case study presents results from an inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project: an interdisciplinary teaching model designed by chemistry teachers. The strength of the project is that upper-secondary students (N=105) are allowed to investigate the life cycle of an optional product based on their own interest. Studentcentred teaching methods are suggested to promote the students’ interest in studying. The research question was: How does an inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project in chemistry education affect students’ chemistry attitudes and environmental literacy? The research methods used included surveys and semi-structured interviews. The study shows that the project positively affected students’ attitudes towards chemistry learning: they valued the independent and collaborative learning setting. The changes in the students’ environmental literacy were evident in their new realisations: they emphasised the importance of environmental protection and recycling, but perceived that changing their own behaviour is still difficult. The inquiry-based teaching of life-cycle thinking can be seen as an effective approach to more motivating and sustainable chemistry education. Further research should address the kinds of knowledge outcomes that this type of inquiry-based life-cycle teaching creates in students. Furthermore, other useful approaches to teaching sustainable development in chemistry lessons should be shared.


Keywords: Attitudes; Chemistry learning; Environmental literacy; Inquiry-based learning; Life-cycle thinking

*Corresponding Author. Unit of Chemistry Teacher Education, Department of Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Finland [email protected] 2 Unit of Chemistry Teacher Education, Department of Chemistry, University of Helsinki, Finland



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

Življenjski krog izdelkov in učenje z raziskovanjem za trajnostni razvoj – vpliv na odnos učencev do kemije in okoljska pismenost Marianne Juntunen* and Maija Aksela

• Cilj raziskave je izboljšanje kakovosti odnosa dijakov do kemije, njihove okoljske pismenosti in do trajnega izobraževanja s pomočjo združevanja socionaravoslovnih vsebin, tj. razmišljanja o življenjskem krogu izdelkov, in pristopov učenja z raziskovanjem. V tej študiji primera so predstavljeni izsledki projekta o učenju z raziskovanjem pri uporabi konteksta, povezanega z življenjskim krogom izdelkov. Projekt so kot interdisciplinarni model poučevanja oblikovali učitelji kemije. Njegova prednost je, da lahko srednješolci (N = 105) raziskujejo življenjski krog poljubnega predmeta oz. izdelka glede na želje ali interes, saj naj bi metode poučevanja, ki v središče postavljajo učenčeve interese, spodbujale njihovo zanimanje za učenje neke vsebine. Raziskovalno vprašanje je bilo, kako pristop učenja z raziskovanjem z uporabo konteksta o življenjskem krogu izdelkov pri pouku kemije vpliva na odnos učencev do kemije in na njihovo okoljsko pismenost. Podatki so bili pridobljeni z anketiranjem in s polstrukturiranimi intervjuji. Študija je pokazala, da je učni pristop, uporabljen v projektu, pozitivno vplival na odnos dijakov do učenja kemije; pozitivno so ocenili individualno in sodelovalno učenje. Spremembe v okoljski pismenosti učencev so se kazale v tem, da so učenci poudarjali pomembnost varovanja okolja in recikliranja, vendar pa vplivi na spremembe njihovega ravnanja niso bili zaznani. Učenje z raziskovanjem z uporabo konteksta o življenjskem krogu izdelkov lahko učinkovito vpliva na motiviranost učencev in učne pristope v kemijskem izobraževanju, ki temeljijo na trajnostnem razvoju. V prihodnje bi bilo treba raziskati še vrste oblikovanega znanja, ki ga s tovrstnim izobraževanjem pridobijo dijaki ali učenci. Poleg tega pa bi morali uporabljati tudi druge pristope v poučevanju trajnostnega razvoja pri pouku kemije.

Ključne besede: odnosi; učenje kemije; okoljska pismenost; učenje z raziskovanjem; življenjski krog izdelka

c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013

Introduction “I understood how much even a small thing, such as a simple newspaper, impacts on everything. It is simple to manufacture it but still it consumes a lot. So the importance of recycling is huge. I mean, you need to recycle, otherwise nothing makes sense.” (a 15-year-old girl expressing her attitudes after the life-cycle project) The rationale of the present design research is to improve Finnish students’ attitudes and skills related to chemistry, sustainability and the materials of various products. The study addresses two separate concepts: chemistry attitudes and environmental literacy. The conclusion and discussion aim to determine the connection between these two concepts. The research problem arises from the fact that throughout Europe the interest in key science subjects among young people has declined (Hofstein, Eilks, & Bybee, 2010; the Inter Academy Panel, 2010; Krapp & Prenzel, 2011; Osborne, 2003; Rocard, Csermely, Jorde, Lenzen, Walberg-Henriksson, & Hemmo, 2007; Vassiliou, 2011). As in other European countries, national studies in Finland have revealed that Finnish students particularly dislike chemistry (Kärnä, Hakonen, & Kuusela, 2012). The selection of topics and teaching methods are of key importance in supporting students’ interest in studying science (Juuti, Lavonen, Uitto, & Byman, 2009; Mandler, Mamlok-Naaman, Blonder, Yayon, & Hofstein, 2012; Van Aalsvoort, 2004). Environmental and societal issues related to the daily lives of students can support their perception of the relevance of studying a certain subject (Mandler et al., 2012; Marks & Eilks, 2009; Van Aalsvoort, 2004; Yager, Lim, & Yager, 2006). In chemistry, Finnish students struggle the most with applied tasks related to various everyday materials (Kärnä, Hakonen, & Kuusela, 2012). In response to this challenge, the present study applies inquiry-based chemistry teaching of life-cycle thinking to the upper-secondary school level. From an educational point of view, life-cycle thinking is a socio-scientific teaching approach, as it is an interdisciplinary science issue that is complex, contradictory and relevant to the daily lives of students (Kolsto, 2001; Oulton, Dillon, & Grace, 2004; Sadler, 2011). In terms of chemistry, it encompasses green chemistry and engineering (Anastas, & Lankey, 2000; Askham, 2011). Analysing the comprehensive life cycle of a product is in itself an advanced field of science that evaluates the environmental burden of a product, investigating a process or activity by quantifying the net flows of different chemicals, materials and energy (Blackburn & Payne, 2004). The assessment of resource use and



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

emissions, as well as their health impacts, enables improvements to be made in product life-cycle processes from an environmental perspective (Anastas & Lankey, 2000). Life-cycle thinking is a chemistry topic in the national standards of education in Finland (Ministry of Education, 2003, 2004). Recently, the United Nations declared the years 2005–2014 the world decade on “Education for Sustainable Development” (UNESCO, 2009). The aim of this decade is to extend the ideal of sustainable development in all areas of education. Definitions of sustainability are widely discussed globally (Jerneck et al., 2011; Johnston, Everard, Santillo, & Robèrt, 2007). In Finland, however, it is a worrying and problematic fact that boys have more negative attitudes towards environmental protection than girls (Asunta, 2003; Kärnä et al., 2012; Saloranta & Uitto, 2010; Uitto et al., 2011). There is no doubt that future citizens must have the willingness and skills to act sustainably, whether in the role of a chemist, a consumer, a parent, a voter or a decision maker. Chemistry teaching can foster students’ views on science-based sustainability issues. By using relevant and contradictory socio-scientific issues, it is possible to support students’ understanding of how chemistry topics also reflect the moral, social and physical world around them (Holbrook, 2005; Zeidler, Sadler, Simmons, & Howes, 2005; Wilmes & Howarth, 2009). The term ‘environmental literacy’ refers to the skills and motivation to work towards the resolution of environmental problems, and active involvement in working towards the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium between the quality of life and the quality of the environment (Hsu & Roth, 1998). It is related to knowledge, affect, skills and behaviour on three levels: nominal, functional and operational competences (Roth, 1992). UNESCO includes knowledge, understanding, attitudes and active involvement in their environmental literacy-related statements (Marcinkowski, 1991). The applications and objectives of environmental literacy are cross-curricular and closely related to the objectives of ‘scientific literacy’ (Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2009; Simmons, 1989). In the present study, changes in students’ environmental literacy are assessed in terms of environmentally responsible attitudes and pro-environmental behaviour (Yavez, Goldman, & Peer, 2009; see also Erdogan, Marcinkowski, & Ok, 2009). The intention to act – in other words, pro-environmental behaviour – is a powerful predictor of responsible environmental behaviour (Hsu & Roth, 1998). Combining life-cycle thinking and inquiry-based learning is a new approach to teaching chemistry. An inquiry-based learning setting was used because it had been shown to generate positive attitudes towards chemistry in students (Aksela, 2005; Gibson & Chase, 2002; Juuti et al., 2009; Minner, Levy, & Century, 2010; Rocard et al., 2007). Inquiry approaches place more of

c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013

the responsibility for the task on students (Colburn, 2000). They can support individual decision-making processes and provoke socio-scientific discussion about topics such as consumer products (Marks & Eilks, 2009). This learning setting is a new example of how to involve aspects of sustainability (Tundo et al., 2000) and ethics (Dondi, 2011; Zeidler et al., 2005) in chemistry lessons. Furthermore, this approach meets the goals of “education through science” thinking, as opposed to “education in science” thinking (see Holbrook & Rannikmae, 2007).

The research problem and the research question Chemistry textbooks in Finland lack tasks related to life-cycle thinking and inquiry (Juntunen & Aksela, 2011). In order to support the work of teachers, in-service training courses about life-cycle thinking, inquiry-based teaching methods and sustainable development were arranged in Finland from 2010 to 2012. At these courses, a total of 20 chemistry teachers collaboratively developed new inquiry-based, life-cycle thinking teaching models for their own needs (Joyce & Weil, 1986; Juntunen & Aksela, in review). The present case study, which is part of a larger cyclic design research project (Edelson, 2002), investigates students’ perspectives on this novel teaching approach. In particular, the study investigates whether inquiry-based life-cycle teaching affects students’ attitudes to studying chemistry and to behaving in an environmentally sustainable way. The research question was: How does an inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project in chemistry education affect students’ chemistry attitudes and environmental literacy?

Method Participants The empirical research was conducted during the 2011–2012 school year in three schools in Southern Finland. The participants were 105 upper-secondary school students in the 9th year (14–15 years), 58 of whom were girls and 47 boys. Their chemistry teachers (N=3) tested the novel approach to teaching life-cycle thinking. A researcher visited the three schools before and after the life-cycle project work and collected and analysed all of the data used in this study. Among the volunteers, 27 students were randomly chosen for interviews, which were documented on audio recordings. All of the other data collected was in a written form in surveys. The language used in the intervention was Finnish, but all of the answers presented in the present paper have been translated into English.



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

Intervention The intervention was a project work based on the inquiry-based, student-centred, social teaching model (see Colburn, 2000; Joyce & Weil, 1986). The aim of the project was for students in small teams to consider the pros and cons of the life-cycle of a product. The students chose the product according to their own interest. During the project, the students were involved in setting their own research questions, searching for information, discussing their findings in teams, reviewing the work of other teams, and presenting the results. After the project, the students had an opportunity to engage in debate about their views regarding the usefulness of products, responsibility and the individual’s possibilities for action. The students collected data about raw materials, manufacturing processes and usage, as well as recycling and waste management. In cases where the team of students was particularly capable, their investigations also included elements such as precise information or estimates about the product’s lifespan, footprints, health effects and environmental impacts. Depending on the teacher, the student group and the product of interest, the intervention took about 10–15 hours over a period of 2–3 weeks. The content of the work was up to the students themselves; thus they learned to take responsibility of their own learning. Throughout the project, the role of a teacher was that of a facilitator, supporting the students with ideas whenever they needed help or encouragement. Research instruments A summary of the research instruments of the study is presented in Table 1 and explained in more detail below. On order to improve the validity of the results, mixed-methods and researcher-triangulation were used. Here, researcher-triangulation means that another researcher independently conducted a similar analysis of all of the data in order to validate the same results. Table 1. Research Instruments Chemistry Attitudes

Environmental Literacy

Before the intervention (pre)

Semi-structured interviews (Marks, Bertram, & Eilks, 2008)

A survey (Yavez et al., 2009), semi-structured interviews (Marks, Bertram, & Eilks, 2008)

After the intervention (post)

An open questionnaire (Eilks, 2005; Marks et al., 2008), a survey (Marks et al., 2008), semistructured interviews (Marks, Bertram, & Eilks, 2008)

An open questionnaire (Eilks, 2005; Marks et al., 2008), a survey (Yavez et al., 2009), semi-structured interviews (Marks, Bertram, & Eilks, 2008)

c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013

The students’ chemistry attitudes were measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative methods included pre-post semi-structured interviews (Marks, Bertram, & Eilks, 2008) and an open post-questionnaire (Eilks, 2005). A quarter of the students (N=27) were interviewed in groups of 4–5 students directly before and after the intervention. Semi-structured questions were modified from Marks et al. (2008) and are presented in Table 2. The analysis of the discussions was content driven (Tuomi & Sarajärvi, 2006), with students’ answers being quantified according to their explicit expressions. The answers were classified in terms of: (1) the students’ reflective expressions about the usefulness or non-usefulness of studying chemistry, (2) chemistry content. Table 2. Semi-structured questions in the interviews Pre-Discussions


(1) What is the main content you learned in your previous chemistry lessons?

(6) Why do you think all students must learn chemistry in school?

(2) What kind of working methods have you used in chemistry lessons before?

(7) How did this project work differ from the usual lessons?

(3) How does an average chemistry lesson take place?

(8) In your opinion, what are the main things you have learned?

(4) Did you learn something in your chemistry lessons that you can use at home or in your free time?

(9) In the last few weeks, you have learned a lot about life-cycle thinking. Does this make you think about products’ life-cycles in your free time as well?

(5) What do you want from chemistry lessons?

(10) In the last few weeks, you have learned a lot about life-cycle thinking. Does this make you think about your behaviour as a consumer? (11) Do you think your behaviour could change due to life-cycle thinking and the project?

The four open written questions used after the intervention are presented in Table 3. The first three questions were the same as those of Eilks (2005), while the fourth question was added based on the pre-interviews (Marks et al., 2008). The answers (N=105) were content-analysed regarding how the students reflect the inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project overall, and whether they mention improvement in their communication abilities, cooperative skills and independent work (Eilks, 2005; Tuomi & Sarajärvi, 2006). The answers were classified as positive, neutral or negative. Positive expressions included statements such as “I liked it”, “I loved the freedom and studying like this”, “It was



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

fun”, “Interesting to learn important things” or “Nice to be creative”. Typical neutral answers included statements such as “It was just a different method of studying” or “No opinion”, while negative expressions were those such as “The topic was boring”, “I prefer the ordinary lessons”, “Useless” or “Too much homework”. Table 3. The written open post-questionnaire (Eilks, 2005; Marks et al., 2008) (1) What are the most important differences between this project and the chemistry lessons you normally have? (2) What is your opinion on the approach based on your own questions and interest? What did you like the most about it, and what could be improved? (3) Why do you think the teacher chose to use this approach for the last few lessons? (4) What were the main things that you learned in this project?

The quantitative method to measure the students’ chemistry attitudes was a 5-point Likert survey (Marks et al., 2008) administered after the intervention. The questionnaire asked students for their opinions about the content (questions 39-42) and methods (questions 37, 38, 43) of the life-cycle project, as well as their reflections on it (questions 34, 35, 36 and 44). The answers (N=105) were analysed using basic statistical analysis. The questionnaire is presented in Appendix 1. The students’ environmental literacy was measured both qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative methods included pre-post semi-structured interviews (Marks et al., 2008) and an open post-questionnaire (Eilks, 2005; Marks et al., 2008). A quarter of the students (N=27) were interviewed in groups of 4–5 students directly before and after the intervention. The interview questions are presented in Table 2. The analysis of the discussions was content driven (Tuomi & Sarajärvi, 2006). The students’ answers were quantified according to their explicit expressions. Statements expressing environmental literacy were searched for in the analysis, and responses were classified in terms of their reflective expressions about: (1) environmental and societal awareness, (2) contradictory and confusing aspects, (3) development of students’ life-cycle thinking skills, consumer behaviour and environmentally responsible behaviour. The four open written questions – asked only after the project work – are presented in Table 3. The open answers (N=105) from the questionnaire regarding the students’ environmental literacy were reflected in the analysis of Eilks (2005) and Marks et al. (2008), as well as being content analysed (Tuomi

c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013

& Sarajärvi, 2006). The answers’ content-driven categories related to environmental literacy were new thoughts and the importance of environmental protection and recycling. Environmental literacy, in terms of environmental attitudes and proenvironmental behaviour, was studied quantitatively with a pre-post 5-point Likert survey (Yavez et al., 2009). The original questionnaire from Yavez, Goldman, and Peer (2009) was a 4-point survey with 43 questions. Of these, 32 were modified to meet the goals of the present study. The environmental knowledge section was not considered as a suitable measurement instrument of environmental literacy for the present rather unstructured inquiry-based life-cycle project. For this reason, and in order to limit the amount of data, this section was omitted. A question about eating vegetarian food was included because the topics of environmental activism were broadened from housing and consumption to include food consumption as well. The main components that make up an individual’s environmental footprint can be divided into four areas: housing, food, transport and the consumables we buy (Calcott & Bull, 2007). Transportation was omitted from the present study. The environmental literacy survey used is presented in Appendix 2. The quantitative answers of the students (N=96, because 9 of the 105 answers could not be used) were analysed with SPSS (Statistical Package for Social Science, PASW Statistics 18) using basic statistical analysis, factor analysis and three-way ANOVA. It could have included three main effects, three twoway interactions and one three-way interaction, but here only the main effects (gender, pre/post, school) and the two-way interactions (between pre/post and gender or school) are of interest. Due to the fact that the reliabilities of the factor scores of the sum variables used by Yavez, Goldman, and Peer (2009) were weak (Cronbach’s alpha between 0.49–0.82), factor analysis was used to obtain new factor scores, while the correlations of these scores to gender, school and pre/post-answers were investigated with three-way ANOVA. The extraction method was Principal Axis Factoring and the rotation method was Promax with Kaiser Normalisation. The pattern matrixes are shown in Tables 4 and 5. Questions 1–21 were iterated nine times. In order to create meaningful and reliable sum variables, a factor score limit of 0.4 was agreed upon amongst the researchers. Thus questions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 did not reliably fit into any sum variables and were omitted from subsequent analysis. New combinations of behaviour factor scores were named to measure environmentally responsible behaviour in daily life (questions 15, 18, 19, 20 and 21), citizenship actions in nature (questions 8, 11, 12, 16 and 17), resource conserving actions for personal financial benefit (questions 6, 9, 10 and 14) and recycling efforts (questions 2 and 13). The



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

attitude questions from 22 to 36 were iterated three times. Here, only question 22 was omitted, as its factor score was less than 0.4. The new sum variables were named as importance of environmental education, legislation and enforcement as a tool for environmental management (questions 24, 25, 27, 28, 30, 31 and 32) and locus of control and value of the natural environment (questions 23, 26, 29 and 33). Table 4. The pattern matrixa of the factor scores for pre-environmental action questions from 1 to 21, of which the new factors were created using a limit of value 0.4

Table 5. The pattern matrixa factor scores for the attitude questions from 22 to 33, of which the new factors were created using a limit of value 0.4

Factor 1 15



Factor 4




































































.403 .302


c e p s Journal | Vol.3 | No2 | Year 2013

Results Chemistry attitudes The students’ chemistry attitudes developed in a positive direction. In the interviews conducted after the intervention, every single one of the students reflected the usefulness of studying chemistry by expressing how they learn beneficial things in chemistry. More than a third of them (N=11/27) mentioned the common knowledge role of chemistry literacy as being important to them. The content students described learning in chemistry switched from chemical presentations to substances in various products. In the four open written questions, students mentioned the improvement in their communicative abilities (half of the students, N=53/105), independent working (a third of the students, N=36/105) and cooperative skills (a seventh of the students, N=15/105). Overall, they reflected the inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project in a very positive way. Similarly, the survey showed that the study methods of the project appealed to both girls and boys, with girls rating the content of the project and the concept of life-cycle thinking more positively than boys. A more detailed examination of the interviews’ content analysis reveals that the students’ reflective expressions about studying chemistry turned from non-usefulness to usefulness. Prior to the project, many students expressed cautious thoughts in the interviews: “I’ve learned to be careful with substances”, “I’m afraid to apply chemistry in my free time”, “You can make holes in your skin”. After the project, more than a third of the interviewed students (N=11/27) mentioned the common knowledge role of chemistry literacy. They again described a few dangers, such as toxics at home or unhealthy, nature-harming substances; however, all of them started to describe how they also learn beneficial things in chemistry: “What you use… What the products include… So that you will not use it the wrong way… How it is produced… What saves the environment and what does not… Important for your future plans…”. The content knowledge in the project was clearly more interesting to them because it was related to their daily-life and sustainability issues. Prior to the project, the students described the chemistry content knowledge they had learned as atoms, ions, molecular presentations, reactions or chemical symbols, and substances and their combination in their chemistry lessons. The only experimental work they remembered was “elephant’s toothpaste and liquorice”. According to all of the students, the typical working method was writing and reading or doing assignments from books. They reported that a typical chemistry lesson involved “doing some theory first” and “listening to your teachers rant”, followed by talking, doing experiments and writing “like crazy” in a notebook. The students wanted



life-cycle thinking in inquiry-based sustainability education

to have more experiments and less writing in their chemistry lessons. After the project, the content knowledge they mentioned was substances in various products. The students explained that they had learned about plastics in a computer mouse, substances of a circuit board, substances of an anti-ageing face cream, carbon fibres in an ice hockey stick, and chemicals in a lipstick. In comparison to ordinary chemistry lessons, the students described the life-cycle project as: “More meaningful and free, nicer, and funnier” and “you could influence the methods of how to study, you learned better, it was not so boring”. This was mainly because they had a chance to “share opinions, cooperate, search the Internet and books, make phone calls”. Students said: “When you search for the information yourself… You choose… You find more diverse knowledge… You are responsible for your own actions… You do not need to only listen to ranting… You can do something yourself… You get straight feedback”. One of the students described the project work: “You yourself see the result of what you’ve managed to do… I mean, the ordinary weekly lessons don’t tell us everything. As you have to do everything yourself from the beginning to the end, you really see the result and how much you know about it after all – in comparison to only answering some questions in your notebook…”. Thus the inquiry-based, independent and social learning setting undoubtedly motivated the students in studying chemistry. The answers to the four open written questions in the survey are presented in Table 6. Content analysis of the answers shows that the students (N=105) reflected the inquiry-based life-cycle thinking project in a generally positive way (N=85/105), with girls being more positive than boys. Only a few students (N=7/105) had negative attitudes towards the project. They would have liked to have more time for their investigations. Also, open-ended assignment instruction caused some confusion, and students asked for more explicit guidelines. The improvement in communication abilities in environmental discourse was reflected by almost half of the students (N=53/105). They perceived improvements