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Creation of an Integrated Curriculum Unit Centered Around the Invasive Species, Phragmites australis  (Common Reed)

 Purpose of Project: The goal of this project is to develop a set of inter-related classroom activities (an “integrated curriculum unit”) designed for use by middle school teachers. These activities will be designed to increase students’ awareness of invasive species and of the damage that such species can do on both local and global levels and will meet the EPA’s priority for Education Reform. The exponential increase in information availability in recent times has made education using the “teaching-centerededucation styles that predominate in America’s schools increasingly impossible (the so called “Upper Limit Hypothesis”; Branson, 1987).  Part of the solution to this problem has been suggested to be a fundamental redesign in teaching modalities to incorporate a more learning-centered model for learning (Branson, 2001).  One such reform is being achieved through integrated curriculum units which move the teaching mode away from rote memorization of isolated facts and figures toward building thinking, problem solving skills that appeal to multiple intelligences and build long term understanding and insight through integrating learning between curricular areas (Lake, 1994).

Additional educational benefits will accrue to the student interns who help with the development of this project, and the teachers who deliver the materials, meeting the EPA priority for Teaching Skills. Development of this curriculum will be a collaborative process between faculty and students that will encourage holistic interdisciplinary thinking and cross pollination of areas of expertise. This will both enliven and enrich the process and product of this project. The student interns themselves will gain increased understanding of invasive species, as well honing their research and synthesis skills as they work together to develop the exhibit. They will also learn to create activities which engage students in such a way to make the transmission of those ideas more effective. Moreover, participation in such a collaborative project will model effective practice in research and education. For a student who hopes to become a teacher, such experiences should prove invaluable. Finally students will gain real-world experience in the design and creation of a website to effectively communicate information to teachers as well as other interested parties.

(ii) Environmental Issue Addressed:  Invasive species were recently listed as one of the most important hazard to New Jersey’s natural habitats (  In the centuries since European settlement, such organisms have already changed the face of natural environments throughout New Jersey and around the world and have the potential to change it yet further if rates of new introductions continue at recent levels. Yet, while most people have some appreciation of the role of pollutants and overdevelopment on the natural environments around them, many have little or no appreciation of the damaging effects of invasive species.  Even those teachers who are aware of the problem may not have the knowledge or resources to develop lesson plans to effectively teach about these organisms while still meeting State and National Core Content Guidelines. 

We have chosen Phragmites as the focus for our integrated curriculum unit for several reasons:

·         It is large, has a distinctive appearance and is extremely widely distributed within New Jersey and beyond, increasing the chances that every student in the class will have seen this species near where they live.  In many, if not most, cases students and teachers would be able to collect materials for use in class activities on or near their school’s property, perhaps as part of the class activity.

·         It is a major invasive species with a clear and often negative impact upon the landscapes in which it is found.

·         It has a long and interesting history that will allow us to create entrees for engaging students who might not otherwise be interested in “science”

·         It is conducive to use in a wide variety of craft activities which again creates opportunities for engaging students in the learning process.

This project is just one example of what can be done in the area of integrated curriculum development. Teachers are always in need of good ideas for new and innovative activities to build into their curriculum. This project will form a model for integration of scientific information into activities that span the curriculum, and which engage students in both basic learning, and transmission of specific information about factors which threaten the integrity of natural systems locally, nationally and internationally.

(iii) Stewardship: Making Phragmites australis and its history come to life and making its significance apparent to students is a powerful way to raise awareness of the existence of and problems caused by invasive species.  These children are the scientists, politicians, voters, developers and watershed stewards of the future. Engaging teachers and students in a dialogue about invasive species and building a deep appreciation for the power of non-native species to impact the natural environment has the potential to change their behaviors for life. Moreover, since students take much of their learning home with them and share it with their parents, this provides a powerful way to reach many households with information about invasive species. Through education, we hope to motivate students and their families to support efforts to restore habitats impacted by invasive species, as well as to change every day practices such as bait disposal, choice of plants to grow in their gardens, effective disposal of bilge waters from boats between trips and so forth. The knowledge that students and their teachers gain from participating in the integrated curriculum unit will build basic skills (geography, math, social sciences etc) as well as giving them a basic understanding of an important environmental issue, which in turn should empower them to be good stewards of the native diversity both in their neighborhoods, and around the world.

b.       Who: Project Managers: This project will be managed by Drs. Louise Wootton and Claire Gallagher, each of whom is an established expert within her field, with a strong record for project completion. Dr. Gallagher has experience developing and managing educational programs based on principles of constructivism and collaborative learning such as inquiry, interdisciplinary methodology and problem-based learning. Dr. Wootton brings a strong background in collaborative research projects and engaging students in research. Together they bring the scientific and pedagogical background to ensure that the project content is accurate and will meet both federal and state core content objectives.

Target audience: Although course materials etc. would be available to teachers around the world via GCU’s website, logistics may limit our ability to provide learning trunks to teachers outside New Jersey.  Consequently the primary target for this project is primarily teachers and students in the middle school system in New Jersey.  Because of the cross-curricular nature of this material, curriculum supervisors or other individuals who have the ability to bring this material to interactive teams of teachers within school districts would be particularly effective targets for the dissemination of the this material. While all levels of education can benefit from curricular integration, we have chosen to target the materials created here toward middle school teachers because historically teachers at that level have been more open to using such innovative, cross-curricular materials (Beane, 1992). 

Recruitment plan:  The resources created through this project (teacher’s materials, lesson plans, associated support materials) will be made available at no charge for teachers and other interested persons through Georgian Court’s website. Drs. Gallagher and Wootton and their students will travel to local and regional conferences attended by educators (e.g. New Jersey Academy of Sciences, National Art Education Association) to present posters or papers about the course materials created through this project. We also expect to have information about this project available at Georgian Court’s information booth at the New Jersey Science Teachers’ Association convention in the fall of 2007, and to present a workshop at that convention to educate teachers about the availability and implementation of this integrated curriculum unit. Teachers attending the workshop will receive continuing education credit for their participation through Georgian Court University. The first 40 teachers adopting the curriculum will be compensated with a stipend of $100 for the additional work created in providing copies of lesson plans, pictures and other artifacts created as part of this curriculum unit as well as for their feedback and evaluation of the curricular units upon successful submission of these materials via e-portfolios or through our web portal. To facilitate the adoption of this curriculum by teachers, we also propose to create “learning trunks” containing all materials needed by the teachers in the completion of the suggested activities.  These learning trunks would be loaned to teachers who choose to integrate these activities into their curriculum. 

c.       How: The goal of this project is to provide adequate lesson plans and associated activities to support middle school teachers in providing a 2-week learning unit for their students centered around invasive species that would meet federal and state core content standards. In order to do this effectively we plan to add to our already extensive collection of Phragmites information (web-pages, books, peer-reviewed literature) to provide the information about Phragmites (biology, history, spread, impacts etc) that will underlie the curriculum unit. We will then mentor a group of students to develop a series of interconnected problem-based activities spanning the curriculum (the so-called “integrated curriculum unit”) that would provide a set of interactive, hands-on, inquiry-based activities that address a variety of multiple intelligences and learning styles. These activities will be designed to meet the needs of all learners, including those with special needs, and will allow students to learn about invasive species, while building basic math, geography, reading and writing skills. We would also provide information in addition to that in the sciences suitable for use in social science and history classes as well as a variety of activities appropriate for use in art and music classes.  Having developed the basic activities, we and our student interns would work to create appropriate teacher and student work sheets and necessary adjunct materials (e.g. age-appropriate readings for reading classes, maps showing spread of the species over time, charts showing hypothetical distributions of plants before and after Phragmites invasions so that students can calculate changes in densities over time of the plants within the system, suggestions for art and craft activities etc.). These materials along with specimens of Phragmites needed for display and art or craft activities would be placed in learning trunks to be housed within the Education department at GCU until requested by interested teaching teams. We would also create website containing the printed materials as well as additional materials designed to support the learning activities provided within the unit, such as links to supporting URLs. We would then publicize availability of this curriculum unit to New Jersey teachers by attendance at various local and regional meetings as mentioned earlier. Learning trunks would then be sent out to teaching teams when requested, and would be returned and repaired and replenished before reuse.  Evaluations of the project’s success will include tracking use of the learning trunks and web-resources as well as teacher and student evaluations. Feedback from teachers and students will be used to improve the materials for future users. While the majority of work involved in this project (researching and developing the materials for this curriculum unit) would be carried out within the first year, the need for beta testing this within the partner schools and then using the feedback and evaluations from those teachers to revise and improve the curriculum units and their supporting materials before starting large scale dissemination will mean that this project will require a two year funding duration to achieve its goals effectively.

With What: In a comprehensive review of the literature, Hartzler (2000) showed that students taught using an integrated curriculum consistently performed better than students taught using “traditional” methods, as measured both by internal assessment measures and by performance on state or national standardized tests. Indeed numerous studies have demonstrated that teaching using integrated curricula results in “greater intellectual curiosity, improved attitude towards schooling, enhanced problem-solving skills and higher achievement in college” (Loepp, 1999). There is such broad support for the success of integrated curricula as pedagogical tools that in their “Project 2061: Benchmarks for Science Literacy” the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences called for an interdisciplinary, integrated development of knowledge organized around themes that cut across various science disciplines, mathematics, social studies, and technology (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). Unfortunately the scarcity of standards-based, integrated curricula means teachers often need to develop such curricula on their own.  Since this process is extremely time-consuming, the result is that teachers are often able to use curricula for only a small portion of the school year (Loepp, 1999).  The integrated curriculum unit proposed here will help to fill this void. We expect that this will be the first of many such materials that we produce in the future in order to help teachers who wish to use this teaching modality to do so more extensively.

Part of the curricular revolution that led to the appreciation of the value of interdisciplinary instruction began with the recognition that "telling isn't teaching". Teaching using integrated curricula encourages beginning each lesson with a question or problem through which understanding of the desired concept(s) may emerge through effective questioning and facilitation on the part of the teacher. Study of invasive species creates many exciting opportunities for integrated classroom teaching and building critical thinking skills. The ambiguities that exist around the positive and negative aspects of species like Phragmites, and the costs as well as benefits that can accompany their management, make study of species like this an ideal focus for building dialogue between students and increasing metacognition within student learners. Through discussion, investigation and reflection, students will learn to gather and process the necessary information to make informed management decisions within complex systems. Some examples of questions and concepts that could be addressed through learning about invasive species within this paradigm include:

·   Biology and environmental sciences: e.g. How do species achieve dispersal (ways organisms move to new habitats)?  In what ways are organisms within ecosystems interconnected?  What is the influence of pollution and other stresses in increasing ecosystem vulnerability to invasion?  What are some ways in which living organisms can influence the ecosystems around them?  What are some of the ways that humans can interrupt the natural processes of dispersal and ecosystem balance?  What are some things that students and their families can do to reduce the impacts of invasive species?

·   Basic geography: Where did the species come from? What was the pattern of spread etc.?  How did the plant move?  What factors eased its movement?  (Students will be encouraged to recognize the cause and effect relationship between the spread of Phragmites and the movement of European settlers westward during the European colonization of this country.)

·   Basic math:  How many types of plant and how many individuals of each type are in a hypothetical marsh before and after the invasion?  How can densities be calculated from these data? What proportion of the total population does each species represent before versus after the invasion? How fast did the area impacted by the invasive species increase? Graphing trends etc.

·   Social sciences and history:  Learning about the use of Phragmites  as armature material in making some of the earliest known sculptures (circa 7,200 to 5,000B.C.), its use as cigarettes, weaving material and various toys by native Americans, and by Europeans as "thatch" (roofing material) will bring alive the history and social sciences of a wide variety of cultures throughout history.

·   Art and musicPhragmites stems have been used by many ancient cultures to create a variety of musical instruments, and as the foundation for a variety of crafts.  Similarly, the leaves were used for weaving and paper-making. Such uses can form the basis of a variety of interdisciplinary activities that build creativity, enhance students’ understanding of the interaction between a material’s physical properties and its uses, and provide a connectedness with the culture and crafts of a wide variety of cultures. 

·   Reading skills:  The underlying knowledge base for this curriculum unit will be developed through the creation of grade appropriate readings based on high quality literature sources such Kristen Saltonstall’s paper  "Cryptic invasion by a non-native genotype of Phragmites australis into North America" (Saltonstall, 2002) and Leslie Driscoll’s excellent set of web-pages on this plant (Driscoll, 1999).  

 Although the information in this document has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement NE97262206  to Georgian Court   University, it has not gone through the Agency's publications review process and, therefore, may not necessarily reflect the views of the Agency and no official endorsement should be inferred.

© Louise Wootton.  April 2009