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A QUALITATIVE STUDY OF URBAN AND SUBURBAN ELEMENTARY STUDENTUNDERSTANDINGS OF PEST-RELATED SCIENCE AND AGRICULTURALEDUCATION BENCHMARKSCary J. Trexler, Assistant ProfessorIowa State UniversityAbstractThe purpose of this qualitative study was to determine the understandings of pest-related scienceby elementary students fN = 9). Guided by theoretical frameworks for science education and studies onagricultural literacy, clinical interviews were used to surface fifth graders thinking about three benchmarksfor the concept of human management of crop growth.Data analysis included validating benchmarks andlanguage to guide the discourse, generating conceptual proposition maps, coding student responses forcomparison with expert propositions, and confirming or disconfirming patterns among students.Out-of-school experiences were the strongest determinant of student ability to engage in discourse that wascompatible with experts. Students held incomplete understanding of pest-related benchmarks as indicatedin their lack of ability to make connections between scientific, societal, and technological concepts.Informants lacked language to accurately articulate an understanding of the pest-related benchmarks.Mostinformants, especially urban, nongardening students lacked an understanding of pests and their control inthe growth of plants for food. Core biological concepts, e. g. plant growth needs, may provide a structurefor integrating agri-food system principles into the elementary school curriculum.IntroductionScience and technology are increasinglycalled upon to aid society in the name of progress,prosperity, and economic growth.Astechnological innovations are adopted, however,society becomes more fearful of their risks. Beck(1992) has suggested that industrialized societiesare transitioning to “risk” societies where “the gainin power from techno-economic progress isincreasingly overshadowed by the production ofrisks” (p. 13). Philosophers of science Rouse(1987) and Feenburg (1995) have cautioned thatsociety should critically question the use of scienceand technology to determine what it values.In the agri-food system few technologiesare more feared than pesticides. Sachs, Blair, andRichter (1987) found that consumers wereincreasingly concerned with the risks of pesticidesto the environment and to personal health.Interestingly, perceptions of risks from residues ofJournalof AgriculturalEducationagrichemicals in food differ greatly amongmembers of the public. van Ravenswaay (1995)found that “approximately one-fourth [ofrespondents] perceives a great chance of harmfrom pesticide residues in food whereasapproximately the same percentage perceives verylittle or no chance” (p. 1). Like pesticides, the useof genetically modified organisms (GMOs) toreduce crop loss is emerging as a global concern(Progressive Farmer, 1999). In the United States,as in Europe before it, a growing number ofconsumers are skeptical of the benefits promisedby this new technology (Hillyer, 1999).To assess the trade-offs of pesticides andGMOs in terms of human health and safety and theenvironment, individuals need to possess a basicunderstanding of scientific and technologicalprinciples. Acquiring such understanding is acumulative process that begins when people arevery young. If U.S. society is to have discourseabout risks and benefits of agricultural89Vol.41 Issue 3.2000technologies, schools must integrate agri-foodsystem concepts and examples into curricula to promote literacy (Leising & Zilbert, 1994; Trexler,1998). Science educators also believe that agri-food system information and concepts are essentialfor public school curricula. In 1989, the AmericanAssociation for the Advancement of Science(AAAS) in its visionary work “Project 2061:Science for All Americans” identified agricultureas one of the eight basic technology areas forstudy by U.S. students.Problems arise in regard to educating thepublic about the agri-food system; researchersknow little about what individuals understandabout this complex system. The Council ofAgricultural Science and Technology underscoresthe need for research focused on technology. TheCouncil suggested that “more research is neededto develop valid and reliable theories, methods,and conclusions about public perceptions ofagrichemicals and other agricultural technologies(van Ravenswaay, 1995). Decisions aboutcomplex societal and environmental issues--suchas trade-offs with the use of pesticides and GMOs--require theories to explain how people come tolearn about complex interrelationships. With thesetheories, educational programs and curricula canbe designed to help learners construct schema thatare compatible with current scientificunderstandings.This study’s theoretical framework is builtupon research from science education. Todetermine the accuracy of idiosyncraticunderstandings, science education researchershave compared student conceptions with those ofexperts (Driver, Guesne, & Tiberghien, 1985;Posner, Strike, & Gertzog, 1982). These studies,based on Piaget’s work in cognitive psychology,tend to follow the theory that learning occursthrough the construction of mental schema.Schema serve as interchangeable slots orplaceholders that represent general knowledgestructures (Anderson, Spiro, & Anderson, 1978).Journal of Agricultural Education90Currently there exists a growing body ofknowledge on the “agricultural literacy” ofstudents, prospective teachers, and adults(Birkenholz, Frick, Gardner, & Machtmes, 1994;Flood & Elliot, 1993; Frick, Birkenholz, Gardner,& Machtmes, 1995). In agricultural education,abundant knowledge and positive perceptionsgleaned through survey research are often equatedwith literacy. Frick and Wilson (1996) suggested,however, that agricultural literacy involves, notsimply a cache of facts, but “a basic understandingof agriculture” (p. 59). Presently, agriculturaleducators do not clearly understand whatelementary students “understand’ about the agri-food system.Purpose/ObjectivesThe purpose of this qualitative study wasto determine elementary student understandings ofagri-food system educational benchmarks. Morespecifically,this study sought studentunderstandings of pests, crop protection, and theimpacts of using pesticides on crops. Theobjectives of this study were:1.To determine informants’ backgrounds andexperiences.2To compare elementary studentunderstandings with expert understandingsfor pest-related educational


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