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Integrated approaches to curriculum remain a contentious issue with ardent commentators presenting a number of arguments either supporting or opposing its implementation in schools (Hatch, 1998)11. These arguments have tended to be either epistemological, focused on the structure and utility of knowledge, or affective, focused on students’ attitudes and engagement with science. On the epistemological front, disciplines, it is argued, create a sense of order about the complex world and provide students with the specialized knowledge they need to solve complicated, discipline-based problems or create rigorous explanations of focused aspects of the world. Disciplines are considered important human achievements that have provided the best answers to fundamental questions about the world that human beings have generated. In contrast, supporters of curriculum integration argue that knowledge in the real world is holistic and the division of knowledge into subjects for teaching and learning in schools is an unnecessary historical tradition and simply a practical method to deliver a curriculum (Hatch, 1998)12.

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There is a common thread in many integrated programs in schools of connections with the environment (Wallace et al., 2007)23. A quick glance at the most recent National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST, 2009) annual international conference program reveals terms like socio-ecological systems; biodiversity curriculum; invasive species; diversity beliefs; renewable energy course; ecosystem relationships, environmental literacy; environmental decision-making; environmental behaviour change; global warming; climate change, environmental moral dilemmas; and, eco-justice24. For example, Zandvliet & Nelson (2009) found that in integrated, experientially-based courses in environmental education, students’ perceptions of their classroom learning environment were much closer to the classroom environment they preferred compared with traditional classrooms25. Real world scientific perplexities, including the issues of environmental sustainability, are clearly becoming part of the real world of science education.

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A specific example of an integrated approach was found in a school we worked with in the northern suburbs of Perth. The Year 6 and 7 classes in the school were working on a science-based project about the ‘health’ of a local lake. During Science, students learnt about concepts like water quality and aquifers. They tested the quality of the water in the local lake and completed a number of individualized investigations on related topics such as the breeding of midges (a small insect) in the shallows of the lake. In Society and Environment students examined human development in their local region and the impact that has on the lake. In English they participated in an extended hypothetical debate and role play of different advocate groups about the development of the surrounding environment and the recreation that should be allowed in the lake. One of the features of integrated curricula is that the knowledge that is taught and learned is determined by issues that are relevant to the students. In this way, there tends to be more connectedness and application of knowledge to the issue of concern. In integrated approaches to curriculum students are generally given long periods during the school day to research areas of interest to them. They are guided and supported by the teacher, but the focus is on the student being an active learner. Assessment tends to be individualized; for example, it may take the form of a portfolio of work completed by the individual. This is in contrast with traditional approaches to curriculum where disciplinary knowledge drives the curriculum and lessons are sequenced in ways that allow students to develop conceptual understanding in a highly structured and cumulative manner. Traditional approaches to school curriculum involve students studying separate subjects that are independent and disconnected from each other, taught at different times during the day by specialized teachers. Predominant forms of assessment include written tests and examinations.

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There are different views about the purpose of schooling and the purpose of learning science in school. High school science was traditionally seen as a passage to higher education and career choices for those students talented and interested in science. From this perspective the purpose of school science may be twofold; first, to prepare future scientists with the knowledge and skills needed for their future careers; and second, to enable students to score highly in tertiary entrance examinations and to improve their chances of accessing desirable courses at university. In more recent years the purpose of learning science in school has been described in a different way that reflects the need for a scientifically literate population. From this perspective, the purpose of school science is to provide an education that will be of value to students over a lifetime, irrespective of their careers, and thus highlights the scientific needs of all students. Scientifically literate students tend to be described in a practical way, being able to solve practical problems for health and survival, in a civic way, being able to participate more fully in debate and decision making, and in a cultural way, being motivated to know about science as a human endeavour (Shen, 1975)37. Integrated approaches to the teaching and learning of science in school are more consistent with students becoming scientifically literate because they are more likely to be given the opportunity to solve practical problems and participate in debate and decision making than students who participate in a traditional, disciplinary approach to school science.

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Evaluations of science learning that result from integrated programs of work in schools have produced notoriously ambivalent conclusions. In a review of the literature from the 1940’s to the early 1990’s, Vars (1991)34 found more than 80 normative or comparative studies reporting that, on standardized achievement tests, students in various forms of integrated programs performed better than, or at least as well as, students enrolled in separate subjects. In contrast Marsh (1993)35 tracked some of the major research on integration from the USA, UK, and Asia over the previous 50 years and found that there was limited evidence of either a positive or a negative effect. Assessment of learning tends to focus on the disciplinary content and neglect other factors that may be more consistent with an integrated approach to teaching and learning. Some studies have attempted to incorporate broader and more holistic perspectives into their evaluation of student learning, focusing on outcomes such as student motivation, attitude, cooperation, and capacity to transfer and apply knowledge. In the 31 studies included in her meta-analysis, for example, Hurley (2001)36 noted anecdotal evidence that curriculum integration has a positive impact on attendance, student behaviour, knowledge of academic resources, study habits, student enthusiasm, and student engagement.