Ecology may be seen as one of the main topics of biological education as it functions at the interface of several other aspects of biology. Although it may easily be conveyed through field trips and hands-on activities, it is taught theoretically most of the time and in traditional ecosystems like forests or lakes. For this study, new teaching material has been developed that demonstrates the exploration of more special or “atypical” ecosystems in biology classes. It combines working in a local vineyard with hands-on elements for school. By exploring a human-made ecosystem, which is different from those traditionally used, students gain content knowledge and get to know scientific methods. In our case study, students’ learning progress, motivation, and enjoyment of learning were measured. The results indicate that teaching at an out-of-school learning site as well as working with hands-on materials not only has a motivational effect but also increases enjoyment of learning. Furthermore, neglected ecosystems like vineyards serve as new and fitting examples for teaching ecological and plant-biological topics. The results indicate a significant learning gain for the participants. Thus, biology curricula should be broadened to include more and local plants and ecosystems.

Introduction

Theoretical Background

Discovering natural phenomena at out-of-school learning settings by giving the opportunity for personal encounter and integrating hands-on materials are two important, commonly accepted concepts of biology classes (AAAS, 2009b; Barker et al., 2002; Graham et al., 2005; Kirschner et al., 2006; Moss, 2012; Nyberg & Sanders, 2014).

Out-of-school learning sites are places where students are offered the chance to experience a personal encounter with the objects they learn about, such as directly observing plants or animals in their natural habitat. These “concrete experiences are most effective in learning when they occur in the context of some relevant conceptual structure” (AAAS, 1990). Although these places hold many biological secrets to be discovered, the number of experiments or field trips in school has been decreasing (Barker et al., 2002, p. 3; Dillon et al., 2006). Additionally, most children spend their spare time at home instead of going outside and discovering nature on their own (Moss, 2012; White & Stoecklin, 1998). Consequently, they increasingly lose contact with nature (Moss, 2012). Biology lessons outside the classroom can offer the chance to lead children back to nature.

Globally, numerous researchers and institutions request hands-on and inquiry-based teaching as well as field trips (AAAS, 2009a; Finn et al., 2002; Konferenz [Standing Conference], 2004, pp. 6, 10; NRC-NA, 2003). As this represents the best way of learning, a lesson's goal must not only be to impart knowledge, but also to convey the fundamental basics of scientific finding processes (Kirschner et al., 2006). Furthermore, learning how to work scientifically offers students the chance to transfer this knowledge to comparable problems they face in their everyday lives (Finn et al., 2002). As a result it may lay a basis for life-long learning (Graham et al., 2005).

Several ecological aspects may serve as ideal topics to combine these two didactical approaches, as ecology is one of the central topics of biology lessons (Odum & Barrett, 2005; Roberts, 1997). Ecology may not only convey several biological contents like genetics or plant physiology (Barker et al., 2002) but also some scientific methods. Furthermore, it is present from the age of kindergarten until high school. In the United States, ecology appears in different facets like “interdependent relationships in ecosystems” (NGSS, 2013, pp. 52, 87; e.g., the role of beneficial insects for viticulture), “growth, development, and reproduction of organisms” (p. 53; e.g., annual development of grapevine from spring to winter; structures of flowers and their respective functions), “weather and climate” (p. 60; e.g., influence of location as well as short-term changes of abiotic factors on organisms), and “human impacts” on ecosystems (p. 61; e.g., consequences of the extensive use of fertilizers in agriculture).

Both in Germany and the United States, most teachers who visit out-of-school learning sites with their biology classes, choose “traditional” ecosystems like lakes, streams, or forests to teach ecological facts (Bebbington, 2005; Berck & Graf, 2003, p. 60; Killermann et al., 2009, p. 278; Ministerium für Bildung, 2014, p. 33; School Curriculum and Standards Authority, 2013, p. 9). For some schools these ecosystems are too far away, so not all schools have the same geographical and natural “opportunities to experience the outdoors” (Dillon et al., 2006). Consequently, there is a need for teaching materials dealing with “reachable” local ecosystems and their indigenous organisms that meet all the requirements for modern teaching mentioned above (Graham et al., 2005).

Agricultural fields as ecosystems offer the opportunity to get to know nature even if there is no “untouched” nature near the school that allows primary experiences (Paschold, 2015). Additionally, the work with agricultural plants may improve students’ botanical knowledge (Fritsch et al., 2015). Vineyards are a type of agricultural land that is present on almost every continent (Müller, 2008). They are not only of biological and agricultural importance, as the United States is covered by almost “one million acres of grape bearing land” (NAAW, 2014); they are also of noteworthy economic significance, since “grapes are the highest value fruit crop in the US” (NAAW, 2014). Although grapevine is an outstanding example of a monoculture with all its advantages and disadvantages, vineyards also hold an enormous biodiversity of animals and plants besides grapevine. Thus, vineyards have the enormous potential to demonstrate various biological phenomena in several regions of the world for students’ exploration as a new exemplary agricultural ecosystem in school. Moreover, the vine plant serves as an ideal organism that may be visited in real life, and occurs both naturally and artificially. As it displays all the regularities of flowering plants—such as traditional structure and annual cycle—yet still has individual characteristics, like its long history and many different cultivated breeds, it is an excellent example to convey general botanical rules as well as the individualality of organisms.

Teaching Material

The material the students worked with is divided into three content units (Figure 1) dealing with vineyards, grapevine, and plants in general, giving a relevant conceptual framework. Worksheets consisted of informational texts, short instructions for the experiments, and prepared protocol sheets. The teaching material was developed following German curricula and meets the requirements of international science standards (Table 1).

Table 1.
Elements of the teaching material and its curricular references.
Project contentsReferences to German curricula1References to contents and competencies in the Next Generation Science Standards
Exploring Plants by a New Model Organism 
Having a closer look at the vine plant:
  • Which organs does the vine plant have?

  • What is the function of these organs?

  • What does the annual development cycle of grapevine look like?

 
  • Growth2

  • Structure and function of green plants (roots, stem, leaves)

  • Structure and function of blossoms

 
Contents:
  • Growth of individual organisms

 
Studying structures and characteristics of a grape:
  • Deviation from the standard (e.g., number of seeds)

  • Localization of several components (e.g., pigments)

  • Presence of micro-organisms (e.g., yeast)

 
  • Structure and function of green plants

 
Contents:
  • Growth of individual organisms

 
Studying different aspects of water regulation within the vine plant:
  • Investigating location, structure, and density of stomata

  • Demonstration of transpirational pull

  • Identification of tissues responsible for water transport

 
  • Water transport

  • Transpiration

  • Use of a microscope as scientific device

  • Microscopy of single plant cells within a tissue

 
Contents:
  • Living things are made up of cells.

  • Plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.

Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Constructing explanations

 
Studying characteristics of photosynthesis:
  • Proving the necessity of sunlight for carrying out photosynthesis

  • Proving the presence of starch in photosynthetic active cells

 
  • Sunlight's importance for green plants

  • Plants form starch

  • Working scientifically

 
Contents:
  • Flow of energy (photosynthesis)

  • Plants […] use the energy from sunlight to make sugars

  • Sugars can be stored [in plant cells]

  • The chemical reaction by which plants produce complex food molecules (sugars) requires an energy input (i.e., from sunlight)

Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Constructing explanations

 
Discovering an Anthropogenic Ecosystem: A Vineyard 
Collecting and interpreting data on different abiotic factors (dependent on location and time):
  • Air and soil temperature

  • Light intensity

  • Wind speed


Drawing conclusions from the data conferring it to obvious characteristics of the studied vineyard. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Measuring abiotic factors: temperature and light intensity

  • Observing variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with an ecosystem and its organisms at a local example

 
Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • [Constructing] an explanation for how environmental […] factors affect growth of organisms

  • [Considering] abiotic factors in an ecosystem and the effects these factors have on population

 
Investigating the flora and fauna of an ecosystem by recording its biodiversity:
  • Determining plant and animal species with an identification key on a tablet PC

 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Investigating biodiversity of ecosystems

  • Different types of ecosystems (e.g., monoculture vs. biodiversity)

  • Collecting and naming different organisms in an ecosystem

 
Contents:
  • Biodiversity describes the variety of species found in Earth's terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems.

 
Analyzing Soil Samples 
Analyzing different parameters and characteristics of a vineyard's soil:
  • Water content and capacity

  • pH value

  • Lime


Comparing the measured data to official sources and information about the grapevine's needs. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Measuring abiotic factors

  • Observing the variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Abiotic factors: different detection reactions

  • Water adsorption

 
Contents:
  • Resources and growth of individual organisms

  • Plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.


Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • [Constructing] an explanation for how environmental […] factors affect growth of organisms

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • Using mathematical […] thinking

 
Analyzing the nitrate level of different kinds of soil (garden, forest, vineyard) and comparing the results.
Thinking critically about the advantages and disadvantages of the use of nitrate fertilizer regarding the consequences for nature. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Observing the variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Damage of ecosystems, e.g., eutrophication

 
Contents:
  • Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, […]

  • Fertilizers increasing plant growth


Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • [Constructing] an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support […] a solution to a problem

 
Project contentsReferences to German curricula1References to contents and competencies in the Next Generation Science Standards
Exploring Plants by a New Model Organism 
Having a closer look at the vine plant:
  • Which organs does the vine plant have?

  • What is the function of these organs?

  • What does the annual development cycle of grapevine look like?

 
  • Growth2

  • Structure and function of green plants (roots, stem, leaves)

  • Structure and function of blossoms

 
Contents:
  • Growth of individual organisms

 
Studying structures and characteristics of a grape:
  • Deviation from the standard (e.g., number of seeds)

  • Localization of several components (e.g., pigments)

  • Presence of micro-organisms (e.g., yeast)

 
  • Structure and function of green plants

 
Contents:
  • Growth of individual organisms

 
Studying different aspects of water regulation within the vine plant:
  • Investigating location, structure, and density of stomata

  • Demonstration of transpirational pull

  • Identification of tissues responsible for water transport

 
  • Water transport

  • Transpiration

  • Use of a microscope as scientific device

  • Microscopy of single plant cells within a tissue

 
Contents:
  • Living things are made up of cells.

  • Plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.

Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Constructing explanations

 
Studying characteristics of photosynthesis:
  • Proving the necessity of sunlight for carrying out photosynthesis

  • Proving the presence of starch in photosynthetic active cells

 
  • Sunlight's importance for green plants

  • Plants form starch

  • Working scientifically

 
Contents:
  • Flow of energy (photosynthesis)

  • Plants […] use the energy from sunlight to make sugars

  • Sugars can be stored [in plant cells]

  • The chemical reaction by which plants produce complex food molecules (sugars) requires an energy input (i.e., from sunlight)

Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Constructing explanations

 
Discovering an Anthropogenic Ecosystem: A Vineyard 
Collecting and interpreting data on different abiotic factors (dependent on location and time):
  • Air and soil temperature

  • Light intensity

  • Wind speed


Drawing conclusions from the data conferring it to obvious characteristics of the studied vineyard. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Measuring abiotic factors: temperature and light intensity

  • Observing variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with an ecosystem and its organisms at a local example

 
Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • [Constructing] an explanation for how environmental […] factors affect growth of organisms

  • [Considering] abiotic factors in an ecosystem and the effects these factors have on population

 
Investigating the flora and fauna of an ecosystem by recording its biodiversity:
  • Determining plant and animal species with an identification key on a tablet PC

 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Investigating biodiversity of ecosystems

  • Different types of ecosystems (e.g., monoculture vs. biodiversity)

  • Collecting and naming different organisms in an ecosystem

 
Contents:
  • Biodiversity describes the variety of species found in Earth's terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems.

 
Analyzing Soil Samples 
Analyzing different parameters and characteristics of a vineyard's soil:
  • Water content and capacity

  • pH value

  • Lime


Comparing the measured data to official sources and information about the grapevine's needs. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Measuring abiotic factors

  • Observing the variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Abiotic factors: different detection reactions

  • Water adsorption

 
Contents:
  • Resources and growth of individual organisms

  • Plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.


Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • [Constructing] an explanation for how environmental […] factors affect growth of organisms

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • Using mathematical […] thinking

 
Analyzing the nitrate level of different kinds of soil (garden, forest, vineyard) and comparing the results.
Thinking critically about the advantages and disadvantages of the use of nitrate fertilizer regarding the consequences for nature. 
  • Investigation, description, and typing of ecosystems

  • Observing the variation of abiotic factors

  • Direct contact with a local ecosystem and its organisms

  • Damage of ecosystems, e.g., eutrophication

 
Contents:
  • Human activities in agriculture, industry, and everyday life have had major effects on the land, vegetation, […]

  • Fertilizers increasing plant growth


Competencies:
  • Planning and conducting investigations

  • Analyzing and interpreting data

  • [Constructing] an oral and written argument supported by empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support […] a solution to a problem

 

Note: Table includes only some references of the respective sources and is not intended to be exhaustive.

1 References taken from the curricula of two federal states of Germany, Hessia (Hessisches Kultusministerium) and Rhineland-Palatinate (Ministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Jugend und Kultur, 2010; Ministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Weiterbildung und Kultur, 2014).

2 References translated from German.

Figure 1.

Overview of the three content units of the teaching material.

Figure 1.

Overview of the three content units of the teaching material.

The three main units cover basic botanical and ecological aspects. Besides content knowledge, a main focus of the teaching material is on several methods and the capabilities of scientific work and reasoning, such as conducting limited experiments, gathering and analyzing data, and drawing conclusions from the respective results.

The botanical contents fit as introductory units in lower classes or as revision or specifications in higher classes.

The ecology part is focused, besides working scientifically, on abiotic factors and biodiversity of this particular example, a vineyard. As this example represents an atypical, namely human-made ecosystem, this part fits best as a completion for an ecological unit about natural ecosystems where, for example, food webs can be addressed. By direct comparison with a natural ecosystem, the differences can be made obvious and the advantages and disadvantages of artificial ecosystems can be discussed.

The teaching material is not intended to be exhaustive and may be adapted to learning groups or specific local demands. Although content units were developed following German curricula, they cover general topics of botany and ecology that in other countries may be taught in different grades, but nevertheless comprise central contents of biology classes (Table 1).

Aim of this study

For this study, new teaching material has been developed to implement “grapevine and vineyard” as a new model organism and ecosystem in schools. The second focus of the learning material is the combination of hands-on activities and out-of-school learning sites.

To our knowledge learning materials dealing with grapevine and vineyard have not to date been evaluated as new exemplary organisms and ecosystems in botanical and ecological education. For the evaluation of our teaching material, we established the following research questions:

  • Do vineyards qualify as an attractive ecosystem for different teaching approaches, for which students show a high motivation and enjoyment of learning?

  • Do grapevine and vineyard qualify for teaching botany basics and ecology, for which students show a significant learning gain after working with the learning material?

The study at hand is a case study. Since the study was undertaken with a small sample size, the quantitative data is supplemented by qualitative data.

Method

Educational Program

This study was conducted in the course of a project week at a local Gymnasium. Within the German educational system, differentiation of students’ performance at lower secondary education does not happen within a school but rather between different types of schools, and the Gymnasium represents the highest of these stratification levels. Within the Gymnasium all students are taught together in fixed classes without any deeper specifications through year ten. Project weeks normally follow a teaching concept that usually integrates various school subjects for concentrating on certain thematic aspects. In contrast to the regular mode of teaching, which is organized in domain-specific subjects, students may choose a topic of their interest for one week, concentrate on different aspects, and work across disciplines. As a result, student groups of different ages are working together. Consequently, the project week offered an ideal context to evaluate the teaching concepts and materials with a very heterogeneous sample. This offered us the chance to test our teaching concepts on students of different ages, as well as on students who were regularly taught by different teachers, thus minimizing bias in our results. Students were provided all working material (worksheets, electronic media, and measuring instruments). On the first day, they were introduced to the timetable and the testing procedure (Table 2), followed by two days about vineyards (Figure 1, Boxes 2 and 3).

For all tasks, students worked in fixed groups of three or four students.

Table 2.
Structure of the project week.
DayTasks
Monday 
  • presentation of the project week

  • film (presenting background information about grapevine and plants in general)

  • preparation for individual experiments (e.g., detection of starch in the leaves of grapevine)

 
Tuesday 
  • excursion to a local vineyard

  • studying the morphology of grapevine directly

  • measuring several factors of the microclimate (air temperature, soil temperature, wind speed, light intensity)

  • taking soil samples

  • identification of animals and plants with the help of a digital and analog identification key

 
Wednesday 
  • analysis of several factors of the soil samples (soil humidity, water capacity, pH value, concentration of nitrates, etc.)

  • interpretation of the data taken in the vineyard (wind, light, temperature)

 
Thursday 
  • several experiments demonstrating plant physiology (detection of starch, microscopy of stomata, demonstration of transpiration suction, etc.)

 
Friday 
  • creation of posters about the project week

  • presentation of the results

 
DayTasks
Monday 
  • presentation of the project week

  • film (presenting background information about grapevine and plants in general)

  • preparation for individual experiments (e.g., detection of starch in the leaves of grapevine)

 
Tuesday 
  • excursion to a local vineyard

  • studying the morphology of grapevine directly

  • measuring several factors of the microclimate (air temperature, soil temperature, wind speed, light intensity)

  • taking soil samples

  • identification of animals and plants with the help of a digital and analog identification key

 
Wednesday 
  • analysis of several factors of the soil samples (soil humidity, water capacity, pH value, concentration of nitrates, etc.)

  • interpretation of the data taken in the vineyard (wind, light, temperature)

 
Thursday 
  • several experiments demonstrating plant physiology (detection of starch, microscopy of stomata, demonstration of transpiration suction, etc.)

 
Friday 
  • creation of posters about the project week

  • presentation of the results

 

Participants and Design

In our study, students (N = 19) from three different grades (six students from grade eight, ten students from grade nine and three students from grade ten) participated. Due to the German school system all participating students shared the same curriculum which covers grades 7 to 10. As biology is not taught over the entire period of these four school years, it could be assumed that they had a similar previous knowledge. They were between 13 and 17 years old.

Among the participants were three male and 16 female students. Learning progress, student motivation, and learning enjoyment were measured. We tested students’ current content knowledge before and after the learning unit. Lessons were given by the investigator to create a test situation that was free from bias.

Questionnaires

Learning progress was evaluated with a questionnaire consisting of 19 single-choice, multiple-choice (Table 3), and open-ended (Table 4) items.

Table 3.
Closed-ended items in the knowledge test and their medium scores in pre- and post-test.
ItemQuestionResponse possibilitiesMaximum possible pointsPre-testPost-test
K1 Is grapevine able to blossom? Yes / No / Don't know 0.5 0.9* 
K3 Are plants able to breathe? Yes / No / Don't know 0.8 0.9 
K5 Check which compounds may be produced by the plant itself. Nitrogen / Sugar / Chlorine / Sodium / Phosphorus 0.7 0.8 
K6 Check the right answers. Grapevine consumes sugar / Grapevine produces sugar / Grapevine produces more sugar than it consumes / Grapevine produces less sugar than it consumes 1.1 1.4 
K7 Check all the things that are essential to plants. Animals eating branches that are too long / Water / Sunlight / Other plants / Carbon dioxide / Nutrients 1.7 2.4* 
K14.1 The quantity of acids… … increases during ripening phase /…decreases during ripening phase / Don't know 0.8 0.8 
K14.2 The quantity of sugar… … increases during ripening phase /…decreases during ripening phase / Don't know 0.9 0.9 
K21.1 By separating a grape from a bunch of grapes, all life within the grape is killed. Right / Wrong / Don't know 0.5 0.6 
K22 From which grapes can white wine be made? White grapes / Red grapes / Don't know 1.6 2.2 
ItemQuestionResponse possibilitiesMaximum possible pointsPre-testPost-test
K1 Is grapevine able to blossom? Yes / No / Don't know 0.5 0.9* 
K3 Are plants able to breathe? Yes / No / Don't know 0.8 0.9 
K5 Check which compounds may be produced by the plant itself. Nitrogen / Sugar / Chlorine / Sodium / Phosphorus 0.7 0.8 
K6 Check the right answers. Grapevine consumes sugar / Grapevine produces sugar / Grapevine produces more sugar than it consumes / Grapevine produces less sugar than it consumes 1.1 1.4 
K7 Check all the things that are essential to plants. Animals eating branches that are too long / Water / Sunlight / Other plants / Carbon dioxide / Nutrients 1.7 2.4* 
K14.1 The quantity of acids… … increases during ripening phase /…decreases during ripening phase / Don't know 0.8 0.8 
K14.2 The quantity of sugar… … increases during ripening phase /…decreases during ripening phase / Don't know 0.9 0.9 
K21.1 By separating a grape from a bunch of grapes, all life within the grape is killed. Right / Wrong / Don't know 0.5 0.6 
K22 From which grapes can white wine be made? White grapes / Red grapes / Don't know 1.6 2.2 

Note: Questions were translated from German.

* Significant difference.

Table 4.
Open-ended items in the knowledge test and their scores in pre- and post-test.
ItemQuestionSample SolutionPre-testPost-test
K2 Why do fruits exist? Fruits contain the seeds of a plant. They serve as dispersal units as they are eaten and excreted by animals. 1.1 1.3 
K4 What happens to the water that is absorbed by plants? It is absorbed by the roots and transported to the plants’ organs via the vascular system. 1.1 2.3* 
K8 Explain why roots are extensively branched. By extending the root system, plants increase the surface to absorb water. Furthermore it stabilizes the plant. 1.6 2.1 
K10 Name an animal that lives in a vineyard. Ant 2.3 2.8 
K11 Name a plant that grows in a vineyard. Dandelion 0.9 1.9** 
K12 Draw a bunch of grapes.a — 0.1b 0.7b 
K19 Explain why fertilizers are used. They are used to support the plants’ growth by adding nutrients to the soil. 2.4 2.4 
K20 What color is the juice of red grapes? White 0.1 1.0** 
ItemQuestionSample SolutionPre-testPost-test
K2 Why do fruits exist? Fruits contain the seeds of a plant. They serve as dispersal units as they are eaten and excreted by animals. 1.1 1.3 
K4 What happens to the water that is absorbed by plants? It is absorbed by the roots and transported to the plants’ organs via the vascular system. 1.1 2.3* 
K8 Explain why roots are extensively branched. By extending the root system, plants increase the surface to absorb water. Furthermore it stabilizes the plant. 1.6 2.1 
K10 Name an animal that lives in a vineyard. Ant 2.3 2.8 
K11 Name a plant that grows in a vineyard. Dandelion 0.9 1.9** 
K12 Draw a bunch of grapes.a — 0.1b 0.7b 
K19 Explain why fertilizers are used. They are used to support the plants’ growth by adding nutrients to the soil. 2.4 2.4 
K20 What color is the juice of red grapes? White 0.1 1.0** 

Note: Questions were translated from German. Sample answers do not cover all possibilities that were accepted as correct. For each question, three points was the maximum possible.

a The German translation for “bunch of grapes” and “grape” are the same (Traube).

b For this question, one point was the maximum possible.

* Significant Difference.

** Very significant difference.

Additionally, two matching tasks had to be fulfilled. Examples of the three types of questions are given in Figure 2. The questions referred to the topics of the material at hand. They measured the acquisition of professional knowledge as well as basic understanding of biological processes (e.g., K4 in Table 4).

Figure 2.

Examples of the three types of questions included in the questionnaire on content knowledge.

Figure 2.

Examples of the three types of questions included in the questionnaire on content knowledge.

Since enjoyment of learning has positive effects on learning strategies, achievement, and interest (Frenzel et al., 2009; Pekrun et al., 2002), it does not only influence academic success but also lays the foundation for life-long learning (Ainley & Ainley, 2011). According to a questionnaire developed by Rheinberg, Vollmeyer, and Burns (2001), interest is one main factor of motivation. Consequently, motivation may also influence learning achievement, as it is “one of the most important concepts in education” (Vallerand et al., 1992). Therefore motivation and enjoyment of learning have also been measured for the evaluation of the learning material of this study. Student motivation was measured with the questionnaire on current motivation (QCM; Freund et al., 2011, derived from the original form developed by Rheinberg et al., 2001).

It was assessed immediately before working on the tasks in the vineyard (QCM 1 in Table 5) and those for probing the soil samples, respectively (QCM 2). Students’ answers were evaluated with a five-point Likert scale (1 = I agree, 5 = I disagree, with 1 being the most positive response). For data analysis the item “I probably won't manage to do this task.” was transcoded, because the other items of this category were constructed positively.

Table 5.
Items of the simplified QCM used in this study.
QCM 1QCM 2
ItemMSDMSD
Probability of success M1 I think I am up to the difficulty of this task. 1.19 0.54 1.18 0.39 
M2 I probably won't manage to do this task.* 1.31 0.48 1.53 0.87 
M11 I think everyone could do well on this task. 1.56 0.73 1.29 0.47 
 Mean 1.35  1.33  
Anxiety** M3 I feel under pressure to do this task well. 4.56 1.03 4.47 1.01 
M7 I am afraid I will make a fool out of myself. 4.75 0.58 4.65 0.61 
M10 It would be embarrassing to fail at this task. 4.00 1.21 4.24 0.97 
 Mean 4.44  4.45  
Interest M4 When fulfilling this task, I like the role of the researcher, who discovers connections. 2.25 0.68 2.06 0.83 
M5 After having read the instructions, the task is very interesting to me. 2.19 0.75 2.06 1.03 
M9 For tasks like this, I do not need a reward, they are lots of fun anyhow. 2.06 0.85 1.82 0.81 
M13 I would work on this task even in my free time. 4.06 0.77 3.71 1.36 
 Mean 2.64  2.41  
Challenge M6 I am eager to see how I will perform in the task. 2.38 0.89 2.71 1.05 
M8 I am really going to try as hard as I can on this task. 1.75 0.68 1.88 0.60 
M12 If I can do this task, I will feel proud of myself. 2.69 0.70 2.41 0.94 
 Mean 2.27  2.33  
QCM 1QCM 2
ItemMSDMSD
Probability of success M1 I think I am up to the difficulty of this task. 1.19 0.54 1.18 0.39 
M2 I probably won't manage to do this task.* 1.31 0.48 1.53 0.87 
M11 I think everyone could do well on this task. 1.56 0.73 1.29 0.47 
 Mean 1.35  1.33  
Anxiety** M3 I feel under pressure to do this task well. 4.56 1.03 4.47 1.01 
M7 I am afraid I will make a fool out of myself. 4.75 0.58 4.65 0.61 
M10 It would be embarrassing to fail at this task. 4.00 1.21 4.24 0.97 
 Mean 4.44  4.45  
Interest M4 When fulfilling this task, I like the role of the researcher, who discovers connections. 2.25 0.68 2.06 0.83 
M5 After having read the instructions, the task is very interesting to me. 2.19 0.75 2.06 1.03 
M9 For tasks like this, I do not need a reward, they are lots of fun anyhow. 2.06 0.85 1.82 0.81 
M13 I would work on this task even in my free time. 4.06 0.77 3.71 1.36 
 Mean 2.64  2.41  
Challenge M6 I am eager to see how I will perform in the task. 2.38 0.89 2.71 1.05 
M8 I am really going to try as hard as I can on this task. 1.75 0.68 1.88 0.60 
M12 If I can do this task, I will feel proud of myself. 2.69 0.70 2.41 0.94 
 Mean 2.27  2.33  

Note: Questions were translated from German. Table shows medium scores and standard deviations of the particular items (1 = totally agree; 5 = totally disagree).

* Item was transcoded to fit in the category, since all other items of this category were constructed positively.

** Higher scores in this category are more positive than lower scores.

Learning enjoyment was measured after the respective tasks with a test developed following Helmke (1993). The test consisted of 11 questions that belonged to the categories “theoretical-technical knowledge,” “affinity to nature,” and “enthusiasm for experiments” (Table 6). Questions could be answered on a five-point scale. The questions about the vineyard and the soil samples were worded slightly differently to adjust them to the tasks fulfilled by the students.

Table 6.
Items of the learning enjoyment test.
Learning enjoyment testMSD
Affinity to nature E1.1 How did you like the day in the vineyard? 1.75 0.77 
E1.3 Would you like to visit extracurricular learning sites more often? 1.13 0.34 
E1.4 How did you like the role of a scientist, who observes and explores? 2.00 0.52 
E1.8 Would you like to observe living animals in your biology class more often? 1.25 0.77 
E1.9 Would you like to work with plants in your biology class more often? 1.63 0.81 
E1.11* Would you rather have completed the tasks in school? 2.06 1.48 
E2.11 Would you rather have completed the tasks in the vineyard? 1.83 1.15 
  Mean 1.65  
Enthusiasm for experiments E2.1 How did you like analyzing the soil samples? 2.28 0.75 
E2.3 How did you like doing experiments? 1.39 0.78 
E2.4 How did you like the role of a scientist, who is analyzing samples and interpreting results? 2.44 0.70 
E2.5 How did you like making quick tests to discover the pH level and nitrate levels of your soil sample? 1.61 0.92 
E2.6 How did you like using chemical reactions for analyses (e.g., detecting limestone by using hydrochloric acid)? 2.39 1.54 
E2.8 Would you like to do experiments in biology classes more often? 1.06 0.24 
E2.9 Would you like to think of and conduct your own experiments? 2.89 1.53 
  Mean 2.01  
Theoretical-technical interest E1.5 How did you like working with measuring instruments? 1.88 0.81 
E1.6 How did you like the identification of plants and animals with Tablet PCs? 2.27 1.01 
E1.7 Would you like to learn more about vineyards as a habitat? 2.44 0.73 
E1.10 Would you like to learn more about chemical interactions in vineyards? 2.44 0.96 
E2.7 Would you like to learn more about climate's influences on grapevine? 2.78 1.00 
E2.10 Would you like to learn more about chemical processes within plants? 2.61 1.20 
  Mean 2.56  
 E1.2 How did you like working in small groups, without a teacher? 1.13 0.50 
E2.2 How did you like working in small groups, without a teacher? 1.17 0.51 
Learning enjoyment testMSD
Affinity to nature E1.1 How did you like the day in the vineyard? 1.75 0.77 
E1.3 Would you like to visit extracurricular learning sites more often? 1.13 0.34 
E1.4 How did you like the role of a scientist, who observes and explores? 2.00 0.52 
E1.8 Would you like to observe living animals in your biology class more often? 1.25 0.77 
E1.9 Would you like to work with plants in your biology class more often? 1.63 0.81 
E1.11* Would you rather have completed the tasks in school? 2.06 1.48 
E2.11 Would you rather have completed the tasks in the vineyard? 1.83 1.15 
  Mean 1.65  
Enthusiasm for experiments E2.1 How did you like analyzing the soil samples? 2.28 0.75 
E2.3 How did you like doing experiments? 1.39 0.78 
E2.4 How did you like the role of a scientist, who is analyzing samples and interpreting results? 2.44 0.70 
E2.5 How did you like making quick tests to discover the pH level and nitrate levels of your soil sample? 1.61 0.92 
E2.6 How did you like using chemical reactions for analyses (e.g., detecting limestone by using hydrochloric acid)? 2.39 1.54 
E2.8 Would you like to do experiments in biology classes more often? 1.06 0.24 
E2.9 Would you like to think of and conduct your own experiments? 2.89 1.53 
  Mean 2.01  
Theoretical-technical interest E1.5 How did you like working with measuring instruments? 1.88 0.81 
E1.6 How did you like the identification of plants and animals with Tablet PCs? 2.27 1.01 
E1.7 Would you like to learn more about vineyards as a habitat? 2.44 0.73 
E1.10 Would you like to learn more about chemical interactions in vineyards? 2.44 0.96 
E2.7 Would you like to learn more about climate's influences on grapevine? 2.78 1.00 
E2.10 Would you like to learn more about chemical processes within plants? 2.61 1.20 
  Mean 2.56  
 E1.2 How did you like working in small groups, without a teacher? 1.13 0.50 
E2.2 How did you like working in small groups, without a teacher? 1.17 0.51 

Note: Questions were translated from German. Table shows medium scores and standard deviations of the particular items (1 = totally agree; 5 = totally disagree).

As a fourth type of questionnaire, students answered some open-ended items giving their opinion about the implementation of “grapevine and vineyard” as a new topic in school, concerning the categories of “content”, “media,” and “scientific methods”. All tests were filled in as paper-pencil-tests, and questions were posed in the German language.

To test the hypotheses, mean values were compared, and both standard deviations and t-tests were used. For statistical calculations, SPSS 22 was used. Due to the small sample size of the case study, qualitative data was analyzed to support the statistical results.

Results

Content Knowledge

Content knowledge was measured in a pre-/post-test design. The mean knowledge score of all items of the post-test (M = 28.3 points, SD = 4.5) indicates significant learning gains (P < 0.001) compared to the pre-test (M = 20.6, SD = 5.0; Figure 3). Students who had already visited a vineyard showed a slightly higher learning progress than others.

Figure 3.

Results of pre- and post-test on content knowledge. Absolute points (mean value) and standard errors are given. *Highly significant difference = P < 0.001.

Figure 3.

Results of pre- and post-test on content knowledge. Absolute points (mean value) and standard errors are given. *Highly significant difference = P < 0.001.

In item K11 (“Name a plant that grows in a vineyard.”), knowledge improved from 0.9 to 1.9 (of three reachable) points in the mean score (also see Table 4). In the pre-test, only eight students could name any kind of plant, and their answers were very abstract like “grass,” “flowers,” or “trees.” Only three of the answers named a specific plant. In the post-test, 14 students could name some kind of a plant, and nine of the answers included a specific one (e.g., “dandelion,” “field bindweed”). The conclusions students drew from the results of their different measurements and the vineyard's flora are not part of the data of our questionnaires. Nevertheless, they were discussed among the students. Students observed different stages of development of dandelions, which grew in different places throughout the vineyard. Students hypothesized a correlation between the developmental stages of dandelions and their location within the vineyard.

In item K12, students were asked to draw a bunch of grapes. In German, the vintner's term for “bunch of grapes” and the layperson's term for “grape” are both translated by the word “Traube”, but the botanically correct term for “grape” is “Weinbeere.” Our material should therefore teach the difference between terminology and everyday language. The medium score of this item improved from 0.1 to 0.7 of one reachable point. In the post-test, one student even defined the difference between a “bunch of grapes” and a “grape” (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

One student's answer to item K12 (“Draw a bunch of grapes”), differentiating between “grapes” and “bunch of grapes.”

Figure 4.

One student's answer to item K12 (“Draw a bunch of grapes”), differentiating between “grapes” and “bunch of grapes.”

Students’ knowledge also obviously differed between pre-test and post-test concerning some other questions (Table 7). The percentage of participants who were not sure about the roots’ function decreased, and the percentage of those giving at least one correct reason increased (Figure 5). They could describe what happens to the water absorbed by the plant: “It supplies the plant with nutrients and reaches the whole plant via the roots and the leaf veins.” And they were able to describe the reasons for the use of fertilizers after the treatment: “To make sure that nutrients, which don't exist in the soil, reach the plant, as it needs them for surviving.” and “Better growth.”

Table 7.
Examples of students’ results and conclusions after the respective teaching unit.
Project contentsStudents’ results
Having a closer look at the vine plant Students compared different grapevines and discovered that, even within a monoculture, a great variation of plants may occur. 
Studying structures and characteristics of a grape Students were surprised by the fact…“that there is yeast in the grape's juice”* and “that the juice of all grapes is the same color.” 
Studying different aspects of water regulation within the vine plant Students learned “that plants have stomata and how they [stomata] work.” 
Studying characteristics of photosynthesis Students learned that “the plant produces starch.” 
Collecting and interpreting data on different abiotic factors Students expressed that it is “important to know what may influence the vine plant” and “important to know which actions can be taken to avoid bad influences.” 
Project contentsStudents’ results
Having a closer look at the vine plant Students compared different grapevines and discovered that, even within a monoculture, a great variation of plants may occur. 
Studying structures and characteristics of a grape Students were surprised by the fact…“that there is yeast in the grape's juice”* and “that the juice of all grapes is the same color.” 
Studying different aspects of water regulation within the vine plant Students learned “that plants have stomata and how they [stomata] work.” 
Studying characteristics of photosynthesis Students learned that “the plant produces starch.” 
Collecting and interpreting data on different abiotic factors Students expressed that it is “important to know what may influence the vine plant” and “important to know which actions can be taken to avoid bad influences.” 

* Note: All statements were translated from German.

Figure 5.

Percentage of students giving the respective answer in the pre- and post-test.

Figure 5.

Percentage of students giving the respective answer in the pre- and post-test.

In addition to the results of the questionnaire, students’ learning gain becomes obvious by looking at their learning products. At the end of the project week, they should create a poster following this description: “Design a poster for the exhibition tomorrow to describe to your parents the most important facts about grapevines and vineyards, which you have learned within the past four days.” Figure 6 shows the differences among these posters in both design and content.

Figure 6.

Examples of students’ posters at the end of the project week focusing on morphology (top), photosynthesis (middle), and soil samples of the vineyard (bottom). English translation in bold letters was added afterward. Translations are given on the right side.

Figure 6.

Examples of students’ posters at the end of the project week focusing on morphology (top), photosynthesis (middle), and soil samples of the vineyard (bottom). English translation in bold letters was added afterward. Translations are given on the right side.

Attitude, Motivation, and Learning Enjoyment

The reliability of students’ attitude, motivation, and learning enjoyment ranged from 0.12 to 0.34 (Cronbach's α) in the QCM 1 (vineyard), and from 0.13 to 0.78 in the QCM 2 (soil samples). The learning enjoyment reliability ranged from 0.44 to 0.67. The small values of Cronbach's α may be due to the small sample size of this case study (Charter, 2003), and thus do not necessarily question the results.

Students were motivated for their tasks, since the medium scores of QCM 1 (vineyard, M = 2.0) and QCM 2 (soil sample analysis, M = 1.9) were of good value and did not show any significant differences.

Furthermore, they enjoyed learning out of school (M = 1.65) and working with hands-on materials (M = 2.01). Similar results may be found in the qualitative data. When they were asked which element of the project week they liked the best, the day in the vineyard was named five times by statements like: “I liked the excursion because we were on a trip together and because it was diversified.” and “Finding out [the] animals’ [names] with the tablet PC.”

Nine further statements focused on the little experiments (“I liked very much measuring nitrate content and pH values in small tests.”) or plant and cell observations (“I liked microscopy of stomata the best.”).

Sixteen students enjoyed using the technical equipment to measure the different climate factors and to identify animals and plants (see E1.5 in Table 6). Ten of the students declared analyzing and interpreting test results to be easy. All students agreed that experiments should be integrated into biology lessons more often (see Table 6). They also totally agreed that they had enjoyed working independently in small groups. This was supported by the qualitative data, in which twelve students answered the question “What did you like the best in the vineyard?” with:

“Independent work.”

“Cooperation within the group.”

“Carrying out tasks by oneself.”

or they described it as “more diverse than normal lessons.” Students shared the opinion that out-of-school learning sites should be visited more often (see E1.3 in Table 6). According to the answers on the open-ended items, 12 students participating in this study had already visited out-of-school learning sites, and two of them named places for biology study (“water sample analysis at the Rammbach creek,” “forest, field”). Before the project week, 14 students wanted to visit out-of-school learning sites, but all students wanted to do so afterward.

The items offered some additional information about the students’ attitude toward plants and experiments in school. Although the results show that students were more interested in animals than in plants, they showed an increased interest after the study in both plants and animals (Figure 7).

Figure 7.

Changes in students’ interest in plants and animals during the study. Note: Figure is the percentage of students who said plants/animals are interesting.

Figure 7.

Changes in students’ interest in plants and animals during the study. Note: Figure is the percentage of students who said plants/animals are interesting.

Discussion and Future Implementations

The findings of our study demonstrate that teaching botanical, ecological, and environmental basics in local and reachable ecosystems that are different from those traditionally used is successful. Exploring vineyards and doing vine-related experiments both have a positive impact on students’ botanical and ecological knowledge. Consequently, vineyards, as agricultural fields, may serve as exemplary ecosystems in urban areas, where the absence of lakes or forests limits the chances to explore traditional ecosystems (Paschold, 2015). There was significant learning progress, demonstrated through questions about the vineyard and the additional material. Thus the aim of strengthening competencies in the field of professional knowledge was achieved. By doing experiments by themselves and drawing scientific conclusions (see Table 7), students learned to work scientifically (Finn et al., 2002; Ward et al., 2014). In some cases (see K12 in Table 4), students learned not only new methods or content, but also the importance of differentiation within biological terminology, which is an important aspect of working scientifically. This becomes obvious by the improvement shown in item K12. Thus, they not only started thinking on differently, but also restructured the new information by using the correct terms (Lukesch 2001, pp. 403–406). Additionally, they could be sensitized for the differences between biological terminology and everyday language (Jacobs, 1989).

Those students who had previously visited a vineyard learned slightly more than those students who had not. This can be explained by the theory of cumulative knowledge acquisition (Killermann et al., 2009, p. 79; Seel, 2012). Following this theory, students actively construct their knowledge and learn better if they are able to connect new information with what they already know (Seel, 2012) or “to what [they] already [believe]” (AAAS, 1990). The self-made posters give further evidence for this theory of individual learning. Although all students worked with the same material, did the same experiments, and were given the same task (designing a poster), all posters differed clearly in their focus. The posters additionally demonstrate the breadth of the teaching material and its varying importance to the students.

By taking a closer look at some particular questions, it is obvious that observing biological phenomena directly leads to an increased understanding and thereby learning gain (Moss, 2012).

The results of item K11 show that students have a poor and abstract idea of a vineyard's flora. This may be reinforced by most students’ lack of ability of naming specific plants (Bebbington, 2005). Although even after a visit to a vineyard, it might be difficult for the students to identify individual plants in the mass of green (Wandersee & Schussler, 1999), some of the students mentioned plants they had very likely identified with the identification key at hand (e.g., “field bindweed,” Convolvulus arvensis). This decrease of “plant blindness” (Wandersee & Schussler, 1999) is also supported by the fact that students’ interest in plants increased during this study. As a result, students’ awareness of sustainability for nature is fostered by increasing their knowledge of biodiversity (Fischer et al., 2007; Perrings et al., 2011). Furthermore, the results of other questions, such as water transport, indicate a shift from lacking or wrong knowledge to correct cognitive concepts.

Teaching ecology at out-of-school learning sites as well as via several experiments in school not only influences the learning gain, it also affects students’ motivation, which in turn affects learning achievement (Hummel & Randler, 2012; Vallerand et al., 1992). Students showed slightly higher motivation regarding probing the soil samples in school. A reason for this might be that they had none or few experiences with out-of-school learning, did not know what to expect, and thus were slightly anxious.

The results of the learning enjoyment test indicate that students appreciated working at the vineyard or with hands-on materials, which corresponds with other studies in science education literature. Osborne and Collins (2001) demonstrate with their study that authentic experience and hands-on material in science education may have a motivational effect and increase learning enjoyment. The higher degree of learning enjoyment in the category “affinity to nature” might be explained by the difficulties of probing the soil samples, as learning enjoyment is influenced by success (Hagenauer & Hascher, 2014). Although 16 of the students appreciated working with technical instruments (E1.5 in Table 6), they had difficulty analyzing the data. Only about half of the students found it easy to analyze the measured values and to interpret them in the context of grapevine. Nevertheless, students agreed that they wanted more experiments integrated into their lessons. Students appreciated working in small groups, without the teacher's direct involvement. They explicitly pointed out that they had fun when working in small groups in the vineyard, a fact also found for out-of-school learning sites in general by Barker, Slingsby, and Tilling (2002). This may be due to the larger area over which they could scatter in the vineyard; without the same feeling of being controlled as they might have in a classroom, they worked more independently and had to organize their work more carefully. This assumption is supported by other studies (Lai, 1999). Consequently, independent work increased learning enjoyment (Barker et al., 2002, p. 4; Osborne & Collins, 2001), compared to probing the soil samples in the classroom, as they not only enjoyed the authentic experience but also the characteristics of working outside. Although they learnt a lot, they did not have the feeling of attending a “normal lesson.”

To sum up, our research showed that teaching plant biological and ecological subjects by working with innovative ecosystems and their prevalent organisms as a primary subject can be successful. As the content knowledge test indicates, for our example, the vineyard, students learned essential facts about the plants and ecosystem, their characteristic elements, and the factors defining them.

In comparison, the out-of-school day and doing experiments in the school buildings did not show any significant differences and therefore are equally justified as hands-on methods in biology lessons in regard to students’ motivation and learning enjoyment. Especially the learning enjoyment results demonstrate that students prefer hands-on units when given the choice between hands-on and theoretical material. As the students showed increased learning enjoyment when they were working with grapevine in the vineyard, visiting agricultural ecosystems should be a permanent component of the official curriculum. Not only do the results at hand indicate that students may learn as much at an out-of-school learning site as in the classroom, they offer teachers a reason to bring students back to nature and thus make them aware of it (Moss, 2012). Consequently, the results of this study support the demand for the implementation of hands-on materials both in and out of school to increase students’ gain of knowledge, motivation, and learning enjoyment, and thereby improve the quality of learning and teaching. Because of the different social and geographical “opportunities to experience the outdoors” (Dillon et al., 2006), teaching out of school might be difficult sometimes, but we conclude that vineyards or other special ecosystems may serve as a justifiable exemplary ecosystem in areas where no lake, sea, or forest is reachable.

We are grateful to all students participating in this study and for the professional support from the Department of General and Organic Viticulture, Hochschule Geisenheim University, Geisenheim, Germany.

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