On the Purpose and Promise of Technology in the Science Classroom

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Ellis, J. A. (2021). On the Purpose and Promise of Technology in the Science Classroom. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(4).  Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/on-the-purpose-and-promise-of-technology-in-the-science-classroom/

by Joshua A. Ellis, Florida International University

Over the past 18 months, teachers, parents, and students across the world have been thinking about the role of technology in education more than ever before. The rapid shift to digitize and virtualize all aspects of learning in response to the global pandemic has illustrated both the opportunities and the limitations of leveraging technology within (and beyond) the K–12 classroom. Many science educators are accustomed to thinking about the role of technology in their classrooms because the practices and products associated with science and technology are often inseparable, advancing each other in a symbiotic relationship (Ihde, 2009). Over 30 years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) defined technology not as a product but as a technical and social process that involves “the application of knowledge, tools, and skills to solve practical problems and extend human capabilities” (Johnson, 1989, p. 1) and exhorted educators to provide students with opportunities to experience technology in their K–12 classrooms. Science educators and policymakers responded to this call by codifying the role of technology within the K–12 science classroom through standards documents such as the Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (AAAS, 1993), the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996), and today’s Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). As a former K–12 science teacher and a current science teacher educator, I remind my pre- and in-service teachers that “One cannot truly experience science without experiencing its technological dimension” (Oliveira et al., 2019, p. 149).

However, not all science teacher educators and researchers share this perspective. Across our K–12 school districts and teacher preparation programs, technology is too often relegated to a minor role when supporting preservice and inservice science educators. Technology has received less emphasis than the other disciplines represented in the STEM acronym (Akerson et al., 2018), and some researchers have chosen to ignore the role of technology completely (Herschbach, 2011). This neglect has led to the conceptual dilution, misapplication, and trivialization of educational technology in the classroom (Bull et al., 2019), resulting in the popularization of generic instructional technologies and approaches that may replace traditional pen-and-paper activities but fail to amplify or transform the student learning experience (Hughes et al., 2006). In some K–12 schools, a focus on technology may be found in specific learning environments such as shop classes or makerspaces, and a science teacher at one of these schools might believe that they are thereby absolved of the responsibility of educating their students about the role of technology. However, I believe that this would be a mistake. Obviously, not all K–12 schools have access to facilities like shop classes or makerspaces, and those that do usually offer associated learning experiences as electives. Moreover, the majority of eighth-grade students report learning about technology and engineering within the context of their science classroom (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2018). This is especially true for groups of students that have been historically excluded from careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: 55% of Black female students and 61% of Hispanic female students in the eighth grade report that they have never taken a technology or engineering course, whereas the same is true for only 41% of their White male peers (Change the Equation, 2016). If we as science teacher educators wish to increase opportunities for all students to not only succeed in science but also develop the skills and practices that will prepare them to explore a career in science or the STEM fields, we need to stop neglecting the role of technology in our discipline and start crafting experiences that leverage the symbiotic relationship between science and technology in ways that support student learning.

Thankfully, there are many science teacher educators from the Association of Science Teacher Education (ASTE) and the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) that have taken up this charge. Over the past 10 years, I have been privileged to learn with these scholars and explore these topics in ways that have directly impacted not only how I engage with technology in scientific contexts, but also how my pre- and inservice teachers integrate technology into their science teaching in ways that amplify and transform how their students experience science. If you wish to join the conversation, there are many great avenues for doing so. At the ASTE International Conference, you will find innovative and thought-provoking presentations in the Educational Technology conference thread. Additionally, you can participate in the Technology Forum, which supports both the ASTE membership and the board in articulating how to thoughtfully integrate technology in science teacher education. At the SITE conference, the Science Education Special Interest Group serves a similar function, facilitating cross-organization conversations about the relationship between science and technology and their roles respective to one another. It is my sincere hope that you will consider joining us in exploring the purpose of technology in the science classroom and the promise that it holds for our students and educators.


Akerson, V. L., Burgess, A., Gerber, A., Guo, M., Khan, T. A., & Newman, S. (2018). Disentangling the meaning of STEM: Implications for science education and science teacher education. Journal of Science Teacher Education29(1), 1- 8. https://doi.org/10.1080/1046560X.2018.1435063 

Bull, G., Hodges, C., Mouza, C., Kinshuk, Grant, M., Archambault, L., Borup, J., Ferdig, R. E., & Schmidt-Crawford, D. A. (2019). Conceptual dilution. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education19(2), 117–128. https://citejournal.org/volume-19/issue-2-19/editorial/editorial-conceptual-dilution/ 

Change the Equation. (2016). Left to chance: U.S. middle schoolers lack in-depth experience with technology and engineering. Vital Signs: Reports on the Condition of STEM Learning in the U.S. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED568383 

Herschbach, D. R. (2011). The STEM initiative: Constraints and challenges. Journal of STEM Teacher Education, 48(1), 96–122. doi.org/10.30707/JSTE48.1Herschbach 

Hughes, J., Thomas, R., & Scharber, C. (2006). Assessing technology integration: The RAT—replacement, amplification, and transformation-framework. In C. M. Crawford, R. Carlsen, K. McFerrin, J. Price, R. Weber & D. A. Willis (Eds.), Proceedings of SITE 2006-Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1616-1620). Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/22293/ 

Ihde, D. (2009). Postphenomenology and technoscience: The Peking University lectures. State University of New York Press. 

Johnson, J. R. (1989). Technology: Report of the Project 2061 Phase I Technology Panel. American Association for the Advancement of Science. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED309058 

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2018). Technology and engineering literacy. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/tel/ 

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/4962 

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next generation science standards: For states, by states. National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18290 

Oliveira, A., Feyzi Behnagh, R., Ni, L., Mohsinah, A. A., Burgess, K. J., & Guo, L. (2019). Emerging technologies as pedagogical tools for teaching and learning science: A literature review. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies1(2), 149-160. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbe2.141 

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1993). Benchmarks for science literacy. Oxford University Press. 


Virtual Tools and Protocols to Support Collaborative Reflection During Lesson Study

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Gorth, R. E., Bergner, J. A., Weaver, S. D., & Follmer, D. J. (2021).Virtual Tools and Protocols to Support Collaborative Reflection During Lesson Study. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/virtual-tools-and-protocols-to-support-collaborative-reflection-during-lesson-study/

by Randall E. Groth, Salisbury University; Jennifer A. Bergner, Salisbury University; Starlin D. Weaver, Salisbury University; & D. Jake Follmer, West Virginia University


Lesson study provides opportunities for teachers to collaboratively design, implement, and analyze instruction. Research illustrates its efficacy as a site for teacher learning. The setting for this article is a lesson study project involving preservice teachers, inservice teachers, and university faculty members. We supported collaborative reflection on practice among these individuals by using asynchronous and synchronous online tools and meeting protocols. Asynchronous online lesson-video review and tagging helped participants prepare to debrief about lessons they had implemented. Midway through one of our lesson study cycles, the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, eliminating opportunities to meet face-to-face for lesson debriefing sessions. In response, we developed and field-tested two protocols for online synchronous lesson study debriefing meetings. The protocols prompted conversations related to pedagogy, content, and content-specific pedagogy. After the debriefing sessions, lesson study group members reported improvements in their knowledge growth, self-efficacy, and expectations for student learning. We describe our use of online virtual tools and protocols to contribute to the literature on ways to support collaborative reflection on practice.


Differences in students’ science and mathematics achievement across countries have sparked interest in examining corresponding differences in teacher education models (Stigler & Hiebert, 2009). One model that has drawn a great deal of attention is lesson study (Lewis & Hurd, 2011). Lesson study is a cyclical process carried out in small groups. The group begins by identifying student learning goals and then collaboratively designs a lesson to address them. After the lesson, the group gathers for a debriefing session to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson. In some cases, but not all, debriefing leads to the redesign and reteaching of the lesson (Fujii, 2014). Debriefing provides an opportunity to collaboratively reflect upon issues such as student thinking, assessment mechanisms, and teaching tools (Groth, 2011). For many years, this process of continuous improvement of practice has provided a vital support structure for teacher learning in Japan (Watanabe, 2002).

Over the past 2 decades, lesson study has become increasingly prevalent in the United States (Lewis, 2016). Momentum for its use has been bolstered by research indicating that lesson study can foster knowledge of content, pedagogy, and content-specific pedagogy (Cajkler et al., 2014; Fischman & Wasserman, 2017; Huang & Shimizu, 2016; Lewis et al., 2009; Sibbald, 2009; Xu & Pedder, 2015). One of the most powerful features of lesson study is the opportunities it creates for reflection-on-action (Schön, 1987). Practicing reflection-on-action can help newer teachers eventually begin to make the types of in-the-moment adjustments to practice that requires (Saucerman et al., 2017; Schön, 1987). Lesson study provides opportunities to generate, test, and progressively refine ideas for improving teaching (Ricks, 2011). When inservice and preservice teachers collaborate during lesson study, a synergistic relationship between professional development for experienced teachers and clinical experiences for teacher candidates can take shape (Groth et al., 2020).

Despite the benefits of having inservice and preservice teachers work together in lesson study groups, forming such communities of practice can be challenging. Logistical considerations such as coordinating schedules for all participants are often nontrivial. Such problems are exacerbated by the fact that teachers in the United States generally do not have collegial work built into their everyday schedules to as great an extent as teachers in countries such as Japan, where lesson study has flourished (Stigler & Hiebert, 2009). Additionally, preservice teachers often do not initially notice important aspects of students’ thinking when observing lessons (Jacobs et al., 2010). So, simply observing a collaboratively planned lesson as it is implemented may not be sufficient for them to reflect productively on its key elements.

Technology-based strategies can help address some of the obstacles to having preservice and inservice teachers collaborate in lesson study groups. Synchronous and asynchronous online discussions can help address the logistical challenges of assembling groups at the same time in the same place. Lesson videos can also provide opportunities for drawing attention to key lesson events that may be missed during an initial observation (Star & Strickland, 2008). Such online discussions and analyses of lesson videos provide opportunities for collaborative reflection-on-action, which is at the core of the lesson study approach. In this article, we explain how we leveraged these technological tools to support and enhance reflection by preservice and inservice teachers as they critically analyzed their own work during a cycle of lesson study.


Context for Lesson Study

This article describes work that took place in two lesson study groups that worked in parallel to one another. In each group, preservice and inservice teachers collaboratively designed, implemented, and analyzed lessons that integrated science and mathematics. There were two preservice science teachers and two preservice mathematics teachers in each group. The lessons they created supported teaching of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Group 1 worked with an inservice middle school science teacher. They created a lesson about Punnett squares and the probabilities associated with potential outcomes shown in their cells (NGSS MS-LS3: “Heredity: Inheritance and Variation of Traits”). Group 2 worked with an inservice middle school mathematics teacher. They focused on a lesson requiring students to reason proportionally in scientific contexts such as examining ratios related to body length measurements and microscopic images (NGSS Crosscutting Concept of “Scale, Proportion, and Quantity”).

We used two technology-based strategies to support reflection in each group: asynchronous lesson-video analyses and synchronous debriefing sessions. Group members were prompted to analyze their lesson videos asynchronously in preparation for debriefing sessions. Debriefing sessions were then to occur during face-to-face meetings of each group. However, after each group’s lesson was implemented, the COVID-19 pandemic caused cancellations of in-person meetings. Given the situation, we devised and implemented protocols for online synchronous debriefing sessions. The placement of the asynchronous and synchronous activities within the overall lesson study cycle is shown in Figure 1. Next, we describe the nature of the synchronous and asynchronous activities and how they supported collaborative reflection.


Figure 1

Placement of Synchronous and Asynchronous Activities Within a Lesson Study Cycle

Asynchronous Lesson-Video Analyses

In each lesson study group, each group member implemented a portion of their collaboratively planned lesson as their entire group observed in person. They video recorded each lesson as it was taught. Each video was then uploaded to a password-protected platform (www.vimeo.com) for group members to review. We took this step because having educators analyze videos of their own lessons can foster critical self-reflection and more careful attention to student thinking (Hamel & Viau-Guay, 2019). Video review of lessons is a powerful and rapidly growing teacher education practice (Arias et al., 2020; Barth-Cohen et al., 2018, Hawkins & Park Rogers, 2016; Tripp & Rich, 2012).

We provided group members with a link and password to access their lesson video and asked them to start by reviewing it on their own. As they viewed it, they clicked on the lesson videos to add time-coded notes about the different events they believed to be significant. We asked them to add notes on what they would want to do again if teaching this lesson and also what they would want to change. Each individual did this for the portion of the lesson they taught as well as the other portions.

Figure 2 shows the interface that supported asynchronous video analyses. The play button appears in the lower left corner. As viewers played the video, they could move the pointer anywhere on the screen and click to make a comment. Figure 2 shows comments that were made about how it would have been helpful to have a word wall for students at the 20:28 mark of Group 1’s lesson. Remarks made by a preservice teacher in the group appear at the top of the pane on the right side of the figure. Another preservice teacher and the inservice teacher for the group responded to the initial comment to form a conversation thread. All of the conversation threads for the video could be viewed by scrolling through the pane on the far right or by using the vertical white hash marks at the bottom of the video screen. Each hash mark indicated a point at which viewers made comments on the video.


Figure 2
Online Interface Used to Support Asynchronous Analysis of Videos

As comments about the video were posted, the university faculty members who would later facilitate synchronous debriefing sessions (the first and second authors of this article) monitored the posts and offered some of their own thoughts on the lesson. We took this approach because research illustrates that knowledgeable others can add value to the lesson study process by introducing perspectives the group otherwise may not consider (Fernandez, 2002). We also monitored the discussions to check that all group members were participating and sent reminders to those who still needed to contribute. Having contributions from all group members on an array of strengths and weaknesses of each lesson helped set the stage for each group’s debriefing session.

Synchronous Debriefing Sessions

Our overarching goal for debriefing sessions was to engage participants in discourse focused on analyzing their thinking related to designing, implementing, and reflecting on each lesson. Facilitators can foster this type of discourse by asking educators to consider the impact of their teaching decisions on student learning (Santagata & Angelici, 2010). Conversations that foster discourse about lesson videos in this manner can be structured in many different ways. Next, we describe two slightly different structures we used to facilitate such debriefing sessions in a synchronous online environment.

The facilitation protocols for each debriefing session are shown in Table 1. Although debriefing sessions were conducted virtually, neither protocol strictly requires a video-conferencing platform to implement. Group 1’s debriefing session had a mix of small-group/pair and large-group interactions. Group 2’s debriefing session kept the entire group together for the duration. The debriefing sessions occurred 3–4 weeks after lesson implementation in order to allow sufficient time for group members to complete their asynchronous lesson review and tagging. Each session lasted approximately an hour and was conducted via video conferencing (www.zoom.com). Participants’ video tags were used to catalyze discussion in each debriefing session because the tags made participants’ thinking about the lesson readily visible for analysis, reflection, and critique.


Table 1

Two Facilitation Protocols for Lesson Study Debriefing Sessions


The two debriefing sessions differed in how they structured participants’ interactions. Group 1 broke into smaller groups to review all of the video tags and compile their observations about what they would and would not change when teaching the lesson again. They then reassembled for a large group discussion to share their notes and observations. Group 1’s session culminated with a discussion of an exit-ticket writing prompt about the main changes they would make to support student learning when implementing the lesson again. In Group 2, the facilitator initiated the conversation by pointing out specific lesson-video tags pertaining to content, pedagogy, and content-specific pedagogy and inviting participants to respond. The Group 2 facilitator sustained conversation throughout the session by continuing to invite comment on specific tags. Along the way, Group 2 participants were invited to share thoughts on what they would keep and what they would change when implementing the lesson again.

Each debriefing session protocol leveraged the capabilities of the Zoom conferencing platform in unique ways. In Group 1, Zoom breakout rooms were used to form smaller groups at the outset. The Group 1 facilitator visited each breakout room to provide help as the smaller groups reviewed video tags. Group 1 also made use of the Zoom whole-group chat feature at the conclusion of their session to have participants summarize key changes to make when implementing the lesson again. Group 2 members used the whole-group chat feature to share observations throughout the session as others were speaking. The Group 2 facilitator also used Zoom’s screen-sharing capabilities to play segments of video that had been tagged by group members. Key video segments were played for the group to stimulate their recall of lesson events and the tags they had assigned. Both debriefing sessions were video recorded in Zoom to allow for later analysis. Although the motivation for holding sessions on Zoom was to work around COVID-19 meeting restrictions, the capabilities can be equally valuable post-pandemic in helping facilitators overcome challenges associated with assembling preservice and inservice teachers all in one place at the same time and also in providing structure to their reflection processes.


Debriefing Session Discourse Themes

After the debriefing sessions occurred, we reflected upon the video recordings. In previous work, we found that debriefing session conversations foster conversations about content, pedagogy, and content-specific pedagogy (Groth et al., 2020), so we sought to determine the extent to which our synchronous online debriefing sessions had done so. To begin the process, the recordings were uploaded to the same Vimeo platform we used for storing the groups’ lessons and having them tag important events (Figure 2). Next, the third author of the paper, who was not involved with either lesson study group, viewed the videos and inserted tags to identify instances of discussion about content, pedagogy, and content-specific pedagogy. A tag was inserted whenever a new conversation related to one of the three categories began. These tags essentially helped us debrief about our debriefing sessions.

As we took inventory of tags and discussed them, we found that the two debriefing sessions differed in their emphases. Table 2 contains a summary of the number of times each type of tag was inserted. Group 1’s conversations leaned more heavily toward general pedagogy. Group 2’s session contained examples of how debriefing sessions can foster conversations about content. Each group discussed content-specific pedagogy. Next, we provide examples to illustrate how each theme entered the debriefing sessions.


Table 2

Frequencies of Conversation Tags Related to Content, Pedagogy, and Content-Specific Pedagogy for Each Debriefing Session

Note. Analysis of Group 1’s debriefing session resulted in a total of 23 conversation tags; analysis of Group 2’s debriefing session resulted in a total of 38 conversation tags.


Discussions About Content

Group 2’s discussions about content focused on ideas related to ratio and proportion. One of their lesson activities was to have students compare body lengths. In reviewing the lesson, they noticed that students at times made simple comparisons, such as saying that one person’s head was longer than another’s. The group wanted students to transition to comparisons that incorporated ratios, such as looking at the length of one’s head versus one’s overall height. The former comparison was correct, yet not helpful, in addressing the lesson goal of using proportional reasoning to make comparisons in scientific contexts. This debriefing session interaction provided a distinction useful for assessing and guiding students’ work on the lesson activities, namely, that of correct versus helpful comparisons.

Group 2 also discussed appropriate measurement techniques for the problems they had assigned. During their debriefing session, the inservice mentor teacher for the group explained she wanted students to see that some of the problems in their lesson could be approached with nonstandard units, saying, “Really, the ratio is just a comparison of, depending on what body parts you’re comparing them to…you don’t always have to have a standard unit of measure, so I was just trying to pull that into the conversation.” The university faculty member for Group 2 expanded on this thought by talking about the difference between additive and multiplicative approaches, noting that the lesson goal was for students to examine ratios of measurements to one another, regardless of the units used, rather than to subtract the smaller measurement from the larger. Later in the discussion, the group considered the number of femurs needed to measure out one’s height as an example of a ratio they wanted students to understand. This portion of the debriefing session helped clarify the mathematical reasoning goals for the lesson and hence provided a basis for later conversations about the types of pedagogy and content-specific pedagogy that would help students achieve the goals when implementing the lesson in the future.


Discussions About Pedagogy

Both lesson study groups talked about the extent to which their lessons captured students’ attention. Group 1 noticed that most students seemed to be focused and paying attention, but they also discussed how to get all students engaged from the start. One suggestion was to “use an attention-grabbing personal example or an example from well-known Hollywood stars right up front during the lesson.” They conjectured that students would be more motivated to delve into Punnett squares if they were used to predict traits of offspring from actual people rather than abstract entities. As they viewed their lesson video, Group 1 also identified points at which they could have paused to get all students’ attention back before moving on. Like Group 1, Group 2 discussed the opening example for their lesson. It involved having students say what they noticed and wondered about a picture showing a boy’s face with several measurements marked. The group agreed that the opening helped catch students’ attention and helped students understand their later work with ratios. Hence, Group 1 decided to alter the “opening hook” for their lesson, and Group 2 decided to retain theirs in its current form when implementing the lesson again.

Another pedagogical focus for both groups was examining their questioning. Group 1 noticed that their short, general questions such as “What?” and “Why?” did not get much student response. They became conscious of the need to create more specific questions rather than relying mostly on general ones. Group 1 was also surprised that students did not seem to notice some of the key points from a video about Punnett squares, so they decided to give students focus questions before the video when teaching the lesson next time. Specifically, they decided to use the prompt, “In this video, you will be introduced to something called a Punnett Square; write down 3 thoughts or pieces of information that you got from the video and be prepared to share.” The preservice teachers in Group 2 noticed they had trouble spontaneously devising questions to engage students during the lesson. The mentor teacher from Group 2 suggested writing some of these questions in advance and embedding them in the lesson plan.

During Group 1’s debriefing session, they considered strategies that could be used to help students learn vocabulary. They thought that building a word wall, anchor chart, or word bank could help make vocabulary more visible. Doing so might increase the chance that students would use relevant disciplinary vocabulary in their conversations with one another. The group decided to put the vocabulary for the day on a word wall as each word was introduced during the next implementation of their lesson. Students could then record the new words in their notes in a word bank. The vocabulary in the word bank would then be ready for students to use again during future lessons on Punnett Squares. These strategies could help students become more familiar with the relevant vocabulary for the lesson and increase their usage of it.

At several points during Group 2’s debriefing session, there were conversations about how to make parts of the lesson more efficient. These conversations were motivated by their observations that students ran out of time to do all of the planned lesson activities and to complete the exit ticket thoroughly at the end. The inservice mentor teacher for the group suggested putting name cards on the classroom tables ahead of time so students would immediately know where to sit and get started more quickly. Some of the activities for the lesson required students to recall who had taken measurements and what they had measured. Noticing that students took longer than expected to recall this information, one of the preservice teachers in the group suggested having students label things with their names as they worked. Others suggested using colored pencils to help code the information about the person measuring and the object measured.

Another pedagogical consideration voiced during Group 2’s debriefing session pertained to teacher modeling. Specifically, the group talked about how to improve their demonstration of the measuring techniques students were to use. During the lesson, they had shown students still pictures of one of the preservice teachers in the group taking measurements. Group 2 decided they could improve this portion of the lesson by creating a 30 s demo video to use instead during their next implementation of the lesson. They believed a video would reduce student confusion about how they were to measure and reduce the number of student questions about how to get started measuring.


Discussions About Content-Specific Pedagogy

Group 1’s content-specific pedagogy discussions focused on striking an optimal balance between the mathematics and science objectives for their lesson. One of the preservice teachers in the group observed, “Time was too short on Punnett squares and pedigrees—maybe we should just stick with Punnett squares and then explore the mathematics of them to make a stronger connection between mathematics and science.” Others agreed that the lesson seemed rushed because it contained too much content to address. For example, one of the preservice teachers who taught Punnett square content during the lesson suggested pausing to help students interpret the probabilities and percentages involved. The group talked about how it would be valuable for students to understand that probability gives a grounded estimate of an outcome’s occurrence, but the frequency with which the event occurs may vary slightly from that estimate. Allowing students time to do probability simulations and analyze the data could help illustrate that point. The group felt that mathematical ideas of this nature were largely left unexplored during the lesson, and they thought that going deeper into the mathematics content during the next implementation of the lesson would help students develop a better understanding of the scientific content as well.

Group 2’s content-specific pedagogy discussions centered on their observations of students’ proportional reasoning and teaching strategies they could use to help it develop. This led to a discussion about how U.S. students, in general, tend to struggle with proportional reasoning. The university faculty member for the group suggested explicitly prompting students to write how many times longer one measurement is than another rather than letting students just report how many units longer one object is than another. For example, students who say that a six-unit-long object is two units longer than a four-foot-long object could be prompted to think about how many times larger the first object is than the second. One of the preservice teachers built on this suggestion by saying students could be asked to think about how many head-lengths make up their overall height. Doing so would provide a natural transition to thinking about how many times larger overall height is compared to head height. Others suggested looking at the relationship between arm length and foot length in the same manner. The group decided to start the lesson with these types of prompts the next time they taught it to help students begin to reason proportionally.


Perceptions of the Lesson Study Experience

We administered a three-part survey to collect data on our groups’ perceptions of the lesson study experience. The first part of the survey gathered their descriptions of the topic, focus, and goals of the lesson study cycles. The second part asked participants to rate the degree of change in their knowledge and beliefs as a result of participating in lesson study. This part consisted of items developed by Akiba et al. (2019). We modified some of the items slightly because they were initially developed for lesson study in a mathematics education context and referred to a specific set of state standards. The modified items contained language applicable to STEM more broadly and learning standards for our state. Together, the items in the second part of the survey assessed participants’ perceptions of their knowledge growth (e.g., “I know more about how to develop a student-centered lesson”), self-efficacy (e.g., “I believe I can teach my students more effectively if I continue to engage in lesson study”), and expectations for student learning (e.g., “I learned the value of giving a challenging problem in order to show what my students are capable of”). In the final part of the survey, we asked participants to describe ways in which the use of online tools (such as Zoom) facilitated or hindered their ability to engage in effective debriefing. We also asked them to describe the strengths of the lesson study cycle and the improvements that were needed.

The survey was administered 3–4 weeks after the debriefing sessions. Based on the need to link individuals’ responses over time to address the ongoing evaluation of our lesson study project, the surveys were not anonymous. For the purposes of the present work, all data were summarized in aggregate rather than being associated with specific individuals’ names. Table 3 contains key findings and representative qualitative feedback. Responses to Part I of the survey provided evidence that participants shared clear and consistent goals (e.g., “to engage students through [an] integrated math and science lesson”) and lesson foci (e.g., “Compare different body parts to show proportionality and [determine] the change in scale without magnification”). Participants’ ratings of their growth in knowledge, self-efficacy, and expectations for student learning were strong at the conclusion of the lesson study cycle (Part II); mean scores exceeded the agree (5) response option and, in the case of self-efficacy and expectations for student learning, approached the maximum score value on the response scale.


Table 3

Summary Findings: Participants’ Reflections on Lesson Study

a Reflects a focus of Group 2’s lesson study cycle.

b Items were administered using a 6-point scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (6).

Participants also provided meaningful reflections on the effectiveness of online facilitation of debriefing as well as the lesson study cycle as a whole. Specifically, participants appreciated the ability to work through lesson planning and initial implementation collaboratively (e.g., “Being able to go through the cycle of implementing our lesson was an interesting and [effective] teaching experience to see the effectiveness of the lesson and how to best apply it to each and every student”). They also commented on the logistics, structure, and organization of lesson study (e.g., “Picking the groups ahead of time and having very clear directions”). The majority of participants (87.50%) indicated positive views of online facilitation of lesson study debriefing, suggesting that Zoom provided a viable means to support this part of the process. Participants’ suggestions for changes and improvements centered on doing an additional cycle to build efficacy in lesson delivery, improving the compilation and dissemination of meeting notes and accomplishments, and developing better connections between science and mathematics content in lesson plans.

The survey also allowed us to assess participants’ attainment of key teacher learning outcomes. Teachers answered questions on a 6-point scale to rate their growth in learning expectations for students, knowledge, and self-efficacy. At the conclusion of the lesson study cycle, each group reported developing higher expectations for student learning (Group 1: M = 5.75, SD = 0.50; Group 2: M = 5.33, SD = 0.47). Groups also reported growth in knowledge (Group 1: M = 4.89, SD = 0.73; Group 2: M = 5.42, SD = 0.47) and self-efficacy (Group 1: M = 5.38, SD = 0.52; Group 2: M = 5.94, SD = 0.13). Given the small sample size, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about growth in teacher learning. However, these preliminary findings suggest potentially promising effects on key learning outcomes for participants after engaging in the types of discourse and critical self-reflection supported by the online tools and protocols we used.



Although some of the approaches we have described were designed out of necessity because of COVID-19, they are useful for more than just overcoming barriers imposed by a pandemic. In the United States, the persistent barrier of lack of time built into school days to engage in collaborative reflection can be partially overcome using the asynchronous and synchronous strategies we have described. These strategies sparked collective discourse about pedagogy, content, and content-specific pedagogy, and teachers reported improvements in their knowledge, self-efficacy, and expectations for student learning during the project. In our case, lesson study supported interdisciplinary discussions between science and mathematics teachers. However, the approaches we have described are broad and general enough to help science teachers collaborate with those in other disciplines as well. Although lesson study is perhaps most widespread in science and mathematics, teachers in several other disciplines have also found value in it (Xu & Pedder, 2015).

The work we report here was done with small groups and focuses mainly on the reflective portions of one lesson study cycle, so it represents a starting point for further investigation rather than a set of definitive conclusions. We invite others to experiment with our protocols and tools over multiple lesson study cycles and refine them as they observe their impact on teachers’ learning. Just as teachers’ practice is continually improved by engaging in multiple cycles of lesson study, tools and protocols like the ones we propose can be refined through multiple iterations of use. As such refinement occurs, the field can progressively develop increasingly more powerful approaches to fostering teachers’ learning.


This article is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number DUE- 1852139. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Making It Personal: Focusing on Food and Using Concept Maps to Promote the Development of Environmental Identities Among Elementary Teacher Candidates

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Wilson, R. E. (2021). Making It Personal: Focusing on Food and Using Concept Maps to Promote the Development of Environmental Identities Among Elementary Teacher Candidates. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/making-it-personal-focusing-on-food-and-using-concept-maps-to-promote-the-development-of-environmental-identities-among-elementary-teacher-candidates/

by Rachel E. Wilson, Appalachian State University


This article explores the use of food as a focal topic in an environmentally focused curriculum course for elementary teacher candidates (ETCs) to help them personally connect to the content. Environmental topics are interdisciplinary; therefore, as we prepare ETCs to teach them, consideration of the social dimensions of science is imperative. This article discusses how the design and implementation of a unit on food allowed for exploration of elementary science and social studies environmental content with the goal of developing ETCs’ environmental identities. A focus unit on food as a daily practice that connects ETCs to the environment is described to highlight the personal salience of environmental issues and how ETCs impact and are dependent on the environment. Concept maps of daily activities that connect them to the environment were used as initial and final assessments for the course, along with an oral reflection with the instructor on their final maps. Examples of initial maps, final maps, and comments from students’ oral reflections show that ETCs deepened their understanding of how salient environmental issues were to their daily life activities, such as eating. Implications of the implementation on how to increase ETCs’ explicit connections with their identity positions relative to their experiences of and responses to environmental issues and proposed solutions are discussed.


What should I eat for lunch today? It’s a question that many of us ask ourselves, and our answers will vary based on our intentions and values. Maybe we want to eat for weight loss or better nutrition. Maybe we have a goal to eat in a way that is less harmful to animals or to lighten our carbon footprint. Science answers questions such as: What types of foods are associated with weight loss, which foods are higher in certain vitamins or minerals, how is this food cultivated or processed before it gets to me, and how much water or energy is needed to grow, harvest, process, and transport it? Our values may dictate how we answer the question of what to eat, but science can help us decide.

This intertwining of values and science to answer big questions is not limited to our consumption of food. The impacts of global climate change and other human-driven environmental issues (e.g., habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and freshwater availability) can also not be adequately addressed using science alone, although it is crucial to use such evidence to inform how we approach these dynamic situations. Environmental literacy, as a goal for education, considers this need for increasing students’ awareness and understanding of how the environment works (knowledge) while also addressing attitudes toward the environment (values; Roth, 1992).

Just as many Americans advocate for society to address issues like climate change, the quest for social justice and equity is an important contemporary goal for educators. Environmental education has the potential to address both environmental and social justice issues. The communities that will experience the most impacts of degradation of environmental health are more likely to be low-income, nonwhite communities (Agyeman et al., 2016). Researchers have called for environmental education curricula to move away from narratives that focus on the experiences of white, privileged, suburban students to help more diverse students feel connected to environmental content topics (Blanchet-Cohen & Reilly, 2017; Tzou & Bell, 2012). This is an especially important goal considering that the overwhelming majority of public elementary teachers in the United States are white and do not reflect the diverse demographics of public school classrooms in the country (Hussar et al., 2020). Therefore, my goal as a science educator is to help my predominantly white teacher candidates reflect on their own roles as humans on the Earth (advancing their own environmental literacy) and consider and critique how their identity positions in society impact how they perceive environmental issues and proposed solutions.

Therefore, due to my own interest in how science can help us understand sustainability and environmental issues, I sought to design a course that promoted reflection on environmental identities through a personally relevant topic (food), used an interdisciplinary approach (science and social studies), and focused attention on the critical social dimensions of positionality in how we experience and relate to the environment. In choosing this course design, I hoped to explore with elementary teacher candidates (ETCs) important environmental issues (e.g., climate change) with an eye on increasing not only their interest and motivation to learn such content but also their ability to help diverse student populations connect to environmental topics so they can work as citizens towards a more just and sustainable world.


Course Design

Course Description

The environmentally focused curriculum class in the undergraduate elementary education program at our university comes before the formal subject methods courses. ETCs are typically in their second or third year in their programs. The course counts as a requirement for the elementary major, but ETCs can choose from a range of options provided by faculty in our program based on instructor availability. Each course option is focused on different interdisciplinary subject combinations (math and social studies, social studies and language arts, or math and science) or on critical social issues related to education (linguistic diversity and emergent bilinguals, teacher leadership and citizenship). These courses were all designed to be service-learning courses to help ETCs think about how curriculum can connect learners to their communities. Our environmentally focused class has an interdisciplinary focus on science, social studies, and language arts. The course length is 15 weeks, and we meet face to face once a week for 2.5 hours.


Environmental Identity

Environmental identity is defined as “the meanings that one attributes to the self as they relate to the environment” (Stets & Biga, 2003, p. 406). Environmental identities are formed as people make meaning of their experiences related to the environment and their role in relation to the environment. This sociocultural perspective of identity is grounded in the idea that identity is continually constructed through the meaning-making of experiences and participation in practices within daily life (Holland et al., 1998). Identities change as a result of individual sense-making and discursive meaning-making in a community when learners have a boundary experience that pushes their comfortability with their perspective of themselves (Geijsel & Meijers, 2005). Kempton and Holland (2003) describe three dimensions that contributed to the development of environmental identities in environmental professionals: (a) personal salience of environmental issues, (b) identification of oneself as an actor in the environmental world, and (c) gain in knowledge about the environment through action (doing). These are not sequential stages that have to be achieved; rather, Kempton and Holland describe them as “mutually causal, more akin to positive feedback than to strict cause and effect” (p. 339). Each of these dimensions acknowledges the role of the person in learning about the environment and relating to it. In addition, the implications of these findings for environmental educators and teacher educators are that we need to do a better job of helping people find connections between themselves and the environment in which they live and on which they depend. If we do not acknowledge how people are positioned or position themselves relative to the environmental messages in our teaching, we may risk promoting environmental discourses of fear and privilege that result in nonenvironmental identities instead of encouraging agency (Tzou & Bell, 2012). These dimensions of environmental identity from Kempton and Holland (2003) of personal salience, actor in the environment, and knowledge through doing served as a framework for my course design. For a discussion of the service-learning aspect of the course (knowledge through doing part of the environmental identity design) and its influence on ETC science teacher identity, see Wilson et al. (2015).


Making it Personal: A Focus on Food

ETCs take the environmental course to fulfill a requirement of the elementary education program, but they often choose it due to scheduling convenience rather than their innate interest in the course topic. Although personal salience of the topics for the course would be important in helping students develop environmental identities, I felt it was equally important that students feel a personal connection to content, which would make them more likely to intellectually engage with the topics.

Educational researchers have documented how a focus on food in various educational settings can be used to explore and critique food systems to problematize how large-scale agricultural systems position both producers and consumers as well as structure our food practices (Swan & Flowers, 2015). Thus, in using food as a focus topic for learning, instructors can explore “power, culture, bodies, gender, class, race, status, identity, pleasure, pain, labour, health, morality, our place in the world” (Flowers & Swan, 2012, p. 423). Food and food practices provide a unique context in which to explore sustainability issues, various cultural traditions around food, personal experiences, memories, and emotions as well as how food can “reflect and reproduce social hierarchies (Freedman, 2011, p. 82)” (Swan & Flowers, 2015, p. 158).

Although a focus on food can lead instructors to shepherd students along various pathways such as those described above, in our course, we focus on the cultivation, transportation, preparation, and consumption of food as well as how technologies, structures, and policies that shape the food pipeline from field to plate impact environmental health and, by proxy, human sustainability. This focus on the food pipeline allows us to question how we make decisions about sustainable eating that take into account science, cultural practices of eating, and how our identities (in part due to gender, race, ethnicity, and class) inform our thinking about food practices and proposed environmental solutions.

Finally, science educators have called for more science and social studies integration in the curriculum to promote the critical thinking needed to address complex environmental issues and solutions for a democratic and pluralistic society (Feinstein & Kirchgasler, 2015). Because of the importance of the cultural and social dimensions of food practices and how it has the potential to help ETCs reflect on their relationship with the environment and their identity positions, in the course design, I intentionally set out to weave together elementary science and social studies curriculum standards using food as a content focus.


Personal Environmental Activity Mapping

In addition to choosing course topics to help students personally connect to environmental topics and the science and social dimensions of these issues, I wanted students to explicitly acknowledge their individual role within the environment, which is a critical factor in developing environmental identities (Kempton & Holland, 2003). I asked ETCs to create a personal environmental activity map to prompt them to reflect on how they interact with the environment daily to address. Other researchers in environmental education have called for the development of more curriculum activities to help students make explicit their mental models of the environment (Shepardson et al., 2007). Instead of making a mental model of the environment explicit to themselves and their instructor, I wanted students to make a model of how they personally interacted with the environment using a concept map.

Concept maps have been used in science education as a tool to organize and track conceptual understanding over time, most notably to document conceptual change (Novak, 2002). Hay et al. (2008) advocate the use of concept maps with students in higher education settings to help them reflect on changes in their understanding of course topics. Using repeated concept mapping, instructors and students can reflect on how their conceptual learning is developing (Hay et al., 2008; Kandiko et al., 2013) and use concept maps as a learning tool rather than a one-time assessment (Kinchin, 2014). I wanted to use student production of concept maps as a metacognitive activity, using the map as a representational tool to require ETCs to show their understanding and then reflect on that understanding and how it changed over time, which has been shown to promote the learning of science content (Thomas, 2012). Pre- and post-unit maps of student understanding of environmental topics (watersheds) have been used with high school students to evaluate student learning (Zimmerman & Weible, 2017) but not with a focus on metacognitive thinking or a personal role in the environment.

In addition to promoting metacognition with the goal of increasing learning of science content, having ETCs create personal environmental activity maps reinforces the dimensions of their environmental identity (Kempton & Holland, 2003). By grounding the maps in their own daily activities, it supports the personal salience of environmental topics. Furthermore, by having the first set of nodes coming off from their names on the maps, it makes explicit how their actions form the foundation of their relationship with the environment. Finally, by creating the map as a repeated course activity, they are organizing and constructing their understanding of environmental topics and how it connects them with the larger world.


Course Implementation

Precourse Personal Activity Maps

I was interested in using the concept map as a tool to investigate ETCs’ initial understanding of how their daily activities connect them to the environment. On the first day of class, I ask ETCs to write their name in the middle of the index card in a circle, which becomes the hub of their wheel. Coming off from their circled name, I ask them to list activities that they engage in on a daily basis that connect them to the environment (see Figure 1).


Figure 1

Example Initial Maps

Because of the course’s focus on how a daily activity such as eating connects them to the environment, I am interested in what they already know about how they interact with the environment. Asking them to do this as a concept map provides a visually simple way for them to represent their activities. This mapping activity is not designed to be a measure of their knowledge of environmental topics (due to its open-ended nature) but rather to serve as a window into their awareness of how much they interact with the environment in their everyday lives.

ETCs’ initial maps most commonly show that when they first think about how their daily activities are related to the environment, they think about nature-related leisure activities (see Figure 1). For example, in one semester with a class of 20, all ETCs included a nature-related activity on their maps, typically, more than one. Examples of these activities included hiking, camping, fishing, gardening, swimming, kayaking, and other activities situated outside (e.g., reading, time on a porch, and being in nature). Eleven ETCs included waste-related activities (e.g., recycling), and seven included a transportation activity (e.g., driving or taking public transit). In contrast, only two ETCs included personal needs (both food), two included jobs (both camp counselors), two mentioned resource use (electricity), two mentioned consumerism (thrift sales and farmers market), and two mentioned service activities (adopt-a-street). These results are similar to the responses of ETCs in other semesters when I taught the course.

In addition to helping students begin to reflect on their own roles within the environment, the personal environmental activity map at the beginning of the course informs my practice as an educator. Based on trends in their maps, such as the overwhelming focus on nature-related leisure activities as the way they are connected to the environment, I make sure that our course highlights how personal needs, consumerism, resource use, and service activities connect ETCs to the environment. A focus on food allows us to explore these other categories for personally relating to the environment.


Overview of the Food Unit

I use the young readers edition of the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat (Pollan, 2009) as an anchor for the food unit because it is a multimodal text with diagrams, graphs, and other visuals and because it is an example of a text that a teacher could use with older elementary students. Table 1 shows the food unit design and how its organization connects to each part of the four different approaches to eating explored in Pollan’s (2009) book. Our reading of the text and associated course activities typically span 4–5 weeks of the 15-week semester. For each section of Pollan’s (2009) book that ETCs read outside of class, we investigate environmental science topics in our state K–6 science curriculum connected to the reading through hands-on science activities appropriate for elementary science learners. Woven into the science-focused activities are discussions of the social dimensions of those topics that often connect to social studies standards in the state curriculum for K–6 learners. These activities are connected to state science and social studies standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards’ disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts (NGSS Lead States, 2013). In Table 1, I have also included questions that guide our discussions of the reading and class activities and help ETCs make connections between the science topics, sustainability issues, and how these impact people differently based on how institutions and large-scale agriculture position them in society.


Table 1

Overview of Food Unit

An Example of the Implementation: Part 1

After they have read the first part of Pollan’s (2009) book about industrial food meals based on corn, we engage in a series of activities to explore food ingredients, how these relate to the parts of plants, cultural food practices, and how food practices have historically been shaped by the environment and the biological needs of food plants to grow (for resources supporting the unit, see Table 2). Before we begin our unit on food, I ask ETCs to complete a 1-day food diary recording the ingredients that they eat. I make sure to tell them that they should not include calories, amounts, or serving sizes. If they eat any kind of packaged food, they can simply snap a photo or cut out the ingredient list from the package; and if they make a meal, they make a list of the ingredients they used.

As in each class, I strive to anchor our activities through questions related to elementary science curriculum topics and information from Pollan’s (2009) book. ETCs first discuss these questions in small groups and then as a whole class. These questions are also designed to support ETCs in recognizing how culture, history, and geography shape our food practices. This is especially important to me because I teach at an institution with a predominantly white student body; thus, the ETCs themselves typically do not bring significant diversity in their own food practices. Therefore, the 1-day food diary becomes an important starting point for a discussion of their own positionality. Through taking this inventory of the ingredients they commonly eat, they begin learning about their own personal food practices. By reflecting on food practices as a group and then comparing them across other cultures, my intention is that they find similarities and differences across all the examples while also recognizing how they themselves are situated in society and how that shapes their own food practices in similar and different ways from people in other identity groups.


Table 2

Description of Activities in Part 1 of Food Unit

For example, I ask students to consider food ingredients that are on our class list but are not found across the international food diary examples. Students often notice and comment on types of meat, or lack of meat, or notice that the examples are predominantly plant-based. We discuss what influences there might be for our consumption of meat in our state, and for certain parts of the state, as compared to internationally. ETCs note that in our state, hog farms are prevalent in one part of the state, and beef farms are more common in another part of the state. We discuss how geography plays a part in where these types of farms are located (Piedmont or coastal plain vs. mountains). I also ask students to think about what it means that the United States provides federal subsidies to corn farmers. Where is that corn going? How does the existence of a subsidy for corn influence the availability of meat in our country and state when compared to other countries where such a subsidy does not exist? Finally, we also contrast our consumption of meat with cultures and traditions in which pork or beef is not eaten for cultural or religious reasons (e.g., India).

These course activities are intended to address several dimensions of environmental identity and help ETCs reflect on how their identity influences their practices. The ETCs’ 1-day food diaries are an opportunity for them to reflect on their own individual food practices and situate them within familial and cultural food practices. Their personal values and attitudes towards food ingredients are an important place to start our conversation about food practices, and then we compare and contrast their practices to the practices of others. Through these comparisons, we develop understandings of how food practices are influenced by agricultural methods (large-scale industrial farming), geographical locations (environmental conditions), political conflicts, and cultural traditions.

Finally, as a part of every class, we discuss how these activities could be used to address environmental content (science and social studies) with elementary learners to help students personally connect to curriculum topics. For example, I always ask students to reflect on how the activities we engage in as a part of our course could be used to address state curriculum topics and what we need to think about to modify these to be used with elementary learners (as opposed to college students). Table 2 includes questions that I use to help ETCs reflect on the activities they have engaged in to learn this content and how to develop a teacher perspective on those same activities. Sometimes we reflect on these questions at the end of each activity, and sometimes we have a longer discussion at the end of class about all the activities we have engaged in that day. These discussions reflecting on pedagogy are meant to help ETCs consider how the student makeup of their classroom (cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds) is an important consideration for their selection of curriculum materials in addition to the age of students, curriculum standards, and availability of resources.


Summary of Other Units in the Course

In addition to the food unit, we spend 2 weeks at the beginning of the course exploring and developing our understanding of climate change and how it helps us put into context many of the other environmental issues we discuss in the semester. We anchor our discussions of climate change by using newspaper articles about relevant current events such as hurricanes, wildfires, and flooding. We transition into a 4-week unit in which activities are connected to the book The Birchbark House (Erdrich, 1999), including ecosystem components, needs of plants and animals, watersheds, and migration. In addition, the social dimensions of our discussions of the book include wilderness as a sociocultural construct, science and environmental contributions to our understanding of white European interactions with native peoples in the Americas, and how cultural values and philosophies related to the environment shape environmental behavior (i.e., preservation, conservation, and indigenous uses of the environment). We spend 2–3 weeks connecting the use of the book Hoot (Hiaasen, 2002) to explore ecosystem roles for animals, adaptations of owls, biodiversity, and biomes with the social dimensions related to development, industry (tourism, logging), recreation and nature-related leisure activities (birding), and wildfires. Our unit on food typically occurs in the middle of the semester.


End-of-Course Assessment: Revisiting the Personal Environmental Activity Map

To promote metacognition about what they learned in the course, I ask the ETCs to complete the same map of their relationship with the environment through daily activities after the food unit (informal, formative assessment) and again at the end of the course (summative assessment). In lieu of a final exam, they make an individual appointment with me and bring their final personal environmental activity map with them to reflect together on what they have learned (see Figure 2). I bring out their initial precourse personal activity map to place alongside their final map, and we look for ways in which their understanding of their personal relationship to the environment has changed over time and how this knowledge and awareness influences what they think about their future roles as elementary teachers and citizens of the planet. Speaking with each student individually allows them to discuss their understanding in a multimodal format that foregrounds their oral communication, which is relevant for their future practice as teachers.

ETCs’ maps and oral reflection on the changes in their maps are used to help them see how much they have learned about environmental content, as well as whether or how their attitudes towards environmental topics and science teaching have changed. ETCs’ maps are a way to help me (and them) see if they are aware of how their everyday activities connect them to the environment and other people with a critical perspective on the social dimensions of environmental issues and solutions. As they construct and organize their thinking in creating their final maps, my hope is that they have had time to process our course activities and synthesize information. In our oral conversation about their maps, I can ask probing questions related to their maps to help me understand the thinking that went into the construction and ask for more information if ETCs do not include details about specific activities. In addition, if ETCs do not provide a social perspective of the activities provided on their map, we can have a conversation about it in our discussion.

The main reason for me to formally assess their final map was to emphasize to students the importance of the task within the course and to promote spending adequate time and energy on constructing their maps. In creating a rubric for their final personal environmental activity map (see Appendix A), I used principles from research on the use of concept maps in higher education settings. Hay et al. (2008) argue that simple spoke and chain arrangements for concept maps are associated with rote learning in which students merely tack on concepts to an already existing structure. However, in creating networks of concepts with multiple levels out from the central topic idea, students show connections between topics and a greater depth of understanding (Hay et al., 2008; Kinchin, 2014). Therefore, to receive full credit on their maps, they were required to use a network structure on their maps (which was outlined for them as a minimum number of levels and branches per level) and show connections between nodes on their map. The addition of the inclusion of state science and social studies standards on their map was to promote their understanding of how class environmental topics and their personal activities connect to curriculum ideas they are expected to teach and to promote their inclusion of the science and social dimensions of environmental topics. However, I also did not want to overly constrain the construction of their maps with too many directions because the map was meant to accurately reflect their own personal understanding. Given that the map was intended to be a personal environmental activity map, I only assessed students on the three elements discussed above and not on the inclusion of any particular topic from our course, as one might in using concept maps as an assessment of conceptual understanding of science topics.


Figure 2

Example of Final Personal Activity Map


Discussion of Student Work

ETCs’ final maps are naturally more in-depth than their initial maps because I ask them to create their final maps in preparation for their oral reflection with me as an outside-of-class assignment. The rubric for the assignment asks them not only to consider the activities that connect them to the environment as the first level in the hierarchy of their maps but also to explain how they are connected (Appendix A). For example, in the same semester, all 20 ETCs chose eating or food consumption as an activity on their final maps. In contrast to their initial maps, on their final maps, only six ETCs included nature-related activities, and seven included waste-related activities (recycling or reusing items). For the other categories of activities, fifteen included a personal care activity (eating or hygiene), nineteen included a transportation activity, eighteen included resource use (mostly water and electricity), fifteen included a consumerism activity (some food, some clothing), and three included service activities. No ETCs included job-related activities on their final maps.

In reflecting on what ETCs gain from the final map-making and reflection, I transcribed a semester of oral reflections and used quotes from various students (with their consent). A list of the questions I used as a guide for the oral reflections can also be found in Appendix B. In my analysis of student reflections, I highlight the themes that I found particularly useful for my thinking as an instructor of the course, but these themes are based solely on my own analysis of one group of students and, therefore, are not generalizable. The common themes that we discussed in our oral reflection are their process of constructing their final maps, how they are connected to the environment, and what those connections mean to them personally. It was fulfilling when they admitted that the process of creating the map was helpful in their thinking about their connections to the environment. Some ETCs spoke about how long it took them to complete their final map because they kept thinking of things to add to it and then had to reorganize where things were placed. “Actually, when I was sitting down and doing this project, I know it took me a long time to actually organize it because I was like there [are] so many things that connect to each other” (Student 4).


I was going to do like one little piece of paper, and maybe two pieces of paper at most, but then when I started doing it, I was like, this is not enough space! …It kind of opened my eyes, I guess, just to see how much I’m connected. (Student 8)


Others mentioned that they chose not to show all of the interconnections they thought about on their maps (as lines) because they felt it would make it overwhelming for me and them to look at.


In reality, when I was doing this, I was like, they all connect like no matter what. So it’s just going to be a big blob, so I didn’t know what to do…. I didn’t really realize how connected all the different parts of my life [were]. (Student 3)


Other ETCs mentioned that in the process of creating their final maps, it helped them to become more aware of how daily actions connect them to the environment (regardless of where they are physically) and are interconnected to other environmental issues.


I almost used to think, when you were inside, you weren’t interacting with the environment, but I think you still interact with aspects of the environment, like you still interact with water because your water has to come from somewhere which is piped into the building. But you don’t think about that when you turn the faucet on. (Student 15)


In the construction of their maps, most ETCs showed that they reflected on course themes and unit topics (food, water, ecosystems, and climate change) and felt that the process of creating the final map helped them to connect these issues to each other.

When I set their initial and final maps side by side, we would talk about what changed during the semester related to how they felt they were connected to the environment. As mentioned above, all 20 ETCs in this semester included food (either as a personal care activity or a consumer activity) on their final maps. When asked how their ideas changed over the semester, ETCs talked about how they felt their view of their interactions with the environment had gotten more complex and mentioned specific examples, often related to food, of how they realized how connected they were. Many ETCs also mentioned that they had not considered food or eating an environmental act, much like Student 1: “Definitely not the food, I didn’t even think about the food…. Everybody kind of talks about the carbon emissions from the cars, and I knew water, my dad is a big water conserver, and so I knew those two.”

Other ETCs mentioned that even though they had some initial knowledge about how eating was an environmental act, they deepened their understanding:


You know, I feel like I knew that trucks ran on oil, and they went to the grocery store, and the food came there, the grocery store didn’t grow it. But I just didn’t, I just didn’t think about it…. I feel like making this [the map] and just this whole course in general has made me really put all of that stuff into perspective…like I’m just buying some lettuce, and then you are like, whoa, where did this come from? (Student 2)


The final maps of these ETCs show evidence of how the unit on food helped them connect their daily activities to the environment and think about how environmental issues connect to them personally.

In addition to discussing the topic of food, most ETCs mentioned feeling more comfortable talking to others about environmental impacts. “Corn is in everything! I’m like, look, there is corn in this newspaper, on the cover of this magazine, and all of these different things. I was like telling my friends, oh, did you know this about corn?” (Student 7). Other ETCs mentioned that they felt a responsibility to share such information with others because they were planning to live for a while on the planet and have children of their own who would be impacted. A few other ETCs went further and discussed specifically how such a focus on how the content connected to their own lives impacted their perspective about the importance of teaching environmental topics in their future classrooms: “It’s something that we definitely need to teach like in the classrooms because I wasn’t even aware of it, and I am like 21” (Student 14). “Like I can do my very best, and I can talk to my friends, and they can help, do their very best. But I saw the children in the school; they were really receptive to this” (Student 17). Finally, another student discussed how teaching environmental content through personal activities helped her to think about how she might use the same approach to impact future students outside of the classroom:


Now I feel like I have, I could do this, and they [elementary students] could also take it out, like they could actually take it out into the environment, and I feel like I’ve, yeah, really kind of opened my eyes to that. (Student 2)


I designed the final map project to help ETCs connect their daily activities to the environment to help them realize that they are inextricably connected to the world through their daily activities and needs. My hope is that such a realization would propel them to recognize the personal salience of environmental topics and thus care more about environmental issues and also provide an impetus to include science and social studies topics related to the environment in their future classrooms. Out of 20 ETCs during the semester, 10 ETCs only included connections between environmental issues and science curriculum topics, and 10 ETCs found connections between their environmental activities and both science and social studies topics. Of the connections the 10 ETCs noted between environmental topics and social studies, they most commonly mentioned (1) the need for people to use resources provided by the environment for survival (whether in the context of food, water, or other raw materials) and (2) how people positively and negatively impact the environment. Both social studies standard themes highlight the dependence of humans on the environment and, therefore, support the idea of the personal salience of environmental topics for ETCs. Only two students mentioned the influence of any other social dimension on environmental topics and practices, and both were in the context of lessons they imagined teaching with elementary students. For example, in discussing how the class has shaped her ideas about how to teach environmental topics in elementary school, Student 16 proposed the idea of a class on consumerism and globalization by having products from different parts of the world around the classroom and have students count how many steps it took to get the product and equate it to fuel use. In all of these cases, about half of students are making connections between environmental topics, science, and the social dimensions of the issues; however, they did not discuss how their own identity positions (aside from geographical location) or the identity positions of others shape our responses to environmental issues.


Conclusions and Implications for Practice

To summarize, most ETCs were able to express how the content connected to their own lives, how it helped them connect their daily activities with the environment, and how their perspectives about the relevance of environmental topics to their lives shifted during the course. Focusing on food has been a successful way to help ETCs recognize the personal salience of environmental topics, and the use of the personal environmental activity map has helped ETCs reflect on how their daily activities connect them to the environment and reinforce that they are an integral part of the environment in which they live. Therefore, I have been successful in helping ETCs develop their environmental identities through these changes to the environmental literacy course.

I would advocate that other science educators addressing environmental topics in their courses think about how to incorporate Kempton and Holland’s (2003) dimensions of environmental identities to help ETCs personally connect to the content. ETCs expressed how the course (and food in particular) helped them connect environmental topics to their daily life, highlighting the personal salience of environmental issues. Furthermore, ETCs showed on their final personal environmental activity maps how they connected their actions to positive or negative impacts on environmental elements. In terms of helping ETCs develop their environmental identities, I see the positive effects of using daily activities as a focus for exploring environmental issues (in this example, food) and using the personal environmental activity map as a way to promote ETC reflection on their personal relationship with the environment and environmental issues.

In reflecting on how well the format of a concept map worked for students to continually reflect on what they were learning about their personal relationship with the environment, I plan to continue my use of this learning tool and would advocate that other environmental teacher educators try it in their own courses. ETCs were able to show the interconnectedness of our environmental content, how they understood the topics we discussed in the course, and how it was connected to their own lives. Based on our oral reflections on their map-making processes and the organization of their final maps, I believe that the construction of the map promoted most ETCs to synthesize course information and think about how it related to their personal lives in ways that showed a change in their depth of understanding (Kinchin, 2014). To encourage this synthesis of information throughout the course, in future course offerings, I plan to make time for students to reflect on revising their personal environmental activity map after every major unit focus in the course. This will allow students to reflect more often on the development of their thinking about their own environmental identity and give us space to reflect as a community on how they are thinking about the topics and how to represent their ideas on their concept maps.

Many ETCs did not include any explicit references to identity positions or indications of a critical perspective on the social dimensions of environmental topics on their final maps, which could be due to a number of factors. To see if it was partly an artifact of the assignment guidelines, for the next iteration of this course, I would like to explicitly have ETCs address the social dimensions of various environmental issues based on various identities. As we know, ETCs often prepare assignments based on the grading criteria given to them. By making these aspects of the critical social dimensions of environmental topics an explicit part of the assignment, I hope that the final assessment becomes a part of their synthesis of how the social dimensions of environmental topics position people of various identities differently related to environmental issues and proposed solutions. I plan to revise the final map assessment rubric (Appendix A) by adding a fourth category related to embedding the social dimensions of environmental issues—specifically how their own culture, gender, and race or ethnicity position them related to their daily activities and relationship with the environment. In this way, the assignment can still focus on themselves (personal connection) but also requires them to demonstrate their understanding of how their own identity positions shape their relationship with the environment in similar and different ways from diverse others. Specifically, my hope is that in asking ETCs to think about the critical social dimensions of their environmental relationships, they will consider how their own life experiences, personal consumption habits, and daily practices impact the environment in similar and different ways from the diverse students they will encounter in their classrooms. I also hope that our community discussions as we revise our maps throughout the semester will help students do the challenging work of seeing how certain identities are privileged or disadvantaged related to environmental issues and various proposed solutions.

Finally, many ETCs did not explicitly mention teaching environmental content on their final maps. In reflecting on why this may be the case, it could be that even though they are enrolled in a teaching program, they do not see this as a significant part of their identity yet. Another possibility could be that the prompt for the final map is for students to reflect on activities that they do on a daily basis, and as students, they are not yet engaged in teaching on such a frequent basis. Although ETCs do engage in a teaching-related service-learning activity in the course (for more information, see Wilson et al., 2015), I would also like to incorporate more small planning activities for students as an extension of our discussions of pedagogy. In this way, I hope to encourage ETCs to make connections between their environmental identities and their developing identities as teachers.

The focus on food as a topic to explore science and the social dimensions of environmental sustainability is one that I plan to continue to implement, along with the use of personal environmental activity maps. ETCs consistently included food as a personal activity on their maps and discussed how it affected their thinking about their relationship with the environment. In his reflection on the past 25 years of environmental education research, Scott (2020) calls on educators to not lose sight of our ultimate goal of helping teachers and students realize the importance of addressing sustainability topics for “learning about our dependence on the biosphere” (p. 1687) can help us recognize our need to act. Although my own instruction and curriculum design for my work with ETCs continues to develop as I engage in cycles of implementation, reflection, and revision, I do not want to lose sight of the importance of encouraging, inspiring, and motivating ETCs to understand how they are connected to the environment and to develop their environmental identities.

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Providing High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities Through a Lesson Study Conference

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Dotger, S., Whisher-Hehl, J., Heckathorn, J., Moquin, F. K. (2021). Providing High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities Through a Lesson Study Conference. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/providing-high-quality-professional-learning-opportunities-through-a-lesson-study-conference/

by Sharon Dotger, Syracuse University; Jessica Whisher-Hehl, Syracuse University; Jennifer Heckathorn, Syracuse University; & F. Kevin Moquin, Syracuse University


We report on the development and implementation of a conference designed to highlight the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) using lesson study as an effective professional-development practice for inservice teachers. The purpose of this article is to highlight details from the development and implementation that can be used by others wishing to replicate the conference. First, we give an overview of the practice of lesson study and explain how it was used by one of four lesson study teams that taught their research lesson publicly at the conference in front of 80 observers. Then, we describe a sample research proposal and share specific information about the processes used to coach the lesson study teams and plan the conference, and we share conference agendas and diagrams of lesson implementations to support readers’ visualization of the implementation. Finally, we conclude with three planning components that were vital to our ability to execute the conference and link the design to existing lesson study literature.


Science education has sought to improve student learning since its inception as a discipline. The publication of A Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) seeks to advance that agenda with equitable outcomes for all students; however, wide-spread implementation of instructional practices that breathe life into its vision and those of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013) has yet to be realized. One means to improve student learning is to improve teachers’ instruction, which necessitates teachers’ learning. Yet, opportunities for teachers to learn in science remain infrequent, especially in the elementary grades (Plumley, 2019).

A recent meta-analysis identified five evidence-based conditions for teachers to improve instructional quality: Learning opportunities must (1) be sustained, (2) focus on daily problems of teaching, (3) support teachers’ focus on student thinking, (4) develop teacher communities, and (5) study and enact particular instructional routines and practices (Gibbons & Cobb, 2017). Lesson study was identified as one of six potentially productive coaching activities that met all five of the conditions (Gibbons & Cobb, 2017). As a practice, lesson study foregrounds collaborative teacher research into the intersections between standards, research findings, and instructional materials, resulting in a lesson designed to test an instructional hypothesis. Therefore, lesson study provides a structure for teachers to dig into the fundamental goals of the National Research Council’s (2012) framework and the NGSS and test if and how their best instructional ideas yield student learning outcomes in the classroom.

To provide teachers with training in the NGSS and to spark a catalyst for the growth of lesson study beyond a single classroom or school, we developed and implemented three lesson-study conferences. The goal of this article is to report on the first-year conference design and the lesson study process used to facilitate it. We chose to focus on the first year of the conference to highlight the details of the foundational design to assist others in replication, should they choose to do so. To prepare this article, we conducted a retrospective analysis of artifacts from the first year.

In addition to organizing the conference, most of the authors doubled as lesson study coaches for the teaching teams. This positionality allows us to report on aspects of the lesson study process and the conference design. We analyzed information from records, including notes from team meetings, conference organizer meetings, artifacts, news coverage, and photographs. The utilization of cloud-based documents and the tracking of changes to documents (in this case, Google Docs) facilitated this process.


Lesson Study

The origins of lesson study have been traced to interactions between Japanese and U.S. teacher educators in the 1870s (Makinae, 2019). Lesson study took root in Japan and continues to provide a structure for teachers to collaboratively study and improve their standards, curriculum, instructional materials, and pedagogy (Dotger, 2015; Fernandez & Yoshida, 2012; Lewis et al., 2012; Takahashi & McDougal, 2016). Through a research cycle, a team of teachers and other educators, such as instructional coaches or administrators, work together through a four-phase process: study, plan, teach, and reflect. During the study phase, the teaching team selects a topic of interest and articulates a research theme, which states the instructional moves and tools that teachers will use in the research lesson and the hypothesized student learning that will be evident as a result. The team investigates their own and their students’ knowledge of the concept. The team then shifts to the plan phase, designing a lesson that will elicit the students’ thinking that the participants will review to evaluate their research hypothesis.

An example of a research hypothesis might be as follows: By using board work, student writing, and discourse practices, more students will contribute to building a consensus model. The research hypothesis drives the team’s study of the curriculum materials and their plan for instruction. The studying and planning should be integrated with one another. Teams are often facilitated through the process by a knowledgeable other or “coach” with experience in the content area and lesson study. Collectively, the team and coach plan a research lesson embedded within the larger unit of study that will be taught by one member of the team while the other members and the coach collect evidence of student thinking in real time. This evidence is used following the lesson to evaluate the research hypothesis. When additional observers who are not members of the teaching team help gather data, the research lesson is “public.” To these observers, the research lesson may seem like a singular event in the lesson study process. However, the research lesson cannot be divorced from its context within the larger unit of study, especially because the team’s work during the study and plan phases expanded not only their knowledge of the instructional actions contained in the research lesson but also their knowledge of the whole unit. For the sake of organization and brevity, we point interested readers to in-depth descriptions of the lesson study process as described in other works (e.g., Seleznyov, 2018; Takahashi & McDougal, 2016, 2019).


A Science Lesson Study Conference

In 2016, the state’s adoption of an adapted set of standards based on the NGSS drove teachers’ need for professional development opportunities. Our team included a science teacher educator, a coordinator of science professional development for the region’s state-endorsed educational agency, an assistant superintendent of instructional support, and a classroom teacher experienced with lesson study. The varied professional roles of our team members positioned us to notice and respond to that need for professional development. We envisioned using lesson study as a means to improve teachers’ instructional practice and familiarity with the NGSS. Further, we brought multiple teaching teams together in a lesson study conference to share that learning with others. To meet these goals, we took on multiple roles, including planning the conference and coaching the teams. Given the cyclical nature of lesson study and the overlapping responsibilities of roles, reporting on these practices simultaneously is difficult. To provide insight into both, we first discuss the experience of one teaching team and their research lesson, and then we discuss the preparation for and implementation of the conference.


The Experience of a Teaching Team

Several criteria were considered for selection, including the team’s previous experience with teaching a live research lesson, the team’s familiarity with the instructional units, and the proposed grade level focus for the lesson study cycle. These criteria allowed us to narrow our focus in three ways. First, this limited the span of grade levels that would be represented at the conference, which allowed for an in-depth focus on the changes required by the new standards for elementary science. Second, because these teams had at least some members who had previously participated in lesson study, we focused more on the standards and instructional materials than on the lesson study process. Likewise, given the size and scope of the conference, we believed that teams with experience would feel more confident about their participation than those without experience. Table 1 provides information on the grade level focus for the research lessons, the coaches, the size of the teaching teams, and the number of people on each team with prior lesson study experience.


Table 1

Lesson Study Team Information

Once recruited, teams participated in a full lesson study cycle. To illustrate, we focus here on the experience of the fourth-grade teaching team. This team consisted of four elementary teachers, two of whom had prior lesson study experience, and was coached by the first author. She oversaw the lesson study cycle and assisted the teaching team in finding instructional resources, developing their research theme, and studying the content. Like all other teams, they attended the summer jumpstart institute held in August, which was designed and facilitated by the first two authors. During this time, the teaching teams refined their lesson study ideas and studied the NGSS, related documents, and instructional materials. By the end of the summer meeting, each teaching team began planning their unit and the lesson they felt would best allow them to investigate their research hypothesis.

At the conclusion of the summer jumpstart, the teaching team and coach scheduled ongoing meetings (approximately every 7–10 days) to continue their study of materials and the preparation for the public research lesson. Once the school year started, these meetings were held after school, and members of the teaching team received minimal compensation for their time.

Figure 1 provides details of the work undertaken by the fourth-grade team and their coach as they progressed through lesson study’s study, plan, teach, and reflect stages. The figure shows that a great deal of lesson study work occurred prior to the research lesson and that the public research lesson was only a small portion of the whole cycle. In the context of the conference, however, the research lesson was the most public component.


Figure 1

Timeline of a Lesson Study Cycle

Because this team taught their research lesson publicly, they created a presentation for the attendees who observed the lesson. They emailed their lesson research proposal to the conference attendees a few days prior to the conference. The purpose of the presentation was to update observers on any changes, introduce them to lesson study, introduce observation procedures and norms, and answer questions. Following the presentation, one member of the teaching team taught the research lesson. After the research lesson, the team held the post-lesson discussion.


A Sample Research Lesson

For the sample research lesson, we continue to use the fourth-grade team from the first year as an example case. Unlike the other teams in the first year, this team did not have a new set of instructional materials to work from; therefore, they adjusted their old materials. Their research theme focused on whether the use of science notebooks and careful planning of whiteboard space by the teachers could enhance the students’ learning. They hypothesized that by using notebook writing, students would be able to better explain their reasoning to others and generate claims that connected observations together to answer the research question. When the teachers set their research theme, they noted that in prior years, their students seemed to struggle with explaining themselves to their peers or comparing their ideas to those of their classmates. Further, they hypothesized that careful use of the board to document student thinking would create an exemplar for students to draw from in constructing their own notebook entries and make their thinking visible to one another. Because the research lesson was a continuation from a lesson that they began in their home classroom, the board helped students link ideas across lessons.

The research lesson took 2 days to complete—only the second day was public at the conference. The lesson goal was for students to be able to answer the focus question: How do objects change during an interaction? In the first half of the lesson, they observed a hand boiler as a class and then discussed what they noticed before, during, and after the interaction between a hand and a hand boiler. Students then worked in four teams at three stations to record their observations in their science notebooks. In the second half of the lesson, the students observed three more stations, recorded their observations, and then discussed as a class how they could answer the focus question and support their answer with evidence from multiple interactions among the seven that they studied.

In their research proposal, the team articulated multiple questions to guide lesson observers in gathering helpful evidence of student reasoning. One of the key questions that the team had when planning was the degree to which they should structure students’ exploration of manipulatives and records in the science notebook. To gather information from the research lesson to address this question, the teaching team posed several questions to the observers to guide their observations of students. These questions included: How are the students observing the objects and their interactions? How are the students recording their observations? What language are the students using to describe their thinking? The teaching team wanted to use this evidence to evaluate the efficacy of the structure they provided students in bringing together multiple observations to build an explanation.

 The Conference Experience

Preparation for the conference began 10 months prior to the date it was held with the recruitment of the teaching teams. Figure 2 provides a detailed account of the tasks undertaken to prepare for and conduct the conference and outlines which tasks fell to which groups. The colors in the chart are used to clarify the tasks for each group and show the interactions between groups over time. For example, the work of the conference planners, shown in yellow, intersected with the coaches’ work, shown in blue, over the summer. This overlapping effort is shown in green to demonstrate this cooperation. Because the coaches worked so closely with the teaching teams, much of their combined work is shown in purple.


Figure 2

Workflow Chart for Lesson Study Conference Planning

We held the conference on a regional professional development day when classes were not in session. This enabled the conference to be held at a local school, which reduced costs and provided the multiple, large, open meeting spaces needed. Additionally, teachers did not require substitute teacher coverage, administrators were able to attend, and students could participate in the live research lessons without missing class time. Teaching team members recruited students at the grade level of their live research lesson to participate. The team sent a letter to parents informing them of the conference agenda, planned activities for the students, and the transportation plan. This letter also requested their permission for their child to attend and be photographed or interviewed by local media and inquired about medical needs. Each team was able to recruit the majority of students in the focal class to participate in the conference so that the lesson mimicked a typical class day. Teaching assistants from the students’ districts accompanied them for the day, and students were bussed to the conference location from their home school. When students were not in the live research lesson, they attended enrichment experiences at the conference location with local children’s programs from museums, the zoo, and a local gym. Elements like color-coded classroom t-shirts and bagged lunches helped to make the day special for students, and the students also received a big round of applause from the conference attendees.

Conference participants were recruited from over 20 public K–12 school districts in the region. Although the research lessons were limited to Grades 2–6 content, participants from across the K–12 spectrum were encouraged to attend due to the novelty of the standards and the lack of experience most teachers had with them. For many conference participants, this was the first opportunity they had to see lessons designed for the NGSS. Additionally, school and district administrators, including instructional coaches, curriculum coordinators, principals, and superintendents, attended the conference, as did some preservice teachers and faculty from a local university. In the first year, 338 participants attended the conference.

The full agenda for the conference is shown in Figure 3. To begin the day, the conference organizers introduced the audience to the agenda and explained their vision for the conference design. Immediately following, all attendees listened to a keynote address given by a director of a national center focused on science education. She explained the purpose of her center and how it responded to the NGSS and gave an overview of evidence on the efficacy of the center’s teacher professional development and instructional materials design projects.


Figure 3

Conference Agenda

Following the keynote address, the conference shifted to the research lessons. Each conference participant was assigned to one of four research lesson introductions based on grade-level preferences gathered during registration. The introduction oriented the observers to the teaching team’s goals and provided an overview of the lessons the students experienced leading up to the research lesson. The teaching teams also shared their research hypotheses and the rationale for their lesson design and gave guidance to the observers on gathering specific evidence of student thinking that would be used in the post-lesson discussion to evaluate the research theme. Figure 4 shows the layout of one of the gymnasium spaces for the research lesson introduction, research lesson, and post-lesson discussion. The intent of the figure is to show the multiple uses of the space as well as assist the reader in visualizing the interactions between the teaching teams, facilitators, coaches, keynote speakers, conference participants, and students. Facilitators were assigned to each research lesson to act as moderators, upholding discussion norms and guidelines for observations. Facilitators were colleagues with prior knowledge of lesson study and prior experience with teacher professional development.


Figure 4

Lesson Introduction, Research Lesson, and Post-lesson Discussion Layout

Each of the four teaching teams taught their lesson twice with different student groups. The teachers had recruited enough students from the appropriate grade level at their school to split between the two lessons. At the conclusion of the lesson and the second keynote, the two groups switched; the group that came from the keynote went to the second iteration of the research lesson, and the group that came from the research lesson went to the third keynote presentation (Keynote 3).

The keynote speeches that ran opposite of the research lessons were given by a science teacher educator with two decades of experience in elementary science education and a classroom teacher from another state who had already been teaching using the NGSS. The teacher educator spoke to the kind of teacher learning that was required for teachers to implement the NGSS, whereas the classroom teacher shared her experiences and advice for transitioning to NGSS-aligned instruction and attending to associated assessment demands. Each was selected to further the conference’s goal to connect local classroom-level work with national initiatives in improving science teaching and learning. The design decision to have two different keynotes was based on two key considerations. First, we wanted to limit the number of observers present in any research lesson. By offering the lesson twice, each lesson was observed by approximately 40 educators rather than 80. Second, we wanted the keynote speakers to be able to observe a research lesson to facilitate their opportunity to connect their expertise to the learning experience for the students. Therefore, the second keynote speaker observed the first lesson iteration, and the third keynote speaker observed the second lesson iteration.

Following the second iteration of the research lesson, Groups A and B reconvened in the same space where the lesson introduction took place. The facilitator led the post-lesson discussion using established protocols (Lewis et al., 2019; Takahashi & McDougal, 2016). The teacher of the research lesson shared their thinking about the lesson first, followed by their teammates, and then the facilitator invited observations of student thinking from conference participants and final comments from the attending keynote speaker. Through this collaborative approach, the group collectively evaluated the teaching team’s research theme and discussed its implications for future instruction.

To conclude the conference, everyone gathered for a panel discussion in the auditorium. The goal of the panel discussion was to connect the topics raised in the keynotes, the research lessons, and our collective observations of student thinking. The panel members included the first two authors, two conference organizers, the keynote speakers, and a member of each of the four teaching teams. The third author facilitated the panel discussion, allowing time for panelists to comment on the goals of the conference and taking questions and comments from the audience. During the closing and next steps, participants were asked to complete a Google evaluation form. The evaluation included six Likert-scale questions with the option to add comments to each response. Of the conference participants, 273 completed the evaluation form.

Overall, conference participants provided generally positive feedback about their experience. The results are summarized in Table 2. As we compare the responses across the questions, we notice that participants were most positive about attending additional professional development at the regional science center that focused on the new standards. Participants were more interested in conducting lesson study with colleagues as opposed to studying standards with colleagues. One way to interpret this difference is that the participants need additional opportunities to learn about lesson study to understand that studying standards with colleagues is a core component of the study phase.


Table 2

Likert-Scale Evaluation Responses (n = 273)

Survey respondents added 40 comments about conducting lesson study with colleagues that ranged from “All teachers should do this” to “Not at this time” or “Time to work with others is limited.” When asked if they would attend another conference like this in the future, 38 respondents added comments. More than a third asked for there to be lessons that focused on middle and high school contexts—which we did in subsequent years. Other isolated comments included, “It was amazing to be able to watch and discuss authentic student learning,” and “I was on one of the teaching teams and would definitely participate again.” Fortunately, members of teaching teams did return for additional work in subsequent years and brought additional colleagues with them. Although this may not be a direct measure of their learning, teachers’ continued participation is a signal of their interest and that they found the process valuable.


Discussion and Conclusion

The purpose of this article was to report on the first-year conference design and the lesson study process used to facilitate it. To that end, here we expand on three components that we consider crucial to the success of the conference. First, we decided to hold the conference on a professional development day, which meant that classes were not in session. This decision had implications for the entire conference design, including the number and type of participants we were able to recruit. Additionally, we used a school as the conference location, which gave us access to multiple large instructional spaces (e.g., auditorium, gymnasiums, music rooms, and library). If we held the conference during a typical school day, we would have had to limit the number of public lessons and the number of participants who could attend the conference. However, because the conference took place on a professional development day, we needed to recruit students to participate in a learning opportunity on a “day off” at a different location. Therefore, as Figure 2 clarifies, we created a student schedule that mimicked a traditional school day, including providing transportation, supervision, and enrichment activities for the students when they were not in the research lessons.

Second, the progression of the lesson study cycle for the teaching teams was influenced by several factors. Once the conference date was identified, the coaches collaborated with the lesson study teams during the summer jumpstart to set a progression of meetings during September and October that allowed them to complete the study and plan phases of their cycle. Each of the research lessons was embedded within larger instructional units. Because the research lessons were not isolated events, teaching teams had to carefully implement their lessons so that students would be in the right place and last-minute edits to the lesson research proposals would be minimized. Each of these factors influenced the pace at which the research proposals were constructed and shared with conference participants. Additionally, teachers wanted to build on the learning of their students from the research lesson, which implicated the remaining lessons in the unit that they taught.

Finally, the collaborative nature of lesson study and conference design and implementation cannot be overstated. Although Figure 2 demonstrates the collaboration required between various stakeholders involved in the conference, it does not illustrate the additional collaboration and communication required to host the conference. This collaboration included meetings with the host-site school principal and custodial staff to arrange for the setup of the instructional spaces, communication with audio-visual specialists to assist with technology and sound needs, and getting access to the school the night before the conference to allow for setup and for the teaching teams to orient themselves to new instructional spaces. Multiple teaching teams elected to practice their research lesson in their revised instructional space the evening before to visualize how the delivery of the lesson would feel for them and how they wanted to orient tables, chairs, rugs, and whiteboards for their students.

There is little doubt that inservice teachers require high-quality professional development experiences in order to implement the rigorous instructional shifts required of the NGSS. Our state’s shift in science standards and the subsequent changes in instructional materials presented opportunities for educators across the region to engage in professional development. We contributed to those opportunities by designing and facilitating a conference featuring public research lessons that were taught as the result of teaching teams’ engagement in systematic study of standards, content, and pedagogy through lesson study. The conference provided an avenue to simultaneously center both the voices of experts—those who have contributed to the authorship of the NGSS, designed instructional materials to bring them to life, or field tested newly developed assessments of students learning—and the expertise of local, practicing teachers who engaged in a lesson study cycle about those standards, using those instructional materials, and enacting instructional practices meant to make students’ thinking visible and audible to lesson observers. By making their practice public, the teaching teams offered conference participants an opportunity to see how elementary science instruction could develop and also allowed them to discuss lesson efficacy considering evidence of learning gathered as a lesson unfolded rather than only via an end-of-year summative assessment with underspecified connectivity to instruction.

In one of the first papers written in English that reintroduced lesson study to Western audiences, Lewis and Tsuchida (1998) suggested that “research lessons provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss big ideas currently shaping national educational debate, think them through, and bring them to life in the actual classroom” (p. 16). We sought to design a conference that would actualize this description of Japanese practice in a U.S. context, particularly at a time when stepping up to the potential of the NGSS would require the alteration of standard classroom practice and revitalization of elementary science instruction. We hope that by describing a conference designed to use public research lessons as a mechanism for studying the NGSS, we might encourage other teacher educators to use lesson study and their research lessons to publicly advance the goals of equitable science education for all learners.



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Takahashi, A., & McDougal, T. (2019). Using school-wide collaborative lesson research to implement standards and improve student learning: Models and preliminary results. In R. Huang, A. Takahashi, & J. P. da Ponte (Eds.), Theory and practice of lesson study in mathematics: An international perspective (pp. 263–284). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04031-4_14






Facilitating an Elementary School-Wide Immersive Academic Event

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Kinskey, M., Ruzek, M., & Zeidler, D. L. (2021). Facilitating an Elementary School-Wide Immersive Academic Event. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/facilitating-an-elementary-school-wide-immersive-academic-event/

by Melanie Kinskey, Sam Houston State University; Mitch Ruzek, University of South Florida; & Dana L. Zeidler, University of South Florida


Traditional science teaching has tended to focus on compartmentalized academic content that is removed from the practice of everyday life. Confronting this has been a perennial challenge in science teacher education, and the impact on the stifling of students’ creativity, critical thinking, and engagement has been well documented in the literature. Progressive science teaching, however, emphasizes situating instruction in sociocultural contexts that engage children in the activity of learning by tapping into their natural instincts of wonder, curiosity, questioning, and actively seeking meaning about the world around them. This article describes week-long, immersive, inquiry-based events that university educators facilitate at local schools. The purpose of the events is to model how to engage students in inquiry-based experiences and stimulate their natural curiosity and, at the same time, facilitate professional development for teachers. These educative experiences are positioned in the notion of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning that drew from science, the creative arts, social sciences, language arts, and mathematics. During this week-long event, we build a community of engagement aimed at fostering heightened levels of academic commitment, developing natural inquiry skills, and cultivating authentic scientific habits of mind through inquiry that would captivate both students and teachers across multiple grade levels.


A collective goal of science education entails instruction that provides students  opportunities to connect what they learn about science to real world social and scientific problems (UNESCO, 2019) while enacting science practices (National Research Council [NRC], 2012). The Preparing Teachers report recognizes that science teachers should receive training that develops their abilities to provide students with opportunities to develop these skills (NRC, 2010). Often, however, this aim is not being effectively met and lacks results that properly prepare diverse student groups for authentic engagement with the real world (Roberts & Bybee, 2014). For instance, a recent study conducted by the National Horizon’s Institute found that only 26% of elementary teachers nationwide are providing opportunities for their students to develop skills associated with critical thinking and problem-solving, and 37% of elementary teachers self-reported relying on textbooks to drive their science teaching (Banilower, 2019).

Science has traditionally focused too much on compartmentalized academic content that is detached from the ever-evolving experience of everyday life, thus stifling students’ creativity, critical thinking, and engagement (DeBoer, 2014; Kahn & Zeidler, 2016). To prevent this from occurring, we argue that science teachers need access to a more innovative approach to science teaching, such as the immersive educative events described in this article. Immersive events emphasize situational learning that is multidisciplinary, broad-based, and requires understanding of sociocultural contexts that engage children in inquiry by tapping their natural instincts of wonder, curiosity, and spontaneous questions (Zeidler, 2014). Our approach is similar to the work of Gilbert and Byers (2020), who advocate for the use of a wonder-infused pedagogical approach to educator professional learning, which involves preparing teachers to foster student-driven opportunities to wonder and be naturally curious about the world around them. Extant literature attributes the lack of professional development (PD) in this area to the disconnect between these innovative approaches to science instruction and what is typically occurring in classrooms (e.g., Banilower, 2019; Longhurst et al., 2016).

As science teacher educators, we aim to improve the instructional practices of in-service practitioners by providing professional learning experiences inclusive of opportunities to engage with science in a learner-based, educative environment that provides opportunities for students to employ their natural curiosity and problem-solving skills (Longhurst et al., 2016). It was with that intention that we developed and facilitated week-long, immersive events where teachers are learning alongside their students. The learning that takes place, however, varies slightly: While students are learning science content, teachers are learning science pedagogy. By immersing teachers in the inquiry-based experiences that take place during immersive events, they are experiencing similar emotions, successes, and frustrations to their students, which helps them make instructional decisions that stem from experience rather than theoretical understanding. The main learning outcome we have identified during this immersive experience is for teachers to begin making instructional changes that foster the positive experiences they and their students had while engaging with immersive scenarios.



Immersive events are scenarios we created to simulate real-world occurrences that place teachers and students in the midst of a whole-school inquiry. Examples of immersive events we have facilitated include crashing a “meteorite” into a schoolyard, uncovering mastodon bones during routine maintenance in the schoolyard, or being called in after a janitor identifies an “unknown” biological hazard on school grounds. During these events, we spend one week at the school location and model inquiry for teachers as we solicit help from staff, faculty, and students in conducting investigations to learn more about the phenomenon. When facilitating these events, we do not tell students that the event is staged but simply allow them to draw their own conclusions through the process of asking questions, conducting research, and engaging in investigations. Although we would never purposefully mislead students into thinking an event was real. The goal of these events is twofold: (1) to model student-centered, inquiry-based science instruction that does not rely on scripted curricula and, (2) to provide educative learning experiences that will help teachers feel comfortable with a more student-centered approach in their future science instruction.


Our Approach to Educative Experiences

Educative experiences for teachers have been defined as promoting teacher learning by placing them in the role of a learners and engaging them with curricula they will eventually facilitate in their own classrooms (Longhurst et al., 2016). Although educative learning experiences for teachers are not novel (e.g., Howes, 2008; Longhurst et al., 2016), our approach differs from other approaches to using educative experiences for PD.

We decided to approach educative experiences this way to prevent our work from becoming a one-shot PD that never comes to fruition (Lumpe, 2007). By immersing teachers in the event with students, they are able to see, hear, and feel an inquiry-based approach to science. Our intention is that an experience like this will become a concrete memory that teachers can draw upon when planning future science lessons. There is always the chance this does not occur, but we feel that taking this approach to educative experiences for teachers, at the very least, will help them have a positive experience with science instruction, which we still consider a success.


Planning for a Successful Event

Similar to extant literature (e.g., Wade-Jaimes et al., 2020), we have found that building strong partnerships with schools is essential for planning a successful event. With trends showing elementary teachers’ strong reliance on science textbooks (Banilower, 2019), administrators have shared that they view immersive events as a unique and refreshing way to facilitate science instruction. However, this may result in administrators requesting that a scenario be facilitated at their school before speaking to teachers and ensuring that they agree to adapt their instruction for a full week.

The immersive events we facilitate are based on scenarios we designed that require a substantial amount of preliminary work concerning standards alignment and the formal development of Immersive Academics curricula. The instructional planning of these events begins with the creative consideration, “What resources do we have available that could create a simulated scientific phenomenon at a local school?” This thought process leads to ideas: “I have a boulder I could have delivered to a school that could be painted with shimmery spray paint and surrounded by dry ice to simulate a meteorite strike,” which in turn begins the process of interdisciplinary unit planning in which we identify which science, social studies, math, English language arts, music, art, and PE standards could be incorporated. The identified standards are placed into a resource binder for teachers, which they will receive during the PD. This resource binder becomes a valuable tool that reduces the amount of work for teachers when finding ways to adapt their lessons to connect with the scenario. We also curate a series of lesson plans that we have written or found online and place them in a binder, which becomes the Immersive Academic curricula. We have found the development and dissemination of this collection to be instrumental in supporting teachers during the immersive week.

In the following sections, we provide details of our project in chronological order. First, we describe how these immersive events are initiated and how teachers are prepared for them. This is followed by details for each day of the weeklong events. Because our goal was to influence teacher instruction using an innovative approach, we conclude with feedback from teachers and implications for science teacher educators.


Preparing Teachers for the Event

Laying the Groundwork. The schools where we facilitate these immersive events are locations where the school administration or the school district have reached out to us expressing an interest in having one of the events take place on their campus. To initiate our work and spark interest and curiosity among the faculty, as well as identify unique aspects that are supportive of the learning community represented by the participating campus, we schedule a visit to occur during a regular faculty meeting. During this meeting, we introduce the immersive scenario and share a brief description of the forthcoming PD, details of what to expect during the immersive week, immersive week follow-up, and other essential details to ensure a successful immersive experience. Following this initial meeting, we often visit the school two or three more times for follow-up departmental, grade level, or specials area (e.g., art, music, or PE) group meetings to further determine needs and communicate more specific details of the immersive event experience. The goal of these visits is to develop the in-service teachers’ level of comfort in preparing for and implementing the immersive week.

Two to 6 weeks after that initial introduction, a 1-day formal PD is conducted on the elementary school campus or another location, such as a training room at the local school district office. We recognize that one-time PD has been found ineffective in transforming practice (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017); therefore, the goal of this formal PD day is not to result in an immediate transformation of practice but to provide teachers with the opportunity to engage in nature of science (NOS) activities aimed at reminding them of what it is like to engage in aspects of NOS (i.e., observations, empiricism, subjectivity) while also providing them with enough background and context surrounding the upcoming scenario that they feel comfortable incorporating the scientific concepts into their regularly planned lessons. This PD day is only the beginning of the professional learning experiences these in-service teachers will engage with. Their professional learning continues throughout the weeklong immersive event through informal interactions as teachers observe how we engage students with science concepts through questioning and have the opportunity to facilitate questions and investigations with their students in and out of the classroom.

The formal PD day is a crucial component to the success of weeklong immersion because it provides the necessary background concerning the scenario and allows us to build a rapport with teachers, which is critical as we work with them and their students during the immersive week. The administration identifies a set of teachers to serve as grade-level or discipline leaders. The teachers who attend the PD are responsible for disseminating this information to their teams. They are expected to schedule a separate meeting with their faculty team members to distribute any training materials and information pertinent to the immersive event week. Funding for substitutes is provided from either allocated PD funds that have been preapproved by the administration or grant funds obtained by a local nonprofit education foundation. Administrators tend to select one or two teachers from each grade level and will sometimes select a specials-area teacher (e.g., art, music, or PE) to include all aspects of learning.

Professional Development Day. Educative curriculum is defined as materials designed to provide scaffolds for both student and teacher learning (Davis & Krajcik, 2005). Teacher scaffolds embedded within the curriculum often emphasize building the teacher’s science content knowledge while also providing strong pedagogical support through explanations and suggestions for how to effectively enact lessons for the intended outcome (e.g., Brunner, 2019; Callahan et al., 2013). When teachers arrive for our formal PD day, they are provided with a binder (and digital copies) of the Immersive Academics curriculum, the set of resources mentioned in the planning section above. The contents of the binder include background information about the scenario and numerous standards-based, sample lesson plans designed for the specific immersive scenario (see Appendix). The sample lesson plans include explanations of content and the pedagogical strategies necessary for facilitating a successful week of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based learning.

The PD day typically opens with introductions and then a photo presentation of past immersive events on other school campuses. Photos are helpful in providing a contextual understanding of what to expect before the event kickoff.

The next component of the day consists of NOS activities, such as NOS Tubes, The Great Fossil Find, and Tricky Tracks. Emphasizing NOS at the beginning of the day helps teachers get into the mindset of how to utilize the event to guide students in engaging with key aspects of science, such as making observations, using evidence to make predictions, understanding how to work collaboratively, and developing creative solutions to problems. These activities also help us model the skills we hope to see teachers focusing on during the event. After these activities are finished, we guide a discussion of how to apply these process skills to daily science instruction.

These discussions provide a transition for the time following their participation in NOS activities. After lunch, teachers take the second half of the day to explore the resources binder, collaborating with their colleagues to develop a list of lesson ideas and materials they will need as they teach during the event week (Figure 1). We acknowledge that in-service teachers often lack time to engage with educative materials in a way that fosters confidence with implementation (Bodzin et al., 2012), so we commit to providing an adequate amount of time for teachers to explore the curriculum during this PD day. As teachers begin to collaborate, we visit the groups and help teachers find ways to tie the immersive event into their existing curriculum so that content delivered through the scenario does not add more work but instead provides a novel means of delivering the required or planned curriculum. Our support during this time acts as a scaffold as we model how teachers may use this anchoring experience as a guide when planning future interdisciplinary science instruction.

In the school district where this work has been done, teachers use a curriculum guide that maps the standards they are expected to teach throughout the year. As we circulate to the various groups of teachers, we refer to the list of standards and activities provided in the binder and their curriculum guides to help teachers identify themes that cross grade levels and curricular themes. Our past experiences with planning and facilitating these events allow these connections to come easily. While planning for curricula connections, teachers also take time to plan safety measures (i.e., ensuring that there will be an adequate number of adults to supervise students at the site during school hours).


Figure 1

Teachers Planning During Professional Development Day

From PD Day to Immersive Week. After the PD day, teachers are expected to meet with their colleagues who were not present and continue planning investigations, optimizing lessons provided in the Immersive Academics curriculum binders, or adapting existing lessons to conform to the theme chosen for the immersive week. The common planning is somewhat out of our control because the school or district administration is responsible for ensuring that teachers have time to meet for planning and sharing information about the immersive event. We have found that suggesting teachers use planning time to collaborate about the immersive week during the initial meeting with the administration, increases the scheduling support and encouragement teachers need to find this common planning time. On the first day of the event, we are able to recognize when this common planning time does not occur. In such cases, one of us will sit down with the teachers during that initial day to give them a brief overview of what to expect and offer additional support. Even when teachers arrive on that first day unsure of what to expect, our intervention allows them and their classes to fully participate in the experience.


The Weeklong Immersive Event

During this week-long immersion, our goal is to model for teachers how to ignite the natural curiosity of students, to allow teachers to observe the opportunities we provide for students to explore this curiosity through open-ended, inquiry-based experiences situated within the context of this simulated real-world event, and to provide opportunities for teachers to engage with open-ended, inquiry-based experiences as learners alongside their students. Through this process, we aim to provide teachers with an educative experience that is not only inspiring but also allows teachers to see what inquiry-based learning looks and feels like so they will have a mastery experience to draw from. As we considered the mastery experiences we were aiming for, we drew from Bandura’s (1994) framework for self-efficacy, which defines mastery experiences as past experiences that initiate feelings of success or failure. The outcome we hope to achieve is to provide anchor experiences that will  influence each teachers’ future daily instructional practice to move away from scripted curricula and textbook-driven science.

Although we have facilitated many immersive events in schools, the most common three are summarized in Table 1. A full list of events with longer descriptions is found on the Immersive Academics website: https://www.immersiveacademicsedu.com/scenarios.


Table 1

Summary of Selected Immersive Events

Day 1. Each scenario begins with the initial day of discovery, which is often staged in a courtyard or high-traffic area of the campus. Students arrive on campus to “discover” the event, much in the way that real-world discovery transpires. The events typically begin on Monday, providing us the opportunity to stage the event after school on Friday or on Saturday, which includes digging a hole, creating impact streaks, delivering the foreign boulder, and putting up caution tape around the impact site to ensure student safety (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Staging the Boulder

When preparing teachers for the event, we communicate that Day 1, the day of discovery, is open-ended and driven by the students’ curiosity. During the Great Impact event, we are often greeted by students with exclamations of “It’s a crater! Look at the smoke!” or “I only saw these on TV. I didn’t know these were real!” During a recent Can You Dig It? scenario, a student was in disbelief that bones were found on campus and questioned: “Did you put those in the hole?” During an Outbreak scenario, students were both curious and concerned as one student slowly approached and asked one of the scientists in a hazmat suit, “What happened here?” while another later questioned, “Is our city [referring to a model city they had built in class] okay?” To put the students at ease, we, along with their teachers, assure them that the hazmat suits were only a safety precaution because we did not know what to expect, but we have identified no threat after our initial investigations. This also serves as a teachable moment to share with students how important it is to take safety precautions while engaging in scientific investigations.

While the students are at the site asking the scenario scientists questions, one of us is in the crowd chatting with the teachers, gathering insight on their thoughts because this is the first time many are seeing the scenario in action. During these informal conversations, we will often ask the teachers questions. “What do you think about how the students are responding to this?” “Now that you see the immersion site, how do you think you might incorporate this into your teaching for the rest of the week?” The outcome we aim to achieve with these conversations is to help teachers recognize the natural curiosity that has taken over their students while helping them consider ways they can utilize this curiosity in their lessons.

When the regular school day begins, teachers bring their students out to the site during their scheduled time (Figure 3). The week before the event, we ask teachers to sign up for a 15-minute time slot to allow all classes to make initial observations and pose questions at the site.


Figure 3

Pre-Kindergarten Students and Teachers Observing the Potential Meteorite

Our dialogue with most students on Day 1 follows a similar pattern in which we build on their curiosity and challenge their thinking through lines of questioning such as, “What do you observe here,” “what do you think happened,” or “is there anything you think we might want to further investigate to draw some conclusions about this?” As teachers bring their students out to the discovery site and observe how we interact with students, we aim to provide an indirect line of support through our modeling of questioning. Feedback from teachers suggests that this first day is the most important in their development; when they experience the scenario for the first time, the abstract begins to become a concrete reality. For instance, at the completion of the week during the Great Impact, one second-grade teacher reflected, “The first day was the most influential. It really showed me what to expect.” During the Outbreak scenario, a teacher shared, “I was excited for this but didn’t really know how to tie it into my lessons until the first day. Then it all began to make sense for how I can connect it to what we are already doing.”

Days 2–4. Similar to Day 1, teachers sign up for times to come out to the discovery site, but on Days 2–4, the time is extended to 30–45 min blocks. If teachers have specific topics they would like to emphasize during their visit on Days 2 or 3, we ask them to tell us at least a day in advance. Having knowledge of what topics teachers are teaching in the classroom allows us to provide more targeted scaffolding for teachers (Figure 4).


Figure 4

Teacher Observing Instructions Being Given to Students for an Inquiry-Based Lesson

For instance, at one school, a fourth-grade teacher shared that they were learning the different types of rocks. During their time at the Great Impact site, students recorded observations of the boulder that they later used during research time in the classroom to draw conclusions concerning the type of rock it may be, including research on what type of rock a meteorite is, to help us determine the origin of the boulder. Our goal here was to show the teacher how to move away from the textbook and provide contextual learning experiences that students find meaningful. There will not always be a boulder on campus; however, there are usually rocks that students can bring back to the classroom and explore.

As the week goes on, teachers are expected to take over as facilitators. When teachers bring their classes out on Day 4, the roles of lead facilitator and supporting teacher shift, as we previously communicated during the PD. Teachers arrive at the discovery site with intentional activities that they plan and facilitate while we provide support through materials and answering questions (Figures 5 and 6). The activities that teachers plan are not submitted to us ahead of time unless the teacher wishes to have additional support that requires resources or planning. We do not want teachers to feel that we are checking their plans and aim to be viewed as a friendly support system. This transition of teachers independently planning and facilitating activities at the scenario site illustrates the implications for how these immersive events begin to influence the confidence and instructional practice of teachers.


Figure 5

A Teacher Helping a Student Make Observations

Figure 6

A Teacher Guiding Students Through an Investigation of Geodes

Day 5. On Day 5, we visit each classroom to see the work that students have completed outside of the event-site activities. During our visits, students often present projects they have been working on throughout the week. The opportunity to visit classrooms highlights how the PD day and educative event has begun to influence the instruction within each individual teacher’s classroom. When we visit, we are often greeted by students who are eager to share how they applied their new knowledge by presenting research findings from the week (Figures 7 and 8) and how their discoveries have influenced their daily learning activities (Figures 9 and 10).


Figure 7

A Student’s Backboard Research Project

Figure 8

Students Presenting Their Research

Figure 9

Interdisciplinary Learning: A Student’s Creative Writing Assignment

Figure 10

Interdisciplinary Learning: Students Making Observations of Rocks While Using Them as Counters in Math

Engaging students in real-world simulations through inquiry, such as these immersive events, has been shown to deepen their understanding of science content while also enhancing their interest in scientific concepts (McCormick, 2019). During our conversations with students on this final day, it is not uncommon to learn how this experience provided opportunities to hone investigative scientific process skills and develop a healthy sense of skepticism. For instance, some sample quotes we collected during a recent Great Impact scenario include one third-grade student who shared, “I did some research. The crater isn’t big enough to be a real meteorite.” In another classroom of fourth- and fifth-grade students, one student stated, “It’s fake. I did research and saw a basketball size meteorite would create a larger crater. I also saw that meteorites are black with little holes, and this one isn’t.” Another student shared how their research-based investigations prove this was not a meteorite: “I think it’s fake because I learned that meteorites are magnetic, and this one isn’t magnetic.”


Teacher Feedback

Due to the nature of the event, our data consists of informal interviews with teachers that occurred at the event site throughout the week. Our goals in conducting these interviews were to gain feedback concerning: (1) teachers’ preparation for the event and (2) how the events may influence change to future instructional practice. Examples of some possible questions throughout the week are found in Table 2.


Table 2

Semistructured Interview Questions

Preparation. On the first day of the event, we informally interviewed teachers about their preparation when they came out to the site. The feedback we received from those who attended the PD day was positive. For example, one fourth-grade teacher shared the following about the Can You Dig It? event: “I feel very prepared for the week. After you came to the school, we had a team planning meeting, and we plan to do geodes as a review from rock types, and we are also working on measurement, so anything students find at the site will be measured and compared.” Another teacher, who teaches third grade, explained, “Once we knew who the rep would be for our team, we met and brainstormed before the PD. We have plans for the week to focus on fossils, classifying and labeling, and area and perimeter in math, but having the whole team there would have been better for collaboration.” This was helpful feedback for us moving forward when we make suggestions to future schools regarding what has and has not worked in the past. The idea of meeting as a team prior to the PD day was interesting.

In addition to how the teachers who attended the PD felt, we wanted to see how the information shared during the PD influenced the teachers who did not attend. Overall, we found that team planning meetings were referenced as helpful when passing information about the event forward. During the Great Impact, we learned from one second-grade teacher, “I feel ready. We team planned during our PLC [professional learning community] for this week. We are going to make observations and focus on what scientists do.” A second-grade teacher expressed something similar during the Can You Dig It? scenario: “Things were successful. We had team planning in PLC [professional learning community] to plan for this week.” Another teacher, however, wished she had been given the opportunity to attend. A pre-Kindergarten teacher who participated in the Great Impact shared, “I did not go to the PD, but I think it would have been better if I did. I heard about it from my team, but I would have liked to hear about the event from the sources. I also would have liked time to build my students’ background knowledge before this week, but I guess they got the element of surprise, but I wasn’t able to build on it right away, and if I went to the PD, I could have planned for that.”

Student Learning. With an overarching goal of helping teachers plan science instruction that fosters a positive experience for students, we decided to specifically ask teachers about their students’ learning. When we asked teachers about their experiences with the Great Impact immersive event, one fifth-grade teacher specifically referenced the interdisciplinary benefits of the week:


It was fun to watch the confidence of the students go up as they made connections. Students were confident with content in science, which was great. One student asked, “Why are we doing science in math?” and I said, because this is how we use science in real life.


Similarly, a second-grade teacher shared, “Students are reading about the killer asteroid. Students have been doing research on YouTube and watching videos about asteroids and meteors. I’m seeing my students connecting this event to the reading, and it helps with their comprehension.” These pieces of evidence show promise for how this event may influence teachers to take a more interdisciplinary approach in future science instruction.

During our interviews, teachers also referenced nonacademic influences the event had on students. During a different immersive event, Outbreak, a teacher referenced student engagement improving during the week and their desire to continue visiting the site to collect data: “I didn’t want to bring the kids out again, but they were dying to come out here and do more.” During the Great Impact event, a fifth-grade teacher shared, “They’ve been bringing their own rocks in from home all week, and one student told me this made them love space again. It’s been great.”

Future Instruction. At the completion of the week-long events, we asked teachers about their overall experience and if the event would have any influence on their future instruction. After the Great Impact event, one third-grade teacher shared, “This showed me that this isn’t scary, immersion isn’t scary,” indicating that the week dispelled some of her fears concerning interdisciplinary, inquiry-based instruction that immerses students into the content. In addition to addressing fears about pedagogy, the event also positively influenced perceptions of student abilities. One kindergarten teacher explained, “During the PD, I was concerned about my kindergarten class and how we would fit it in,” but added that the event has provided a foundation from which she could build for future science instruction: “This will give my students the ability to apply and comprehend science, so I’ll refer back to this experience throughout the year.” When asked if the event will have an influence on her future instruction, a second-grade teacher mentioned how the time to collaborate and make cross-curricular connections during the PD has helped her learn to teach science through other subjects: “Oh yeah! I’m better at connecting ELA to science now and plan to supplement my reading with hands-on activities to increase their comprehension.”

After the Can You Dig It? scenario, two teachers expressed how this week will influence their daily instruction. A first-grade teacher explained, “This was great! I need to find ways to keep doing things like this (inquiry-based instruction)!” Similarly, a second-grade teacher shared, “This will definitely impact my science instruction. I’m going to start doing more hands-on because the kids love it.” After bringing her class out to the dig site during a Can You Dig It? scenario, one teacher was so encouraged by what her students experienced that she began to brainstorm with another teacher about locations for a permanent dig site on the school’s campus. She suggested, “We have this empty grass lot near the cafeteria. I wonder if they would let us dig it up and keep it like that so we could use it to stimulate interest,” adding, “We could just bury anything in it to get the students excited,” as she laughed.



Elementary teachers are often reluctant to engage children in challenging science content due to concerns that it will be too difficult for them (Roth, 2014). Based on teacher feedback, however, these immersive events allow teachers to see firsthand the cognitive capabilities of their students. This has inspired many of the teachers we worked with to continue engaging their students in similar formats of science instruction.

Although these large-scale immersive events may not be feasible for everyone, facilitating smaller inquiry-based events for the purpose of providing educative experiences for teachers is an innovative practice that we hope begins to emerge more frequently. Based on our collective experience and the evidenced conversations with teachers and staff, we believe the key to success with this model of immersive inquiry is that it cultivates collaborative and discipline-inclusive approaches conducive to the goals of science education. Therefore, science teacher educators who do not work with entire schools but with relatively small teams of teachers can guide them through a similar process where everyone collaborates to make sense of scientific phenomena. Those who wish to consider how a sociocultural approach in terms of teaching not only science but also transdisciplinary topics influences teachers’ future science instruction should consider the notion of immersive academic events.

Supplemental Files



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NGSS Scientific Practices in an Elementary Science Methods Course: Preservice Teachers Doing Science

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Morrison, J. NGSS Scientific Practices in an Elementary Science Methods Course: Preservice Teachers Doing Science. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/ngss-scientific-practices-in-an-elementary-science-methods-course-preservice-teachers-doing-science/

by Judith Morrison, Washington State University Tri-Cities


To engage elementary preservice teachers enrolled in a science methods course in authentically doing science, I developed an assignment focused on the NGSS scientific practices. Unless preservice teachers engage in some type of authentic science, they will never understand the scientific practices and will be ill-equipped to communicate these practices to their future students or engage future students in authentic science. The two main objectives for this assignment were for the PSTs to gain a more realistic understanding of how science is done and gain confidence in conducting investigations incorporating the scientific practices to implement in their future classrooms. To obtain evidence about how these objectives were met, I posed the following questions: What do PSTs learn about using the practices of science from this experience, and what do they predict they will implement in their future teaching relevant to authentic investigations using the scientific practices? Quotes from preservice teachers demonstrating their (a) learning relevant to doing science, (b) their struggles doing this type of investigation, and (c) predictions of how they might incorporate the scientific practices in their future teaching are included. The assignment and the challenges encountered implementing this assignment in a science methods course are also described.

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Participatory Action Research as Pedagogy in Elementary Science Methods

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Askew, R. (2021). Participatory Action Research as Pedagogy in Elementary Science Methods. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/participatory-action-research-as-pedagogy-in-elementary-science-methods/

by Rachel Askew, Vanderbilt University


Participatory action research (PAR) is a methodology where the traditional lines dividing researchers and participants are blurred. In this article, a description of how PAR was used to cocreate a science methods course is explored with specific focus on the challenges and benefits it can bring to teacher education. Using PAR as pedagogy provided a way of teaching that centered students’ questions, experiences, ideas, and perceived needs as future science teachers. This way of teaching impacted our class community and opened space for students to create their own meanings of science and views of themselves as science teachers.

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Supporting Inservice Teachers’ Skills for Implementing Phenomenon-Based Science Using Instructional Routines That Prioritize Student Sense-making

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Trauth, A. E. & Mulvena, K. (2021). Supporting Inservice Teachers’ Skills for Implementing Phenomenon-Based Science Using Instructional Routines That Prioritize Student Sensemaking. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/supporting-inservice-teachers-skills-for-implementing-phenomenon-based-science-using-instructional-routines-that-prioritize-student-sense-making/

by Amy E. Trauth, University of Delaware; & Kimberly Mulvena, Colonial School District


Widespread implementation of phenomenon-based science instruction aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) remains low. One reason for the disparity between teachers’ instructional practice and NGSS adoption is the lack of comprehensive, high-quality curriculum materials that are educative for teachers. To counter this, we configured a set of instructional routines that prioritize student sensemaking and then modeled these routines with grades 6–12 inservice science teachers during a 3-hour professional learning workshop that included reflection and planning time for teachers. These instructional routines included: (1) engaging students in asking questions and making observations of a phenomenon, (2) using a driving question board to document students’ questions and key concepts learned from the lesson, (3) prompting students to develop initial models of the phenomenon to elicit their background knowledge, (4) coherent sequencing of student-led investigations related to the phenomenon, (5) using a summary table as a tool for students to track their learning over time, and (6) constructing a class consensus model and scientific explanation of the phenomenon. This workshop was part of a larger professional learning partnership aimed at improving secondary science teachers’ knowledge and skills for planning and implementing phenomenon-based science. We found that sequencing these instructional routines as a scalable model of instruction was helpful for teachers because it could be replicated by any secondary science teacher during lesson planning. Teachers were able to work collaboratively with their grade- or course-level colleagues to develop lessons that incorporated these instructional routines and made phenomenon-based science learning more central in classrooms.

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Experiential Learning in an Online Science Methods Course

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Dani, D. E. & Donnelly, D. (2021). Experiential learning in an online science methods course. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 6(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/fs-experiential-learning-in-an-online-science-methods-course/

by Danielle E. Dani, Ohio University; & Dave Donnelly, Ohio University


Although demand for online courses and degree programs is high, trends in online instruction point to lecture- and discussion-heavy courses as well as a general wariness towards online science education. This article outlines the challenges of online teaching and describes a pedagogical model for e-learning that leverages multimedia to support experiential learning in science teacher education. End-of-course evaluations are used as data sources to inform reflections and conclusions about the affordances of the model. Examples of how the model is being used in an online science methods course are provided.


A growing number of institutions of higher education are offering part, or all, of their degree programs online. Allen and Seaman (2016) reported that in fall 2014, more than 5.8 million students were enrolled in at least one online course, including over 2.85 million taking all their courses online (p. 43). Most of these students attend public institutions (73% undergraduate and 39% graduate; pp. 17–18). However, many of the faculty members teaching online courses tend to adopt traditional approaches to teaching that manifest in a reading-, lecture-, and discussion-heavy course rather than one in which students actively create their learning experiences (Lane, 2013). The National Science Teaching Association (NSTA, 2017)

recommends that all science teacher preparation programs have a curriculum that includes substantive experiences that will enable prospective teachers to . . . engage in meaningful laboratory and simulation activities using contemporary technology tools and experience other science teaching strategies with faculty who model effective teaching practices. (p. 1)

At the center of NSTA’s recommendation is the need for teachers and teacher candidates to experience science learning and teaching, a need that seemingly conflicts with the ways in which online learning typically occurs. Miller (2008) describes six myths about inquiry-based online science education.

  1. “Good on campus face to face instructors make good instructors online” (p. 81).
  2. “Online delivery is similar to correspondence coursework and limited to content learning” (p. 82).
  3. “You cannot model constructivist inquiry teaching strategies online” (p. 83).
  4. “Interaction among peers is weak in online delivery formats” (p. 84).
  5. “Online delivery does not allow students to take theory into practice” (p. 84).
  6. “In order to succeed as a teacher, students studying to be teachers must be able to watch the instructor model an appropriate lesson” (p. 84).

Subscribing to these myths, the instructor (first author) was skeptical about the ability of online science methods courses to actively engage teachers and future teachers in experiential learning opportunities. Lacking a vision and experience with online teaching in general and online science teaching in particular, the instructor created online science methods courses requiring students to mostly read, watch, listen, and write. Since then, the instructor has engaged in continuous improvement efforts and explored evidence-based practices for effective online teaching. As a result, students’ experiences and learning outcomes improved over time (see Table 1). In an effort to counter Miller’s (2008) myths and support other science educators who are beginning their online teaching career, this article describes an experiential model for e-pedagogy that is aligned with the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and embodies NSTA’s (2017) recommendations for teacher education and professional development. The article provides examples of how the instructor leveraged the model in an online science methods course to transform the virtual learning space and reframe her thinking about what a good online learning experience for science educators looks like. As a result, she created a learning environment that was more meaningfully organized and provided students with authentic opportunities to engage in course content and reflect on their developing practice.

Table 1

Mean Evaluation Scores for the Online Science Methods Course by Academic Year


Like many colleges across the nation, our large Midwestern university’s College of Education has embraced virtual courses and online programs, offering general and specialized programs at the graduate level. The fourth- and fifth-grade endorsement is a completely online summer program that allows licensed early elementary teachers (up to third grade) to work with students at the fourth- and fifth-grade levels. The 2-credit-hour online science methods course is one of four courses required for the endorsement. It is offered asynchronously over a 7-week period and taught a science educator (first author) at the university who teaches science methods in the early childhood, middle childhood, and secondary education programs. Course enrollments ranged between 25 and 50 students. Course outcomes focus on advancing teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions to teach fourth and fifth grade science as prescribed by the Ohio’s Learning Standards for science (Ohio Department of Education, 2018). Specific outcomes include:

  1. Use fourth- and fifth-grade science content, inquiry practices, and an understanding of the nature of science to create safe and technology-rich learning environments aligned with state and national standards;
  2. Develop lessons and activities that are responsive to the cognitive, personal, socio-emotional, and cultural needs of all fourth- and fifth-grade students;
  3. Design and evaluate a variety of assessment formats and techniques to identify and evaluate science ideas, monitor student learning, and inform data-based instructional decision-making;
  4. Develop and use a repertoire of science teaching strategies; and
  5. Use reflective skills to monitor their learning and situate it within current understanding in the field of science education.

In early iterations of the course, instruction consisted of selecting readings, recording demonstrations and lectures, developing and evaluating assignments, and providing feedback to individuals and groups. Course assignments provided opportunities for teachers to synthesize course content through the development of lessons and units. Discussions, an integral component of the course, required teachers to make at least three contributions in response to the instructor’s prompt and their peers’ contributions. However, these contributions were more like individual papers that shared teachers’ finalized positions about topics, interactions between peers consisted of agreement and praise, and discussions lacked the dialogic component that characterizes meaningful and productive learning. These course characteristics and weekly writing expectations made the workload overwhelming for the instructor and the teachers. Furthermore, the course did not provide opportunities to rehearse and enact science teaching principles in authentic and experiential ways.

Experiential Learning and the R2D2 Model

According to Kolb’s (1984) theory of experiential learning, learning occurs when “knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). The process of transformation is represented as a learning cycle that consists of “concrete experience,” “reflective observation,” “abstract conceptualization,” and “active experimentation” (p. 30; see Figure 1). Concrete experiences occur when learners encounter a new experience or situation or reinterpret an existing experience. Reflective observations occur when learners review their experience and identify consistencies or inconsistencies between understanding and experience. Abstract conceptualization occurs as learners formulate new ideas and generalizations or reorganize existing ideas. In the last stage of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, active experimentation, learners actively test new ideas by applying them in authentic contexts. This phase leads to new experiences that can begin a new learning cycle.

Figure 1

Kolb’s Learning Cycle for the Transformation of Experience

Using Kolb’s (1984) theory of experiential learning, Bonk and Zhang (2006, 2008) proposed a new model: “The R2D2 method—read, reflect, display, and do—is a new model for designing and delivering . . . online learning” (p. 249). Bonk and Zhang explain the R2D2 model and its applications and describe the tasks, resources, and activities that instructors can use to design and facilitate online learning. The model supports a shift in online instructors’ practice from text-centered and lecture-based teaching toward incorporating activities that utilize active learning, problem-solving, virtual collaboration, and multimedia. The four phases of the R2D2 model integrate learning activities that are aligned with each of the four phases of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle: “reading/listening,” “reflecting/writing,” “displaying,” and “doing” (Bonk & Zhang, 2006, p. 251).

The first R2D2 phase, read, “focuses on knowledge acquisition” and involves students in reading, viewing, and listening to spoken or written explanations (Bonk & Zhang, 2006, p. 255). The second phase, reflect, provides learners opportunities to observe, view, watch, self-test, and think deeply about their developing ideas from the read phase. Phase three, display, focuses on how learners can demonstrate their developing understanding by creating and interpreting visual representations of target content. Technology resources and tools that support this phase include concept maps, advance organizers, pictures, diagrams, simulations, virtual tours, and videos. In the fourth and final phase of the R2D2 model, do, learners apply the knowledge they learned in real and virtual contexts. According to Bonk and Zhang (2006), this phase is concerned with action and presents instructors with the opportunity to evaluate learning. In terms of technology tools and resources, they propose the use of case studies, wikis, simulations, and games and collecting real-world data.

R2C2: Adapting the R2D2 Model for Science Teacher Education

Although the R2D2 model provided a strong foundation for online teaching, the instructor found that it had too strong a focus on the types of digital technologies recommended for each phase (some of which may be outdated) (Bonk & Zhang, 2008). Kirkwood (2014) recommends selecting specific tools and technologies that will allow learners to achieve necessary learning outcomes and enable desired forms of participation rather than attempting to incorporate a multitude of elements to represent the variety of tools and technologies available. Because of the variability of learning management systems, technological abilities, and the ebb and flow of fads in the world of digital technologies, we chose multimedia as the anchoring experiential digital technology for the adapted R2D2 model. Multimedia provide online learners with multisensory experiences (Krippel et al., 2010) and represent computer-based tools and products (e.g., text, graphics, sound, animation, and video) that facilitate the creation, manipulation, and exchange of information (Mayer, 2009). Recent research suggests that the use of multimedia in online courses promotes achievement and improves motivation (Krippel et al., 2010; Mayer, 2009; Reed, 2003). Mayer (2009) asserts that it is the content of multimedia and the way it is used for instruction that engenders positive effects not its presence or absence.

More importantly, the R2D2 model did not address how to sequence instruction and promote the development of students’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions (Bonk & Zhang, 2006, 2008). Each phase was designed to be responsive to various types of learners, learning styles, and learning preferences (Bonk & Zhang, 2006). For example, the read phase caters mostly to auditory and verbal learners, the reflect phase to reflective and observational learners, the display phase to visual learners, and the do phase to hands-on learners. This reliance on types of learners, learning styles, and learning preferences to justify the selection of activities was not pedagogically fruitful. Even though learning style theories are popular, they are not empirically supported (Cuevas, 2015; Willingham et al., 2015).

Teaching the online science methods course several times using Bonk and Zhang’s (2006) R2D2 model allowed the instructor to consider these matters and make iterative improvements. She considered the roles that the instructor and social interactions have in supporting engagement as well as the centrality of reflection to the experiential learning process. The adapted R2C2 model consists of phases similar to the original—reflect, review, communicate, and conduct—but places reflection at the center of the experiential learning process because it occurs during each phase, not as a standalone exercise (see Figure 2). The cyclical and overlapping nature of the model better represents its affordance for providing learners diverse opportunities to engage with the same content to varying depths. Although teachers are encouraged to start with review-phase activities and then proceed with activities from the other phases, completing reflect- and review-phase activities before starting other phases is not required. In many cases, teachers must engage in activities from all phases simultaneously. The following four sections provide an overview of each phase of the adapted R2C2 model and include sample activities from the online science methods course that illustrate phase applications (see Table 2). Course activities, whether classic or innovative, use principles and multimedia that support best practices in science education according to the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and NSTA (2017). Work samples illustrate the successes and challenges teachers experienced as they met course objectives.

Figure 2

The Reflect, Review, Communicate, and Conduct (R2C2) Model for Online Science Teacher Education

R2C2 model and sample activities in the online science methods course

Reflect Phase

We chose to start the R2C2 model with a discussion of the reflect phase because we believe that reflection is most effective when it is tied to all experiential learning activities (see Table 2). Similar to Bonk and Zhang’s (2006) model, this phase focuses on the critical analysis of personal beliefs and experiences while reading and reviewing resources. In addition, it engages learners in evaluating their developing knowledge, skills, and dispositions using the evidence gained in other phases. Reflection can occur through peer evaluation activities, synchronous and asynchronous discussions, self-analysis papers, and teaching philosophies. Because of the centrality of reflection to the learning process, we integrated reflection into the activities of each of the other phases, which is described in subsequent sections. For example, the Strategy Affordances activity is tied to the Teaching Strategy Video activity in the conduct phase. In the Teaching Strategy Video activity, teachers are asked to view peers’ videos and participate in a reflective discussion about the ways in which each teaching strategy supports three-dimensional science learning, anticipated difficulties and possible solutions, and key considerations for implementation. Overall, reflect-phase activities must help teachers identify alternative viewpoints and develop arguments to support the practical theories that will guide their teaching practice. Reflection begins with review-phase activities.


Review Phase

In the review phase, teachers actively construct knowledge by exploring content and acquiring new information presented through text and multimedia. Several technological resources and tools can be used to support learners in the review phase, including online scavenger hunts, podcasts, webinars, lectures, virtual conferences, and readings (Bonk & Zhang, 2006, 2008). Rather than selecting review-phase resources based on the variety of technologies recommended by Bonk and Zhang (2008), our model advocates the purposeful selection of resources to allow teachers to consider course content from multiple perspectives.

In the online science methods course, the instructor identified, curated, and developed a variety of readings, video-streamed lectures, slideshow presentations, and other multimedia related to the module content. Examples include orientation videos to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013a) and a discussion of “constructing explanations from evidence” (Zembal-Saul et al., 2015). The instructor developed other videos using a video streaming platform that allows instructors to create screencasts of lectures and demonstrations. In these 15–20 minute videos, the instructor presented and discussed module content, highlighted different features of readings, provided examples, and clarified activities. Review-phase resources also consisted of articles and book chapters selected from professional journals, magazines, and publications such as NSTA’s Science and Children and Science Scope (e.g., Dolan & Zeidler, 2009; German, 2017; Katsh-Singer, 2011; NGSS Lead States, 2013b; Tugel & Porter, 2010). Guiding questions were used to support teachers’ reflection as they reviewed review-phase resources (see Table 3). In most cases, the reflective questions formed the basis for communicate-phase activities.

Communicate Phase

Building on Bonk and Zhang’s (2006) display phase, the communicate phase focuses on how learners share their developing understanding by creating and interpreting visual representations of target content. Teachers individually or collaboratively create multimedia displays that convey their ideas and abilities and disseminate them to their peers. They develop concept maps, diagrams, digital stories, and other types of graphic organizers to tell about the principles of practice (science pedagogical content) and instructional materials that they will use in their classrooms. The Draw a Scientist Task (DAST), adapted from Chambers’s (1983) draw a scientist test, is an example of a communicate-phase activity from the course. Individually, teachers attached a drawing that represented their perception of a scientist and what they do to their introductory discussion post to their group members. Group members compared their DAST products and summarized the similarities and differences among their perceptions (see Figure 3). Groups then analyzed instructor-created collages of DAST products to determine general, class-wide perceptions (see Figure 4). For the last element of this activity, teachers discussed their findings using concepts from review-phase resources, reflected on the difference between small-group and whole-class findings, and identified principles to guide their science teaching practice.


Figure 3

Draw a Scientist Task (DAST) Graphic Organizer

Figure 4

Example DAST Drawings

In another communicate-phase activity from the course, teachers closely examined the science content that is the focus of the fourth- and fifth-grade standards. They reviewed the standards that focus on their topic, noted how the topic is developed from grade to grade (K–8), and used open-source science textbooks (e.g., CK-12 at https://ck12.org/) to identify key concepts and their definitions. Using principles described by Novak and Cañas (2008), teachers developed a concept map to use with elementary students. They used paper and pencil, word processing applications, or free web-based concept mapping applications to develop their maps. Figures 5–9 share sample concept maps developed for a fourth-grade earth and space science topic, fifth-grade life science topic, fifth-grade earth and space science topic, fifth-grade life science, and fifth-grade physical science topic, respectively. This communicate-phase activity allowed teachers to reflect on their developing content knowledge as they determined how to best represent the relationships between concepts and examples in their maps.


Figure 5

Example Fourth Grade Earth and Space Science Topic Concept Map

Figure 6

Example Fourth Grade Life Science Concept Map

Figure 7

Example Fifth Grade Earth and Space Science Concept Map

Figure 8

Example Fifth Grade Life Science Concept Map

Figure 9

Example Fifth Grade Physical Science Concept Map

For a third communicate-phase activity, teachers developed instructional materials that showcase their understanding of science teaching strategies such as engineering design challenges (Schnittka et al., 2010) and model-based inquiry (Neilson et al., 2010). They signed up for one of the teaching strategies and created handouts that describe the key features of the strategy, considerations for implementation, and justifications for its use. Teachers also developed graphic organizers to support and scaffold fourth- and fifth-grade students’ engagement in a learning activity that uses the strategy (e.g., argumentation discussions; the Claim, Evidence, Reasoning framework; asking science questions; or developing design solutions). In most cases, communicate-phase activities complement conduct-phase activities to ensure that teachers examine and apply multiple elements of target content and pedagogical content.


Conduct Phase

In the adapted R2C2 model, the conduct phase continues to be concerned with action. In this phase, learners apply course content in real and virtual contexts. However, in accordance with the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and NSTA declarations for teacher preparation (NSTA, 2017), conduct-phase activities engage learners in science and engineering practices through real-world or online simulations and applications. For example, they plan and conduct investigations; collect, analyze, and interpret data; formulate and communicate conclusions to investigative questions; and design solutions to predefined problems. Some technology-based resources that allow for conduct-phase activities include PhET (https://phet.colorado.edu/), the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment (WISE; https://wise.berkeley.edu/), citizen science projects (e.g., https://www.zooniverse.org/), and GIS or other dynamic map interfaces (e.g., https://www.esri.com/en-us/industries/education/schools/geoinquiries-collections). Conduct-phase activities also engage learners in authentic science teaching activities. They create products that showcase their ability to rehearse or enact their developing pedagogical content knowledge and then document and share their experiences within their groups or with the whole class. Sample conduct-phase products include reports, movies, slideshows, case studies, portfolios, and curricula.

In a conduct-phase activity from the course, teachers used the PhET Bending Light simulation (University of Colorado Boulder, n.d.) to investigate and answer the science question: “How does light behave as it travels through matter?” This guided inquiry activity provided a self-directed opportunity for teachers to plan and carry out an investigation, analyze and interpret data, construct evidence-based explanations, and complete a science investigation report that communicates procedures and findings (see Figures 10 and 11). In another conduct-phase activity, teachers developed a video to showcase their application of a science teaching strategy, including demonstrations (Orgill & Thomas, 2007) and analogies (Brown & Friedrichsen, 2011; Smith & Abell, 2008). A key requirement of this activity was that teachers integrate science and engineering practices into their presentations (see Figure 12). This requirement ensured that teachers would plan for and engage in science and engineering practices as they applied their selected science teaching strategy. Teachers video recorded themselves doing the activities and going through the lesson as if explaining it to other teachers. They used their phones, cameras, tablets, or laptops to create their recordings. Some teachers involved their children or friends as students, whereas others simply recorded themselves without an audience. As a safety measure, teachers used password-protected cloud storage to share their videos with group members. These applications provide control over video share settings, and teachers were encouraged to unshare their work after the course.


Figure 10

Investigation Report Guidelines

Figure 11

Screenshot From a Science Investigation Report on the Behavior of Light with Instructor Feedback

Figure 12

Teaching Strategy Project Guidelines

Screenshots from two teacher-developed science videos are used to illustrate this conduct-phase activity. In the first video, the teacher used a classic phenomenon, pencil in water, to demonstrate refraction of light (see Figure 13). He first placed a pencil in an empty cup and asked students to draw the pencil. Then, he asked students to predict (and draw) what will happen to the pencil if he adds it to a cup of water that is filled halfway. To demonstrate, the teacher added water to the cup, placed the pencil in the water, and asked students, “What do you notice about the pencil?” In his post demonstration discussion questions, the teacher asked students to share their thinking about what is causing the phenomenon and, as an invitation to further investigation, develop science questions that can help them describe it. To provide his audience with an example, the teacher asked his own science question: How would the pencil behave when placed in other materials, such as oil? In the second teaching strategy video, the teacher’s content focus was the conservation of matter (see Figure 14). She completed an investigation to examine the effect of heat on the mass of different materials in a closed system (butter, chocolate chips, and water). The teacher overlaid her video with questions and modeled her thinking to justify her experimental choices.


Figure 13

Screenshots From a Teaching Strategy Video Demonstration of Refraction

Figure 14

Screenshots From a Teaching Strategy Video Demonstration of Conservation of Mass

Reflecting on Implementation of the R2C2 Model

In this section, we describe the instructor’s experience implementing the adapted R2C2 model and discuss the key considerations that informed her practice, how the considerations push against the myths about inquiry-based online science education described by Miller (2008), and the lessons she learned that might help others avoid similar pitfalls. Key considerations focus on subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge integration, meaningful activities and feedback, supporting interactions among students, and instructor presence.


Integrating Subject Matter and Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Science subject matter knowledge, including disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and the nature of science, is central to science methods courses, including online courses. However, course outcomes also emphasize pedagogical content knowledge such as science teaching strategies, topic-specific representations, and knowledge of students’ difficulties (Magnusson et al., 1999). Considerations for integrating subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge were important given the shortened nature of the course (2 credit hours over 7 weeks) and the myth about online science education being “limited to content learning” (Miller, 2008, p. 82). In its first iteration, the course was organized into three modules: science in the standards (2 weeks), learning and assessment (2 weeks), and planning and teaching strategies (3 weeks). In this organizational scheme, subject matter knowledge was the focus of the science in the standards module, and pedagogical content knowledge was more explicitly targeted in the remaining modules. After implementation, the course instructor noted that teachers tended to use only a few strands and topics, usually those they were most comfortable with, when completing course assignments. For example, only four of 35 learners selected a physical science topic for the communicate-phase concept mapping activity. Most teachers developed maps for relationships within ecosystems or cycles and patterns in the solar system.

To ensure that teachers engaged with several fourth- and fifth-grade topics beyond those they were already comfortable with, subsequent course iterations required them to sign up for different topics and strands when completing each course activity. This change provided the instructor with opportunities to assess teachers’ science knowledge and abilities in several topics. In this manner, she was able to identify areas of strength and provide guidance, skill development, and informative feedback for areas of challenge like the ones shared for the light investigation (see Figure 10). Despite the added emphasis on science subject matter afforded by the new approach to assignments, a systematic focus on content in all modules was still lacking, which is contrary to the myth described by Miller (2008). To achieve a more balanced approach, each module in the most recent course iteration was designed to address specific science content by strand (e.g., physical science), science and engineering practices, and pedagogical content knowledge elements (e.g., misconceptions, formative assessment, and model-based inquiry). Regardless of the approach to subject matter and pedagogical content knowledge integration, many teachers found the content of the course valuable. As one teacher wrote on the end-of-course evaluation, “[The instructor] provided us with a wide variety of valuable sources for us [sic]. These are resources that will equip me in my first year teaching 4th grade. I feel prepared to teach science this upcoming year.” Another teacher stated,

I liked the instructors [sic] video lectures that she did in which she sort of outlined what was coming up next in the course as well as recapped to help me see what science will look like in the 4/5 classroom.

Authentic and Meaningful Activities

Using the R2C2 model allowed teachers to engage experientially with course material through a variety of strategies. They applied what they were learning in meaningful and authentic activities that are central to the work of a science teacher. Teachers planned lessons and activities, rehearsed and shared them with their peers for commentary and feedback, and critically considered how their science teaching practice can engage their students in learning and doing science. In this manner, teachers were able to translate theory into practice, contradicting another myth described by Miller (2008). As one teacher wrote on the end-of-course evaluation, “I loved the intro assignments, especially the drawing. The big assignments were hands-on and experiential.”

Course activities were designed to be resources that teachers could readily use in their fourth- or fifth-grade classrooms. As one teacher wrote, “The best assignment was the last one (assessment plan). I will actually be able to take this and use it in my new 4th grade classroom.” This teacher was referring to a conduct-phase portfolio activity that required learners to identify or develop formative and summative assessments aligned with fourth- and fifth-grade science standards. In the next iteration of the course, an additional activity will be added to engage teachers in critically evaluating the required state fifth-grade standardized assessment and generate implications for their practice. For this new conduct-phase activity, teachers will individually complete a practice version of the fifth-grade state science assessment; take screenshots of an easy question, a challenging question, and one of their choosing; and use the three dimensions of science learning to analyze test items. They will share their findings using an application that allows participants to create, share, and comment on images, presentations, and other multimedia using microphones, text, or webcams (e.g., VoiceThread). Teachers will conclude this activity by writing a reflection paper discussing the dimensions of science learning that are assessed with the fifth-grade science assessment, cognitive demand of the items, challenges and affordances for fifth-grade students, and implications for science teaching and assessment strategies. Review-phase resources that can support this activity focus on three-dimensional learning (German, 2017), NGSS evidence statements (NGSS Lead States, 2013b), and aligning instruction and assessment through a process of deconstruction (Katsh-Singer, 2011).

Course activities required teachers to create products that showcase their developing science ideas (e.g., concept mapping and DAST), ability to engage in science and engineering practices (e.g., science investigation and teaching strategy video), and facility with applying science-specific pedagogical content knowledge (e.g., teaching strategy instructional materials). According to the university-required end-of-course evaluations, teachers found course activities to be relevant and valuable. As one teacher wrote, “The activities and assignments really put us in the place of learners.” Another teacher stated, “They were taught in a way I would want to teach my 4th/5th graders including hands-on activities.” Through the R2C2 model, the instructor was able to teach course content using the principles, tools, and technologies that were advocated for in the course.


Interactive, Student-Centered Learning Opportunities

Opportunities for learner interaction were embedded within each phase of the R2C2 model. Because smaller group sizes allow for more student–student and student–instructor interaction (Baker, 2011), teachers in the course engaged in module activities in groups of 6-12, depending on course enrollment. The smaller group sizes made participation in discussions more manageable for the instructor and group members. All course discussions occurred asynchronously using the learning management system platform. Volume and frequency of interaction were prioritized because these factors are key to the efficacy of online discussion as a learning tool (Ertmer et al., 2007). For example, teachers were required to interact with at least two different peers and make a minimum of three discussion contributions. However, the platform and asynchronous discussions pose several limitations. For example, the platform does not allow the instructor to track teachers’ continuous engagement with the discussion after completing their contributions. Future iterations of the course may benefit from leveraging video conferencing software for small-group discussions instead of relying on fully asynchronous activities.

The asynchronous discussions were most effective when they centered on the products that teachers developed. Instead of being solely the endpoint of learning, teachers’ work served as a springboard for small-group and whole-class learning. Peers watched each other model standards-aligned science teaching, analyzed their products and those developed by others, and co-constructed shared implications for practice. As one teacher wrote, “It was out of my comfort zone to have to video record myself doing a science experiment, but it was helpful to see others’ experiments and have feedback from my teaching peers on my own experiment as well.” This approach positioned teachers as professionals who have control over their learning and contribute to the learning of others. It promoted a sense of community during the short, 7-week course as participants interacted with each other and not just with the instructor. As one teacher wrote in the end-of-course evaluations, “I really liked the small groups. It allows us to look deeper at the material and have in-depth conversations about the content.” Although strong interaction among peers is an essential constructivist element of online science methods courses, meaningful interaction with the instructor is equally important.


Instructor Presence

As Miller (2008) described, some of the myths about online science education are that it “is similar to correspondence coursework” (p. 82) and does not allow instructors to “model constructivist inquiry teaching strategies” (p. 83). Instructor presence determines the extent to which this myth holds true. In the online science methods course, the instructor’s presence was evident through her continuous involvement in the class by way of communication and facilitation to support teachers’ sensemaking. Communication occurred through weekly announcements about expectations (email, video, or audio) and timely responses to students’ questions. As one teacher wrote on the end-of-course evaluation, “The instructor was extremely quick to reply to student needs and questions and that was very much appreciated.”

Even though the instructor did not “model constructivist inquiry teaching strategies” (Miller, 2008, p. 83), she facilitated teacher learning by providing introductory videos and individual feedback on teachers’ implementation of teaching strategies. In many cases, the feedback was publicly shared in the discussion forum for the benefit of all group members. For example, in this comment on a teaching strategy videos, the instructor praises the teacher’s work, provides informative feedback about the strong elements of her practice, and gives suggestions to support student learning:

So impressed Stacia!!! Well planned and executed. Thought about multiple aspects of teaching science: content (conservation, units), skills (measuring, controlling variables), and provided suggestions and guidelines. The questions you posed in overlay focus on those and would get your students thinking and talking about the experiment.

Consider asking students what they think will happen to each . . . you will get great insight into their thinking that helps with the explanation process. If their thinking is inconsistent with the scientifically accurate ideas then they will be pretty surprised and more curious to know more (cognitive dissonance). I attached a formative assessment probe [Cookie crumbles; Keeley, 2018) that I have used in the past to see how my students’ ideas are developing in relation to conservation of mass.

Instead of solely being the “behind-the-scenes” planner and evaluator of learning, the instructor reviewed and synthesized student work within and across groups, highlighted common characteristics and experiences, discussed differences and diverse perspectives, explained key ideas that were overlooked, and clarified lingering ambiguities. This form of facilitation that occurs in the moment in a face-to-face class was more involved and similar to qualitative data analysis in the online environment. Teachers appreciated the type of feedback the instructor was providing them. As one teacher wrote, “[The instructor’s] videos made the class more valuable (feedback provided to the whole class, evaluations, etc.).” Another teacher stated, “The feedback to assignments were very helpful.”

Teachers’ comments on course evaluations highlight the value they place on instructor presence; however, two circumstances can challenge instructors’ ability to maintain similar levels of involvement. The first is enrollment. Table 1 provides a snapshot of the higher than typical enrollment in the online course at Ohio University. High enrollment may occur as institutions try to maximize efficiency and increase revenue. Because the course described herein is part of a revenue-generating program, 83 teachers were enrolled in the course when this article was written. The second challenge arises from the shortened time frame of the course, a trend that is manifesting at neighboring institutions (e.g., 3 credit hours over 5 weeks). High enrollment and shortened summer courses limit an instructor’s ability to facilitate and scaffold teacher engagement (e.g., checkpoints or providing informative feedback) and increase workload with respect to evaluation and grading. In such situations, we recommend hiring facilitators who assist the course instructor when enrollment exceeds 25–30 students, a practice at our institution. Facilitators are typically assigned up to 25 students, and their pay is prorated based on the number of students for whom they are responsible. We also recommend that instructors consider which activities can be integrated into larger projects and still allow teachers to demonstrate their developing competencies using the R2C2 model.



The R2C2 model transformed the learning space in the asynchronous science methods course described in this article. It provided students and instructors a rewarding, innovative, and cognitively demanding experience with online science teacher education. Model phases allowed the instructor to situate learning in authentic practice, providing early elementary teachers opportunities to apply course content, receive supportive feedback from the instructor, and develop confidence in their ability to teach science to fourth and fifth graders. Too often, online courses are critiqued for their over-reliance on text (reading and writing discussion board prompts) and the absence of hands-on experiences. The R2C2 model provides a useful structure for developing and organizing the learning environment in an online science methods course. Using the phases of the model, instructors are able to meaningfully engage current and future teachers of science in authentic, standards-aligned activities that are representative of the pedagogical work of the profession. Future research should examine the affordances of the model for teacher learning of subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge as well as the creation of a dialogic online space.


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