Preparing Preservice Early Childhood Teachers to Teach Nature of Science: Writing Children’s Books


An appropriate understanding of nature of science (NOS) is considered important for reform efforts in the USA, and is highlighted in the Next Generation Science Standards (Achieve, 2013). Studies have shown that preservice and inservice early childhood teachers can develop strategies for emphasizing NOS that improve student understandings of NOS (e.g. Conley, Pintrich, Vekiri, & Harrison, 2009; Deng, Chen, Tsai, & Chai, 2011, Khishfe & Abd-El-Khalick, 2002). Teachers have called for support through different strategies they can use in their classrooms (Akerson , Pongsanon, Nargund, & Weiland, 2014). Akerson, et al (2011) has found that using children’s literature is one effective strategy for emphasizing NOS to elementary students. Additionally, preservice early childhood teachers are often more excited about children’s literature than science, and so using children’s books within science methods courses can help preservice early childhood teachers improve their experiences within science methods and see how their strengths and interests in literature can connect to science instruction (Akerson & Hanuscin, 2007).

It has been the first author’s experience in teaching early childhood science methods that early childhood teachers are excited about using children’s books to support their NOS and science teaching. However, these same preservice teachers have been frustrated that they were unable to find a children’s book that would introduce the NOS aspects they wish to teach at early grade levels. The instructor believed that a good way to support the preservice teachers in both their understandings of NOS, and their wishes to teach it to their early childhood students, that the teachers could be supported in developing their own children’s books to use with their students. In this case, a course assignment was designed to help preservice teachers conceptualize how to transfer their knowledge about NOS to early childhood students through a children’s book they designed.

Based on the NSTA (2000) position statement for what teachers should know about NOS and what they are responsible for teaching their own students, the course instructor emphasized the following NOS aspects in her class: (a) scientific knowledge is both reliable and tentative (we are confident in scientific knowledge, yet recognize claims can change with new evidence or reconceptualizing existing evidence), (b) no single scientific method exists, but there are various approaches to creating scientific knowledge, such as collecting evidence and testing claims, (c) creativity plays a role in the development of scientific knowledge through scientists interpolating data and giving meaning to data collected, (d) there is a relationship between theories and laws in that laws describe phenomena and theories are scientific knowledge that seek to explain laws, (e) there is a relationship between observations and inferences with inferences being interpretations made of observations, (f) although science strives for objectivity there is an element of subjectivity in the development of scientific knowledge, and (g) social and cultural context plays a role in development of scientific knowledge, as the culture at large influences what is considered appropriate scientific investigations and knowledge.

To ensure that the preservice teachers held sufficient NOS content knowledge we measured their conceptions of NOS using the VNOS-B (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002), and also again midway through the semester, and again at the end, to determine sufficient content knowledge and to determine whether thinking about how to teach NOS to young children may influence their own ideas. The VNOS-B does not explicitly ask about the existence of a single scientific method, but does include the empirical NOS, meaning that scientific claims and development of scientific knowledge requires empirical evidence and data. The table below shows their changes in NOS conceptions over the semester.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Preservice Early Childhood Teachers’ NOS Conceptions Over Time

For the storybook project, the instructor asked preservice teachers to  introduce all NOS ideas except the distinction between theory and law, as that is not in the early childhood curriculum. Previous research has found that early childhood preservice teachers and their students can conceptualize these NOS ideas, (Akerson & Donnelly, 2010),  and therefore we believed that including them in a children’s book would be a good way to introduce these NOS  ideas to young children. The first author was the instructor of the course, and kept a teacher/researcher journal throughout the course. The other two authors aided in ensuring the instructor was teaching NOS using explicit reflective instruction by observing each class session, taking notes of student engagement and NOS instruction, as well as photographing students working, and in analyzing effectiveness of the development of the books and instruction using the data collected as a team.

The Course Design

The project was introduced at the beginning of the semester long methods course as something the preservice teachers would work toward completing as a final “exam.” Indeed, the project replaced the final exam period for this section, and instead the preservice teachers had a book-share where the preservice teachers shared their books with the rest of the class. The NOS elements that were targeted in this project and were to be included in the book are the tentative but reliable NOS, the creative NOS, the distinction between observation and inference, the empirical NOS, the sociocultural NOS, and the subjective NOS. These NOS ideas were included because they lend themselves to connections in the early childhood curriculum, and have been previously found to be accessible to young children (Akerson & Donnelly, 2010).

To prepare the preservice teachers to develop such a book, the instructor needed to make them aware of ideas about  (a) NOS, (b) elements of children’s books, and (c) the technology they could use to aid them in their design. As is common in the practice of the course instructor, NOS was a theme in the methods course, and NOS was included explicitly in each class session, and debriefed in the context of science content that was explored as examples of instructional methods for early childhood students. The instructor modeled how to explicitly debrief for NOS conceptions each week. For example, during an investigation that included an exploration of Oobleck and whether it is solid or liquid, the instructor modeled questions to ask students regarding NOS during the debriefing to ensure explicit connection to NOS. One such question connected “subjectivity” or the background knowledge that scientists bring to a problem. The instructor asked the preservice teachers to think about how scientific subjectivity could be highlighted through this exploration. The instructor asked “what could the scientists do when they found this substance that did not fit into either classification?” A discussion followed regarding that if scientists understand solids, and understand liquids, then they would realize that this substance has components of both. The discussion ensued that it would therefore it would be difficult to categorize into one or the other. The instructor led them to realize that it was scientists who create the categories of matter, through empirical evidence and creativity. The instructor therefore helped the preservice teachers come to the realization that scientists are also creative, that they could create a new category into which they could classify the Oobleck. The instructor used explicit reflective NOS instruction to help them make a connection beyond simply teaching the distinction between observation and inference through this activity, they could connect other NOS aspects, such as subjectivity and creativity. Such activities and NOS debriefings took place on a weekly basis during the science methods course. The discussion continued with preservice teachers reflecting on how to use similar activities with young children. The instructor shared that this activity could be used as an assessment and instructional sequence for not only young children’s understandings about characteristics of solids and liquids, but also for how scientists are creative scientifically, in terms of “creating” new categories for matter, and how scientists use evidence, observations and inferences, and how claims are tentative given they can, and do, create new categories based on evidence. Additionally, given students’ prior knowledge about characteristics of solids and liquids were used to determine characteristics and identity of the new substance, conversation surrounding the importance of background knowledge, and subjectivity of scientists can occur between the teacher and students.

Using Children’s Books

The science methods instructor spent time in the methods course using children’s literature to both launch and support science activities as an example for how to use such books to emphasize NOS with children. For example, the instructor read the Skull Alphabet Book (Pallotta, 2002). In this book the reader sees an illustration of a skull, reads clues, and tries to infer the animal the skull would be from. There is a different skull from A to Z. Using this book is an example of decontextualized NOS instruction (Bell, Mulvey, & Maeng, 2016; Clough, 2006), if the instructor makes explicit connections with the preservice students. The instructor led a discussion with the preservice teachers for how this book could be used to explicitly illustrate NOS elements to elementary students. For instance, the elementary students could be asked which NOS elements are illustrated in the book-to which they could respond “Observation and inference” (observing the skull and reading the clues, and inferring the animal), “creativity” (creating an idea of what the animal might be from the evidence), “subjectivity” (one would not infer an animal that one had never heard of before), “empirical NOS” (making inferences from data), “social and cultural NOS” (one would be more likely to infer an animal from the culture they are from), and “tentativeness” (one can infer an animal and be likely correct, but never be certain because it is a skull and without seeing the living animal it is not certain). While the instructor shared this book with the preservice teachers she explicitly pointed out these ideas about NOS that could be connected to the book for children. These kinds of discussions and book debriefs were held weekly over the course of the semester, connected to children’s books as well as science concepts.

Following the use of the children’s book in introducing science concepts, the preservice teachers could think about engaging elementary students in science activities and investigations and reflecting orally or in writing how what they were doing was similar to the work of scientists. For example, preservice teachers could distribute fossils to their elementary students, asking them to make observations and inferences about the whole organism and its likely habitat. The elementary students could be asked to infer and draw the remainder of the organism and its habitat. A debriefing discussion could take place where elementary students could discuss how their inferences came from observations of the empirical data—the fossil, how they used their background knowledge (subjectivity) to make their inferences, and how their ideas about what the fossil was from might change if they had more information. Additionally, elementary students could discuss how scientists create ideas from the evidence, as they did, and how these creations would be consistent with what they are familiar in their own social and cultural contexts.

The course instructor also shared a variety of children’s books with the preservice teachers. These samples of children’s literature books varied from non-fiction to fiction, and were used to explicitly share components of children’s picture books. Features that were highlighted were (1) strong characters, (2) a story that teaches (in this case, the story would teach NOS), and (3) interesting and clear visual drawings or representations of the story.

Designing their own NOS Books

The preservice teachers were not required to use technologies such as Book Creator, or other book development applications to create their books. However, most preservice teachers took advantage of the technology to create their books, particularly for the illustrations.  One preservice teacher who was artistic decided to create her book through drawing and produced a hard copy of the book. The preservice teachers were provided with the following criterion sheet to use while designing their book to enable them to conceptualize what to include in the book (See Table 2):

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Scoring Rubric for the Create a “Book” Assignment

The books that were created by the preservice teachers were mostly very well done in terms of introducing NOS aspects to young children. There were a total of 22 preservice teachers in the class, all female. Ten preservice teachers connected their NOS books to popular characters from children’s media (e.g. SpongeBob Squarepants and the Case of the Missing Crabby Patty) or books (e.g. The Pigeon Does an Investigation). Ten preservice teachers created their own stories from scratch (e.g. Marcy Meets the Dinosaurs). Two did not consent to have their books used as examples, so they are not included. Therefore the preservice teachers were free to either modify an existing story, which aided in identifying illustrations as well as a storyline, or to create their own to illustrate NOS. Half of them did select to modify an existing story, which enabled them to embed NOS elements into a story that already existed, freeing them to consider how NOS may fit into a story already suitable for young children.

As a methods instructor, it is important to help the preservice teachers consider ways to transfer their understandings of NOS to young children through the text. It was a difficult point for some to think about, and to consider how to phrase sentences to accurately portray NOS, but in a way accessible to children. Using feedback loops this process became more streamlined, where preservice teachers provided feedback to one another. Of the twenty books submitted, all but three included all NOS aspects accurately depicted. Three books did not include subjective or sociocultural NOS. One book also did not include tentative NOS or the distinction between observation and inference. Of the aspects that were included, all but one preservice teacher included accurate representations.

Though not required, five preservice teachers included the distinction between theory and law in their children’s books. While it is clear that simply an accurate presentation of NOS ideas is not sufficient to teach NOS to young children, it is a starting point for the preservice teachers to have an accurate representation of the ideas to begin their teaching, which of course, would require explicit-reflective NOS instruction (Akerson, Abd-El-Khalick, & Lederman, 2000). Use of these children’s books would require that the preservice teachers make explicit reflective connections while sharing with young children.

Ensuring Quality

We reviewed the children’s stories created by the preservice teachers to determine whether the NOS concepts were included accurately. All authors conducted a content analysis on the accuracy of the NOS aspects that were incorporated in the stories. The authors also used the NOS children’s books to determine the preservice teachers’ NOS conceptions at the end of the semester. These sources of data were reviewed independently and then compared to ensure valid interpretation of NOS conceptions both within the books and conceptions held by the teachers themselves. The teacher/researcher log and field notes were used to further triangulate interpretations of the data.

How Well Do Children’s Books Include NOS?

It was clear that preservice teachers not only improved their NOS conceptions over the first eight weeks of the semester, but also during the last seven weeks when they were developing the books to use with their own future students, and to share with their classmates. Below we now share samples of how the preservice early childhood teachers included the various NOS aspects in their stories, by NOS aspect.

Tentative NOS

Eighteen students were readily able to incorporate the tentative NOS into their stories in a way that they could share this characteristic of NOS with their own students. All of the stories included a scientist or a character in the story revising an inference based on new evidence or the reinterpretation of existing evidence, and making a new claim. In all stories the story included this idea as part of science, and not that the scientists were “wrong” with their earlier inference.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of tentativeness in storybook.

In other stories there was a more direct description of the tentative NOS. For example, Sophia’s story (see above) was set within an alien culture, and began with the lead character saying “ Hi my name’s Meep and I come from the planet NOS. On planet NOS, we live by set of rules called Nature of Science.” She continues her story showing illustrations that Meep is visiting earth and tell people how they use aspects of NOS. The image above is presenting tentativeness of science. Though her idea is not technically “correct” in that NOS is not a set of rules to live by, nor do ideas “constantly change as we collect data,” it is still along the right track in helping younger children realize that science is not “set in stone” and scientific claims are subject to change.

Observation and Inference

Similarly, eighteen stories included an accurate representation of observation and inference. In most of these stories scientists made observations of data, and then made inferences of what they observed. For example, Emma wrote a story in which a scientist who was a mother was talking to her son Jack, about science. She introduces “observation and inferences” by immersing them in her story about Safari animals. The following illustration shows Jack’s learning of observation and inferences in the story:

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of observation and inference in storybook.

In this particular example, the author was able to make a connection where the reader would learn about observations and inferences as data were observed, and then could later connect to the tentative NOS as the claim changed with more evidence as further reading of the story showed the ideas changed and tentativeness was connected.

Empirical NOS

All twenty books included accurate depictions of the empirical NOS. In each case the main character, often a scientist, needed to collect data to solve a problem or make observations. Olivia wrote an original story about the lives of three chipmunks in a forest. In the story the chipmunks are keeping safe from hawks, and are doing a scientific exploration in the forest to determine how they are remaining unseen by the hawks. Their exploration leads them to understand camouflage.

Olivia uses following example to show science is empirical, as she also connects it to the tentative NOS. The chipmunks had their own personal “theory” for why the hawks were not able to see them, but changed their ideas as they collected new evidence through empirical data.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of scientific tentativeness in storybook.

While this story above is accurate in terms of NOS, it is also the case that the writing was at a level beyond what K-2 students could read on their own. This book would need to be a read-aloud by the teacher to the students, and would likely require much teacher input to help young learners accurately conceptualize the content. Therefore it would be necessary to aid preservice teachers to consider thinking about the reading level and vocabulary for independent reading, which appeared to be difficult for some preservice teachers.

Creativity and Imagination

Eighteen of the stories included accurate representations of creativity and imagination in the development of scientific knowledge. Ava introduces and immerses well the aspects of NOS in her storybook about Pinocchio. In the book, Pinocchio tries to figure out why his nose is growing using scientific inquiry, and through that inquiry the elements of NOS are illustrated.

Through her story she would be able to share with her early childhood students that scientists are creative in interpreting data as well as creating investigations, and in this case in her story, in creating a way to figure out that Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies. It was clear through her story that those who use science are creative, and that aspects of NOS are part of scientific inquiries.

Though her use of text is beyond the independent reading level of most K-2 students, the story is accurate with regard to NOS concepts, and could be used as a read-aloud with explicit reflective instruction by a teacher. Following is her illustration that shows scientists are creative:

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of scientific creativity in storybook.

Subjective NOS

Eighteen stories included an accurate depiction of the subjective NOS, in which scientists’ own backgrounds influence their interpretations of data. In the stories it was usually the case that the scientific claim was shown to be made partially through the understandings of the scientist or the one doing the investigation. Mia used characters from a popular children’s story The Three Little Pigs, to teach NOS elements throughout the story. In her story the main character Mr. Wolf guides the three little pigs to act as scientists as they try to figure out whether their houses are sturdy enough to withstand the hurricane. Through these characters, Mia illustrates that scientists are subjective, and use their background knowledge in making scientific claims. As we can see from the excerpt from her story, she clearly illustrates the pigs’ subjectivities helps in making scientific claims.

Figure 5 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of the role of subjectivity in storybook.

Sociocultural NOS

Fifteen of the stories included accurate depictions of the influence of sociocultural mileu on scientific claims. In some of the books, such as Sophia’s story from the alien perspective, the clash of different cultures was used to illustrate the influence of sociocultural aspects on scientific claims.

In other books, such as the one by Isabella, there is a learning sequence where a character develops an understanding of the role of culture. In Isabella’s particular story a child named Mary meets a paleontologist (Dr. Jenkins) at a science museum. Mary has an adventure at the science museum, and learns that scientists (and other people) interpret data through the culture in which they live.

Mary learned from Dr. Jenkins that her own inference that a dinosaur’s long neck was like the dinosaur’s came from her social and cultural context. Mary learned that because if she were in a culture without knowledge of giraffes she would not have inferred that similarity.

Figure 6 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of sociocultural context in storybook.

Theory and Law

Again, though not required to include the distinction between theory and law in their stories given it is not in the early childhood curriculum, five preservice teachers did find ways to incorporate theory and law into their stories in accurate ways.

Emma included it in her story of the mother scientist teaching her son about science and NOS. She was one of the few preservice teacher authors who also incorporated the idea that theories never become laws. The others who included theory and law in their stories were clear that theories were explanations for patterns in data that determined laws. It was good to see that there were several who included theory and law—this was the most difficult aspect for the preservice teachers to gain good understandings of as well.

Figure 7 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample of theory and law in a storybook.

Assessing the Children’s Books, and Implications

All preservice teachers shared their books with each other at the end of the semester in a book share. In addition, the preservice teachers uploaded electronic versions of their books to a course website that could then be accessed by the course instructor, and electronic copies shared with all students in the class. The course instructor used the criterion sheet shared earlier to review the books for the required elements prior to the book share. Each week after the assignment was introduced there was time to discuss questions or concerns regarding the development of the books. Some preservice teachers indicated a difficulty in conceptualizing an original story, which is when the idea came to take an existing story and revise as a NOS story.

An important component was the inclusion of engaging characters and an interesting story that would teach about NOS, not necessarily a story with original characters. However, some preservice teachers designed their own characters and storylines. In one case, the instructor required a preservice teacher to revise the book prior to sharing as the information was not complete. The books were well received by their peers, and the book sharing had an air of both professionalism, as the preservice teachers were considering how best to aid their own students in conceptualizing NOS, and also “fun,” as it was energizing and fun to see and listen to the stories that were created by the preservice teachers in the class.

The preservice teachers indicated that the assignment seemed valuable to them, as it was something they could take with them into their student teaching, and into their classrooms when they became teachers. They provided feedback to one another during the book sharing, suggesting some wording changes, as well as reinforcing the accuracy of portrayal of NOS ideas when it was needed. It was clear that developing the books helped the preservice teachers think about how to introduce NOS ideas to their elementary students. This focus on ways to portray NOS ideas to elementary students influenced the preservice teachers in refining their own NOS understandings as well as about how to transfer understandings to students. The preservice teachers held good understandings of NOS as evidence by their portrayal of NOS concepts to young children through the story they created. It seems clear to us that designing the children’s books to teach about NOS to their students helped the preservice teachers consider ways to teach NOS to their own students, while continuing to refine their own understandings about NOS. We recommend the use of literacy to  teach about NOS, which seems preservice teachers are very excited to include in their classrooms.

Increasing Science Teacher Candidates’ Ability To Become Lifelong Learners Through A Professional Online Learning Community


What is the purpose of a science methods course? It would seem logical that a science methods course would increase the ability of the candidate to learn science content and pedagogy for that content. The actual methods for helping candidates learn to teach science are diverse and include different learning objectives, ‘student’ learning outcomes, and approaches within the classroom. A brief search of syllabi for elementary and middle grades science methods courses at the university level on the Internet yields vastly different approaches to teaching these courses and the reasons why. Science methods courses can be taught to “build fundamental knowledge of elementary science teaching and learning,” teach “strategies to bring scientific inquiry to the elementary classroom,” “increase confidence and enthusiasm for teaching elementary science,” “develop competence and confidence needed to teach science in elementary classrooms,” and “teach science skills and content.” Teacher candidates do not have the time nor training to be able to learn all of the content needed and experience the methods necessary for becoming an ‘experienced’ teacher in their first year of teaching. This article reviews how several university professors focus on a common approach to teaching a science methods course using an online learning community to guide teacher candidates to become lifelong science educators.

The Content of Learning and the Learning of Content

Methods courses are teacher preparation courses designed to prepare teacher candidates to teach a particular content area. There are typically elements of the course that boost content knowledge, but the crux of these courses is allowing teacher candidates to learn and/or practice pedagogical strategies to teach that content effectively. Methods instructors must be thoughtful about not only the activities they employ in their courses to support this knowledge and skill acquisition, but also about the materials and resources they use to support the activities in the course. Moreover, methods instructors must acknowledge they cannot possibly teach everything one needs to know to teach in their content area. Consequently, instructors must also set the foundation for teacher candidates to strategically utilize resources, many of which may be online, so they will be lifelong learners.

Table 1 provides a comparison of common goals of online syllabi from elementary and middle grades science methods courses. The search terms “elementary science methods syllabus” and “middle school science methods syllabus” were used in the Google search window. The first 40 results were downloaded and examined. Three main themes emerge from the syllabi: learning pedagogical skills to teach the science content, developing a set of habits of mind about science, and knowing the science content. In terms of the K-6 student impact, teacher candidates had to translate those skills to the students so that the students could essentially develop the same habits of mind and science content knowledge. Syllabi for courses that included the middle grades (5-8) demonstrated a change in the tenor of the language. When the middle grades course was combined with an elementary science methods course, the middle grades language, goals, and outcomes were very similar to that of the elementary methods course. At many universities, the middle grades science methods courses were combined with the secondary or high school science methods courses. The main differences between elementary and secondary science methods courses were the emphasis on depth of content knowledge and the lessening emphasis on developing habits of mind. Secondary science teachers are considered to have already developed significant content expertise and scientist’s habits of mind.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Sample Science Methods Goals and Outcomes on Syllabi

Science teachers need science content knowledge and the appropriate pedagogical knowledge to teach at their respective levels. Elementary school teachers usually focus on pedagogy and multiple content areas, especially at the younger grade levels where classes are self-contained. In terms of elementary teacher candidates, it is well documented that they often feel unprepared to teach science or have negative attitudes towards science due in many cases to their own personal experiences with science education (Tosun, 2000). At the middle grades level, most teacher candidates have more preparation in one or two science content areas and as a result typically have greater content knowledge depth than elementary teachers. At the secondary level, science teachers have certification to teach one, two, or multiple content areas and are considered to have significant content expertise. Typically, secondary teachers hold at least a Bachelor’s degree in the content they teach. This system of silos can be summarized with a question asked to each level of teacher, “What do you teach?” The elementary teacher might say “children,” the middle school teacher might say “adolescent kids” or “science”, and the secondary teacher would say “chemistry” or “biology.” Content knowledge is needed by all science teachers at all levels. College does not prepare teacher candidates to teach all the content, concepts, and facts that teachers will encounter while in the classroom. Teacher candidates need examples of convenient approaches to learning more science content and pedagogy that can become part of their lifelong learning as professional educators.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

In addition to knowing the content, science educators at all levels also need the pedagogical skills to teach the content, which is often referred to as pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). As Bailie (2017) noted, “PCK has…become a ubiquitous word in the preparation of teachers” (p. 633). Science methods instructors have consistently devised activities and lessons to guide teacher candidates to develop the necessary skills for teaching science. For example, Akerson, Pongsanon, Park Rogers, Carter, and Galindo (2017) implemented a lesson study activity in their science methods course that resulted in the early development of PCK for teaching the nature of science. Hanuscin and Zangori (2016) asked teacher candidates to participate in an innovative field experience that led to the beginning development of PCK for teaching in ways consistent with the NGSS. Finally, Hawkins and Park Rogers (2016) added in video-based group reflections to lesson planning and enactment to support the development of teacher candidates’ PCK. And although Davis and Smithey (2009) state that teacher educators may only be able to support the development of ‘PCK readiness’ because teacher candidates do not have much teaching experience to draw upon, it is widely agreed that strong science PCK is a necessity for successful science teaching.

Abell, Appleton, and Hanuscin (2010) state that the “main aim of a science methods course is to produce graduates who…have a ‘starter pack’ of PCK for science teaching” (p. 81). They go on to suggest that teacher candidates in methods courses should not only learn about science content, curriculum, and the nature of science, but also how to elicit students’ understandings of science, use that data to make informed decisions, and have the knowledge and skills to design instruction that support student learning. These results draw upon the foundational characteristics of PCK that science teachers should have (Veal & MaKinster, 1999). However, as Magnusson, Krajacik, and Borko (1999) and Veal and MaKinster (1999) note, content knowledge is the foundation for PCK. This leads science teacher educators to ask, how does one support the simultaneous development of science content knowledge, pedagogy, and science PCK?

Professional Learning Community

Teacher candidates at all levels learn science content and pedagogy so that they are able to teach the concepts in the appropriate manner to K-12 students. While in college, teacher candidates have the opportunity to enroll and complete science and pedagogy courses, but what happens once they begin their professional career? How do teachers maintain relevancy and stay current with new content or pedagogical practices throughout their career? Lifelong learning of science content and pedagogical strategies should be an emphasis in all methods courses. This is often accomplished by establishing and/or participating in a professional learning community (PLC) or communities of practice. One outcome of a PLC is to increase teacher candidates’ self-efficacy in science by exposing them to inquiry in science during their methods course (Avery & Meyer, 2012) as well as help them to learn more science content. A properly formed PLC can connect and scaffold the teacher candidates’ transition from pre to inservice educator establishing them as lifelong learners (e.g., Akerson, Cullen & Hanson, 2009). Without a proper transition, the elementary teacher candidates with low self-efficacy can become in-service teachers who are less likely to seek out professional development that would support improved science teaching (Ramey-Gassert, et al, 1996). In addition, it has been found that if elementary teacher candidates are uncertain about science then they are less likely to use inquiry oriented pedagogy (Appleton & Kindt, 1999; Ramey-Gassert, & Shroyer, 1992) and the performance of their students can be affected (Bybee et al, 2006).

One method to break the continuous cycle of unprepared elementary (K-6) teachers to teach science is to connect them to a community of practitioners during their science methods class as well as throughout their career. One such community could begin in a science methods course and exist as an on-line platform that allows them easy access to content, new pedagogical techniques, and classroom activities that they can rely upon throughout their career. This community could become a source of guidance as they continue to grow as professional educators of science no matter what grade level they end up teaching. The learning community that the methods instructors establish in their science methods courses must involve the learning of pedagogical strategies and content. Dogan, Pringle, and Mesa (2016) conducted a review of empirical studies investigating PLCs and determined that PLCs increased the science teachers’ content knowledge, PCK, and collaboration about student learning. Educator preparation programs are increasingly using the Internet to deliver and supplement their science methods courses with science content projects, courses, articles, and professional networks/forums. For example, Eicki (2017) studied how Edmodo could be used to create an online learning community for learning to teach science. Part of this learning community involved the communication and exchange of lesson plans and opinions about lessons in an online platform.

Given the vast nature of the Internet, it can sometimes be difficult to gauge the quality, applicability, or ‘user-friendliness’ of Internet resources. To help instructors with this problem, there are multiple legitimate educational organizations that have sites for teachers, videos of instruction, and student- and teacher-based content. For example, in this article, we present multiple cases regarding the use of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Learning Center (LC) as a website in which teacher candidates can learn more about science content, find pedagogical tools that match the content, and begin to see the NSTA LC as a learning community. While this article is not an endorsement of the NSTA Learning Center, we are using the Learning Center as an example of how this site can support teacher candidates in developing the dispositions to become lifelong learners in the science education community.


In science methods courses, instructors try to bring together pedagogy that is appropriate to the science content at the level in which the teacher candidates will teach. The problem with developing one course that fits all students is that science methods courses are often geared toward the developmental level of the future K-12 students. Research evidence suggests that if elementary teachers feel unprepared or negative towards science then they are less likely to teach science to their students (Ramey‐Gassert, Shroyer, & Staver, 1996). The disposition to teach science content using appropriate pedagogy is needed. At the elementary level – which can span pre-kindergarten to eighth grade in some states – most methods courses are focused on broader PCK because it is nearly impossible for the teacher candidates to know the science content across all four science disciplines. However, while elementary standards at each grade level require more integration of concepts and less depth of science-specific knowledge, to choose the appropriate pedagogy to teach content well, one must first know the content itself well. Unfortunately, most elementary teacher candidates only take 2-3 science courses as part of their general education requirements that do not prepare them to teach the breadth nor the depth of science concepts in the standards.

Many middle level certificates overlap grade spans with elementary and secondary, so there exists the potential to have a pedagogically strong teacher needing to teach depth in a science or multiple science areas. For example, in South Carolina elementary certification includes grades 2-6 and middle school includes grades 5-8. On the other extreme, a science discipline teacher may be called upon to teach other courses at the middle school. Middle schools across the country may require science teachers to be proficient in all areas of science (e.g., biology, physics, geology, Earth science, astronomy, and chemistry) since the state or national standards are more integrated or each grade level requires multiple science areas. For example, many states have a general middle grades certificate for science, but Oregon has middle level certificates in each of the science disciplines. How can a middle grades teacher be proficient in all disciplines of science? Just taking the introductory courses in each of the four major disciplines would equate to 32 hours of science (lecture and lab for all courses); and, of course, none of these courses would likely teach how to teach these content areas. In addition, even if they successfully completed these courses, odds are the courses do not cover the basic science content they will teach.

The NSTA Learning Center is an online resource that can be utilized for preservice and inservice teaching and learning by providing a professional learning community in which teachers learn from one another by sharing content knowledge, lesson plans, and strategies. The NSTA Learning Center is an online repository of articles, book chapters, webinars, and short courses aimed at improving the content and pedagogical knowledge of preservice and inservice teachers, connecting teachers through online chats, and delivering depth and breadth of science content for primary, middle, and secondary teachers. The science content, interactive learning modules, and articles are peer reviewed and vetted by content and pedagogical experts. The implementation of this type of content has been described as blended learning by Byers and Mendez (2016). Blended learning involves using online resources with “on-site efforts” to teach students. The case studies in this article show how blended learning, inquiry, project-based learning, and independent learning can be supported to provide science content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and PCK to teacher candidates. While elementary and middle school science methods courses cannot provide all the science content and pedagogical strategies they will teach and use, these science methods courses can provide an opportunity to demonstrate and model effective lifelong learning skills.

Early Childhood Teacher Candidates

Case 1

One university offers certification through an early childhood (K-3) Masters of Education (MEd) program. The science methods course is designed to support teacher candidates learning of 1) pedagogical content knowledge, 2) science content knowledge; and 3) connect them to a community of elementary teaching practitioners to support their life-long learning of the teaching of elementary science. The learning experiences provided them with an understanding of science teaching and learning from the perspective of both learner and teacher. Though this is not a science content course, the class does utilize model lessons that exemplify science standards elementary teachers are expected to teach as outlined in national science standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013).

In order to foster long-term and sustained improvement in standards-based science teaching and learning in elementary schools the teacher candidates are asked to demonstrate their understanding of these standards documents by engaging in lesson development during the semester that exemplifies not only the content standards but also exemplary science pedagogical methods grounded in scientific inquiry. The NSTA LC allows the teacher candidates to encounter the use of the 5E method within classroom activities via articles in Science & Children as well as Science Scope, two practitioner publications from NSTA. In addition, NSTA LC e-book chapters are regularly utilized throughout the course. The elementary teacher candidates are required to use the online site as a source of articles about teaching science, as well as basic educational research supporting practice. These NSTA LC resources are used by the teacher candidates to help them develop lesson plans that are based on activities that excite students as well as connect to science content standards.

One aspect of the NSTA LC that the teacher candidates find the most rewarding is the ability to find articles written by other elementary teachers in practitioner journals that have great ideas for their classrooms. For example, when designing lessons focused on the Engineering Design Process many teacher candidates base their lessons on articles and lesson plans found on the LC.  During focus group interviews after the course, one teacher candidate stated that she found the “…readings were relatable and things that we could see doing in our classrooms. So it was really interesting to like keep going in the article.”

The teacher candidates in this M.Ed. program must complete at least one SciPack, read 5 Science Objects, watch two Webinars, listen to two Podcasts, and participate in online discussions with science teachers outside of their class. Teacher candidates also post comments and read the forum to look at past interactions between educators. The Webinars allowed them to listen to educational researchers and scientists discuss new educational policies. Teacher candidates’ use of these resources within the NSTA LC were easily checked on the site as the Learning Center tracks the use of all the resources by students. Thus, the science teacher educator can see if they have used assigned resources such as the SciPacks. The best part of the LC in the teacher candidates’ view is that they were able to put all of the resources they use into a section of the center called “My Library” and those recourses became theirs for the rest of their career! During the post course focus group interviews, teacher candidates mentioned that one down side of the NSTA LC was the cost for a year subscription. But as one teacher candidate said, “Textbooks are sometimes even pricier but with these articles you could save them. Every article I read I saved because I liked the activities that they had.”

The teacher candidates were required to use the Science Objects and SciPacks to learn science content new to them or review content that they were uncomfortable teaching. One goal of the online communities is to illustrate to them that the SciPacks could not only support their content background but usually contain a list of the most common alternative conceptions held by students thus supporting their lesson planning. At the beginning of the class the teacher candidates had voiced concern about not knowing their students’ alternative conceptions due to their own limited science background so this practice alleviated this concern. As one teacher candidate stated, “The articles were very practical and could be used directly in our classroom.  Science is the subject I am most hesitant to teach but the readings made me see how I could teach it.” Several teacher candidates mentioned that they would buy the subscription in future years so they could continue as a member of this community of practice as in-service teachers.

Elementary Teacher Candidates

Case 2

At one Texas university, the NSTA LC has been adopted as the textbook for the Elementary Science Methods course and has been used for the past five years. Teacher candidates have access to the LC during their final methods block of courses prior to student teaching and during student teaching the following semester. Teacher candidates seeking the elementary teaching credential (EC-6) are required to complete four courses in science that must include one course in introductory Biology, Physical Science and Earth Science in addition to pedagogical courses. Typically, teacher candidates seeking elementary certification enroll in science courses for non-science majors. As these are general science courses, there are no guarantees that these courses prepare future elementary teachers in the science content they will be required to teach their future students in the EC-6 classroom.

One of the goals of the course is to prepare teacher candidates to use assessment data to plan and deliver targeted instruction. On the first day of class, teacher candidates complete the latest released version of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness 5th grade science assessment to develop familiarity with the state assessment and to assess their understanding of the elementary science content they are accountable to teach upon completion of their degree.   Preservice teacher results on the 5th Grade STAAR (state level assessment in Texas) released assessments tend to be disappointing in spite of earning passing grades in the university level science courses. The disconnect between scores on the 5th grade STAAR is in part due to lack of alignment of university science courses that elementary teacher candidates complete and the content they will teach. This creates a dilemma for the science methods instructor. Should class time be utilized and designed to prepare elementary teacher candidates in PCK to remediate content knowledge or stay focused on pedagogy? Future teachers need to be prepared in both content and pedagogy. One without the other is problematic.

To address this issue, the teacher candidates analyze the results of their personal STAAR score. Questions on the released test are categorized by science discipline, and as a PLC they work together to identify the state standard and the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) each item addresses (Texas Education Agency, 2017). During this process, teacher candidates identify their areas of science content weakness and complete the appropriate NSTA Indexer in the LC for each content area in need of further development. The course instructor identifies and suggests NSTA Professional Development Indexer assessments that align to the content subsections of the STAAR assessment to help guide teacher candidates. Table 2 shows the science content TEKS and the appropriate corresponding Indexer Assessment.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Relationship between TEKS and NSTA Indexers

Typically, teacher candidates complete 3-4 of the NSTA Indexer assessments as a result of the STAAR analysis. The number of Indexer assignments has ranged from 1 to 6, which depends upon their background content knowledge. For the purpose of this course, the teacher candidates were required to complete both the pre and posttests. While the STAAR was used due to contextual location of the university, the NSTA Indexer can be used nationally. Once teacher candidates complete their Indexer assessments, the methods professor works with each candidate to select up to two NSTA SciPacks to remediate their content knowledge in the targeted areas. SciPacks are online modules that are completed outside of class. On average, the teacher candidates improve their content scores on the NSTA Indexer by 40% when they take the posttest compared to the initial indexer score. Elementary teacher candidates have shared anecdotally that the SciPacks are very challenging. Using the Indexer and SciPacks allows the instructor to focus on PCK in class and improve teacher candidate content knowledge without sacrificing class time that is dedicated for pedagogy. The analysis of personal assessment data from an online science teacher site provided the scaffolding for these teacher candidates to become lifelong learners.

Case 3

In 2012, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction sent three representatives to Washington, DC to consult on the development of the Next Generation Science Standards. As representatives for one of the lead states for standards adoption (NGSS Lead States, 2013), the representatives were also charged with curricular development for K-12 science classrooms in North Carolina and by extension, science teacher education and professional development.  NGSS considers science learning within a 3-dimensional framework: disciplinary core ideas, science and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts. Shortly thereafter in preparation for NGSS standards adoption, the elementary science methods course was reconceived, using the NSTA LC. The use of NSTA LC addressed a number of concerns.

The elementary undergraduate teacher candidates in the university’s programs are extremely diverse. They have attended all manner of public, private, parochial, and home schools. As a result, their level of science pedagogical understanding is not uniform. Before enrolling in the science methods course, all teacher candidates had to pass at least one college-level life science and one physical science course. Performing well in these courses provided no guarantee of attainment of the extensive science content needed to support K-6 science content knowledge.  These teacher candidates also take the NSTA Indexer, content pretest, as the first step in designing a self-study program that will fill the holes in each teacher candidates’ science content knowledge. Teacher candidates take the same Indexer posttest to determine how well they have developed their content knowledge through self-study over the semester.

The teacher candidates must contend with having to complete their studies in light of securing and sustaining employment, and using the NSTA LC allows them the course schedule flexibility to become a certified teacher. In other words, if they cannot work, they cannot complete their studies. For many, maintaining employment interferes with their studies. Using the NSTA LC allows the teacher candidates to continue to work on their classroom assignments in between their employment responsibilities. By being able to access their assignments using their e-textbook and having access to other preservice and inservice professionals, they can study, ask questions, and share their concerns without carrying heavy textbooks or waiting for office hours. The PLC emerged from the need to find a different pedagogical approach to science methods due to the personal nature of the candidates.

The University’s motto is, ‘Enter to learn, depart to serve.’ The responsibility to promote social justice and lifelong learning is palpable throughout the campus. The teacher candidates are required to buy access to their NSTA LC e-textbook for a year. This allows them to use this resource through their methods course and student teaching field experience in which they have time to strike up online discussions of national and regional social justice issues.

Course evaluations and online data about the teacher candidates’ usage of the NSTA LC indicated that teacher candidates who demonstrate the highest level of science efficacy, as measured by course grades and use of the online resources, were also the ones who have taken greatest advantage of participation in the online learning community. For example, several teacher candidates mentioned how they increased their excitement and comfort with searching for and learning about science content and science lessons. Those who have less science efficacy are reluctant to communicate and ask questions with practicing teachers in the online forums despite knowing its value. Data gathered through the NSTA LC administrator’s page, indicated that as science efficacy increased over the span of the science methods course, teacher candidates took advantage of the online science learning community. Since all teacher candidates were required to maintain an online ‘portfolio’ (Professional Development Indexer or Learning Plan), there was an increase in the amount of online artifacts (downloadable chapters, articles, lesson plans, podcasts, and videos) from the beginning of the year to the end.

The adoption of the NSTA LC supports teacher candidates to conceive science from a 3-dimensional, national perspective, rather than a 2-dimensional, state perspective. It allowed the diverse teacher candidates to personalize their learning of science content with the accessible 24/7 access to content, pedagogical strategies, and online discussions of various social justice issues. The improvement of lifelong learning through the use of an online professional development community requires continued study, but the outcomes are most promising.

Elementary and Middle Level Teacher Candidates

Case 4

In one university in Idaho, teacher candidates seeking an elementary (K-8) certification take one science methods course, typically at the junior or senior level, one or two semesters before they embark on their year-long field experience. Prior to taking this course, PSTs must have taken two natural science courses with labs (for a total of 8 credit hours); these prerequisites run the gamut from geosciences to astronomy and from biology to chemistry. On the first day of class, teacher candidates are asked to describe their feelings about teaching science at the elementary level. The responses are typically split evenly, with half providing some version of “scared” and half providing some version of “excited.” The case describes a journey into how the implementation of NSTA LC evolved over a year of teaching a science methods course.  The NSTA LC was first implemented into this elementary science methods course in the Spring of 2016 with three goals in mind: 1) to introduce teacher candidates to a supportive professional community; 2) to provide science content knowledge support when needed; and 3) to use practitioner articles to illustrate topics in the course.

As previously noted, the NSTA LC houses lesson plans, books and book chapters, and even opportunities for conferences and professional development. By introducing teacher candidates to the NSTA LC, the goal is to motivate them to find NSTA to be a useful resource and become a lifelong learner. These hopes seemed to bear out, as evidenced by the comments received from teacher candidates in course evaluations over five semesters that they appreciated the LC because they could keep documents in their library forever and refer back to them and the LC when teaching. One teacher candidate stated her appreciation of the resource by stating, “The NSTA LC had so many more resources and articles (written by a variety of authors) that we would not have read in a book,” while another teacher candidate said, “I like that I can keep this account and use the information in my own classroom.”

Given the wild variations in content knowledge encountered in the teacher candidates in the course, the implementation of the NSTA LC resources were used to immediately support teacher candidates in their science understandings for the course, and also demonstrate how one could use the LC to learn/review content for future teaching. Throughout the semester, the teacher candidates were required to complete three Science Objects that related to elementary science centers (Kittleson, Dresden, & Wenner, 2013) they taught during the semester. Unlike the case studies discussed above, candidates in this class were not required to complete the entire NSTA PD Indexer for the course, but rather strongly encouraged to complete this and ‘brush up’ on content prior to their science PRAXIS tests. Indeed, some candidates did recognize the usefulness of the LC in terms of boosting content knowledge that then enabled them to better structure their science centers, and by citing how it could support “individual learning” for the PRAXIS tests and in their careers. Beyond qualitative responses on course evaluations, downloaded statistics from each class cohort on the NSTA LC paint a promising picture: The majority of candidates downloaded at least ten Science Objects and SciPacks throughout their semester in the course. While downloading these resources does not necessarily mean that candidates completed/intend to complete them, anecdotally, teacher candidates shared that they often download the Science Objects and SciPacks as a preventative measure of sorts, thinking about what they may need to learn/review once they have their own classrooms. It is certainly encouraging that PSTs acknowledge they may have gaps in their content knowledge and see that the NSTA LC may be a way to help fill those future gaps.

The use of practitioner articles found in the NSTA LC brings the realities of science activity implementation into the classroom. The articles connect theory and practice and illustrate what elementary science can look like. On average, 30 NSTA practitioner journal articles (from Science and Children and Science Scope) are assigned for teacher candidates to read throughout the semester. These readings cover topics such as integrating the NGSS and Common Core State Standards (CCSS, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) , argumentation, science for all students, assessment, and engineering at the elementary level. Many teacher candidates commented on the usefulness of these articles, stating, “The articles that we read were beneficial and related to the discussions we had in the classroom,” and “I will refer back to all the articles when I am teaching.” And while the majority of articles downloaded by teacher candidates were the assigned readings, nearly all of them downloaded additional articles related to other assignments in the course (lesson plans, student misconceptions, etc.), indicating that teacher candidates found the articles to be useful resources. The ensuing discussions about content from the articles helped to establish an atmosphere of professional exchange of ideas to teaching science concepts that they intend to use well into their careers as lifelong learners.

Case 5

This elementary and middle level science methods course is taught at a university in the southeast. The course focuses on the PCK necessary to teach science, which includes science content knowledge and instructional strategies. Since the focus is on teacher candidates who will become certified to teach from grade 2 to 8, the focus is on general science pedagogy with content-specific examples so that activities and demonstrations can show the depth of concepts at different grade levels within the spiral curriculum. For example, two weeks are spent discussing misconceptions related to seasons and moon phases. The content is appropriate in that the activities relate the content at the fourth and eighth grade levels due to the science standards in the state. While discussing how to introduce and conduct activities, teachers need to know depth of knowledge so that they can address potential and real misconceptions. The teacher candidates must learn the content of why there are seasons and why there are different phases of the moon not just the facts of seasons and the names of phases of the moon.

The course emphasizes learning appropriate science content knowledge for specific lesson plans so that inappropriate activities and misconceptions are not taught. While the course grade and objectives cannot require the students to know all science content knowledge in the grade 2-8 standards, it is a learning outcome that the teacher candidates can research the content needed for that lesson plan. Reading book chapters and articles and communicating with classroom teachers in an online platform helped teacher candidates understand how to teach specific topics better as evidenced by their graded and implemented lesson plans over the course of the semester. The NSTA LC was chosen for its ease of use and type of activities that could be used by teacher candidates so that they could learn content, develop pedagogical skills, and participate in a community of teachers who share ideas.

The teacher candidates in the combined elementary and middle grades science methods course subscribe to the NSTA LC for six months. During this time period they download any content they feel they can and will use in the future. These downloaded resources are theirs for a lifetime. The NSTA LC is integrated into a project for integrating science content and pedagogy. The project requires the teacher candidates to take a pre-test exam, gather online resources from the site’s resources, complete mini-courses about the science topic, and complete a posttest after six weeks. While not part of the course grade, participating and engaging in the online professional discussions and posts is encouraged so that the teacher candidates learn to become part of an extended PLC. Besides the use of the NSTA LC as a project assignment, the website is used during normal instruction to show other possible activities, lesson plans, and explanations of concepts. The project and use of the NSTA LC is more of a self-guided endeavor because when they become classroom teachers they will have to learn more science content on their own and this is one effective method for doing it. Online learning of science content within a community of science teachers is how current teachers develop and grow the depth of their topic-specific PCK. This project and use of the NSTA LC allows teacher candidates to learn this process in a controlled environment in which the content is controlled and other professionals can assist in the learning to implement science content.

Concluding Thoughts

In summary, this article showcased multiple ways to use the online NSTA Learning Center as part of pK-8 science methods courses. The LC has been used as a method to learn topic-specific PCK in multiple contexts as well as an interactive tool for teacher candidates to investigate general pedagogy. In all of the cases there is anecdotal evidence concerning the effectiveness of using the LC either as an addition to one’s course or in lieu of the course textbook. However, as can be seen in a number of the cases the LC is not just a tool one can use in the science methods course but can become part of the teacher candidates’ journey as professional educators to become lifelong learners as they develop PCK. The authors feel that these benefits far outweigh the cost of the use of the LC and put the teacher candidates on the road to becoming highly efficient teachers of science. As one teacher candidate stated:

I found the resources provided for us….like we got NSTA. Most of those articles were pretty applicable. They had ideas you could use in your own classroom. It is so beneficial. It was pricey but it was worth it as we used it every week. The site had very valuable information that I would use in the future.

Part of establishing a community of lifelong learners is to develop the context in which teacher candidates can learn from multiple resources, participate in active dialogue about teaching and learning science, and develop appropriate lesson plans and activities using diverse sources of science content and pedagogy. The introduction and discussion of forming a community of lifelong learners necessitates the need for research to determine the benefits of using online, interactive, and collaborative sites in developing science teacher candidates. The idea and implementation of a single textbook and downloaded articles are gone. The new generation of teacher candidates need more dynamic and interactive methods for developing science content and pedagogy. Online sites for promoting lifelong learning of content, pedagogy, and PCK will become the standard in the near future.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange Revisited: Using Literacy Strategies to Support and Enhance Teacher Candidates’ Understanding of NOS


It is more important than ever that teacher candidates have a clear understanding of why scientists do what they do and what science is all about. Science methods courses are opportunities to help students develop tools and skills to engage with and deepen their understanding of the nature of science (NOS), a necessary skill set for teaching at the elementary and secondary grade levels.  Dynamic activities, such as Cobern & Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange encourage teacher candidates’ inquiry, and critical thinking about NOS and the incorporation of cross-curricular literacy strategies promotes cooperative, collaborative interactions between students.

The consensus among science organizations is that developing an understanding of NOS should be one of the primary objectives of science teaching and learning. Organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (1993), National Research Council (NRC) (2013), National Science Foundation (NSF) (1996) and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) (2012) recognize that understanding NOS is as essential to student success in science as scientific knowledge and skills. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) (2008) has also called for the restructuring of teacher preparation programs to ensure science teachers are confident in both their science content knowledge and ability to engage students in the NOS.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange “works well,” explains Cobern (1991), “because it begins with students getting up, moving around, and talking to each other, things almost all students like to do” (p. 45). The card exchange is an engaging and non-threatening method of introducing NOS to teacher candidates.  It allows for students to reflect upon their conceptions of NOS that lead to both small group and class-wide discussion on NOS.

Teacher candidates have commented that the card exchange was not only fun but also gave them a better understanding of how and why we do science. Students comments on the card exchange noted the activity broadened their perception of science, enhanced their ideas about science, and increased their appreciation the role of philosophy in science. They have also reported increased confidence and science teacher self-efficacy. However, despite enjoying the overall experience and providing positive reviews about the card exchange, some teacher candidates have had difficulty with the vocabulary and card statements used during the exchange.

This article explores how integrating simple, constructivist cross-curricular vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies teacher candidates needed tools and skills to engage with Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange.  It also describes the integration of simple, yet powerful, vocabulary and literacy instructional strategies. The incorporation of dynamic literacy strategies encouraged students’ inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills and has transformed the card exchange into a broader and more impactful activity for teacher candidates.

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange

The game is run as described by Cobern and Loving (1998) with some minor changes. While Cobern and Loving (1998) describe running the card exchange in classes of 30 to 40 students, I run it in classes of 15 to 25 students with each student receiving six cards.  I have also taken to numbering the cards and card statement categories consecutively.

Cobern and Loving’s (1998) process takes students from an internal dialogue on the card statements towards building group consensus (first in groups of two and then in groups of four) and finally a whole class discussion. The overall structure of the exchange allows students to debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with others in the class.

1) Six to eight cards are distributed randomly to students.  They have 5 minutes to read their cards and think about what the statements mean and rank their cards from their most to least favorite statement.

2) Stage I (10 minutes): Students trade cards (one-for-one) with each other to try to improve their hands.  Their goal is to gain more cards with which they agree while discarding cards they do not like.

3) Stage II (10 minutes): Students pair up and compromise to reach eight cards on which both can agree.  During this process, students must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.

4) Stage III (15 minutes): Students form groups of four, (two pairs) and compromise to reach a total of eight cards on which all four students can agree.  During this process, each pair must contribute at least three of their cards.  Students return extra cards to the instructor.  Students then rank the cards in order of importance and write a paragraph statement answering the question “What is Science?” based on their cards.

At the conclusion of the game, groups share their statements aloud and other groups comment.  What follows is a discussion as to why a group chose some cards and rejected others and cross-group discussion.  Students debate the merits of some statements over others and share their thoughts on statements with which they agreed but were not chosen by the group and vice versa. Additionally, Clough (2011) suggests questions relating NOS and science education such as “how does the work of [insert scientist(s)] illustrate that data does not tell scientists what to think, but instead that creativity is part of making sense of data?” (p. 58) that can be used to create classroom discussion and debate.

Card categories and statements of their meanings are revealed at the conclusion of the activity as part of an overall group discussion on NOS. This revelation has led to exciting student insights into biases that exist concerning NOS and individual versus group preferences for statements during the card exchange activity. Finally, I allow time to address questions and comments students might have about the game or NOS in general.

Reflections on The Card Exchange

During the card exchange, teacher candidates often experienced difficulties with the vocabulary and the wording of card statements.  The students’ inability to unpack the meaning of the cards in the time allotted prevented the game from flowing the way it was supposed.

While not technical, the card statements can be confusing. Students found the concepts described in non-technical and procedural vocabulary on the cards to be abstract and lacking in contextual detail. The words and phrases “operate with expectations,” “strive,” “refined,” “logical construct,” “dogmatic,” “pragmatic,” “social negotiations,” “Nature has nothing to say on its own behalf,” and “infallible propositions” on cards 1, 2, 5, 12, 31, and 38 respectively were sources of confusion and frustration for some students. The dense wording on some cards also proved to be a source of student frustration. On more than one occasion, after I explained a card statement, students responded “Well why doesn’t it just say that!” or “Why do they have to use all these big words?  Why can’t they just say what they mean?”

One of the factors that make the card exchange work is the pace. Momentum builds throughout the game as students move from working individually to pairs to groups of four and finally to the broad class discussion. This pacing gets lost when the game is put on hold to address vocabulary and phrasing of the statements. These types of discussions are still teachable moments and can improve student literacy and can eventually lead to a better understanding of NOS. However, valuable class time was spent defining terms and unpacking the meanings of card statements instead of thinking about and discussing the statements to advance their understanding of NOS. What should be an exciting experience becomes frustrating to students and teachers and a tool that can help gain a better understanding of NOS is ignored and discarded.

Literacy Strategies for NOS Learning

The adoption of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is changing the way teachers and students approach and engage in science content through crosscutting concepts that connect core ideas in different disciplines.  It is also, to a certain extent, changing the language that teachers are using.  Science already relies heavily on the use of specific vocabulary.  Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) note “a pressing need for all students to master the academic language and vocabulary” (p. 252).  This includes science-specific technical terminology (e.g., ‘photosynthesis’), non-technical vocabulary (e.g., ‘component’), procedural/signal vocabulary and general academic vocabulary (e.g., ‘the result of’) (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Harmon, Hedrick, & Wood, 2005; Taboada, 2012).

Researchers such as Miller, Scott, and McTigue (2016), Shanahan and Shanahan (2012), and Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2016) believe literacy activities and strategies aid to encourage students’ interest, inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving in disciplines such as science. Reading and language ability has been shown to be factors that impact student achievement in science (Reed, Petscher, & Truckenmiller, 2016; Taboada, 2012).  Like my students, Collier, Burston, and Rhodes (2016) have noted that science-specific vocabulary is akin to learning a second, or for some students a third, language.

Integration, repetition, meaningful use (Nagy, 1988; Nagy & Townsend, 2012) and scaffolding (Jung & Brown, 2016; Van Laere, Aesaert, & van Braak, 2014) can be applied to the Card Exchange to support student achievement in both literacy and NOS. Research by Harmon et al. (2005) describes independent reading, providing context, student self-selection of terms, and teaching targeted vocabulary words as strategies that support students struggling with the science-specific academic language.

The literacy strategies implemented in the NOS statement review for the Card Exchange promote cooperative, collaborative interactions among students.  The idea is to generate a more authentic form of hands-on and student-centered instruction, along with the possibility for a more meaningful, genuine, and personal kind of learning. Additionally, integrating literacy strategies with science concepts demonstrates how to integrate seemingly content-specific learning strategies across the curriculum (Moje, 2008).

Both the expansion from a one to three-week activity and introduction of the statements prior the card exchange game uses the principle of repetition – providing multiple exposures to targeted terms. “While this practice may seem obvious, it is an essential one, especially for those readers who need more time and repetition to learn key vocabulary than other students” (Harmon et al., 2005, p. 276). Rather than pre-teaching the statements, this solution offers students the opportunity to highlight, draw attention to, and then discuss difficult terms.

The structure of NOS statement review also utilizes the principle of meaningful use.  Students engage in individual reflective thought followed by small group and class-wide discussion of card statements. The students’ active involvement in this process, particularly their thinking about and discussing word meanings and using the new words meaningfully, leads to more learning and deeper processing of the underlying concepts of the card statements (Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017; Nagy, 1988).  Talking about ideas and concepts in a text can improve vocabulary, academic language development, helps students make sense of their thinking, and can foster academic language development.

The long-term goal is for students to learn science-specific technical vocabulary and integrate new words into their vocabulary. However, before the integration of unfamiliar words and phrases, it is necessary to scaffold science-specific academic language by presenting targeted terms in a way that is more familiar and contextual to students (Ardasheva, Norton-Meier, & Hand, 2015; Jung & Brown, 2016; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012; Vacca et al., 2016).

The NOS Statement Review

The NOS statement review gives students time to examine the statements individually, think about their meanings, self-identify words and phrases they find confusing, and discuss the statements in small groups and later as a class. Early introduction of the statements makes use of ‘powerful’ vocabulary instruction principles such repetition and meaningful (Nagy, 1988).  Additionally, the transformation of the Card Exchange from a once-and-done activity to a multi-class exercise encourages both independent reading and learning by allowing students to self-select words and phrases (Harmon et al., 2005).

The overall goal of the NOS statement review is threefold: 1) to help students unpack the card statements and gain a better understanding of their meanings, 2) the come to class-wide understandings on the meanings of the different statements, which could include rephrasing, and 3) to prepare students to participate in the Card Exchange activity.

The review is run in four phases over two class periods and mirrors the structure of the Card Exchange, which is run during the next class following the review.  During phase 1, students receive a graphic organizer (see Figure 1) with card statements from each of the card topic categories as a homework assignment at least two weeks ahead of the card exchange activity. The graphic organizer has the prompts “What do you think this statement means?” and “What word(s) or phrase(s) do you find confusing?”  Assigning it as homework allows students to read and reflect on their particular statements at their own pace. As students read through the cards, they are encouraged to answer the prompts and to circle or underline parts of the card statements (see Figure 2).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Graphic organizer for students with assortment of card statements and reflective prompts.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Student work sample.

Phases two through four occur during the following class.  During phase two, students use their completed graphic organizers and are given ten to fifteen minutes to have several small group discussions.  First, they are grouped (two to three students) based on the number in the upper right-hand corner of their worksheets. This ensures that students with the same card statements have the opportunity to share their thoughts and comments with classmates that read and reflected on the same statements.

Phase three involves students moving around and meeting with classmates who were assigned different card statements.  Students have ten to fifteen minutes and can meet one-on-one or in small groups of no more than four students.  The groups must consist of students with different card statements, and each member of the group must have the opportunity to share.

As the instructor, both phases two and three are opportunities to circulate work with students individually or within the small groups.  It is a time to listen to student conversations, ask guiding questions, address individual concerns and questions.

During the fourth phase of the NOS statement review, all of the students come together to engage in a class review and discussion. Students receive a second worksheet (see Appendix) with all of the card statements and students are invited to share their respective statements with the entire class.  Cross-group discussion is encouraged with the instructor as moderator.

At the conclusion of the NOS statement review, we try to come to some understandings about specific terms used in the card statements and what they mean in and out of science.  Sometimes the discussion involves the rewording of a statement.  For example, in one class statement 12 (see Appendix) was reworded to read “Science is never opinionated; it is practical and open-minded – always subject to adjustment in the light of solid, new observations.” In another class, statement 32 (see Appendix) was reworded to say “When scientists work together they can be influenced by each other.  Therefore, it can be hard to identify alternative ways of thinking.” Finally, students are then encouraged, but not mandated, to look over all the statements before the card exchange activity during the next class (week 3).


Introducing and discussing NOS is still tricky and finding active methods to engage students in NOS discussion can be a challenge.  Herman, Clough, and Olson (2013) lament that “much is understood about effective NOS teaching and learning, but while the phrase nature of science is widely recognized by science teachers, accurate and effective NOS instruction is still not widespread” (p. 2). Since language ability is quickly being recognized by both NRC’s Framework for K-12 Science Education (2012) and NGSS (2013) as a critical component of student success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) the integration of literacy strategies can help address both NOS and literacy skills for students of all ages.  Integrating simple, yet effective, literacy strategies in the form of a NOS statement review before Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange transforms the activity into one that emphasizes both NOS and literacy skills.

Early Introduction: A Double-Edged Sword?

The introduction and repetition of the card statements benefit students by providing them with time to reflect upon and discuss the meanings of the NOS statements.  However, there was a fear that a review could take away from the trading aspect of the game. By reading, reflecting, and discussing the statements, students could have already made up their minds about the statements before the actual activity.

Since implementing the NOS statement review, I have asked students to provide feedback on whether the review enhanced or took away from the Card Exchange.  Students (n = 64) were asked to fill out a short online survey at the conclusion of the card exchange that asked them to rate two statements about the NOS statement review and card exchange on a four-point Likert-like scale (1 = strongly disagree:4 = strongly agree).  The voluntary survey has an average response rate of 87.7%. In response to the statement “Reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements ahead of the card exchange enhanced the card exchange game” 81.8% responded that they “strongly agree.” Conversely, 78.2% “strongly disagreed” that reading, reviewing, and discussing the card statements “took away” from the card exchange game.

One of the more difficult aspects of the NOS statement review, mainly during phases three and four, was keeping students focused.  During both small group and class-wide discussion, students kept veering away from focusing on the meanings of the statements instead wanting to debate the merits of the statements.  While appreciating their enthusiasm, they were reminded throughout these phases that they would have the opportunity to debate the merits of the statements and whether they agreed or disagreed with them, during the Card Exchange.


The importance of understanding NOS is important to the science and science education community.  However, there is still a need to find interesting and exciting methods of engaging teacher candidates as well as elementary and secondary students in discussions about NOS. Cobern (1991) concluded his original article stressing the card exchange activity’s effectiveness at hooking his students into discussing and considering NOS – a subject, according to him, they had previously avoided. Speaking about science teacher candidates, he noted that the card exchange “capitalizes on the innate gregariousness of students and the diversity of opinion among students” (p. 46) and stressed the need for “creative instructional strategies” for NOS instruction to be effective.

Despite the issues cited earlier with vocabulary and phrasing, the Card Exchange is still a creative and effective introductory NOS activity for both elementary and secondary teacher candidates.  Integrating cross-curricular literacy strategies, such as a NOS statement review, enhances the Card Exchange without taking away from the initial focus of the Card Exchange activity. Instead, it creates a deeper more meaningful learning experience for students.

Promoting “Science for All” Through Teacher Candidate Collaboration and Community Engagement


The Next Generation Science Standards present a bold vision for equitable and excellent science opportunities through a call for “All Standards, All Students” (Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] Lead States, 2013, Appendix D). Following in the footsteps of the earlier “Science for All” efforts, the NGSS articulate a range of supports for marginalized groups in science, including students with disabilities. For those of us who have worked on issues of science equity and accessibility throughout our careers, it seems implausible that profound educational disparities and attitudinal barriers persist in the 21st Century. Yet despite decades of work on inclusive science research and practice, persons with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in science careers while students with disabilities underperform on science assessments (National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP], National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2011; National Science Foundation [NSF], 2013). Paramount among the factors contributing to this disparity is that science teachers are underprepared to teach students with disabilities in their classrooms, while special education teachers are similarly ill-prepared to teach science ( Irving, Nti, & Johnson, 2007; Kahn & Lewis, 2014). An obvious solution is to have science and special educators co-teach in the classroom, yet research suggests that without preparation and experience in such models, teachers face tremendous obstacles including lack of co-planning time, challenges with establishing roles and responsibilities, and simply lack of familiarity with discipline-specific accommodations (Moin, Magiera, & Zigmond, 2009). This situation creates a pedagogical and, as we believe, a moral dilemma of placing teachers in classrooms without ample preparation, a set-up for attitudinal and practical barriers.

We were therefore interested in developing flexible opportunities for science teacher candidates to interact and co-teach with special education candidates in an effort to provide meaningful experiences for all of our students, contribute to the research base in inclusive science teacher education, and support our greater community. To that end, we developed an Inclusive Science Day during which members of our Ohio University National Science Teachers Association (OU-NSTA) student chapter co-planned and co-taught inclusive science lessons with student members of our Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEC) at the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery (OVMoD), a local hands-on discovery museum. In doing so, our candidates learned about inclusive science practices, experienced co-planning, budgeting, and delivering science activities for a diverse audience, gained appreciation for the benefits of informal science community partnerships, and learned about themselves as future teachers of all students. This manuscript describes the motivation for, methods, and findings from our project, as well as recommendations for other programs wishing to implement a similar model.

Theoretical and School Context

Teacher Preparation and Science for Students with Disabilities

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, later reauthorized as the IDEIA (2004), guarantees a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. For the more than 6 million students in American schools identified as having disabilities, this means that they are guaranteed opportunities for learning commensurate with their abilities across subjects, including science. While most science teachers at all levels will teach students with disabilities in their classrooms, most receive little formal education in inclusive science practices. In their nationwide survey of 1088 science teachers, Kahn and Lewis (2014) found that, while 99% of the participants had taught students with disabilities during their careers, nearly one-third had not received any training on the subject and of those who had “on the job training” was cited as the most prominent context for learning. Similarly, special education teachers receive little training in science education (Patton, Palloway, & Cronin, 1990), leaving them to frequently be marginalized in inclusive science settings, with science teachers taking the lead. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that students with disabilities underperform on standardized science assessments and are underrepresented in science fields. Without the benefit of teachers who have been adequately prepared to develop accessible lessons using inclusive pedagogical approaches, students with disabilities will continue to be underserved in the sciences.

Although science and special education are often characterized as representing different philosophical stances (McGinnis & Kahn, 2014), contemporary frameworks like Universal Design for Learning (UDL; Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2015) can mediate these differences by capitalizing on the abilities and acknowledging the challenges of all students, thereby creating a cohesive approach to ensuring access for the greatest number of learners. We hypothesized that allowing candidates to co-plan and co-teach UDL activities would provide them with the unique opportunity to discover each other’s strengths, assess their own weaknesses, and become exposed to different perspectives. As in most teacher education programs, however, these opportunities were scant for our candidates due to the structural requirements of their different programs of study and teaching placements. It seemed that a less formal opportunity was needed to explore possible benefits and challenges of collaborative inclusive programming. We decided to turn to the OVMoD for assistance.

Informal Science Learning

Informal science learning spaces, such as museums, zoos, aquaria, botanical gardens, provide unique opportunities for contextualized science learning for their visitors (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder, 2009). By providing materials and exhibits that are not otherwise readily accessible, allowing for open, unstructured discovery, and welcoming learners of all ages and backgrounds, these spaces offer incomparable resources to their surrounding communities (Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010). Informal science learning spaces also provide powerful contexts for learning, not only for visitors but also for teacher candidates (Duran, Ballone-Duran, Haney, & Beltyukova, 2009). By providing candidates with teaching opportunities in such spaces, candidates learn to “think on their feet” as they are met by learners about whom they have no prior information, and must therefore anticipate challenges and respond quickly. They are also exposed to visitors representing a variety of ages, backgrounds, and abilities, thus necessitating a true “science for all” attitude and approach (McGinnis, Hestness, Riedinger, Katz, Marbach-Ad, & Dai A., 2012). Finally, bringing teacher candidates to informal science learning spaces allows them to learn about and serve their community, and of course, allows the community to become better acquainted with the programs and services available through the university, thereby promoting symbiotic learning opportunities (Bevan et al., 2010).

Our Programs

The Patton College of Education at Ohio University serves approximately 1600 undergraduate and 900 graduate students and uses a clinical model for teacher preparation, thus ensuring extensive in-school opportunities for students beginning in their sophomore year and benefitting from close relationships with partner schools (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, 2010). Within our Department of Teacher Education, undergraduate and masters students can select from a wide swath of science teaching majors leading to certification in middle and secondary science areas. In addition, we have a thriving early childhood program that includes courses in both preschool and elementary science methods. Likewise, our nationally-recognized special education program leads to multiple graduate and undergraduate licensures. Undergraduate licensures include programming for intervention specialists seeking degrees to work with students with mild-to-moderate or moderate-to-intensive educational needs.

As vigorous and comprehensive as our programs are, teacher candidates from science education and special education interact infrequently during school hours due to their divergent course and placement requirements. Fortunately, our college supports (both philosophically and financially) our professional organization student chapters which afford opportunities for flexible collaboration. Our Ohio University National Science Teachers Association (OU-NSTA) student chapter welcomes all students with an interest in science teaching and learning. This chapter experienced a renaissance recently with regular meetings, numerous fundraising activities, learning opportunities including attendance at a regional NSTA conference, and a concerted commitment to service learning in our community. This chapter currently has approximately 25 members representing both undergraduate and graduate programs, although most are undergraduate secondary (middle and high school) science education majors. Our Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEC) boasts a large, consistent membership of approximately 35 to 40 teacher candidates who meet regularly, assist with functions held by the local developmental disabilities programs, and provide fundraising support for members of the community with disabilities as well as schools in need of resources for serving students with disabilities. This organization enjoys the leadership of a long-term and beloved advisor who has developed the group through many years of mentoring and modeling. In addition to our college of education, our university’s center for community engagement provides small grants for service learning projects. We were fortunate to receive funding for our Inclusive Science Day project to cover the cost of training materials used with our teacher candidates, consumables for science activities, and refreshments. In addition, this grant provided funds for two of our students to attend a regional NSTA conference early in the year at which they interviewed various leaders in the science education community as well as publishers and science education suppliers about their inclusive science materials. This experience was eye-opening for our students, who presented their findings at subsequent group meetings, as it set the stage for our Inclusive Science Day planning.

The Intervention: Inclusive Science Day

In order to determine the potential for an Inclusive Science Day at an informal learning space, the OU-NSTA advisor raised the idea with a colleague from the College of Education, who is also on the board of the OVMoD to discuss possibilities. The colleague indicated that the museum had made concerted efforts to reach out to visitors with all abilities through use of universally-designed displays and a “sensory-friendly” day; she was completely open to the idea of having teacher candidates plan and teach at the museum but would need to discuss the idea with the museum’s executive director and other board members.  The OU-NSTA advisor then met with the SCEC advisor, who was equally enthusiastic about the prospect of collaboration. Both the OU-NSTA and SCEC advisors then presented the idea to their respective executive board members who were highly receptive. Concurrently, the OU-NSTA advisor participated in an 8-week course on service learning offered by the university’s center for community engagement in order to better understand the dynamics of collaborative endeavors with community entities and to consider in depth both the potential learning opportunities for the teacher candidates and the service opportunities for the museum. While it might have been possible for this project to come to fruition without that training, the advisor felt that it undoubtedly prepared her for the potential benefits and challenges. Once all parties embraced Inclusive Science Day, the two advisors began to plan the training and research.

Planning and Orientation

One of the most daunting tasks was simply identifying a day/time that students could meet for an orientation and training. As this was a voluntary endeavor, we knew that we would need to ensure that our meetings were highly efficient, focused, and would inspire our teacher candidates to collaborate on their own time to ensure availability and convenience. Once we had an announced orientation time, the two advisors met to plan the training. We determined that the 2 1/2-hour evening training would include the following agenda:

  • Welcome, Refreshments, and Survey Invitation
  • Why Inclusive Science Day? and “Can You Name This Scientist?”
  • Collaborative Hands-on Simulation Activity (“Helicopters”) and Debriefing UDL
  • Lesson Planning and Budgeting Activities
  • Next Steps!

As we had decided to conduct research on teacher candidates’ experiences and attitudes regarding inclusive science practice, we applied for and received IRB approval for a pre and post survey that was distributed anonymously online at the orientation (pre) and after the Inclusive Science Day (post). Students were recruited for the Inclusive Science Day and associated research via e-invitations sent to organization membership lists in advance of the orientation. Because of our desire to avoid exerting pressure on students to participate in either the research or project, we did not require students to RSVP. We were very pleased to see that 18 students attended the training (ten special education and eight science education, including one elementary science methods student). When the students arrived at the orientation, they created nametags, had the opportunity to complete the survey online, and enjoyed pizza. We then distributed students among five tables so that at least one special education candidate was at each table. After introductions, we engaged in a brief brainstorming challenge to identify why inclusive science education might be important.  Candidates actively identified reasons including:

“There aren’t enough scientists with disabilities in the field.”

“Science is part of every child’s life and body.”

“You can teach science through different in different ways (e.g., visual, tactile, kinesthetic, etc…).”

“Knowing about science is important for everyone!”

“We need to know how to teach all students.”

We added three others to the list that students did not mention:

  • Science benefits from having all students contribute to its advancement.
  • There is a moral imperative for all students to have the opportunity to experience science.
  • Science is beautiful!

We then engaged in a “Can You Name This Scientist?” game in which candidates viewed pictures of famous scientists with disabilities and were asked to identify them.  Scientists included Alexander Graham Bell (Dyslexia), Thomas Edison (Hearing Impairment and Dyslexia), Temple Grandin (Autism), Geerat Vermeij (Visual Impairment), Jack Horner (Dyslexia), and Stephen Hawking (Motor Neuron Disease), among others. Most of our candidates were unaware that such accomplished scientists also had disabilities and that their disabilities, in some cases, may have enhanced the scientists’ interests and abilities in their fields. For example, Geerat Vermeij, a world-renowned paleobiologist attributes his nuanced abilities in identifying mollusks to his ability to feel and attend to distinctions in shells that sighted scientists might overlook (Vermeij, 1997). We were excited to see our students’ interests so piqued after this activity.

We then introduced the Universal Design for Learning (UDL; Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) framework, which allows teachers to develop lessons that meet the needs of the most number of learners thereby reducing the need for specific disability accommodations. The three principles of UDL are: 1) Multiple Means of Engagement (How students access the lesson or materials); 2) Multiple Means of Representation (How teachers present the material to the students); and 3) Multiple Means of Action and Expression (How students interact with the materials and show what they know). To help teacher candidates to better understand the potential barriers that students with disabilities might have in science class, we co-led a science activity in which students followed written directions for making and testing paper helicopters while assigning students equipment that helped them to simulate various disabilities. For example, some students received handouts that had scrambled letters to simulate Dyslexia, while others wore glasses that limited their vision. In addition, some students wore earplugs to simulate hearing impairments while others listened to conversations on headphones to simulate psychiatric disorders. Finally, some students had tape placed around adjacent fingers to simulate fine motor impairments, while others utilized crutches or wheel chairs. Students progressed through this activity for several minutes and then discussed their challenges as a class. We chose the helicopter activity because it required reading, cutting with scissors, throwing and observing the helicopters, and retrieving them; thus, this activity required a variety of intellectual and physical skills. We found that our students were quite impacted by this activity, as many indicated that they had never really thought about the perspective of students with these disabilities. In particular, the student who utilized a wheelchair said that she had never realized how much space was needed to accommodate the wheelchair easily during an active investigation. This led the group to discuss the need for us to set up our tables at the museum with sufficient space for all visitors to comfortably traverse the museum. Of course, we were careful to remind students that this type of simulation cannot accurately represent the true nature and complexity of anyone’s experiences, and that people with disabilities, like all individuals, develop adaptations for addressing challenges. However, this brief experience prompted our students to think about how they could redesign the lesson to ensure that as many students as possible could access it without specific accommodations.

We then informed the groups that they were each to develop plans for two activities that would be presented at the Inclusive Science Day. Based on discussions with museum administrators, we decided that having several “make and take” activities was desirable, in part because it allowed the learning to continue at home, but also because our university is in a very rural, high poverty region thus making these types of materials a particularly welcome benefit for many families (United States Census Bureau, 2014). Together, we reviewed the lesson plan document which was less formal than our typical lesson plan document (due to the informal nature of the museum activity stations format) but nevertheless, had specific learning outcomes, considerations for diversity (including gender, socioeconomic status, English language proficiency, and ability), and a budget (See Figure 1 for a Sample Lesson; a blank lesson plan template is available for download at the end of this article in supplemental materials). We then informed teams that, thanks to the grant we had received, they had $50 to spend on their two lessons and that they should anticipate approximately 50 visitors to their tables (based on prior museum visitation counts). Teacher candidates then used their laptops and various resource books we provided to identify activities and develop materials lists with prices. We decided the easiest way to ensure that all materials would be received in time, and to avoid dealing with reimbursements and other financial complexities was to have students submit their final budget sheets to us during the week following the orientation. We would then order all the materials using one account and notify students once the materials were received. Students were responsible for bringing in “freebie” materials such as newspaper, aluminum cans, matches, etc. Once materials were received, student groups came to the central storage room at their convenience to check and prepare their materials in ample time for the program. We also encouraged students to create table signs for display at the Inclusive Science Day. They did this on their own time as well. Some of the activities that students developed were:

  • Fingerprint Detectives
  • Creating a Galaxy in a Jar
  • Chemical Reactions in a Pan (using baking soda and vinegar mixed with food coloring)
  • Exploring Static Electricity with Balloons
  • Egg Drop
  • Making and Testing Kazoos
  • Blobs in a Bottle (with vegetable oil and Alka-Seltzer tablets)
  • Inflate a Balloon Using Chemistry
Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample lesson plan for “Inflate a Balloon Using Chemistry.”

In addition to identifying activities that engaged different senses, our students thought about how to meet a variety of learners’ needs. For example, magnifiers and large ink stamp pads would be available at the fingerprint station for all students, while the “Blobs in a Bottle” activity station had alternative “jelly balls” that could be felt by visitors who couldn’t see the vegetable oil “blobs.” The kazoo station, which used toilet paper tubes, waxed paper, and rubber bands, allowed visitors who could not hear to feel the movement of the waxed paper when the kazoos were played. The station also had adaptive scissors and pre-cut waxed paper for visitors needing fine motor skill support. The UDL considerations and accommodations provided for each activity are contained in Table 1 below.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
UDL Considerations and Accommodations for Accessibility on Inclusive Science Day

The Day of the Event

The Inclusive Science Day was announced by the museum on social media, through our local schools, and through the local newspaper. The museum generously waived their admission fee for the day in order to encourage attendance as well. On the day of the program, students were asked to arrive two hours in advance to set up their stations. We provided lunch to ensure that we had time to speak to the group about the importance of the work they were about to do, and to allow the museum staff to convey any final instructions to the students. When the doors were opened, we were thrilled to see large numbers of families entering the museum space. Over the two hours that our program ran, the museum estimated that we had over 150 visitors, approximately three times their expected attendance. The attendance was so good that some of our student groups needed to send “runners” out to purchase additional materials; our “Galaxy in a Jar” group even began using recycled bottles from our lunch to meet the demands at their table.  Safety was a consideration at all times. Goggles were made available at all tables with splash potential, and safety scissors were used at stations with cutting requirements. In addition, our students (and we) wore our clubs’ T-shirts so that visitors could easily identify instructors. Each activity table had at least one science education and one special education candidate co-teaching. We supervised the students by assisting in crowd control, helping to ensure that visitors could easily navigate through the rather limited museum space, obtaining written permissions for photos from parents/caregivers, and responding to candidate questions. Some photos from the day are shown in Figures 2-4.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). “Blobs in a Bottle” activity demonstrating density and polarity of water and oil. Tactile “jelly balls” and magnifiers were available for visitors with visual impairments.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). “Chemical Reactions in a Pan” activity using baking soda, vinegar, and food coloring. Varied sizes of pipettes and pans were available to address diversity in visitors’ fine motor skills.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). “Exploring Sound with Kazoos” activity. Visitors were encouraged to use their senses of vision, touch, and hearing to test the instruments.

Research Findings/Project Evaluation

Overall, our teacher candidates found this project to be highly meaningful and helpful for their professional learning. Perhaps one of the most important themes that emerged from our evaluative research was that science and special education candidates welcomed the opportunity to collaborate as none of them had reported having opportunities to do so in the past. Some of the student post-activity responses included the following:

“[Inclusive Science Day] allowed me to gain more experience and to really learn what it is like to teach students who have disabilities. I also was able to see how students with different disabilities reacted to the same activity. I found that those students who had a disability found a different way to cope with their disability than we had thought they would.”

“I saw how different general education and special education teacher think. There were many differences to our approaches to creating the lesson.”

“I really liked that I was able to consult with the special education teachers if I was unsure of how to help a student with disabilities.”

“I had a great time sharing my content knowledge of science with those whose specialty is special education. Conversely, I had a great time learning from experts in special education and I really enjoyed seeing them be so in their comfort zone when we did have kids with exceptionalities. I envy their comfort levels and it makes me want to reach that level of comfort.”

“We were well prepared for any differentiation that would have needed to be done. And we all learned from each other.”

“I feel this was an awesome experience. The people I worked with really added something to our experiments that I otherwise may not have thought about.”

Challenges cited by our students included feeling a bit overwhelmed by the number of visitors at each station, not having knowledge about the visitors’ backgrounds in advance, and difficulties in maintaining visitors’ focus on the science content. We found one student’s reflection to be quite sophisticated in its recognition of the need for more training on inclusive science:

“I still feel that I would like more professional development when it comes to leading science activities for students with disabilities. I had an experience with a wonderful young man and I felt very challenged because I don’t feel comfortable enough to gauge what I should be allowing him to do on his own and at the same time I didn’t want to hinder him from reaching his full potential. So, I feel like further professional development in that area is needed for me.”

Qualitative  analysis of candidate pre and post responses resulted in themes that included: 1) candidates’ assessment of collaboration as a powerful professional development opportunity; 2) identification of different perspectives between science and special education candidates; 3) a common desire to do good work by making accessible for all students; 4) recognition of informal learning spaces as viable teaching venues; and; 4) a strong need for more training and opportunities to teach science to students with disabilities. Our findings support earlier research suggesting that teacher candidates are inclined toward inclusive practices (McGinnis, 2003) and that opportunities for collaboration with special education candidates enhance their comfort level in co-planning and co-teaching (Moorehead & Grillo, 2013). Our teacher candidates’ expressions of the depth of impact this professional development experience had on them makes sense when considered in light of Kahn and Lewis’ (2014) study which suggested that teachers’ experience with any students with disabilities increased their feelings of preparedness toward working with all students with disabilities. In addition, our findings reinforce studies suggesting that informal learning spaces can provide unique and flexible learning opportunities for teacher candidates, particularly in that they provided multiple opportunities to teach the same lesson repeatedly, thus allowing for reflection and revision (Jung & Tonso, 2006). Perhaps most importantly, this study underscores the desire for and efficacy of increased training and experience in implementing inclusive science practices during teachers’ pre-service educations.

Future Plans and Conclusion

Based on the feedback from the teacher candidates and the museum, we are planning to make Inclusive Science Day an annual event. However, we are considering several changes for future projects including:

  • Multiple training evenings for teacher candidates
  • Pre-registration for Inclusive Science Day so that we can anticipate attendance size and specific needs of visitors
  • Creating a “Quiet Zone” area at the museum for visitors who would benefit from a less bustling environment
  • Identifying additional sources of funding for consumable materials
  • Greater outreach to our early childhood teacher candidates to encourage participation

As students with disabilities are increasingly included in science classrooms, it is incumbent of teacher education programs to ensure that their science teacher candidates acquire the tools and the dispositions for teaching all learners. While more formal approaches, such as dual licensure programs and co-teaching internship placements are on the horizon for many programs, teacher education programs should not overlook the power of extracurricular events, informal learning spaces, and student organizations to provide important professional development opportunities for teacher candidates, pilots for new program development, and occasions to both serve and learn from the community.


An Innovative Integrated STEM Program for PreK-6 Teachers


In this article, we describe an innovative, 6-course, 18-credit post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC) program for pre-kindergarten through grade six teachers (PreK-6) in Integrated Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (iSTEM) Instructional Leadership (hereafter, the iSTEM program) at Towson University (TU). Here, the acronym, “iSTEM,” refers to education that not only addresses each of the S, T, E and M subjects, but also emphasizes the connections among them. We collaboratively contributed to the development of the program, and teach courses within it. The program graduated its pilot cohort of participants in 2015, is running its second cohort, and is recruiting for a third. We begin by describing the program’s origins, courses, and program team, and then expand on what we mean by an “integrated” approach to STEM education. This is followed by a discussion of: key aspects of program design and course descriptions, program evaluation and assessment, and our reflections on the program’s successes and challenges.

Origins, Courses and Program Team

From 2011 to 2014, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) used Race-to-the-Top (RTTT) funding to award institutions of higher education in Maryland with small (max: $40K) one-to-three-year grants to seed the development of programs for preservice or inservice teachers to grow expertise in iSTEM education and be prepared to implement the state’s STEM Standards for K-12 students (MSDE, 2012). We received one of those grants between 2012 and 2014, enabling us to develop four iSTEM courses for in-service teachers. Within this same timeframe, MSDE approved an Instructional Leader: STEM endorsement (i.e., an additional credential for an already certified teacher) for PreK-6 teachers (Appendix 1). This endorsement was developed by a work group comprised of stakeholders – including teachers, school system science leaders, and higher education faculty – from across Maryland, one of whom was the first author (Instructional Leader: STEM (Grades PreK-6), 2014). To meet the needs of this endorsement, the program grew from four to six courses.

Within the six-course program, we refer to the first four courses as its “content courses.” These are: 1) Engineering, 2) Mathematics, 3) Environmental and Biological Science, and 4) Earth-Space and Physical Science in iSTEM Education. (Each content course title ends with “in iSTEM Education.”) These were completely new to TU and underwent the curriculum review process at the university. The fifth course, Transformational Leadership and Professional Development, was an existing course. The final course, Practicum in iSTEM Education, was a revised and renamed course from a previous science education graduate program. In 2014 and 2015, our iSTEM program went through thorough review by MSDE and the Maryland Higher Education Coalition (MHEC), ultimately gaining approval as a new PBC program able to award graduates with the aforementioned endorsement. Each course is three credits, taught one course at a time over a regular (i.e., fall or spring) semester, one evening per week. Our pilot program included a summer semester course; however, this is not a standard program feature.

Program team members were recruited by the first author to develop the pilot program based on their expertise in STEM education and interest in teaching within the program. All team members are engineering, science, or mathematics education faculty (not content faculty). They each have extensive experience providing preservice and inservice teacher education and conducting research in their respective areas of education. For example, among the authors who are also program team members: Lottero-Perdue specializes in engineering and physical science education; Haines specializes in environmental and biological education; Bamberger specializes in mathematics education; and Miranda specializes in Earth-space and physical science education. While some had some experiences integrating their main content area with another (e.g., mathematics and science), most had not engaged in integration across all STEM subjects prior to engagement in this program.

All but one of the pilot cohort instructors have taught or will be teaching the second cohort of the program. The exception is the instructor who helped to develop and taught the practicum course, Ms. Christine Roland. She had extensive science teaching experience, was a STEM coach for a local school system while she taught the pilot cohort, and is currently a Co-Director and Master Teacher for our university’s UTeach program. The new practicum instructor can be chosen from any STEM education area, and we have plans for this replacement. Recently, our mathematics team member, Dr. Honi Bamberger, retired. She recruited another member of her department, Dr. Ming Tomayko, to co-teach the mathematics course for the second cohort prior to her retirement. This provided support to the new team member to teach the mathematics course for subsequent cohorts.

Our participants for our initial pilot program consisted of two elementary art teachers – both of whom were interested in the integrated nature of our program – with the rest being elementary level regular classroom teachers. Our current cohort participants are all regular elementary level classroom teachers who collectively teach grades 2 to 5.


Integrated STEM education aims to engage students in learning experiences in which STEM subjects symbiotically work together to answer real questions and solve real problems. Rarely are human pursuits solely in one of these particular subject areas (National Academy of Engineering [NAE] & National Research Council [NRC], 2014). Three approaches implemented in PreK-12 education are multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary integration (Vasquez, Sneider & Comer, 2013). In what follows, we briefly review these approaches, and then present our hub-and-spoke model of STEM integration.

In multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary integration, one subject is addressed through the lenses of different disciplines. In multidisciplinary integration, a theme (e.g., penguins) is addressed in each subject, yet there are few conceptual linkages between the subjects. For example, students may learn about penguin habitats in science, and read the fictional storybook Tacky, the Penguin (Lester & Munsinger, 1990) in language arts. In interdisciplinary integration, a disciplinary approach is still taken on a topic, but conceptual links are stronger (e.g., social studies instruction about the geography of Antarctica informs science learning about the habitat of Emperor penguins). Transdisciplinary approaches are guided by an essential question or problem, ideally that has been shaped by student interests. In order to answer the question or solve the problem, students must learn and apply knowledge and practices from various disciplines. For example, if students wanted to design a penguin habitat for a zoo, they would need to explore how and where penguins live in their natural habitats to do so, apply mathematics as they considered the size of the habitat, and so on. Our iSTEM program favors interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches over a multidisciplinary approach, given that our intent is for integration to involve conceptual links across disciplinary boundaries.

Our iSTEM program uses what we call a hub-and-spoke model of STEM integration. Each of the content courses in the program emphasize both content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) for a “hub” or core content area (Gess-Newsome & Lederman, 1999). PCK represents “the distinctive bodies of knowledge for teaching” particular subjects (Schulman, 1987, p. 8). Each content course intentionally and meaningfully connects to other STEM areas via “spokes.” In this way, the hub-and-spoke model emphasizes interdisciplinary integration. The spokes for the engineering course are science, mathematics, and technology (Figure 1). Although not featured as a separate course or hub, technology appears as part of the hub in the engineering course since one conception of the T in STEM, which we will call T1, is that technologies are products of engineering, and can be simple (e.g., pencils) or sophisticated (e.g., robotic arms). Thus, T1 technology and engineering are inherently paired. Another conception of technology, which we will call T2, is that sophisticated tools (e.g., digital scales) are used to develop STEM knowledge; T2 is addressed as a spoke in all of the courses. Hub-and-spoke depictions for the other content courses in the program are shown in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Hub and spoke model for the Engineering in iSTEM course.
Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Hub and spoke model for the Environmental and Biological Science in iSTEM course and the Earth-Space and Physical Science in iSTEM course.
Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Hub and spoke model for the Mathematics in iSTEM course.

Whether as a hub or spoke, STEM subject matter content and practices are addressed with rigor in the program. This is ensured by requirements across course assignments to reference STEM subject matter standards, e.g.: the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013); Maryland Technology Literacy Standards for Students (MSDE, 2007); the Maryland State STEM Standards of Practice (MSDE, 2012); the Standards for the Professional Development and Preparation of Teachers of Engineering (Reimers, Farmer & Klein-Gardner, 2015); and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in mathematics (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices [NGAC] and Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2010).

Course syllabi were developed collaboratively by program team members, contributing to the STEM integration within each course. During syllabi development, team members took on roles as “hub leaders” and as “spoke experts” depending on the course. Hub leaders have explicit expertise in hub areas and were the pilot instructors of program’s content courses. For example, Lottero-Perdue is an engineering educator, conducts engineering education research, and provides PreK-8 preservice and inservice teacher education in engineering. She is the hub leader for the engineering course, and was a spoke expert for the other content courses, offering suggestions and advice to other hub leaders regarding how to approach engineering within their courses.

This collaborative process was most intense during syllabus development, with syllabi developed, modified, and improved with input from hub leaders and spoke experts. Input was provided in face-to-face meetings, as well as electronically. Once courses were in session, hub leaders reached out as needed to spoke experts for additional support. For example, Lottero-Perdue reached out to Bamberger for advice on the integration of mathematics within a new unit for the engineering course that ran in fall 2016 for the second cohort of the program.

The hub-and-spoke integration model in the iSTEM program is consistent with four recommendations made by the NAE and NRC within their report, STEM Integration in K-12 Education, for designers of iSTEM education initiatives. Two of these recommendations are relevant here. First, the report urges designers to “attend to the learning goals and learning progressions in the individual STEM subjects” (2014, p. 9) – i.e., the course hubs. Second, the report encourages designers to make STEM connections explicit – i.e., via the spokes. The two remaining recommendations regarding professional learning experiences and program goals will be addressed in what follows; all four recommendations are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Four Recommendations from the NAE and NRC for Designers of iSTEM Experiences

The hub-and-spoke model is relevant to the overwhelming majority of elementary educators who have dedicated blocks of time in mathematics and science, and can use those “hubs” to reach out meaningfully and purposefully to the other STEM subject areas. This model is ideal for interdisciplinary integration, and is also inclusive of transdisciplinary approaches.

Program Design & Courses

The order of the courses, as well as the degree of structure provided throughout these courses via the instructor and curriculum, was highly intentional in the program’s design (see Table 2 for a summary of program courses). The first course is the engineering course since this is the STEM subject that is most likely to be unfamiliar to elementary teachers (Cunningham & Carlsen, 2014; Cunningham & Lachapelle, 2014; NAE & NRC, 2009; NAE & NRC, 2014). After this course, the integration of engineering within other courses is less onerous. As participants move through the program, the structure provided by the curriculum and instructor is gradually reduced. The first course has participants engage in and reflect on particular, instructor-selected iSTEM units. By the time participants get to the fourth content course, they are driving their own open-ended, transdisciplinary, iSTEM projects. The imposed structure of having to attend to particular STEM content is removed completely within the final two courses in the program. These courses support participants as they develop into iSTEM leaders who decide how to craft their own curricula and design and lead their own professional learning experiences. This addresses the “Professional Learning Experiences” recommendation for STEM education in Table 1 (NAE & NRC, 2014).

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
iSTEM Program Courses

In this section, we describe each content course. Following this, we briefly summarize the final two leadership courses. One common theme across all of the courses is that they all utilize constructivist, active learning approaches (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 2006). In this way, no matter the course, participants work collaboratively, communicate their ideas regularly, think critically, and problem solve.

Engineering in iSTEM Education

Three principles for K-12 engineering education identified in the report, Engineering in K-12 Education, were that engineering education should: 1) “emphasize engineering design,” 2) “connect to other STEM areas”, and 3) “promote engineering habits of mind” (NAE & NRC, 2009, pp. 151-152). The first and third principles represent key “hub” ideas for this course; the second represents its STEM spoke connections. Engineering design involves generating solutions to problems via an engineering design process (EDP). The EDP includes defining and researching a problem, brainstorming, planning, creating, testing, and improving (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Engineering habits of mind are fundamental dispositions of the engineering community, and include creativity, collaboration, systems thinking, and resilient responses to design failures (NAE & NRC, 2009). The hub of the Engineering in iSTEM Education course emphasizes the EDP and engineering habits of mind.

The course is organized into thirds. Participants have reading assignments each week, write a brief reflection, and discuss the readings in peer groups. During the first third of the course, they read sections of a chapter about how to incorporate engineering within science education (Lottero-Perdue, 2017). The chapter provides foundational hub content knowledge and PCK early in the semester. In each of the second and third parts of the semester, participants read a biography of an innovator who – perhaps not by title, but by action – has engineered in a real-world context. One of these was The Boy who Harnessed the Wind (Kamkwamba & Mealer, 2016). At the end of the semester, participants write a paper reflecting on how the individual engaged in the EDP, demonstrated engineering habits of mind, and applied other STEM areas.

There are three major engineering-focused, interdisciplinary iSTEM units in the course. In each unit, science, mathematics and technology are in service to the goal of solving an engineering problem through the use of an EDP and by applying engineering habits of mind. For all three units, participants keep an iSTEM notebook, work in teams, and present their findings in a poster presentation. During one of the class sessions, participants visit a local engineering or manufacturing company relevant to one of the three units; e.g., a packaging facility related to a package engineering unit (EiE, 2011).

The three units focus on different age bands: PreK-Grade 2, Grades 2-4, and Grades 4-6. For example, in the PreK-2 unit, participants used an early childhood EDP to design a sun shelter – a technology – for a lizard (Kitagawa, 2016). They made science connections to thermoregulation in lizards via trade books, and used flashlights to explore light and shadows via experimentation. The EDP reinforced counting and simple measurement, and attended to precision as they planned and tested their designs (NGAC & CCSSO, 2010). After learning the first two units of the course, participants selected one and wrote a paper describing: how they engaged in the EDP and engineering habits of mind in the unit; how the unit connected with other STEM areas; and how they would apply and improve the unit for use within their school.

Environmental and Biological Science in iSTEM Education

A key purpose for environmental and biological science education is to develop students’ environmental literacy, the guiding principle for this course. Developing this literacy involves growing knowledge of significant ecological concepts, environmental relationships, and how humans relate to natural systems (Berkowitz, 2005; Coyle, 2005; Erdogan, 2009). It also focuses on developing responsible environmental behavior, without specifying what that behavior should be. The hub in this course satisfies the central objective of enhancing participants’ environmental literacy, and preparing them to develop this literacy in their students. Course topics include: environmental issues related to the Chesapeake Bay; human population growth; environmental aspects of farming and agriculture; and urban planning. Special attention is given to global climate change and water issues. Emphasis is also placed on applying the concept of field science to students in the elementary grades, encouraging learning in “outdoor classrooms” (Haines, 2006).

The course includes a variety of inquiry-based class activities and projects, including finding the biodiversity of a sample, conducting a biological assessment of a local stream, analyzing physical and biological parameters of habitat, and conducting a soil analysis. Participants engineer solutions to problems (e.g., designing a floating wetland), use technology (e.g., GIS, Vernier probeware), and apply mathematical concepts (e.g., logarithms in pH, biodiversity in square meter plots) as they engage in these activities and projects. As with the engineering course, participants read, reflect on, and discuss reading assignments each week.

Assessments require participants to integrate natural science concepts into a variety of teaching formats, and design learning experiences that combine in class and field based instruction with all STEM subject areas. Final projects are unit plans that must include an outdoor component and issue investigation. Each participant fully plans an iSTEM environmental action project (Blake, Frederick, Haines, & Colby Lee, 2010) appropriate for completion at his/her school site with his/her students. Each project must include a clear rationale as to why the project was chosen for the particular school site. In addition, each project must have planned activities and learning experiences for the K-6 students that integrate environmental content with other STEM subjects. These learning experiences must include written lesson plans that are appropriate for students at the grade level the participant is teaching with appropriate objectives. Emphasis is placed on projects that are focused and manageable. Strong emphasis is also placed on project planning and implementation that are possible at the proposed school. Projects have included stream assessments, installing ponds on school property, planting trees to provide habitat and reduce erosion, and creating rain gardens to alleviate run-off issues on school grounds.

Mathematics in iSTEM Education

The Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) represents not only what content and skills K-12 students need to know to prepare them for college and career, it also develops students’ mathematical habits of mind (NGAC & CCSSO, 2010). These habits of mind are developed as students investigate problems, ponder questions, justify their solutions, use precise mathematics vocabulary, and realize how mathematics is used in the real world. There are two primary objectives of this course: 1) to develop participants’ mathematical habits of mind, content and practices, and to prepare participants to help students do the same; and 2) to situate mathematics within the real world, which is inherently integrated in nature.

As part of addressing the first principle, participants routinely solve engaging problems in teams; share diverse problem-solving strategies; and read and interpret graphs, charts, and facts. To address the second, we employ a thematic approach for this course. Thus far, the course theme has been water and its importance to survival; a different theme may be used in the future. Mathematics-infused iSTEM activities related to water and survival topics include: representing the distribution of water on Earth; exploring precipitation amounts around the world and considering the causes and consequences of drought; investigating the causes and effects of floods; considering the effects of the public water crisis in Flint, Michigan; and looking at how water-borne illness is spread (The Watercourse/Project International Foundation, 1995).

During the first half of the course, participants read, write reflections about, and discuss two texts: 1) STEM Lesson Essentials (Vasquez et al., 2013); and 2) the STEM focus issue from the journal, Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2013). In the second half of the course, participants read A Long Walk to Water (Park, 2010), the true story of Salva Duk, one of the “lost boys” of the Sudan who walked 800 miles to escape rebels in his homeland and to find clean water.

There are two major assessed projects in the course. One is the generation of a mathematics-focused iSTEM lesson plan. Participants write the plan, teach the lesson to their students, and reflect – in writing and via a presentation – on the implementation and success of the lesson. The lesson, written reflection and presentation are graded using rubrics. The other major project is the iSTEM Collaborative Research Project. It is a semester-long project in which participants, working in teams of two, decide upon and research a water-and-survival related problem (e.g., oyster reduction in the Chesapeake Bay). Each participant writes an extensive paper reflecting the results of their research, and each team presents the results to the class. Among many other parameters, participants must demonstrate how mathematics is used to better understand the problem, and how connections are made to other STEM subject areas.

Earth-Space and Physical Science in iSTEM Education

This final content course of the program is the second course in which science is the hub; the first science hub course focused on environmental and biological science. As such, this final course reinforces prior learning of scientific practices (e.g., evidence-based argument, development and use of models) and crosscutting ideas (e.g., patterns, cause and effect), while emphasizing a new set of disciplinary core ideas in Earth-space and physical science (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Beyond attending to these dimensions of science learning, the major principle of this course is for participants to learn and practice more student-centered, open-ended, transdisciplinary iSTEM educational experiences. Two related objectives of the course are to: 1) explicitly utilize Project-Based Learning (PjBL) as a framework for transdisciplinary iSTEM education (Buck Institute for Education [BIE], 2011); and 2) employ and practice the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) as developed by Rothstein & Santana (2011), a technique to encourage students to generate their own questions.

The course has three major units in which assignments and course readings are interwoven: 1) Landforms & Topography on Earth and Beyond, 2) Communicating with Light and Sound and Other Signals, and 3) Tracking the Sun: Solar House Design. Each unit includes an iSTEM project, primarily done during class time. For example, in the second unit, the hub focused on science content knowledge and PCK related to light travel, light reflection, sound travel, electromagnetic waves, and satellites. Participant teams are informed that they are members of the Concerned Citizens about Asteroid Impact on Satellites (CCAIS) and are asked to write a persuasive letter to Congress arguing how our current communication satellites are in danger of asteroid impact, what effect that might have on society, and how funds should be directed towards research and development on alternative communication systems. Teams specifically connect to other STEM areas by drawing from knowledge of satellite technology systems, mathematical and scientific principles of those systems, and knowledge of asteroid impact likelihood in their argument. Teams are assessed for project quality and presentation quality. Individual team members are assessed by their team for their collaborative efforts and contributions to the team, and by the instructor through a short (one-to-two-page) reflective paper regarding the project.

There are two out-of-class projects in the class. One of these is the Encouraging Student Questioning through QFT Project. In this project, each participant identifies an opportunity in her/his science, mathematics or STEM curriculum to apply the QFT. Each participant writes a proposal explaining the context in which she/he will apply the QFT and the details of the planned QFT focus (Proposal Stage). After employing the QFT in her/his classroom as planned and collecting student artifacts, each participant writes a reflection regarding the process, impact on students, and impact on subsequent engagement in the curriculum (Reflection Stage).

The second major project in the course is the iSTEM Unit Analysis and Redesign Project. Each participant redesigns an existing Earth-Space science or physical science unit of instruction in his/her school system, redesigning it within iSTEM PjBL framework that utilizes at least one QFT experience. For the first part of the project, each participant conducts an analysis of the existing unit. For the second, each participant submits a redesigned unit proposal and a PjBL plan, including a Project Overview, Teaching and Learning Guide, and Calendar (BIE, 2011).

Leadership Courses

After growth in content knowledge and PCK in the four content courses in the program, participants focus on the development of leadership skills in their final two courses. The first of these courses, Transformational Leadership and Professional Development, helps grow participants’ knowledge base regarding best practices and standards for professional learning at the school and system level (Leaning Forward, 2012; Reeves, 2010). This course is taught within the TU College of Education’s Department of Instructional Leadership and Professional Development (ILPD). Kathleen Reilly, an ILPD faculty member, has taught this course for the iSTEM program, helping participants to identify an area of need and create a plan for an iSTEM professional learning experience (PLE) within their school or system. Part of the second leadership course, Practicum in iSTEM Education, involves implementing that PLE plan and reflecting upon it. Participants meet face-to-face for approximately half of practicum sessions. Participants must design a second PLE in the practicum, implement it, and reflect upon it; this second PLE must be different than the first.

Additionally in the practicum, participants must design and teach an iSTEM lesson to preK-6 students in a grade level other than those whom they normally teach, and include an assessment of impact on student learning for that lesson. For example, a second grade teacher in the program may develop, teach, and reflect upon an iSTEM lesson for fifth grade. Each participant negotiated teaching a class in another grade level. Participants arranged to swap with another teacher in the school for approximately three to four one-hour teaching sessions. Participants were required to organize this, and administrators were supportive of their need to do so.

At the end of the practicum, participants reflect upon and present to an audience of peers, teachers, administrators and instructors about their iSTEM leadership growth. Throughout the course, participants work in professional learning communities (PLCs), i.e., peer groups who provide feedback and input as participants develop and reflect on their iSTEM professional development, lesson, and leadership growth projects (Dufour, 2004). Across all of these projects, participants implement essential learning from previous coursework about integration, STEM standards and best practices, and best practices in professional learning and leadership.

Program Evaluation and Assessment

Program quality has been evaluated via: 1) external evaluation of the grant-funded portion of the four-course pilot (engineering, environmental and biological science, mathematics, and the practicum); 2) the development and subsequent external approval of its assessment plan; 3) results from assessment implementation; and 4) the new opportunities made available to and work of its graduates.

External Evaluation of the Pilot Program

The external evaluator’s review of the four-course pilot program was extensive and included: 1) a short pre-program survey; 2) affective behavioral checklists given after each of the three content courses (Appendix 2); 3) visits by the external evaluator to each class, including to major project presentations within each course; 4) a 37-question final program survey (Appendix 3); and 5) exit interviews conducted after each course. It is beyond the scope of this paper to share all results from the evaluation report; we share major findings here.

The pre-program survey indicated that 9 of the 10 incoming pilot program participants had received some PLEs in STEM subject(s) prior to the program; for six, this included a week of participation in a Science Academy. Also on this survey, when asked about their comfort level giving a one-hour presentation on iSTEM education in the next month, the responses were: Very uncomfortable (1 participant); somewhat uncomfortable (2); slightly comfortable / slightly uncomfortable (3); somewhat comfortable (4); very comfortable (0) (median = 3).

Aggregating affective behavioral checklist data across all three content courses, all 10 participants felt: more confident using, teaching or designing iSTEM lessons; and that the courses increased their interest and/or capabilities of assuming future iSTEM leadership roles in their schools, the school system, and the state. Post-course interviews included feedback – given anonymously to the instructors through the external evaluator – from participants about each content course; feedback was both positive and constructive.

Eight of the nine participants who completed the first four courses of the pilot program completed a final program survey. This survey utilized an ecosystem rating scale (Suskie, 2009) to assess confidencea in STEM subject and iSTEM teaching, curriculum writing and analysis, and leadership at program completion compared to recalled confidence at the start of the program. Confidence was indicated as follows: not at all confident (Score of 1); a little confident (2); somewhat confident (3); confident (4); very confident (5). Post-program confidence was higher than recalled pre-program confidence for all 37 criteria, as determined by Wilcoxon Signed Rank Tests (a < 0.05). For two final program survey items – “presenting curriculum development or other work in iSTEM to peers, teachers, and administrators” (post-program median = 5) and “presenting curriculum development or other work in iSTEM to parents and other members of the public” (post-program median = 4) – all eight participants moved from “not at all confident” or “a little confident” at the start of the program to “confident” or “very confident” at the end of the program. (These recalled low-confidence levels are consistent with the aforementioned pre-program survey result.)

While post-program responses were most often “confident” or “very confident” across all measures, for three criteria, half or fewer participants expressed that they were “very confident.” These criteria suggest areas in which participants are continuing to grow, and in which the program can improve. Each of these criteria regarded aspects of iSTEM leadership. Half of the program survey participants indicated that they were “very confident” “planning and leading iSTEM PLEs for teachers or administrators;” the remainder were “confident.” Similarly, half were “very confident” critically analyzing and evaluating engineering curriculum, while one participant was “somewhat confident” and the rest were “confident.”  One quarter were “very confident” with regard to “presenting curriculum development and other work in iSTEM to parents and other members of the public;” one participant was somewhat confident, and the remainder were “confident.”

Program Assessment and Approval

While innovative assessments of student learning were developed for each program course – including those in four-course pilot – a formal program assessment plan was not implemented for the pilot cohort. Rather, the assessment plan was developed as the pilot cohort of the iSTEM program took their courses. Also, the pilot cohort took the courses out of order. This was due to the initial grant-funded version of the program being four courses (engineering, mathematics, environmental and biological sciences, and the practicum), and the final version being six courses (adding the leadership and professional development course and the Earth-space and physical science course) in order to earn the endorsement. The endorsement was not in draft form until after two of the first four courses had been taken by program participants; it was not formally approved until after participants completed the fourth course.

Ultimately, seven key program assessments were developed to evaluate the program (Appendix 4). These assessments address required outcomes of the program for the Instructional Leader: STEM Endorsement, i.e.: STEM subject content, iSTEM content, iSTEM research, planning, impact on student learning, and leadership. Five assessments measure student performance directly via course assignments evaluated via extensive rubrics. Two are indirect measures: grades and the final program evaluation.

As mentioned previously, the six-course iSTEM program underwent rigorous external, administrative review by the state MSDE and the MHEC. Representatives from these agencies ensured that the program’s assessment plan addressed the aforementioned outcomes. MSDE representatives not only reviewed the overall plan, but also reviewed each assessment and corresponding rubric to determine whether or not the program addressed specific aspects of state STEM standards. Formal approval of the assessment plan and program was finalized in May 2015, just days before seven pilot program participants earned their iSTEM PBC.

Initial Results from Assessment

As our assessment plan suggests, a robust program assessment includes both direct and indirect measures. Much of the external evaluation of the pilot program included participants’ assessments of their learning outcomes (e.g., in the final program evaluation). While these provide some good information, participants’ answers may have been biased towards attempting to please the external evaluator or its instructors. Grades are another indirect measure of program success, but are more objective. Of the 7 PBC graduates from the six-course pilot program, all earned As or Bs in their courses. Thus far, all participants in the second cohort have earned As or Bs in their first two courses. More telling about learning outcomes is participant performance on direct assessments. What we can share here are results from two of those: 1) from the first cohort’s iSTEM Unit Analysis and Redesign Project; and 2) from the second cohort’s iSTEM Research Project (see Appendix 4 for a more robust description of these projects). On the iSTEM Unit Analysis, after revisions were allowed to improve overall quality, grades ranged from 80% to 100% (mean = 94%); the range was from 60% to 100% initially. The range for the iSTEM Research Project was 70% to 80% (mean = 92%).

Opportunities for and Engagement of Graduates and Participants

The external evaluator also mentioned anecdotal evidence in her report that spoke to participants’ iSTEM leadership potential and engagement at the end of the program. S/he noted: at the end of practicum final presentations, leaders from two school systems in which participants taught inquired about their interest in designing new iSTEM units for the school system; one participant got a new job at a private school in a large city as a science and math teacher; another received a grant from an ornithological organization; and three were planning to deliver an iSTEM PLE to administrators in their school system.

Since this time, most of the 9 pilot program completers and 7 PBC program graduates have stayed in their classrooms, have become enrichment teachers, or work as integration specialists. Collectively, they have led numerous iSTEM PLEs for teachers and administrators, some of which have been at the state level. They have implemented iSTEM clubs and family nights at their schools, contributed to re-writing district science curriculum to better align with the NGSS, and three have earned regional recognition as “Rising Stars” or “Mentors” in STEM education by the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council. Of the ten members enrolled in the ongoing second cohort of the program, two have recently received scholarships to receive Teacher Educator training through the Engineering is Elementary program in Boston, Massachusetts.

Challenges and Successes

The biggest challenge we face has to do with teacher recruitment. Many teachers may be too overburdened with curricular changes and new testing demands to begin a new and optional program. Also, for some school systems – particularly without STEM funding through efforts such as RTTT – iSTEM is less of a priority compared with other initiatives in early childhood and elementary education. Further, some school systems have clearer career pathways (e.g., STEM specialist positions) than others to motivate teachers to join an iSTEM program or earn the endorsement. For those who are interested in iSTEM education, we have competition; participants can choose from about five other programs in the state that offer a path to the endorsement (funded by the same grant that seeded our program.) A secondary challenge is retention. We have a master’s-level program; rigor is essential, but participants with many demands and busy schedules may drop out if the work burden is too high. Some attrition is to be expected, yet we are observing and making some changes to ensure that the program has the right balance of rigor and flexibility to meet the needs of busy, hardworking teacher-participants.

Despite these challenges, we are optimistic about our current and future cohorts, and have made changes to improve recruitment. Our program is available as a stand-alone post-baccalaureate certificate (PBC), and it serves as a set of electives for a master’s degree in educational leadership. This provides future graduates with master’s and an administration certificate in addition to the PBC and STEM endorsement. The first author, who is also the program director, has worked with colleagues in the ILPD Department of TU’s College of Education to make this combined degree pathway clearer to our students.

We offer courses during the regular semesters (fall and spring) of the academic year, typically once per week in the evening. This is preferable for full-time faculty who teach in its courses and typically want the courses to be taught as part of their teaching load. This also works with school systems’ reimbursement schedules (e.g., for those that offer two courses per year worth of reimbursement to participants in system-supported programs). Recently, we have begun to blend the iSTEM PBC, mixing online with face-to-face instruction. Our goal: content courses will be one third online and two thirds face-to-face; the fifth course will be completely online; and the final practicum course will be half online and half face-to-face. This will reduce the frequency of participants’ visits to campus, focusing those face-to-face visits on hands-on, team-based experiences, and will encourage participants’ use of interactive technologies (e.g., uploading project-related video logs).


We conclude by sharing that the process of growing this program has been messy and non-linear. A more straightforward trajectory would have included knowing the parameters of the endorsement prior to creating a program that aimed to address it. Instead, these criteria arrived mid-way in our innovation process. Such is the case with design: sometimes the criteria or constraints change, and designers must respond accordingly. The (small) amount of seed money that we gratefully received from the MSDE aimed to spark the creative development of an iSTEM program for practicing PreK-6 teachers, something that had not been done before. Five years after receiving this award, we continue to improve and refine our program, and yes, we continue to innovate. Innovation is generative, exciting and frustrating, and for this program, has contributed to the growth of our iSTEM program graduates who – we believe – are prepared to lead students, teachers, and administrators in meaningful iSTEM learning experiences.

The Home Inquiry Project: Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Scientific Inquiry Journey


In the past two decades, there have been continued calls for elementary teachers to encourage children’s natural curiosity by providing opportunities for children to be actively engaged in various aspects of scientific inquiry including making observations, developing questions, performing investigations, collaborating with peers, and communicating evidence and findings (NGSS Lead, 2013; NRC, 2007; NSTA, 2002, 2012). The National Research Council’s utilization of the term ‘practices’ is aimed at providing a more comprehensive elucidation of “what is meant by ‘inquiry’ in science and the range of cognitive, social, and physical practices that it requires” (NRC, 2012, p.30). Engaging students in these scientific practices through experiential learning opportunities enables them to “to deepen their understanding of crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas” (NRC, 2012, p.217). Regrettably, the reality of science instruction in the early grades is contrary to the recommendations. In addition to the obstacle of lack of instructional time, elementary teachers’ own inadequate scientific knowledge, inaccurate beliefs about the nature and process of science, and negative attitude and low self-efficacy with respect to science and science teaching (Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Fulp, 2002; Keys & Watters, 2006; King, Shumow, & Lietz, 2001) are all major contributing factors accounting for the minimal and mediocre coverage of science witnessed in the early grades (Banilower, Smith, Weiss, Malzahn, Campbell, & Weiss, 2013).

Prior studies have indicated that elementary preservice teachers view science as a rigid and linear process, the scientific method model, that is solely focused on experimentation, proving or disproving hypotheses, and accumulating facts (Kazempour, 2013, 2014; Kazempour & Sadler 2015; Plevyak, 2007). Many in this group believe that scientists mainly work individually and isolated from their peers except to communicate their findings with the scientific community. Furthermore, they possess stereotypical images of scientists as mainly aging, white male figures, with lab coats, glasses, and other such features, whose work involves the use of beakers, Bunsen burners, microscopes, and chemicals to perform experiments and advance level research in their laboratories (Barman, 1997; Driver, Leach, Millar, & Scott, 1996; Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Moseley & Norris, 1999; Quita, 2003). Consequently, elementary preservice teachers typically view science as a tedious, irrelevant, and boring process that they find uninteresting and out of reach (Kazempour, 2013, 2014; Kazempour & Sadler 2015; Tosun, 2000)

As highlighted in a number of studies (e.g. Adams, Miller, Saul, & Pegg, 2014; Chichekian, Shore, & Yates, 2016; Kazempour & Sadler, 2015; Lewis, Dema, & Harshbarger, 2014), for many preservice teachers, particularly elementary preservice teachers, their beliefs about the process of scientific inquiry and the scientific community stems from their prior experiences with science, especially as part of their K-12 science education. Elementary preservice teachers often describe their previous experiences with science as inadequate, unmemorable, or negative (Kazempour, 2013). Their recollections of school science commonly include teacher-led lectures or whole-class discussions, heavy reliance on the textbook, infrequent labs and activities that were often completed to confirm ideas discussed by the text or the teacher, and, of course, fact-based tests that would often conclude their science chapters and units (Kazempour, 2013; Kazempour & Sadler2015)

Elementary preservice teachers’ prior K-12 encounters with science not only shapes their beliefs about science, but also significantly influence their attitude toward the subject and level of confidence in learning or teaching science (Appleton, 2006; Avery & Meyer, 2012; Hechter, 2011; Kelly, 2000; Tosun, 2000). According to the 2012 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, only 39% of elementary teachers indicate feeling “very prepared to teach science” in comparison to 81% in literacy and 77% in mathematics (Banilower, et al., p. 41). The combination of negative attitude and low self-efficacy with respect to science and science teaching often influence elementary teachers’ instructional practices; either avoiding science altogether or relying on brief, scripted, and text or worksheet focused strategies.

Achieving the goal of developing young children’s understanding of the scientific process will depend extensively on the type of educational experiences they encounter in the classroom. Hence, it is critical that teachers be provided transformative and reflective opportunities that lead to changes in their beliefs, attitudes, confidence, and ultimately their science instructional behaviors (Mullholland & Wallace, 2000). Elementary science content and methods courses which account for and address preservice teachers’ prior experiences, beliefs, and attitudes through alternative science experiences have been shown to lead to positive changes in these domains (Morrell & Carroll, 2003; Tosun, 2000). This article focuses on a project, the Home Inquiry Project, that I have implemented in my elementary science methods course so that preservice teachers have an opportunity to experience and be immersed in the process of scientific inquiry in order to gain a more accurate and complete understanding of the process.


The Home Inquiry Project is a component of the science methods course that I teach at one of the campuses of a large Northeastern university. The elementary teacher candidates enroll in the science methods course during the fall semester of their senior year in the program. They are concurrently enrolled in the social studies and mathematics methods courses and the two-day field experience in the local urban school district. Most of the students in the course are female, Caucasian students from either the small towns or urban cities in the approximately 50-mile radius of the campus. During the first two years of the program, they are required to enroll in three science content courses, one from each discipline of life, physical and earth science.

The Origins of the Project

The Home Inquiry Project originated from an idea I had come across in several articles dealing with engaging preservice teachers with their own authentic inquiry investigations as a component of their science content or methods course. However, the authentic experiences described in these examples only focused on the design and implementation of scientific investigations with emphasis on hypothesis testing and identification of variables. As Windschtill (2004) suggests, preservice teachers may still hold on to their longstanding views of science as the step-by-step and linear scientific method and that such investigation experiences may “do little more than confirm these beliefs through the course of investigative activity” (p. 485). In my methods courses, I introduce students to the cyclical and complex model of scientific inquiry as depicted in Figure 1. This model is comprehensive in that it encompasses the scientific practices emphasized by the NGSS, underscores the importance of community analysis and feedback, and emphasizes the interdependence of science, engineering, and technology, and the influence of science, engineering and technology on society and the natural world (NRC, 2012). Therefore, I wanted to design a project that would provide my students an experience which would more genuinely mimic this cyclical and more complex process of scientific inquiry, including the components of the process that typically receive less attention such as the connection of science to society, community feedback, role of serendipity and creativity in science. Since 2011, I have implemented the Home Inquiry Project in my methods courses and the impact on the preservice teachers’ views about and attitude toward science has been remarkable (Kazempour, in press).

Figure 1. (Click to Enlarge) Flow Chart Depicting the Process of Science. Source: The University of California Museum of Paleontology – Understanding Science – 

 Phase 1: Introducing the Project

The various components of the project are introduced in segments throughout the semester in order to better demonstrate the process of scientific inquiry. Students are given the initial instructions for the project early in the semester as soon as they are introduced to the scientific practices of developing questions and making observations. The initial prompt is simple and instructs them to choose one of the three options and generate questions and make observations for several consecutive days. The three options that students may choose from to focus their observations include the following:

Option 1: Daytime Sky

On a daily basis, observe the sky and record your observations. Try to do so at the same location. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you observe, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

Option 2: Nighttime Sky

On a nightly basis, observe the sky and record your observations. Try to do so at the same location. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you observe, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

Option 3: Field/Site

Pick a site (same location each day). It could be your backyard, a local park, on a beach, next to a pond, in a field, etc. On a daily basis, observe the area (choose a smaller area within that location to focus on if the location is too large) and record your observations. Include the date and time, location, a description of what you see, a drawing or a photo of what you see, questions you wonder about, etc.

During the next class session, they are introduced to different types of observations (qualitative vs. quantitative), inferences, and predictions, and are asked to extend their inquiry to include different types of observations, inferences, and predictions.

Phase 2: Initial Connection to Scientific Inquiry

During the following week, a segment of the class is devoted to discussing their initial observations, questions, and inferences as well as their thoughts on the process up to that point. The team and subsequent whole-class discussion prompts students to think about possible questions that they are interested in or ways they can extend their observations. For example, they point out that their initial observations were limited to what they could “see” and how after our discussion they were incorporating their sense of smell, hearing, and even touch. Some of them indicate during the first discussion session that they are already losing interest in what they were initially making observations of and have found themselves wondering about other things that they were noticing. For example, students who observe the daytime sky, often speak about becoming interested in the birds that flew by or the jet contrails they could observe in the sky. We discuss the fact that they can make observations of and ask questions about anything that interests them and are not confined to a particular aspect of the sky or the field.

During the next two class sessions, they are introduced to the scientific inquiry model through a number of collaborative activities, discussions, and the video, Science in Action: How Science Works, by California Academy of Sciences, about the accurate model of scientific inquiry and its connections to authentic scientific work. At this point, I have them work in small teams to discuss the components of the inquiry model they have already been involved with in the Home Inquiry Project and ways they could engage in more components. They are instructed to make another week’s worth of observation, as frequently as they deem necessary, and explore how they may want to extend or redirect their projects. We discuss the flexibility of the process and how they are not confined to the original options they had selected which were meant to simply provide them an initiation point.

Phase 3: Independent Explorations

During the next class session, after we briefly discuss their ongoing experiences and possible modifications in their project, I provide the final set of instructions for the project. They are instructed to continue with their projects in any way they wish to as long as they are engaged with the components of the scientific inquiry model. I explain that they can refine their investigations, continue gathering data, search the literature, reshuffle their project at any time, and so forth. Some may wish to gather evidence while others may want to restart with an entirely different question or simultaneously investigate several related questions. Similarly, some many want to explore societal connections of their topic or search the literature to expand their understanding of the concepts or issues they encounter. At this point, they are informed that the project will culminate in approximately six weeks with individual presentations of their projects during week 10 of the course.

Phase 4: Presentations and Reflections

Depending on class size, students are allotted approximately ten minutes to present their projects. Presentation must be in the form of narrated PowerPoint, narrated Prezi, or an iMovie or other format video. Regardless of the format, the presentations must address: (a) a thorough description of their journey, (b) connections to the process of scientific inquiry, and (c) implications for future teaching.

In describing their journey, students are instructed to explain what observations or questions they started with, how their questions may have evolved, evidence they gathered, transitions they made along the way, and any other aspect of their experience. They are reminded that each individual will have a different journey and that there is no “correct” path that they have to take during the project or explain during their presentation. As part of their descriptions they need to include photos, drawings, videoclips, charts, and other pieces of evidence that would aid in understanding their projects. Second, in describing their project, they are instructed to clearly make connections to and describe the specific components of the scientific inquiry process that they were engaged with throughout their project. Finally, students are asked to reflect on the implications of their experiences for their future classroom teaching. In doing so, they could either discuss their own specific projects or the Home Inquiry Project in general.

Reflecting on the Project

Each presentation is followed with a brief question and answer session where students can engage in conversations regarding specific questions they may have for each presenter or items they found interesting. Afterwards, the class engages in a reflective class discussion about the Home Inquiry Project, their experiences, and overall understanding of science that they gained from the experience. Students’ presentations and verbal comments during the reflection session suggest an overall positive perception of the project and an improved understanding of the process of scientific inquiry.

In the beginning of the semester when the project is first introduced, students continually ask about more specific instruction or check to make sure that they are “on the right track.” It is often strange for them how open ended the instructions are at first, but as we proceed through the project and they learn about the cyclical process of scientific inquiry and through continued in-class discussion and reflection they begin to recognize the rationale for the open-ended nature of the project as suggested in this student reflection except.

The first night I began my observations, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for.  I simply went outside and looked up at the sky.  I didn’t have any questions I was looking to answer.  As time progressed, a very natural curiosity began to develop. I initially began to wonder why I couldn’t always see this moon.  This soon expanded to ‘why can’t I see the moon OR stars on many nights?’

In their final reflections, students comment on the flexible nature of the project and how they felt interested in what they were investigating and motivated to do the project because they chose the path rather than being dictated what to do. Furthermore, they comment on the improvement in their observation and questioning skills and how they find themselves asking questions and making observations more routinely throughout their daily lives and how they are increasingly aware of their surroundings.

The actual experience of being involved in the process of going back and forth between the various components, such as tweaking questions, searching in the literature, making additional observations, and communicating and collaborating with their peers, allows them to notice the resemblance of the process to the fluid nature of scientific inquiry as opposed to the scientific method model.

I have found that the skills developed through science inquiry are skills that are essential in everyday life. There is value in understanding the “why” and “how” in unfolding events. These skills are vastly different from the traditional scientific method, where conclusions are based on the accumulation of facts. Creative thinking and problem solving skills innately develop from the nature of the process found in scientific inquiry.

What is exciting about the inquiry learning is the unknown direction that it will take you. I never thought staring at the night sky could lead me to learn about the different spectrums of light.

Their experiences not only allow them to utilize scientific practices and witness the fluid and iterative nature of scientific inquiry, but it also allows them to better experience and understand cross cutting concepts (NRC, 2012) such as patterns, stability and change, cause and effect, similarity, and diversity.

Finally, they reflect on the numerous implications of the project for their future teaching. Some indicate how a similar project could be done with their own students by asking students to perform similar explorations in their backyards or location of their choice. Teaching in an urban area, they recognize the flexibility of the project in allowing students to focus on even the simple things in their surroundings. They also discuss, as suggested in the excerpts below, the importance of being able to utilize their improved understanding of science in more accurately depicting the scientific process in their science lessons and units.

This experience will follow me into my future classroom and into my future science lesson plans. Inquiry based learning will not only be a part of my science curriculum but also a majority of other subjects with incorporating interdisciplinary objectives.

In my future teaching, I want to help my students feel the way I have come to feel about science.  I realize now that science is more about the journey you take. Finding answers or possibilities (or maybe nothing at all!) are just the end products of that process.

I learned it does not take much to find something amazing relating to science.  I don’t think this is specific to the area we live in but I do think there are so many resources in this area that could be utilized by an elementary class to extend science learning to the outside world.  There are waterways, nature trails, ample wildlife, even their own backyards, etc. The options are endless for relating lessons in the classroom to locations very close to the school.


Authentic experiences, such as the Home Inquiry Project, which immerse preservice teachers in the various aspects of the process of scientific inquiry have the potential to influence preservice teachers’ understanding of science as well as their attitude and confidence toward doing and teaching science. If the ultimate goal is the development of scientific literacy through engaging K-12 students, particularly those in the early grades, in authentic inquiry experiences, then we need to better prepare the teacher population that will be responsible for implementing this type of instruction in the classroom. Elementary teachers will continue to either avoid teaching science altogether or do so in a superficial, test preparation and coverage-focused manner that does not accurately depict the reality of the scientific process unless science content and methods courses begin to actively engage them in these forms of inquiry and reflective practice.