Science Units of Study with a Language Lens: Preparing Teachers for Diverse Classrooms

Introduction

In science classrooms spanning urban, suburban, and rural regions, students enter with ever diversifying cultural and linguistic backgrounds (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2010). In the context of the United States, 20% of students speak a language other than English at home, with half of these students considered English learners (ELs) due to still-developing English proficiency as measured by standardized tests of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (Linquanti & Cook, 2013; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015). Despite the benefits of linguistic diversity in schools, these demographic shifts provide unique challenges for science teachers, who typically mediate students’ scientific learning, understanding, and achievement using the English language (Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013). To ensure that students have equitable access to science content, teachers must consider and account for language in their daily classroom instruction (Heineke & McTighe, 2018).

Concurrent to the diversification of schools, science education as a field has embraced a vision of students learning and doing science through language-rich scientific and engineering practices, as evidenced by the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council [NRC], 2013) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Indeed, the shift to the NGSS has resulted in instructional foci on science and engineering practices that simultaneously involve both scientific sense-making and language use (e.g., asking questions, constructing explanations, communicating information; Quinn, Lee, & Valdés, 2010). The resulting practice-oriented classroom thus serves as a rich language-learning and science-learning setting where science teachers are not perceived as language teachers but rather “supporters of the language learning that occurs in a content-rich and discourse-rich classroom environment” (Quinn et al., 2010, p. 1). Since the shift to the NGSS, scholars have indicated that explicit emphasis on language development is indicative of high-quality science instruction that effectively supports all students’ learning, including ELs (e.g., Lee, Llosa, Jiang, Haas, O’Connor, & Van Boonem, 2016; Maerten, Rivera, Ahn, Lanier, Diaz, & Lee, 2016; Zwiep & Straits, 2013). But achieving this practice requires concomitant teacher education that prepares science teachers to integrate language in instructional design and implementation (e.g., Stoddart, Solís, Tolbert, & Bravo, 2010; Tolbert, Stoddart, Lyon, & Solís, 2014).

Seeking to respond to the diversifying student population and changing educational policy context of teaching content and language in disciplinary classrooms, we have added a language lens to Understanding by Design® framework that already supports the design of effective instruction in thousands of schools across the country and world. Understanding by Design (UbD) prompts educators to design rigorous and authentic instruction that deepens students’ learning and understanding by beginning with the end in mind (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Curriculum designers progress through stages of instructional design – defining learning goals in Stage 1, designing assessments in Stage 2, and planning instruction in Stage 3 – as a means to promote meaningful learning that transfers to contexts beyond the classroom. In this article, we introduce the UbD framework with a language lens in the context of science teacher education. We (a) sketch the components of UbD with a language lens, (b) detail the integration of this approach to prepare teachers, (c) introduce the learning and application of two science teachers, and (d) share recommendations for implementation in science teacher education.

Backward Design for Learning and Language Development

UbD with a language lens uses the existing design framework, but adds a language lens using principles of culturally and linguistically responsive practice to prioritize diverse students while planning instruction that mediates the disciplinary learning and language development of all students (Heineke & McTighe, 2018). In this way, we begin with students, embracing and responding to their unique backgrounds, abilities, strengths, and needs. Grounded in culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2010) and linguistically responsive teaching (Lucas, Villegas, & Freedson-González, 2008), the pre-planning component centers on getting to know learners to prompt dynamic instructional design that taps into students’ background knowledge and experiences, including language backgrounds and proficiencies. Reflecting the foundational basis of responsive and rigorous science instruction, practitioners need to recognize the diversity of students, including students’ language backgrounds, cultural background knowledge, and previous science learning and experiences. In this way, pre-planning involves amassing and analyzing data on students, including formal data (e.g., cumulative files, standardized test scores) and anecdotal data (e.g., observations, conversations).

Following pre-planning, Stage 1 begins with the end in mind by prompting educators to identify the desired results of the unit, including goals for transfer, meaning, and acquisition. Based on established goals (i.e., NGSS), transfer goals prompt students to transfer and use scientific learning beyond focal units of study, meaning goals involve students grappling with essential questions to build deep understandings about scientific concepts, principles, and processes, and acquisition goals focus on related knowledge and skills, which serve as building blocks to achieve larger transfer and meaning goals.

When adding the language lens to Stage 1, we maintain the rigor of scientific learning goals, which promotes the high expectations for all students at the heart of this approach. But science prompts complex and nuanced uses of language, including discipline-specific words, phrases, sentence structures, and text features (see Table 1). In this way, while upholding the high expectations for all students’ disciplinary learning, we want to explicitly target the development of pertinent scientific language, which fosters students’ academic language development and ensures equitable access to content. To accomplish this in instructional design, we (a) analyze the complex and demanding language that students need to achieve the unit’s transfer and meaning goals and (b) target the development of that language by writing objectives focused on language functions (e.g., analyze, critique) and language features (e.g., vocabulary, sentence structures, text features), as well as involving multiple language domains (i.e., listening, speaking, reading, writing; see Heineke & McTighe, 2018 for more information).

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Examples of Language Designs in Science

Stage 2 of UbD centers on designing assessments for students to demonstrate progress toward the unit goals defined in Stage 1. The focal point of unit assessments, performance tasks prompt students to engage in authentic situations that require transfer of scientific learning to real-world problems and practices. As a part of these experiences, students take on particular roles (e.g., scientist, meteorologist, engineer) and use understandings of scientific concepts and processes in simulated situations aligned to the unit’s learning goals. In addition to performance tasks, supplementary evidence involves students demonstrating learning across units via various measures (e.g., tests, quizzes, academic prompts; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

When adding the language lens on Stage 2, the goal is to design and integrate assessments that (a) capture data on both scientific learning and language development, and (b) provide equitable access for all students to demonstrate understanding (Heineke & McTighe, 2018). In this way, units should include performance tasks that are language-rich, culturally responsive, and linguistically accessible. When designed for authenticity, scientific performance tasks are naturally language-rich, as students interact with peers to discuss and solve problems (i.e., listening, speaking), as well as research and share findings via presentations, proposals, dioramas, or other products (i.e., reading, writing). To ensure all students can actively participate, tasks should (b) be culturally relevant to engage learners and not require prerequisite background knowledge, and (b) have linguistic scaffolds to ensure all students can contribute and demonstrate progress regardless of language background or proficiency. In addition to performance tasks, supplementary assessments are integrated to holistically capture students’ abilities, strengths, and needs in both science and language learning.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
GRASPS Task Framework with Language Lens

In Stage 3 of UbD, teachers design learning plans that authentically facilitate student learning and understanding as aligned to Stage 1 goals and Stage 2 assessments. This includes the learning plan, which involves hands-on experiences with real-world application and differentiation based on students’ backgrounds, abilities, and needs, as well as formative assessment embedded in instruction to glean students’ learning across the unit of study. When adding the language lens to Stage 3, we strategically plan instruction to achieve unit goals, including those for disciplinary language development, while responding to the unique and diverse needs of students (Heineke & McTighe, 2018). When planning the learning trajectory of science units, the language lens prompts consideration and purposeful integration of (a) students’ cultural and linguistic background knowledge, (b) collaborative, cognitively demanding tasks that involve listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English and students’ home languages, (c) complex texts that are culturally relevant and linguistically accessible, and (d) differentiated scaffolds and supports based on students’ language backgrounds, proficiency levels, and learning preferences (Herrera, 2016; Walqui & vanLier, 2010).

Preparing Teachers for Backward Design with a Language Lens

In addition to serving as a template to design instruction for K-12 students, UbD with a language lens provides teacher educators with an approach to prepare teachers to support diverse students’ language development in science instruction. In this section, we share ways to tackle this work with teachers in training, including in-class activities and resources for building the language lens on instructional design (for more detailed information, see Heineke, Papola-Ellis, Davin, & Cohen, 2018a).

Introducing science teachers to UbD with a language lens begins with buy-in. Science teachers are typically prepared as content experts with the pedagogical content knowledge to mediate students’ scientific learning (Shulman, 1986). Because of the very nature of schools, where English as a Second Language (ESL) and English Language Arts teachers maintain the primary responsibility for teaching language, science teachers might need convincing of their role in supporting students’ language development. We have found the most poignant way to achieve buy-in is having teachers begin by exploring data related to students’ linguistic diversity. When looking at formal data like home language surveys and English proficiency scores (e.g., ACCESS), teachers recognize students’ diverse backgrounds and proficiency levels. We then have them probe the multi-faceted nature of individual learners by collecting formal and anecdotal data on students’ background knowledge, cognitive strategies, language preferences, and scientific knowledge and self-efficacy (Collier & Thomas, 2007; Herrera, 2016). Our goal is for teachers to recognize diversity, paired with the need to maintain high expectations for all.

In Stage 1, we center efforts on deconstructing teachers’ and candidates’ linguistic blind spots. Science teachers are experts within particular disciplines, such as physics, chemistry, or biology, and in the context of the United States, many are also native English speakers. Taken together, teachers may not recognize the demanding, discipline-specific language that students need to access and engage in learning and understanding. To develop teachers’ understandings through empathy, we begin by simulating what students might experience linguistically in the science classroom, asking teachers to read highly complex articles from peer-reviewed journals (e.g., Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data) and use them to engage in a particular task (e.g., making a scientific argument using text-based evidence). We then provide specific tools and examples of disciplinary language demands to help teachers uncover linguistic blind spots, such as WIDA’s framework (2012) for academic language at word, sentence, and discourse levels, WestEd’s detailed taxonomy of academic language functions (AACCW, 2010), and Understanding Language’s overview of NGSS language demands (Quinn et al., 2010). Finally, after building empathy and awareness for the language lens in science teaching and learning, we move into analyzing unit-specific language demands and selecting those that are important, aligned, prevalent, and versatile to scientific content to then draft language-focused objectives.

In Stage 2, we want to teachers to embrace the value of performance tasks in promoting and measuring learning, understanding, and language development (Heineke & McTighe, 2018; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). This begins by getting teachers to critically evaluate the traditional testing tools that may dominate their current repertoires. We use actual assessments, such as a summative paper-and-pencil test for a unit provided in the science textbook, to analyze for cultural and linguistic biases based on pre-planning data. Once biases are determined, we discuss the need to assess students’ scientific knowledge and skills without requiring a set level of language proficiency or privileging any particular cultural background knowledge. This then springboards into the exploration of performance tasks as the preferred approach to unit assessment, specifically probing ideas within three language-rich categories (i.e., oral, written, displayed). We then use the GRASPS framework with a lens on language (Heineke & McTighe, 2018; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) for teachers to design performance tasks that align with students’ cultural background knowledge and scaffold access based on learners’ language proficiency (see Table 2). We then use WIDA tools to determine developmentally appropriate language functions (i.e., Can-do descriptors; WIDA, 2016) and integrate authentic scaffolds (i.e., graphic, sensory, interactive; WIDA, 2007) to provide students’ equitable access to participate in the performance task.

For Stage 3, we want to build from what educators already know, such as inquiry-based science activities or EL-specific instructional strategies. In our experience working with teachers and candidates, this facet may be familiar based on previous coursework or professional preparation. The key is emphasizing not using a strategy for strategy’s sake, but selecting, organizing, and aligning instructional events and materials based on pre-planning data, Stage 1 goals, and Stage 2 assessments. Flexible based on the professional expertise and experience of the participants, adding a language lens to this stage centers on educators exploring the above facets (e.g., background knowledge, collaborative tasks, complex and relevant texts, differentiated supports) with the primary aim to build awareness of available approaches and resources that can enhance their current pedagogy and practice as science teachers (e.g., bilingual resources, amplification of complex texts). In addition to providing the space to explore high-quality, language-rich approaches and resources for various scientific disciplines, we model how to apply and integrate tools that align to the learning goals of instructional units of study.

The Language Lens in Action: A Closer Look at Two Science Teachers

Let’s exemplify this approach by looking at the instructional design work of two focal science teachers, who participated in a grant-funded professional development series on UbD with a language lens (see Heineke et al., 2018a, 2018b). Using the activities and resources detailed above, these teachers collaborated with colleagues across grades and disciplines to learn about UbD with a language lens and apply learning to their science classrooms.

Bridget, Elementary Science Teacher

Bridget was a sixth-grade science teacher at Wiley Elementary School, a K-6 elementary school with 1200 students in the urban Midwest. With the support of her assistant principal, she secured data to understand the culturally and linguistically diverse student population, including home language surveys and language proficiency tests (i.e., ACCESS). By exploring these data, Bridget learned that the majority of Wiley students spoke another language and approximately 45% of students were formally labeled as ELs. She was not surprised to see that Spanish was the majority language spoken by families, followed by Arabic, but learned about the rich array of linguistic diversity in the community with languages including French, Urdu, Tagalog, Bosnian, Hindi, Bengali, Farsi, Yoruba, Serbian, Romanian, Malay, Gujarati, Korean, Mongolian, and Burmese. Bridget also discerned that 50 of her 54 sixth graders used another language at home, including 10 labeled as ELs with 5 dual-labeled as having special needs.

Bridget chose to work on the first science unit of the school year on space systems, which merged science, engineering, and mathematics principles with the goal for sixth graders to use data and models to understand systems and relationships in the natural world. Per the suggestion of the instructor, she brought a previous unit draft to apply her evolving understandings of UbD with a language lens. Having already deconstructed her expert blind spot to flesh out the conceptual understandings pertinent to science standards and transfer goals, she considered her linguistic blind spot with the support of the instructor and other science educators. Bridget found having examples of science language demands (see Table 1) to be helpful in this process, using the categories and types of word-, sentence-, and discourse-level demands to analyze the disciplinary language her students needed to reach Stage 1 goals, including vocabulary (e.g., gravitational pull), nominalization (e.g., illuminate/illumination), idioms (e.g., everything under the sun), sentence structures (e.g., compare/contrast), and informational text features (e.g., diagrams). After pinpointing these knowledge indicators, she used data on her students’ language proficiency to draft skill indicators with attention to particular language functions (e.g., explain, compare) and domains (e.g., reading, writing).

After adding specific knowledge and skill indicators for language development in Stage 1, Bridget then shifted her attention to Stage 2 assessments. Following exploration of a multitude of language-rich performance task options, including those that prioritize oral, written, and displayed language (Heineke & McTighe, 2018), she decided to redesign her primary unit assessment using the GRASPS framework with a language lens (see Table 2). The resultant Mars Rover Team task (see supplemental unit) aimed to engage her sixth graders in authentic and collaborative practice with components strategically designed to promote disciplinary language use across domains (e.g., listening and speaking in teams, reading data tables, writing presentations) and scaffold for students’ language proficiency (e.g., drawings, technology, small groups). She planned to evaluate the resultant tasks for precise disciplinary language, including the vocabulary, nominalization, and other language features pinpointed in Stage 1 goals. In addition to the performance task, Bridget also added the collection of supplemental evidence to the unit of study, specifically aiming to collect and evaluate data on students’ scientific language development via journal prompts, personal glossaries, and resultant artifacts.

The final facet of the professional development focused on Stage 3, where Bridget revised the unit’s learning plan to target demanding disciplinary language, integrate students’ cultural backgrounds, and differentiate for multiple language proficiencies. Having embraced an inquiry-based approach to teaching science, she already had frequent opportunities for students to collaboratively engage in hands-on exploration and application of scientific concepts. By participating in language-focused professional development, she enriched students’ inquiry by adding opportunities for them to use their home languages as resources for learning, as well as tap into culturally specific background knowledge. For example, she modified her use of space mission notebooks to include personal glossaries for students to document pertinent scientific language, including translations into their home languages. Bridget also sought out and incorporated complex and culturally relevant texts, such as space-related myths, legends, and folktales from students’ countries of origin in Asia, Africa, and South America. Designed with her unique and diverse students in mind, the Stage 3 learning plan outlined her instructional trajectory for students to successfully achieve unit goals.

Jillian, Secondary Science Teacher

Jillian was a science teacher at Truman High School, a neighborhood public high school situated in a vibrantly diverse community in the urban Midwest. She began by exploring the rich diversity of her workplace, learning that 80% of the 1350 students use a language other than English home, representing 35 different languages. Spanish was the primary home language spoken, and 75% of the student body identifies as Latina/o, but from countries spanning North, South, and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. Jillian also discovered that of that larger group of bilingual students, 25% are labeled as ELs, spanning a range of proficiency levels across language domains and including both newcomers to the United States and long-term ELs who have enrolled in neighborhood schools since the primary grades.

Jillian decided to focus on a weather and climate unit previously drafted for her earth and space science class. Working with other secondary teachers and using graphic organizers of academic language functions (AACCW, 2010) and features (WIDA, 2012), Jillian analyzed the unit’s transfer and meaning goals for language demands. She noted that her students would need to (a) interpret scientific evidence requiring diverse text features like maps, graphs, and charts, (b) describe weather using words that may be familiar from other contexts (e.g., humidity, temperature), (c) compare climates between local and global settings using distinct measurement systems (i.e., Fahrenheit, Celsius). From that analysis, she pinpointed the linguistic knowledge that her students would need to develop to access the larger learning goals, including weather-based text features and vocabulary terms and comparative sentence structures. She then refined skill indicators to target her students’ language development simultaneous to content, including analyzing weather-related data, interpreting weather patterns, and comparing climates. In this way, Jillian maintained the rigor of scientific learning while adding a lens on disciplinary language development to the Stage 1 goals.

Jillian wanted to design a performance task aligned to unit goals. After analyzing the paper-and-pencil test used by the previous earth science teacher, she realized the need to design an authentic, language-rich task that actively engaged her students in listening, speaking, reading, and writing focused on the disciplinary topics of weather and climate. Reflecting the instructor’s consistent messaging regarding responsive practice, she aimed to tap into her students’ rich sources of background knowledge, including their various global experiences and multilingual backgrounds. Using the GRASPS framework, she drafted a performance task where learners take on roles as potential weather reporters who use multiple sources of evidence to describe how weather affects human life around the globe. Students needed to use disciplinary language (in English and home languages) to compare and contrast how weather and climate influenced one facet of human life in various contexts. To ensure she had data to measure progress toward all Stage 1 goals, Jillian integrated opportunities to collect supplementary evidence throughout the unit.

After refining her goals and assessments with a language lens, Jillian wanted a learning plan that was rigorous, engaging, and interesting for her diverse students. Based on pre-planning data, she wove in students’ cultural and linguistic background knowledge. She began with a context-specific hook, prompting students to compare their city with other locations they had lived or traveled, and continued this strand by using global inquiry teams to analyze weather by continent and expert groups based on learners’ various countries of origin. Jillian then used approaches and resources explored during workshops to attend to disciplinary language, including consistent teacher modeling and student application with strategic scaffolds, such as sentence frames and graphic organizers. Having used the UbD template throughout the process of learning and applying the language lens, she completed a unit with a consistent and deliberate lens on scientific language. In this way, Jillian strategically designed experiences to support learners in reaching unit goals for learning and language development.

Conclusions & Recommendations

UbD with a language lens aims to provide all students with equitable access to rigorous learning and language development (Heineke & McTighe, 2018). By adding a language lens to the widely used UbD framework, educators learn to maintain the rigor of science teaching and learning while attending to disciplinary language demands (Heineke & McTighe, 2018; Lee et al., 2013). This timely innovation in science teacher education corresponds with current policy initiatives in K-12 schools and universities, including the NGSS that emphasize language-rich scientific and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013) and the Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) that prioritizes academic language embedded in content instruction (SCALE, 2018). In line with these broad policy shifts that bolster the role of language in science teaching and learning, this framework can be used with K-12 in-service and pre-service teachers, whether approached through professional development or university coursework.

Application in Practice

We originally designed and implemented this approach through a grant-funded, professional development project with in-service teachers working in 32 public schools in the urban Midwest, which included Bridget, Jillian, and other teachers spanning elementary, middle, and high schools in culturally and linguistically diverse communities (see Heineke et al., 2018a for more details on the project). Findings indicated that teachers, as well as participating school and district leaders, developed awareness and knowledge of discipline-specific language development, pedagogical skills to effectively integrate language in content instruction, and leadership abilities to shape implementation in their unique educational settings (Heineke et al., 2018b). By integrating the language lens into the existing UbD template, of which they were already familiar and comfortable in using, teachers embraced language development as a part of their regular teaching repertoires, rather than an add-on initiative.

We are currently integrating this approach into a university pre-service teacher education program, and our preliminary work indicates close alignment between the edTPA and UbD with a language lens. Of the many rubrics that are used to assess teacher candidates on the edTPA, over half directly relate to the components of the approach shared above, including planning for content understandings, knowledge of students, supporting academic language development, planning assessment, analyzing student learning, analyzing students’ academic language understanding and use, and use of assessment to inform instruction (SCALE, 2018). In addition to our previous research with in-service teachers, we plan to collect data on the implementation of UbD with a language lens with pre-service teachers, investigating how the approach and related professional learning experiences facilitate understandings, knowledge, skills, and dispositions for supporting language development in the science classroom.

Suggestions for Implementation

Based on our experiences in designing and implementing this approach, we have suggestions for science teacher educators who endeavor to prepare teachers and candidates for instructional design with a language lens. First, use the UbD template as a common tool to mediate both learning and application, adding the language lens to what educators already know and understand as sound instructional design (see Heineke & McTighe, 2018 as a potential resource to mediate teachers’ learning). Next, utilize the expertise of the educators themselves and build capacity more broadly across schools and programs, prompt collaborative learning and application in science-specific groups of teachers and candidates, as well as more diverse conglomerations of educators to promote co-planning and co-teaching with ESL, special education, or STEM teachers (see Heineke et al., 2018a). Finally, to avoid the conceptualization of language as an add-on initiative, integrate the language lens into science methods coursework and professional development for teacher candidates and teachers, respectively.

When approaching this professional learning in either coursework or professional development, we recommend expending ample efforts to initially build the needed buy-in that science teachers indeed play a role in supporting students’ language development. Since the educational institution has long maintained silos that separate language and content, those need to be broken down for educators to embrace learning and application to practice. Awareness of the role of the language in scientific learning can support these efforts, which can be effectively developed via simulations that build educators’ empathy for students’ interaction with discipline-specific language. When teachers are put in the position of students, such as needing to maneuver complex journal articles, they begin to recognize the need to attend to language in science teaching. Finally, emphasize the importance of students’ assets and teachers’ high expectations. The purpose of the language lens is not to reduce rigor in the science classroom, but rather to enhance instruction and provide equitable access for all learners.

The Great Ice Investigation: Preparing Pre-Service Elementary Teachers for a Sensemaking Approach of Science Instruction

Introduction

Many elementary science classrooms have not yet transitioned teaching and learning to meet the expectations of Next Generation Science Standards [NGSS] (NGSS Lead States, 2013). Due to this predicament, science teacher educators will remain responsible for initially preparing pre-service science teachers [PSTs] during this transition period. The NGSS represent a contrasting view of science instruction to the vision most PSTs have likely experienced in the past, which will make the transition all the more challenging. In order to help the PSTs in my elementary science methods course, I developed a series of lessons aligned with the guiding assumptions of the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research Council [NRC], 2012) to help overcome potentially counterproductive beliefs that may stem from my students’ past experiences in science classrooms. The current article describes the sequence of lessons, readings, and resources I have used to begin my science methods course with the aim being to help the PSTs I work with to view NGSS-aligned instruction as primarily about student sensemaking. Additionally, the article highlights the alignment of assessment design with classroom instruction and also emphasizes multi-dimensional science learning by targeting applicable scientific practices (e.g. Asking Questions; NRC, 2012). In general, the series of experiences takes roughly three weeks, given each class lasts at least two hours. Additionally, the sequence of lessons introduces my students to multi-dimensional, NGSS-aligned science instruction with a particular focus on the practices of science.

Drawing Out Past Learning Experiences

Prior to the first class, I require students to watch a recent video from PBS News Hour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/in-elementary-education-doing-science-rather-than-just-memorizing-it/) that introduces students to the NGSS by detailing how teachers in Wyoming have been transitioning to the new standards. In brief, the news clip helps students understand change is on the horizon across the country and that for most teachers, the science and engineering practices [SEPs] of the NGSS represent a major driver of that change. In addition to discussing the video during the first class, I ask students to draw a positive science learning experience from their past using the following prompts adapted from Van Zee and Roberts (2001): (1) Think about some of the better experiences you have had as a science learner. Please choose and draw a picture of this experience in the space below. Include a caption for your picture. (2) What factors were important in fostering science learning for you in this instance? (3) What experience(s), knowledge, and interest(s) did you bring into this example that may have contributed to it being a positive experience? Asking students to draw and reflect on a positive experience enables us to begin discussing instructional practices and teacher moves that contributed to making the experience memorable.

After students individually complete their drawing, they partner up in small groups to share and compare their drawings. From here each group creates a large white-board presentation that overviews the group’s positive science learning experiences. Eventually, we all view each group’s poster during a whole-class “gallery walk”. Most students’ past “positive” experiences include the phrases “hands-on” and “engaging”. Additionally, their drawings depict field trips, dissections, explosions (c.f. Figure 1), and challenge-based competitions. After calling the class back together and prompting them to reflect on the frequency of these experiences most acknowledge how infrequent such experiences occurred. With students now thinking they might have missed out on the real value and purpose of K-12 science education, I promise them that by the end of this course they will have a newfound vision of what a positive science learning experience could and should be.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Example positive science learning experience depicting an explosion.

 

Eliciting Initial Ideas

Starting off the Great Ice Investigation is a phenomenon-based lesson adapted from the Exploratorium. The lesson (titled Inverted Bottleshttps://www.exploratorium.edu/snacks/inverted-bottles) is relatively simple to set up and elicits student thinking directly aligned with the forthcoming experiences. During the lesson, I prompt students to first predict the outcome of placing two glass bottles without caps, one with warm water (colored red with food coloring) and one with cold water (colored blue with food coloring), opening-to-opening with the warm-water bottle being placed on top of the cold-water bottle. Students commonly predict the warm water will remain on top of the cold, but cannot provide evidence beyond memorized facts such as warm things are lighter. After making their predictions, I then ask students to write down and draw what they observe happens. After the warm, red-colored water remains in its original bottle (on top), they respond to the prompt: Explanation – What do you think caused this to happen? Students then share their responses with an “elbow partner” prior to moving on. With the alternative set-up ready (cold water on top), we again follow the same sequence of prompts. From here, I continue to elicit and record students’ ideas as we try to make sense of the phenomenon just witnessed. During this time, I make sure not to validate any ideas as correct or incorrect while also asking various probing questions that might enable me to better understand their initial, prior conceptions (e.g. What makes you think that? Where did you get that idea from? When you use that word, what do you mean?).

Using a Discrepant Event to Develop a Testable Question

From here, I continue to engage students in a related phenomenon, but this time for a different purpose. I begin by briefly discussing the role of observations and questions in scientific inquiry and mention a quote from a former mentor that leads us into our next sensemaking event (Science is a search for patterns.). Each pair of students is provided with two 250ml plastic beakers. From here, they are introduced to the remaining materials: room temperature tap/salt water and ice cubes. Pairs of PSTs are prompted to first predict which liquid (salt or tap water) will melt a relatively similar sized ice cube first. During the observation period (~5 minutes), they need to time and record written observations (including simple drawings) in their science notebooks as each ice cube simultaneously melts in two different beakers of water. While this is happening, I circulate around the classroom asking students which beaker will melt the ice cube first as they watch this slow-moving “race”. Additionally, I ask students to explain the reasoning behind their predictions. Approximately 75% of students predict the ice cube in salt water will melt the ice cube first, which they typically explain is based on their past experiences melting ice in the winter with “sidewalk salt”. After each and every ice cube melts faster in the tap water beaker, we discuss the “results” of our simple investigation. Most are surprised the saltwater solution failed to melt the ice cube faster and oftentimes I am asked if I have deceived them somehow. I reiterate I have not and then suggest we use this experience to develop simple, testable questions that we can try and answer with yet another investigation.

As Reiser et al. (2017) suggest, in an NGSS-aligned classroom students need to raise phenomenon-driven questions in order to move a given inquiry forward. Additionally, Reiser et al. (2017) note, teachers will “need to probe and help students refine their questions to expand on things they take for granted and to help them see that there is something there that they can’t explain” (p. 93). I therefore provide students with the following sentence frames: “I wonder why…”, “What would happen if…”, “Next time if…” to encourage wonder and spur continued investigation. From here, each pair is prompted to complete a handout with the following prompts” (1) Testable Question(s) (2) What sparked your interest in pursuing this? (3) Proposed Needed Materials (bulleted list/number requested). I do not provide students with specifics guidelines quite yet for writing their testable question because few have had prior experiences actually setting up dependent/independent/control variables. Typically, students pose a variety of related, yet slightly different questions to pursue. For example, students often ask questions related to the amount of water in the beaker, the temperature of the water, the make-up of the ice cube (i.e. salt water or tap water), the position of the ice cube in the beaker, or the use of liquids other than water (e.g. milk). Each and every question is eventually “approved”, given students have not requested materials I do not have readily available or that they are willing to provide themselves. I then let students know we will run their investigation during the next class and I will bring in the materials requested to do so.

Between Class Readings

Before the next class I assign two readings. The first (titled: Why Teach Science? What Science Should We Teach?; Harlen, 2015) is the introductory chapter to the assigned book for the course. Without describing the contents of the chapter in too much detail, in brief it provides students with three case studies portraying science instruction that aligns with the following features of effective science teaching: (1) Student Engagement (2) Materials for Investigation (3) Linking to Preexisting Ideas (4) Student Talk (5) Developing Inquiry Skills (5) Planning (Harlen, 2015). Additionally, I use a Web 2.0 tool (https://flipgrid.com/) – wherein students record video responses to each of the following prompts (with responses lasting no longer than 90 seconds):

(1) How does the view of science learning for young children match or contradict your own science experiences as a learner? Use specific examples from your life and specific ideas/examples from the reading…

(2) What challenges do you envision for yourself in creating a learning environment that aligns with the view of science learning put forth in chapter 1? What excites or frightens you about creating a learning environment of this nature?

Finally, I provide a response to each student’s video and also encourage peer-to-peer responses. In sum, I am more prepared to respond to my students’ needs after listening to their responses to these prompts because it elicits their previous experiences as science learners, which they compare to the ideas presented in the reading as well as a peer’s video responses.

The second reading details the purpose of Disciplinary Core Ideas [DCIs] (Duncan, Krajcik, & Rivet, 2015), which is a phrase most are unfamiliar with given the newness of the NGSS. Again, in brief, the reading details why DCIs are included in the NGSS and also describes how DCIs should be used in combination with other dimensions of the standards. Each of these readings and short “homework” prompts (via Flipgrid) help my PSTs envision how science learning could and should be implemented in elementary classrooms.

Running the Great Ice Investigation

Prior to class I re-type every investigation question (as originally written) students previously generated. I number groups of students off and assign them three or so other group’s questions to examine. I prompt students to determine what each group is suggesting will be changed in their investigation, what will be measured, and what will be maintained (within reason) or controlled. Afterwards, we discuss how in order for each question to be testable it should contain an independent and dependent variable. After clarifying the difference between the two most groups quickly recognize if their question needs to be adjusted. For example, oftentimes students generate questions that contain multiple independent variables (e.g. type of liquid and temperature). Given the right type of support, students usually move on rather quickly once they recognize only one variable can be changed during their investigation.

From here, each group is introduced to the concept of a scientific hypothesis, which most believe is an educated guess. I suggest a hypothesis more likely represents an idea that can be tested, rather a mere guess. As an example, again, a group of students may be interested to find out if increasing the salt contents of multiple water solutions will gradually decrease the melting time that elapses – given the results of the first investigation. Some students better understand the purpose of a hypothesis after I introduce them to a “null hypothesis”. Briefly stated, if data from this hypothetical investigation uncovered that the melting rate remained constant despite the increased amounts of salt added to each solution then the null hypothesis would be supported. After students have adjusted their question, written a hypothesis, and prior to running their investigations, they must write out the steps of their soon to be conducted investigation. Providing students with hot water is the main safety concern when running the investigation. Aside from this, minimal concerns should arise given the parameters of the investigation.

Once each group has completed collecting their data, each group shares out their results, which we record for all to see. Student groups report out their independent variable (e.g. sugar in solution) and final results. At this point I want to ensure everyone begins to realize we all investigated the same phenomenon, and that our separate inquiries could be useful for making sense of the inverted bottles demonstration we discussed last week.

Bringing Density into the Discussion

From here, and in order to connect our in-class investigations with a related, real-world phenomenon, we start thinking more broadly about ocean water movement and its influence on global weather patterns (NRC, 2012). We therefore need to discuss water density and its impacts on the global cycle of water in the oceans. In order to understand how water density influences this large-scale phenomenon, you must first understand how variations in salinity and temperature influence the movement of water around the globe. However, and in line with Bybee’s (2014) suggestion to infuse learning experiences driven by the NGSS with the “5E Learning Cycle” (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate), I had not yet prompted my students to think about water density when initially carrying out their first investigation. Instead, I first engaged my students by introducing them to multiple phenomenon-driven, discrepant events (i.e. inverted bottles), which directed our inquiries towards exploring the phenomenon more purposefully (i.e. The Great Ice Investigation). After completing the first two “E’s”, we move forward to the explain phase of the learning cycle.

Even though my PSTs will be elementary teachers, I target a middle school Performance Expectation [PE] (Disciplinary Core Idea/MS-ESS2-6: Variations in density due to variations in temperature and salinity drive a global pattern of interconnected ocean currents.) because they are adult learners and also because the complexity of many PEs jumps significantly in middle school. Next, I gather students around in a circle and pass out two different “density cubes” to each group. Each homogenous cube is identical in size (1” by 1”), but made up of a different material (e.g. PVC, pine, oak, steel, etc.). After allowing students time to manipulate and ask questions about their cubes, I present them with a relatively large container of water and ask them to predict which of their cubes will float (e.g. oak or steel). Students generally make accurate predictions, but when asked to connect the reasoning for their predictions to the results they just reported out from the ice investigation, most struggle. I therefore prepare one final demonstration by making a single adjustment to the original ice investigation I conducted with tap water and salt water. After again placing two ice cubes in separate beakers of tap water and salt water, I lightly drop three to four drops of food coloring on top of the ice cube in each labeled container (Figure 2). Within about 30 seconds, it quickly becomes clear that the water melting directly off of the ice cube in tap water (Figure 2 – colored blue) is moving differently than the other (Figure 2 – colored red). More specifically, the now visible, blue-dyed water melting off of the ice cube begins dropping down to the bottom of the beaker and spreading throughout the beaker. After multiple drops of ice-cold water rapidly move and spread throughout the beaker the solution soon turns entirely blue. The saltwater solution however, remains relatively clear as the cold red water melting off of the ice cube remains near the top of the beaker thereby keeping the ice cube from melting longer.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Visual demonstration of the ice investigation with food coloring.

With the results of this demonstration still visible, each group is given a small white-board to draw what they are now observing in each beaker. In particular, I ask them to draw “enlarged” dots that represent the salt dissolved in one of the solutions along with colored drawings and arrows that model the NOW VISIBLE movement of water in the tap water solution. After having multiple groups share and discuss their drawings, the idea of “density” inevitably comes up. In addition to saying the “vocabulary word”, I also prompt students to reflect on what density means in relation to the multiple experiences and demonstrations we recently completed. As we discuss our ideas I add additional language and explanation around one of the group’s drawings by introducing them to the word “atoms”. I suggest water (in solid and liquid states) and salt are composed of particles too small to be seen and that these particles: (1) are in constant motion and (2) interact differently depending on certain characteristics like composition and temperature (NRC, 2012). Figure 3 displays how the saltwater solution in one of the beakers prevents the water that melts off of the ice cube from moving downward. In sum, this phenomenon occurs because the cold water melting off of the ice cube is less dense than the “tightly packed” saltwater solution, which contains far more solutes dissolved in solution. With no additional particles being dissolved in the tap water solution (Figure 3, left beaker), gravity forces the cold (more densely packed) water melting directly off of the ice cube to move to the bottom of the beaker. Next the slightly warmer water at the bottom of the beaker moves up towards the ice cube causing it to melt. I often direct students to draw arrows on their diagrams that depict this movement, or cycling, of water throughout the tap water beaker. Note: it can be helpful to provide students with the terms solute (substance being dissolved) and solvent (liquid dissolving the solute), but this is not always necessary.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample model drawing of ice cubes melting in tap water (left) and salt water that includes enlarged salt particles dissolved in solution (right).

This initial explanation of the phenomenon is also accompanied by a “jig-saw reading” of multiple, brief articles about water density and ocean currents taken from different national organizations (c.f. https://water.usgs.gov/edu/density.html). During the jigsaw students discuss the contents of each article with the group after individually reading their assigned article. Contents of each of the articles further describe the role of density, salinity, and/or temperature in various contexts (e.g. climate change) with all involving the movement of water in one way or another. An optional/supplemental lesson fits in well at this point if needed. The lesson (titled: People as Particles; Tretter & McFadden, 2018) targets the structural properties of matter by engaging people (i.e. students) as particles (i.e. atoms) using scientific modeling as the driving scientific practice. With the end of the second class coming to a close, I tell students we will be running the final version of the ice investigation during the next class. However, during this final investigation groups must purposefully infuse their conceptual understanding of water density into the design of the investigation. For example, a student group might propose varying their procedure by modifying the location of the ice cube in the beaker (e.g. near the bottom) using a plastic piece of mesh and a weight. With the ice cube always situated at the bottom of the beaker one can then predict it will melt at relatively the same time in a saltwater and tap water solution because the movement of water (c.f. Figure 2) is no longer a factor in melting the ice cube. In the end student groups often strive to modify their procedure in creative ways at this point given their newly developed conceptually understanding of the phenomenon of interest. Overall, the variety of students’ design ideas at this point make this final round the most engaging of all.

Between Class Readings

I again assign readings between classes starting with the next chapter in the course-assigned book (Harlen, 2015). The chapter (titled – HOW Should We Teach Science?) is accompanied with a prompt and associated response again using Flipgrid. This time around I direct PSTs’ attention to the main points of the chapter with the following prompt:

Science instruction that promotes long-term, conceptual understanding: (1) aligns with one or more “views of learning” (p. 17), (2) emphasizes “big ideas” by utilizing an inquiry approach, and (3) provides appropriate “alternative ideas” when student misconceptions arise. Discuss your understanding of each “statement” (1-3). Reply to one peer’s idea.

PSTs’ responses to this prompt and others like it afford them with the language needed to discuss and think about science instruction in a manner that aligns with my overall goals for the course. More specifically, it builds up a new understanding and foundation for science teaching/learning that we can then refer back to throughout the course. We often reflect back on these initial readings, discussions, and lessons from the ice investigation because we have, in a sense, moved on to more “advanced” pedagogical strategies built upon this foundation.

Finally, I include two additional readings. The first article (titled – Shifting from Activity-mania to Inquiry, Moscovici & Nelson, 1998) describes “activity-mania”, a teaching approach many are familiar with. In brief, activity-mania involves a “collection of prepackaged, hour-long (or less), hands-on activities that are often disconnected from each other” (Moscovici & Nelson, 1998; p. 14). My PSTs often see activity-mania in the science classrooms they observe so this article helps them understand that even if science is “covered” in an elementary classroom via activity-mania that this instructional approach will not enable their students be successful science learners. The last article (titled – DCIs, SEPs, and CCs, Oh My! Understanding the Three Dimensions of the NGSS; Duncan & Cavera, 2015), concisely introduces PSTs to the other dimensions of NGSS (e.g. SEPs) not explicitly discussed in the DCI reading from the previous week (Krajcik, Duncan, & Rivet, 2015). Each of these final two articles will be discussed in the forthcoming class.

Finishing the Ice Investigation

At the start of class, PSTs quickly begin setting up their investigations. Most have brought in additional materials (e.g. chocolate/white milk) to use, which makes the class especially chaotic yet extremely stimulating, for them and myself. During the second to last “E” (elaborate), I feel confident my PSTs can carry out and eventually share the results of a personally meaningful inquiry. After sharing and discussing the final results of multiple group’s investigations with one another, I discuss the necessary assessment opportunity to come up next. I tell my PSTs I created a two-dimensional assessment for learning (Heritage, 2008; Penuel, Van Horne, & Bell, 2016) in order to formatively assess their developing conceptual understanding of the concepts and ideas we have been investigating via a specific scientific practice (conceptual idea – density and water movement; scientific practice – designing an investigation). I also inform them that the classroom-embedded assessment (titled – “The River Deltas”; see Appendix A; adopted from Van Horne, Penuel, & Philip, 2016) is a feedback tool I will use and will return to them with written feedback, questions, and suggestions.

After finishing the assessment, and before the next class, I provide everyone with feedback on the formative assessment (e.g. “What would it look like if you included the particles dissolved in each liquid?; Figure 4). During the next class after receiving the feedback, I provide PSTs with a purple pen and provide time for them to “purple pen” responses to the questions/comments I wrote on their River Deltas assessment. Purple penning (as a formative assessment strategy) reiterates to my PSTs I intend to provide repeated and supported learning opportunities in order for them to be successful because they get to make a second attempt on the task. For many, this assessment experience contrasts significantly with any prior science “test” they had ever taken. We spend some time here discussing the purpose of classroom embedded assessments and the connection between assessments of this nature and our learning experiences leading up to it. More specifically, we discuss how formative assessments can be leveraged to explicitly elicit student thinking in an intentional manner so instruction can then be modified that responds to the evidence garnered.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample written feedback and student response to a formative science assessment.

After this discussion I display a picture of the inverted bottles demonstration from two weeks ago and we discuss the cause of the observed phenomenon that previously few to none were able to make sense of. Finally, I let everyone know we will be ending the Great Ice Investigation and that hypothetically if we had more time we would move on to the next sequence of lessons aligned with the PE (MS-ESS2-6) we would be working towards.

Final In-Class Readings

To wrap up the third and final class of the sequence, I engage everyone as teachers by again “jigsawing” two readings. The first (titled – Using the 5E Model to Implement the NGSS; Bybee, 2014; p. 63) “pulls up the curtain” on the instructional model that guided my instructional decisions during the ice investigation. Throughout the three weeks PSTs usually allude that they are wondering why I so adamantly try to teach them how density impacts the movement of water in the oceans by asking me questions about the pedagogical strategies being implemented. In brief, they want to know why I’m asking the questions I’m asking them and why I’m structuring their learning opportunities the way I am. I continually remind them that when the ice investigation comes to an end, we will break down each and every “stage” of the instructional model. By jigsawing this reading (Bybee, 2013) we start to collaboratively breakdown and discuss the multiple facets of the ice investigation. With one student each assigned one of the five “Es”, they individually read and then discuss their respective “E” with members of the group. During their discussions, the following prompt is displayed, which each member of the group needs to respond to:

  • What part of the Great Ice Investigation relates to your phase?
  • What were you doing as students that was consistent with your phase? What was I (the teacher) doing?
  • What makes your phase different from the other phases?
  • What are some activities/actions that are inconsistent for teachers AND students during your phase? (Bybee, 2013; Table 3.1)

Next, and after discussing the 5Es as a whole group, we move on and each student reads one “Assumptions” from the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012). The reading contains six sections or assumptions (e.g. Connecting to Students’ Interests and Experiences) that PSTs can now make sense because many of the assumptions were present during the Great Ice Investigation. Each member of the six-student group is denoted as an “expert” to a given assumption, which they display describing their section of the reading to the group.

Overall these final two readings set up an invigorating whole-class discussion because my PSTs, likely for the first time, actually can see how appropriate science instruction helps students develop their conceptual understandings all the while as they engage in and learn about the process of science as a scientist would (Metz, 2008). Smaller details from the sequence of lessons, readings, and resources described here have been omitted; however, a strong instructional “skeleton” has been provided for science teacher educators to make sense of and modify according to their preferences and needs. Again, I have experienced great successes helping my PSTs understand how and why elementary science teaching/learning needs to be primarily about student sensemaking using the above sequence of lessons, readings, and resources. During our final class of the semester I redistribute the drawings they drew of their positive science learning experience (see Figure 1) along with the following prompt: Based on where you are now, how differently would you evaluate a “positive science learning experience” compared to the start of the semester? A representative response to this reflective prompt follows:

A positive science learning experience calls for student-lead experimentation and sensemaking opportunities. I didn’t know much about science inquiry or the practices of science before this course, but I now understand how important it is to teach my own students to question what they see and try to discover reasoning and meaning.

I believe the “lesson plans” detailed above would be of benefit to both PSTs as well as in-service elementary and middle school teachers just beginning to align their instruction with the NGSS because overall it empowers teachers to truly see how and why instructional shifts are needed in order for science instruction at the elementary level to be successful.

Learning About Science Practices: Concurrent Reflection on Classroom Investigations and Scientific Works

Introduction

What if science teachers had a scientist friend who invited them to go with her on a scientific expedition? Wouldn’t it be interesting and exciting? What would they learn during the trip? After returning from the scientific adventure, what could they tell their students about their firsthand experiences? Don’t you think that what they would learn during the field trip could help them make science exciting and accessible to students? Even though such a thrilling experience may not occur for every educator, books about the lives and activities of scientists can take science teachers on a similar trip. Texts about scientists and their research can describe how a scientist becomes engaged with a topic of her/his study, wonders about a set of complicated questions, and devotes her/his life to these issues. This article is intended to illustrate how we could integrate these kinds of texts into inquiry-oriented lessons and how they can increase the effectiveness of the science methods or introductory science courses.

Learning about real scientific and engineering projects can help students develop an understanding of what scientists do. In science textbooks, most of the time students encounter exciting and well-established scientific facts and concepts generated by the science community, but rarely read and learn about how scientists work or generate new knowledge in science (Driver, Leach, & Millar, 1996). Helping students learn scientific practices, science teachers/educators often utilizes inquiry-oriented lessons. The National Research Council (NRC) has defined K-12 science classrooms as places in which students perform science and engineering practices while utilizing crosscutting concepts and disciplinary core ideas (2012). One of the conventional approaches to meet such expectations is to develop a series of model lessons that involve and engage students in some science investigations.

Some years ago, I started a methods course beginning with these ideas and collected data investigating any changes in classroom discourses (Basir, 2014). Results of that qualitative study revealed no significant change in classroom discourse regarding science and engineering practices. Analysis of the results revealed a list of common patterns and challenges about student learning in the courses. My students had vague ideas about what it means to develop and use a model, make a hypothesis, and construct a science argument. Analysis of their reflections also revealed that the keywords associated with the eight science practices (see Appendix I) were not traceable in their written discourses about their science investigations; they had difficulties recognizing those eight practices in their science inquiry. Trying to resolve these challenges was my motive to revise this methods course. In the following, I first describe how the wisdom of practice in science education helped me develop an idea to change the course and how that idea transformed into an instructional strategy. Then, I use examples to illustrate results of this instructional strategy. The presented instructional approach aids students using NGSS framework accurately when they reflect on their science practices and consequently learn science practices more effectively. Hopefully, this could have a positive effect on their science teaching.

Framework

The apprenticeship model (getting engaged in science inquiry while being coached by a master teacher) has been emphasized as a practical and useful approach for learning and teaching science since decades ago (e.g., NRC, 2000). NRC (2000) defined science inquiry by introducing a set of abilities for a process of science inquiry and NRC (2012) has placed more emphasis on those abilities and call them the eight science practices (see Appendix I for the comparison between the set of abilities and the eight science practices). The eight science practices as defined by NRC (2012) and those abilities for science inquiry as defined by NRC (2000) are very similar. However, as Osborne (2014) asked, in what sense the notion of inquiry as defined by NRC (2000) differs from the science practices defined by NRC (2012). One reason, among others, is about the call for more transparency on the articulation of what classroom science inquiry is or what students need to experience during an inquiry-oriented lesson (Osborne, 2014). Aiming to develop such transparency in methods courses for prospective teachers, we may need to consider some complementary instruction to the apprenticeship model. This means that while teachers and students follow the apprenticeship model of teaching and learning, they need to become more conscious about and cognizant of science practices. As a complement to the apprenticeship model of instruction, to some extent, many instructional methods can help students learn science investigations by learning about history and/or nature of science (Burgin & Sadler, 2016; Erduran & Dagher, 2014; McComas, Clough, & Almazroa, 2002; Schwartz, Lederman, & Crawford, 2004), refining their investigative skills (e.g., Hackling & Garnett, 1992; Foulds & Rowe, 1996), conducting context-based science investigation using local newspapers or local environmental issues (e.g., Barab & Luehmann, 2003; Kuhn & Müller, 2014 ), and becoming cognizant of what/how they do science (e.g., Smith & Scharmann,2008).

In the context of higher education, active learning as an instructional approach provides multiple opportunities for students to initially do activities during class and subsequently analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and reflect on what they did during those activities (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). This latter aspect of active learning, critical thinking, plays a significant role in the effectiveness of teaching (Cherney, 2008; Bleske-Rechek, 2002; Smith & Cardaciotto, 2011) and usually is a missing component in the mentioned context. Unlike the regular introductory university-level science courses, in the context of science teacher preparation, it is a common practice to ask students to write a reflection about what/how they do activities. What has been less emphasized in this context is to provide a framework and benchmark helping students to systematically reflect on their science investigation (Ellis, Carette, Anseel, & Lievens, 2014).

The stories or case studies about how actual scientists do science can function as a benchmark for students who do classroom science investigations. Comparing an authentic science study with a student-level science project can make students aware of possible deficiencies and missing components in their classroom inquiry. Presumably inspired by medical science, case study teaching approaches have been utilized for teaching science (Herried, 2015; Tichenor 2013) and showing promising effects on student learning (Bonney, 2015; Tichenor, 2013). Specifically, science educators have developed many case studies for how to teach science—many of these cases related to science methods are available at National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS; http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/).

In this paper, I describe how particular kinds of case studies, the stories of contemporary scientists and their projects, can be used as a complementary teaching component to inquiry-oriented instruction. The objective is to provide an environment in which students could see the “sameness and difference” (Marton, 2006) between what they do and what scientists do. They could use the stories about actual science investigations as a benchmark for reflecting on what they do in the science classroom.

Concurrent Reflections as an Instructional Strategy

Drawing on the reviewed literature, I developed a three-phase instructional approach (Figure 1). In each phase of the instruction, students are assigned with specific task and concurrently reflect on that task. In the first phase, students have multiple opportunities to do science investigations, compare and contrast how they did across the small groups, recognize and interpret the eight science practices in their work, and document their reflection about how they do science on the offered template (Figure 2). This activity helps students conceptualize the eight practices implicitly embedded in those inquiry-oriented lessons. In the second phase, students read and reflect on a case study (i.e., a book about a scientist and her/his project). By reading about scientists and scientific projects, students have the opportunities to discern first-hand instances of the eight science practices. In the third phase, students compare those first-hand investigations done by real scientists, as benchmarks, with what they do in inquiry-oriented lessons and accordingly critically reflect on how to improve their science practices.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Illustrates the suggested learning cycle.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Template for comparing instances of science practices (SP) in different contexts.

Discussing the Suggested Learning Strategy by an Example

In the following, a three-session lesson (about 4.5 hours) based on this instructional approach is presented. Currently, this lesson is included in one of my science courses (how to do straightforward scientific research). The course is a general education course open to all majors, and secondary and middle-level pre-service teachers are required to take the course. In my previous institution, a similar lesson was included in a science course required for prospective elementary teachers.

Phase One: Doing and Reflecting on Science Practices

In this phase of the learning cycle, students conduct a science investigation and are asked to match the eight science practices with different components of their science inquiry. Students are required to document their interpretations in the provided template (Figure 2). Students are given a worksheet for investigating electromagnet. The very first question in the worksheet is about drawing an electromagnet. This question aims to check how much they know about electromagnets. Figure 3 shows five student responses to the mentioned question. These are typical responses at the beginning of this investigation. Most students know little about electromagnets. After receiving these responses, I put students in small groups and made sure that each group had at least one student who drew a relatively correct preliminary model of an electromagnet. Due to space limitation, only four of the eight science practices have been discussed in the following.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Illustrates how students drew the model of an electromagnet as their initial idea.

Asking Questions. Students, as a group of four, were given different size batteries, nails, wire, and paper clips. They were supposed to make an electromagnet and then they were given a focus question: how you can change the power of the electromagnet. Some groups had difficulty building and/or using their electromagnet due to issues such as a lousy battery, open circuit, not enough loop, trying to pick up a too heavy metal object by the electromagnet. With minor help from me, they were able to build the electromagnet. Some groups developed yes-no questions (i.e., does the number of loops affect the electromagnet?). I helped them revise their question by adding a “how” to the beginning of their question. Typical questions that students came up with which focused the small group investigations were: How does the voltage of the battery affect the power of the electromagnet? How does the amount of wire around the nail affect the strength of the electromagnet? How does the insulation of the wire affect the power of the electromagnet?

Developing and Using Models. Scientists utilize scientific models and discourses to explain the observed phenomena. However, students usually use vernacular discourses instead of using science/scientific models for explaining a phenomenon. Students needed to develop a hypothesis related to the questions they asked. Here are two typical hypotheses that student groups came up with: 1) making the loops tighter and the wire would have a stronger effect on the nail and in turn, the electromagnet would become more robust, or 2) a bigger battery would make the electromagnet stronger. When (at reflection time) students were asked to think and explicitly mention any models they used, they sometimes talked about the picture of the electromagnet that they drew as a model of the electromagnet (Figure 2). Nonetheless, they typically didn’t see the role of their mental model in the hypotheses they made. With explicit discussion, I helped them to rethink why they generated those hypotheses (i.e., bigger battery or more loops, more powerful magnet). I expected them to mention some of the simple electromagnetic rules learned in science courses; however, most of the hypotheses stem from their vernacular discourses rather than science/scientific discourses. Through discussion with small groups and the whole classroom, I invited them to think about the background knowledge they utilized for making those hypotheses. We discussed the possible relationship between their hypotheses and the vernacular discourses such as “bigger is more powerful,” “more is more powerful,” or “the closer the distance, the stronger interaction”—These vernacular discourses are like general statements that people regularly use to make sense of the world around them. If we use a bigger battery and more wire, then we will have a stronger magnet.” Later, as they collected data, they realized that the vernacular ideas did not always work, a 9-volt battery may not provide as much power as a 1.5-volt D battery.

Constructing Explanations. The relation between different variables and their effects on the strength of an electromagnet is a straightforward part of the investigation. However, most of the groups were not able to explain why the number of wire loops affects the power of the electromagnet, or why uninsulated wire does not work. One of the common misconceptions students hold is the thought that uninsulated wire lets electricity go inside the nail and makes the nail magnetic by touch. I did not tell them why that idea was not correct and then motivated them to explicitly write their thought in the template (Figure 4).

Engaging in Argument from Evidence. We had different kinds of batteries, so one of the groups focused on the relationship between voltage and the electromagnet power. Through investigation, they realized that a 9-volt battery did not necessarily increase the strength of the electromagnet in comparison with a D battery. Another group focused on the relation of the number of cells and the electromagnet power. I encouraged them to discuss and compare the results of their studies and find out the relation of batteries and the power of the electromagnet. However, neither group had students with enough science background on electromagnetism to develop better hypotheses.

Phase Two: Reading and Reflecting on How Scientists Perform Science Practices

As mentioned before, we can use many different kinds of texts about scientists and their projects for this instructional approach. Table 1 suggests some book series appropriate for the proposed strategy. For instance, “Sower series” can help students to learn about historical figures in science and their investigation or “scientist in the filed” is about contemporary scientists and their projects. Stronger than Steel (Heos & Comins, 2013) from the scientist in the field series is discussed to illustrate how we can use these books in the classroom in the following.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Suggested Textbooks Describing Scientists’ Biography and Their Projects


The summary of the book. Stronger than Steel is about Randy Lewis, his team, and his long-term research project about spider silk. Randy’s early research questioned the structure of the spider silk: how spider silk could be so strong and at the same time so flexible. By applying the well-established models and methods for the analysis of the matter, Randy and his team were able to develop an explanation for why spider silk is both strong flexible at the same time. They found out that the particular spider silk they analyzed was made of two proteins; a combination of these two proteins is responsible for super flexibility and strength of the spider silk. Building on genetic theory, the research team examined spider DNA. It took them about three years to isolate two genes associated with the proteins responsible for the strength and flexibility of the spider silk. Familiar with the transgenic models, in the late 1990s, Randy’s team designed bacteria producing the main ingredient of the spider silk, the two proteins mentioned before. In the next step, they injected those specific spider genes into goat embryos and achieved incredible results. Some of the transgenic goats were able to produce the spider silk proteins, but of course not like Spiderman. The transgenic goats are very similar to regular goats, but their body produces extra spider silk proteins in their milk. Randy’s team milked the transgenic goats, processed the milk, separated the spider silk proteins, and finally spun the spider silk fibers from the mixture of those two proteins. Currently, they are working to find alternative organisms that could produce spider silk more efficiently than transgenic spider goats. They are working on two other organisms: silkworms, which are masters in making silk and alfalfa, which is a plant that produces much protein.

As can be seen in this summary, the book has many examples of eight science practices from the first-hand science projects (i.e., the research questions about making spider silk, the theory-driven hypothesis explaining the possibility of using transgenic methods and making silk from goats). We can use different reading strategies in this phase of the instruction. I often have students submit answers to a set of guided questions as they read the books. The objective here is to motivate students to match and interpret the eight science practices in the work of the scientists as described in the case study. Table 2 illustrates some of the reflections that students submitted on the reflection template (Figure 2) after reading the book.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Instances of Science Practices as Interpreted by Students

Phase Three: Comparing and Reflecting on How Scientists and Students Perform Science Practices

In this phase of the learning cycle, students had small-group activity comparing the instances of the science practices in the case study with the instances of science practices in their electromagnet investigation. We also had a whole-classroom discussion coordinated by me.

Asking questions. Randy utilized transgenic and genetic models to do the investigation. Students were asked to think about the research questions that led Randy’s work. Here are the typical responses students came up with: Why is spider silk is so strong and flexible at the same time? What spiders’ genes are related to spiders’ ability to produce silk? Can other organisms produce spider silk? How can other creatures produce spider silk? We discussed how the questions in Randy’s project are model-based and theory-laden. Then students examined their electromagnet questions and tried to transform them into model-based and theory-laden questions.

Figure 4 depicts how student questions changed and improved after the mentioned discussion. We discussed that if we used the magnetic field model to describe what was happening around a magnet, then we could have asked how to increase the magnetic field at the tip of the nail. By discussing the formula related to the magnetic field and the amount of electric current, students were able to ask a question about the relation of electric current and power of electromagnet instead the relation of voltage of batteries and the power of electromagnet.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Illustrates the changes in student groups, A and B, before and after of the case study.

Developing and Using Models. Based on the transgenic model, Randy’s team hypothesized that if they put those two genes in a goat embryo the goat body is going to produce those two proteins and possibly the goat milk is going to contain those two proteins. I led the whole classroom discussion focusing on how students’ hypotheses, similar to the transgenic goat project, should be based on science/scientific knowledge. I emphasized that they need to replace their vernacular discourses, described above, with simple electromagnetic models. In this phase, students were either asked to do some library research to review electromagnetic laws and formulas, or given a handout including rules and formulas related to electromagnets (the version of the worksheet designed for the elementary pre-service teachers is less demanding). Students had an opportunity to revise their vernacular ideas about electromagnets. For instance, they discussed the formula (B=μ0I/2πr) that illustrates factors affecting the magnetic field around a straight wire with electric current. They saw that the magnetic field around the wire is inversely related to the distance from the wire. We discussed how this formula is connected to the vernacular idea that the less distance from the electromagnet, the more powerful electromagnet. They also examined the formula related to the magnetic field in the center of a loop (B=μ0I/2R), which shows that the power of an electromagnet increases when the electric current increases in a circuit. With this formula, they can better explain why doubling the number of batteries increases the strength of the electromagnet or develop a hypothesis as to why D-batteries make a more powerful electromagnet than 9-volt batteries. For instance, one of the small groups initially claimed, “If we use a bigger battery and more wire, then we will have a stronger magnet.” After going through the complete lesson, they revised their claim, “If there is a stronger current, then the magnet force will increase.”

Constructing Explanations. As a part of the structured reflection on the case study, students were supposed to recognize scientific explanations that Randy’s team developed. Here are some of the scientific explanations we discussed in our class: Randy’s team used the biomaterial models to understand the structure of spider silk. They figured out why spider silk is so strong and at the same time so flexible. They described how two essential proteins make the spider silk, one makes the silk stronger than steel, and another make it as elastic as rubber. Using the genetic models, they had the understanding that specific genes carry the information for the production of particular proteins. So, after a two-year examination of the spider genes, eventually, they pinpointed the two specific genes and developed an explanation of how/why those two genes are responsible for making those proteins. These discussed scientific explanations provided a rich context and a benchmark for students to improve their explanations about electromagnet. The model-based explanations in Randy’s project encouraged students to use simple electric and magnetic laws and tools for developing explanations about the electromagnet investigation. For instance, looking at the hypothesis that group A and B made (Figure 4), we could see that both initial hypotheses look like a claim with no explanation (i.e., the more wire on the nail, the more powerful the electromagnet). However, after the discussion about Randy’s project, both groups added some model-based explanations to their claims. In the revised version of their work, by measuring the electric current, group A figured out that why a 6-volt battery created a stronger magnetic field than a 9-volt battery. Group B used the formula for electric resistance to explain why electric current would increase in the coil. They also used a multimeter and Tesla meter for measuring electric current and magnetic field for collecting supporting data.

As part of their homework, students were asked to reflect on how their explanation was changed during this lesson. Some of them emphasized the role of scientific background knowledge and the tools they used in the second round of the investigation. One of them said:

In the second explanation, we had more background knowledge about the subject, so we were better able to develop a hypothesis that was backed by a scientific theory. This led to more accurate results. We also used tools that measured the exact amount of electric current and the exact magnetic strength in the second experiment.

It is important to mention that student-teacher discussion essentially facilitated the use of background knowledge in the second round of the investigation. One of the students mentioned:

One of the explanations comes from the knowledge that we brought (which is none, or little knowledge of magnetism). The other explanation utilizes the outside knowledge that Dr. Mo presented us with. The equation that explained what makes a magnet stronger. We were then able to adjust the explanation to be more accurate.

Engaging in Argument from Evidence. Some of the discussed points from the case study that are related to engaging in argument from evidence are typically either mentioned in student reflection or suggested by me. Randy’s team used the genetic theory arguing for the relation between alfalfa, silkworms, and goats. Then they collected empirical data and developed evidence for that argument. Randy’s team developed a strong argument from evidence to convince the funding agencies for exploring the alternative methods for production of spider silk. Randy is also engaged in the debate from evidence to support the claim that transgenic research is beneficial to our society. He argues that although this kind of investigation could be misused (i.e., designer babies or spread of transgenic animals in natural environments), the beneficial aspects of transgenic research are immense.

In comparison with Randy’s work, we discussed how science goes beyond the walls of the science labs and how science, society, and technology are mutually related—one of the eight aspects of NOS based on NGSS is “science is a human endeavor.” Regarding this relationship in the context of the electromagnet investigation, through whole-class discussion, we came up with some library research questions: how a Maglev works or how electromagnetic field/wave possibly could have some possible sides effects on the human brain.

Furthermore, Randy’s work provided an environment for us to have a discussion related to the coordination of theory and evidence, which is another aspect of NOS based on NGSS: “science models, laws, mechanisms, and theories explain natural phenomena.” In return, the discussion helped students use scientific knowledge and tools for developing hypotheses. In the first round of investigation, students asked questions and developed explanations with little attention to scientific knowledge, a required component for asking scientific question and explanation. In the second round, they used scientific laws, units, and sensors to develop their hypotheses (compare before- and after-condition of the hypotheses in figure 3). The discussion about Randy’s work helped them to be conscious about the coordination of scientific background knowledge and making hypothesis and explanation. As shown in Table 3, in response to a question on the group assignment, group A mentioned:

When we read about Randy’s investigation, we understood that sometimes it is necessary to draw from the knowledge that already exists on the topic. For example, Randy knew that bacteria could be used to produce penicillin. In our electromagnet investigation, once Dr. … showed us the slides, we knew that electrical current influenced the strength of the magnet. With this knowledge, we created a better hypothesis of what was happening.

Table 3 (Click on image to enlarge)
Instances of Student Response to a Reflective Group Assignment at the End of the Lesson

Discussion and Conclusion

This article seeks ways to improve pre-service teacher learning about NGSS’ eight science practices. This learning objective can be accomplished in the suggested learning cycle (Figure 1). As discussed, in the first phase, when students work on their science investigation, what naturally comes out of students’ work are vernacular discourses, based on their mental models used in their daily life practices, rather than science models and discourses. As Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten (2008) put it, one of the fundamental problems with student science investigation is the modeless inquiry (i.e., students conduct investigations without utilizing scientific models). Here students managed to investigate variables that affect the power of an electromagnet such as the kind of battery, number of loops, size of the nail, and diameter of the loops. At this stage, however, they were not able to utilize science models to explain “why” those variables affect the strength of the electromagnet.

In the second phase, due to the authenticity of the scientific project described in the case study, it was easy for students to recognize instances of the eight science practices in that project. Through reflection, students realized that the scientific investigation in the case study was vastly built on scientific models and theories.

In the third phase, through the negotiation process between the students and teacher and by comparing their work with Randy’s work, a majority of the students became cognizant of the fact that the electromagnetic models were almost absent in their initial electromagnet investigation. Randy’s project functioned as a benchmark assisting pre-service teachers to compare their work with the benchmark and revise their science practices. Additionally, the comparison between classroom science and actual scientists’ work provided an environment for discussion about some aspects of NOS such as the relation of science-society-technology, and the coordination of theory-evidence. In return, those discussions helped students improve their electromagnet investigation.

As a limitation of the presented strategy, it can be asked, what would happen if the case study was eliminated? Students would go through the electromagnet investigation, then I would give students the background knowledge about electromagnet, and then students would do the investigation for the second time. Probably, due to doing a similar investigation two times, we should expect some improvement in the quality of their investigation. However, the case study functioned as a benchmark and guidance. During the discussion about Randy’s work, students became cognizant of the critical role of background knowledge, modeling, and scientific lab technology for doing science. Importantly, they realized that for making hypotheses, observation and collecting data is not enough; they need to bring scientific knowledge to the table to develop a hypothesis. Accordingly, it seems that the case study provided a productive environment for students to do science investigation and learn about the eight science practices.

As Hmelo-Silver (2006) stated, scaffolding improves student learning when it comes to how and why to do the tasks. The discussed structured reflection can help students learn how and why they conduct science investigations and encourage them to critically think and talk about science practices (nature of science practices). Going through multiple inquiry-oriented lessons provides an environment for students to do the NGSS eight science practices described. To develop a thorough understanding of those practices, however, students need to repeatedly think critically to discern instances of science practices from what they do, compare them with a benchmark, and find out a way to improve their science practices. By going through the concurrent reflection embedded in all three phases of the suggested instructional strategy, prospective teachers experienced the fact that classroom science investigations should go beyond a “fun activity” (Jimenez-Aleixandre, Rodriguez, & Duschl, 2000) and the vernacular discourses that they know, and must be based on scientific knowledge, models, and technology, and explicitly relate to society.

Acknowledgment

I would like to show my gratitude to James Cipielewski and Linda Pavonetti for sharing their wisdom with me during the initial phase of this project.

Partnering for Engineering Teacher Education

Introduction

It is not uncommon for elementary teacher candidates to arrive to the first day of the science methods course a bit anxious about the subject matter. They might not consider themselves scientists, or might be bringing what we refer to as school science baggage (Smetana, Birmingham, Rouleau, Carlson, & Phillips, 2017; Birmingham, Smetana, & Coleman, 2017) – an accumulation of negative and/or passive science learning experiences that can restrict one’s vision for what science teaching and learning can be. When they learn that not only will the course be focused on teaching science but also on teaching engineering in elementary grades, eyes grow even wider. “I was very overwhelmed by the thought of teaching engineering to such young students”, wrote one elementary teacher candidate reflecting on the beginning of the Teaching Science in the Elementary Classroom course. By the end of the course, our experience over the past few years is that candidates are not only more comfortable with, but genuinely enthusiastic about teaching engineering. “Now, I love it!” is a reflection typical of what we’ve heard candidates share at the end of the semester.

In this article, we describe our approach to moving elementary teacher candidates from a place of nervousness to one of excitement about teaching engineering through a field-based undergraduate course that incorporates in- and out-of-school science and engineering experiences. We begin with an overview of how we understand engineering in the context of elementary education. Then, we describe the various learning experiences of the course that take place across a variety of settings – the university classroom, a public elementary school classroom, a children’s museum, and a family night. We offer a summary of findings related to teacher candidates’ outcomes – specifically, teaching engineering self-efficacy – and discuss implications for our program and for other science and engineering teacher educators. The first author is the university-based instructor for the course; the second author is a graduate research assistant; the third author is a classroom-based co-teacher educator for the course; the fourth author is the museum-based co-teacher educator for the course.

Defining Engineering in the Context of Elementary Education

The Framework for K-12 Science defines engineering “in a very broad sense to mean any engagement in a systematic practice of design to achieve solutions to particular human problems” (NRC, 2012, p.11). In order to prepare teacher candidates for teaching engineering in their future elementary [Grade 1-5] classrooms, we follow recommendations of the Framework, the Engineering in K-12 Education report (NAE & NRC, 2009) and the Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education (Moore, et al., 2014) including that pre-college engineering education should: 1) emphasize iterative processes of design; 2) incorporate important and developmentally appropriate science, math and technology concepts and practices; and 3) promote habits of thinking, working and communicating.

First, learners should be actively engaged in engineering design which involves processes and practices such as defining problems to situations that could be improved, researching the problem and specifying criteria and constraints for acceptable solutions, brainstorming multiple solutions, creating and testing prototypes, and optimizing a solution through analyzing results and considering improvements (Lottero-Perdue, 2017; NGSS Lead States, 2013).

Second, engineering – including its processes and practices, purposes and products – should be introduced in relation to the related but distinct disciplines of science, technology and math, as well as in relation to social studies, reading and language arts. Here, deFigueiredo’s (2008) model of engineering as comprised of four related dimensions is useful in illustrating how incorporating engineering challenges in the classroom can promote transdisciplinary teaching and learning (Figure 1).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Engineering dimensions, adapted from deFigueiredo (2008).


Third, learners should be apprenticed into the norms for how engineers go about their work. The sorts of habits of mind relevant to engineers, teacher candidates and elementary-aged learners include – among others – a desire to solve problems, creativity, persistence and a resilient response to failure (Lottero-Perdue, 2017; NAE & NRC, 2009). Similarly important are the development of collaborative teamwork skills, and the use of multiple means and modes of communication and representation (Moore, et al., 2014). The following sections illustrate how these recommendations have influenced our course, and some of the impacts the course has had on the teacher candidates we work with.

Developing Working Definitions

Before sharing the Framework’s definition of engineering with teacher candidates, the course begins by deconstructing ideas about technology, engineering, what engineers do, and how engineering relates to technology and the other S-T-E-M disciplines. Candidates select items around the classroom that they consider to be examples and non-examples of technology and then share their lists as they collaboratively develop a working definition of ‘technology’. Then, tasked with drawing an engineer, they are challenged to think about how the work of an engineer relates to these technologies (For more on this activity, see Lottero-Perdue, 2017, p. 208). After sharing their drawings and ideas, we arrive at a working definition for ‘engineering’ that will be further refined throughout the course. Candidates discuss how the examples of technology they identified solve a problem or meet a need, as well as how and why the design of that technology may have changed over time. The class enjoys watching and discussing videos from the Museum of Science, Boston’s Engineering is Elementary (https://www.eie.org) collection depicting elementary-aged children grappling with similar questions.

Field-based Experiences

The course begins in the university classroom but soon transitions to other settings that are designed to allow candidates to (a) experience engineering as learners themselves, (b) work with expert instructors who provide a vision for what best practices look like as well as the realistic challenges, and (c) have authentic, low-risk teaching opportunities and interactions with youth.

We believe that the combination of course experiences – in the museum, elementary engineering lab, and traditional university classroom – work together to develop candidates’ engineering self-efficacy better than any one experience in isolation. Table 1 summarizes how the course experiences relate to the Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy dimensions (Yoon, Evans, & Strobel, 2014) of engineering pedagogical content knowledge self-efficacy (KS), engineering engagement self-efficacy (ES), and engineering disciplinary self-efficacy (DS).

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Key Course Experiences Mapped to Engineering Efficacy Dimensions

Children’s Museum

The first field experience is a visit to a local children’s museum and affords an opportunity for candidates to think about how museums and out-of-school learning opportunities support and complement classroom-based engineering education. The visit combines: discussion with museum staff around two specific exhibition spaces that emphasize design thinking processes, engineering habits of mind, collaboration and communication, candidates’ free exploration in exhibition areas, and reflection on the kinds of instruction candidates could design around or draw inspiration from the exhibitions. The museum-based class session follows a collaborative teaching model that we’ve developed in which museum staff serve as co-teacher educators (Smetana, Bedford, Carlson, Clark, Cook, Incandela, Moisan, Rouleau, & Stecz, 2018) and share in the planning and facilitation of the session.

The first stop is to Chicago Children’s Museum’s Tinkering Lab, which invites young visitors to participate in creative, playful problem-solving with a delightful assortment of materials and tools available in the space – from hammers and saws to fabric and feathers. Tinkering, as explained by Bevan, Gutwill, Petrich & Wilkinson (2015), is a “generative process of developing a personally meaningful idea, becoming stuck in some aspects of physically realizing the idea, persisting through the process, and experiencing breakthroughs as one finds solutions to problems” (p. 99). Or, as one young visitor puts it, “Tinkering is playing around and eventually making something amazing.” (Slivovsky, Koin & Bortoli, 2017).

Teacher candidates, like any visitor to the space, are given a short, open-ended design challenge here, such as “connect two things together” or “make something that rolls” that can be approached from a multitude of ways. Museum educators explain how these sorts of short, specific prompts are excellent for school groups who have limited time in the lab and museum. For candidates, this is an opportunity to experience what it feels like to be given some structure (in the form of an open-ended prompt framing the challenge) as well as the invitation to experiment, negotiate ideas, goals and constraints, take risks and persist through frustration. Afterwards, candidates reflect on their experience in the space as learners as well as teachers. Educators explain their mantra of “wait, watch, follow”. That is, staff in the space step back and allow visitors to explore the space and materials and think about the challenge, watch for where visitors may need help, and then follow with a question or prompt that encourages visitors to figure out their own solutions.

Several candidates wrote in an exit slip how the Tinkering Lab was a defining moment for them in terms of thinking about balancing engagement, structure, choice and autonomy within the learning process. For instance, responding the question “What was a defining moment for your today in the exhibit – as a learner and/or as an educator?” one candidate wrote “When [the museum educator] was talking about the instructions and how they should be open-ended, it really gave us so much freedom to really think for ourselves and go for it, which is something kids should be given the opportunity to do.” Another candidate shared, “I really liked the Tinkering Lab and seeing how each person interpreted the directions differently and expressed themselves. I learned how important tinkering is for all ages and why it is important. Not only does it build cognitive/social emotional learning, but also builds confidence.” Here, we see evidence that candidates are beginning to identify aspects of their own Tinkering Lab experience that could be transferred to their future elementary engineering classrooms.

Next, candidates explore the Skyline exhibition space, in which they participate in small group teams in a challenge to brainstorm, design, and create a skyscraper structure under constraints of time and materials, and then reflect upon the process. This experience highlights the interdisciplinary connections with mathematics, science and language arts, but perhaps more prominently the importance of teamwork and communication – which groups often forget about in their rush to just start building but later come to recognize the value of as they progress in their creation. Candidates complete their towers and then step back to compare their design choices with their peers as well as with the designs of other structures previous visitors have left on display.

Finally, candidates use the exhibit’s recording studio feature to create a narrative reflection on their process, including design choices as well as challenges encountered and how they overcame them. Afterwards, the reflection discussion focuses on their process and how it helps them to understand what they’ve read about the engineering design process. Typically, the importance of planning, testing, failing and improving emerge in these reflections. As one candidate shared, “A defining moment for me today was building the skyscraper even though it ended up falling down. This visit helped me realize how important failure is and how learning from that is so beneficial.” Candidates also reflect on the opportunity for incorporating writing or other communication formats into learning experiences to allow for reflection on the learning process – whether it is for themselves or for their future students. These themes are picked up in the engineering lab classroom.

Engineering Lab Classroom

The majority of course sessions take place on-site at a partner elementary school, which is fortunate to have an elementary engineering lab space and dedicated engineering lab teacher. The neighborhood school is a high achieving, culturally and linguistically diverse, low socio-economic urban school within close proximity to the university. The class meets in a classroom made available by the school for the first two hours of class, and then transitions together with the university professor to the engineering lab to work with the elementary class that is scheduled to be there for that one hour class period. Engineering is built into the school schedule as an enrichment class with each grade level visiting the engineering lab twice in every six-day cycle. Since the teacher preparation course meets once per week on the same day of the week, candidates see different classes from the same grade level in the engineering lab. The large lab space has an open gathering rug space in the front of the room for class meetings and eight large tables. Students are organized into table teams of 4-6 students for each engineering design challenge; one to two teacher candidates are assigned to work with each table. The university class (teacher candidates and professor) arrives to the lab 10-15 minutes ahead of the elementary class to check in with the engineering lab teacher about the lesson for the day. This is also a good time to assist with any preparations for the activity. On any given class session, the teacher candidates assist with whatever portion of the design challenge students happen to be working on.

The engineering lab teacher and the university professor meet prior to the start of the semester to discuss both logistics and content. This is a chance for the engineering lab teacher to share specifics about the classroom context, including the specific curriculum content, background about the students and classes, as well as how the candidates can be of most help in the classroom. This meeting is also a chance for the university professor to discuss assignments and other course goals. Together, they also discuss how to manage the number of added people in the room, how to match candidates with students, and work out schedules for completing university course assignments that involve students (see below).

The engineering lab teacher has adapted the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) curriculum (Engineering is Elementary, 2011) to fit the particular needs and interests of her classroom. For instance, the Lighten Up: Designing Lighting Systems unit, which introduces the field of optical engineering and invites youth to design a lighting system for the interior of a model ancient Egyptian tomb, integrates well with the fourth grade focus on energy and matter (NGSS PS3.A-C). At the point of the semester when the university class joined the elementary classes this past semester, the 4th grade had just concluded their exploration of light properties and were excited to share their learning with the teacher candidates. Youth referenced the consensus charts around the room, which summarized their learning about light, how it travels in straight lines, reflects in a particular way, and interacts with different materials; these charts then became useful references for the teacher candidates as well as they practiced asking probing questions – rather than providing answers – and reviewed key vocabulary while assisting the teams of young engineers. When asked about what they were learning from the teacher and the students in the partner classroom, candidates remarked at how it was beneficial to see the strategies that they were reading and discussing about exemplified in the elementary classroom. “The entire experience of being in the [engineering] lab really stuck with me because everything we have been learning directly applied to what we observed,” one candidate shared in an exit slip.

The engineering classes monitor their progress through a modified engineering design process (EDP) using a large chart at the front of the room that displays the various stages of the EiE model – Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve – with a space for each group to mark “GTG”, short for “Good to Go”, once that phase has been approved by the lab teacher or one of the teacher candidates. The GTG is a coveted mark in team members’ journals and on the classroom chart because it signifies that the group can move onto the next phase of their design process. The EDP/GTG chart also serves as a space for the engineering lab teacher to make notes about where a group leaves off or what needs to be checked the next time they are in the lab. And, it is a useful resource for teacher candidates who may not be working with the same group of students from one week to the next. Further, in terms of modeling best practices, the journals are an example for candidates of ways to make student thinking visible and public, and empower youth to monitor their own learning. “I like the strategy because it encourages students to share their thoughts and ideas and also gives them a chance to show their thoughts to the other students, even in the other classes,” shared one candidate. Candidates also identified how the GTG chart functions as both a form of assessment and classroom management, since many students were eager to stay on task, progress through their design project and be rewarded with a GTG on the chart. “I saw how excited the students were to be able to be a part of a class that encouraged and explored a variety of different Engineering practices,” shared another candidate.

As candidates help facilitate small group work they are developing their own understandings about engineering as well as instructional practices consistent with the Framework for Quality K-12 Engineering Education and the Framework for K-12 Science Education. For instance, candidates learn about “talk moves” designed to support academically productive conversations (Michaels & O’Connor, 2012) in their course readings and then observe and try out these practices during their time in the elementary engineering lab, with the support of the lab teacher and university professor. Reflecting in an interview about the model lessons she observed, one candidate shared “seeing the class having a discussion about science is not something I was familiar with at all. So that was a really cool experience to see the students so engaged. No textbook at all. [Students] just taking initiative over their learning… It was a really cool experience to witness their energy and excitement about that.”

Candidates also learn from listening to the students since, by the spring semester, students are quite familiar with these talk moves and are adept at using them in their teams and in whole-class discussions. The lab teacher demonstrates appropriate questioning techniques using talk moves as she circulates to each table group to support students and candidates as they think through their design decisions as a team – brainstorming, creating and testing ideas, analyzing results and considering improvements. Rather than giving away answers or determining the course of action for students, candidates also practice implementing the “wait, watch, follow” approach introduced at the museum’s Tinkering Lab and demonstrated by the partner school teacher. Candidates follow the lead of the elementary engineering lab teacher as they practice and reflect on the experience of encouraging students to share their ideas with the team, listen to one another and think collectively through challenges, and deepen their reasoning using evidence.

Candidates also develop and carry out a “science and engineering talk” (Rosebery & Ballenger, 2008) with students. This past term, the talk took place at the start of a new unit mid-way through the semester and focused on Earth’s Systems (NGSS ESS.2A&C) and designing solutions for erosion (NGSS 4-ESS3-2 & ETS1.B). Candidates used a combination of questions suggested by the lab teacher as well as questions they wrote to lead their table teams in elicitation conversations about photographs depicting puzzling phenomena – landforms that had somehow been altered by erosion, weathering and deposition. Goals of the science talk include uncovering students’ initial ideas about the landforms and how they came to be, and identifying the sorts of prior knowledge and experiences students draw upon to make sense of the phenomenon. They also reflected on the implications of the talk for the unit and upcoming design challenge, focused on designing a solution to stop water erosion – a problem of particular interest since their school is a short distance from a lakefront and riverfront facing similar issues. Reflection prompts included “In what ways did conducting the science talk and observing the new 4th grade unit being introduced help you to think about the lesson and unit plans you’re developing?” As exemplified in the quote below, candidates remarked at how much they learned about the students through the talk, and how interested and engaged the class was in the phenomenon:

“The really interesting part of this assignment is how unique each student’s experience was with water, and how that affected their responses to my questions…As a future science teacher, I will begin my lessons with a particular Phenomena or big question! This will not only get my students eager to learn more, but it will cause them to draw upon their own personal experiences and perceptions of the world. By conducting this Science talk, I learned so much about my students, about the way students think and make connections, and about how I can guide them without giving away the answer.
These and other authentic teaching opportunities in the partner classroom help move candidates to develop confidence and understandings about the engineering and design processes, its connection to science and other content areas, its relevance to their own and their students’ lives and experiences, as well as in pedagogical strategies for teaching science and engineering at the elementary level.”

An ongoing challenge we’ve found is how to help candidates understand the relationship and interaction between science and engineering. Research suggests that explicit attention to this integration is necessary (Reimers et al., 2015). This year, we placed more emphasis on reflecting upon the interaction of science and engineering and on encouraging candidates to think about how to leverage students’ engineering experiences to develop understanding of science concepts. For instance, during the lighting system unit described above, we discussed how the engineering design challenge followed the class’s study of light and thus served as a context for students to transfer and further develop their understandings. Then, for their own 5E lesson and unit planning, we encouraged candidates to take a similar approach and integrate engineering challenges within the Extend/Elaborate phase. In another class activity, groups worked together to respond to the prompt: “Explain (through words, diagrams, etc.) your understanding of what the disciplines of science, technology and engineering are. How are these fields related? How are they distinct? What will you want to emphasize for your students about these fields separately, and as they relate to one another?”

An important conclusion of each class session is taking time with the engineering lab teacher after students have left to debrief. While there would ideally be more time for a discussion (typically there are only a few minutes before other classes arrive), this time together affords the lab teacher an opportunity to make some of her thinking explicit to candidates. The university professor continues the debrief and also picks up on topics brought up by the lab teacher in exit slip reflection assignments and future class discussions. Together, these debriefings help candidates to develop their own professional vision. Conversations have, for example, helped to highlight the importance of setting aside time for team-building and encouraging productive responses to failure. Questions posed to candidates included: “Why do you think the class takes so much time for team-building? What did you notice about how the new groups worked together on their team folders? What did you notice about how project setbacks are addressed in the engineering lab? How might you support your students when they encounter frustrations and challenges with their assignments?”

In discussing the significance of giving time for students to get to know other members of their team by decorating team folders at the start of each new unit, one candidate shared, “I like that [the engineering lab teacher] switches up the groups after each project so that students have a chance to work with new classmates. I think it is great that she does ‘get to know you activities’ when the students get new groups so that they get to know one another better.” Sharing takeaways from another class period where the young engineering class took time to talk through setbacks they encountered in their design process, one candidate was pleasantly surprised by how “setbacks are looked at in a positive way in the Engineering Class…I need to realize that setbacks are okay [in my own work, too]”. Agreeing, another shared “failure and frustrations are places where students including myself can learn and come up with new ideas…I can work with them individually to come up with new ideas or new ways of looking at a problem.” These examples further illustrate how candidates are simultaneously deepening their understanding of engineering and engineering education, as learners themselves and as novice teachers.

Family STEM Night

A final, optional field experience takes place at the partner school’s annual Family STEM Night, where Kindergarten through Grade 4 students and their families attend a series of different interactive science, technology, engineering, and math focused sessions. Candidates are invited to help facilitate a session; due to time constraints, the university instructor selects the activity, gathers materials and provides a brief orientation before the event begins. Building on the museum-based experience at the start of the semester, the Family Night serves as another example for candidates of how informal engineering experiences can complement formal school-day experiences, promoting more connected learning and overall academic success (Fenichel & Schweingruber, 2010). The event allows for another touch-point with engineering for the teacher candidates and for the youth who visit the engineering lab with their classes. Held in late spring, elementary students and teacher candidates engage confidently in the engineering design challenges. Candidates have developed the vocabulary around the engineering design process, practices and habits of mind and are eager to assist youth and their families in thinking through the challenge, working on their designs and considering improvements or extensions to make at home.

Learning how teachers and schools work with families to support their children’s learning is another critical skill set for teacher candidates. Those who participate in the Family STEM Night witness firsthand how the event provides families another window into their children’s school experience as well as into the world of engineering, which may or may not be familiar. The positive energy of the evening, along with the collaboration between teachers, administrators, staff and volunteers that ensure its success, also illustrates for candidates the value of bringing families together for community-building events at the school that are both educational and social (Smetana, Chadde, Goldfien, & Nelson, C., 2012), making it more likely that they will participate in similar events in the future.

Candidate Outcomes

We began with the claim that the course shifted elementary teacher candidates’ perceptions about teaching engineering. In addition to the anecdotal evidence provided throughout the article as a way of illustrating what the field-based experience entailed, this section summarizes overall findings, reported in greater detail and expanded upon elsewhere (Smetana & Nelson, 2018), about candidate efficacy beliefs. Beliefs are of interest to us since teachers’ classroom actions are linked to their belief systems (Jones & Carter, 2007) and beginning teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning science are shown to be positively influenced by the support they receive early on (Cantrell, Young & Moore, 2003; Osisioma & Moscovici, 2008).

Overall, candidates over multiple semesters have shown increased confidence on a number of quantitative and qualitative scales. Quantitative data was collected through the Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy Scale (TESS), a 23-item instrument that measures teacher beliefs across multiple sub-scales including: engineering pedagogical content knowledge self-efficacy (KS), engineering engagement self-efficacy (ES), engineering disciplinary self-efficacy (DS) and outcome expectancy (OE) (Yoon, Evans, & Strobel, 2014). While outcome expectancy is a construct of interest, we found that the five TESS items corresponding with outcome expectancy were geared toward teachers who have the primary responsibility for their students’ engineering assessment and evaluation. Since our teacher candidates are only supporting classroom teachers at this stage of the program and not responsible for documenting students’ progress, they expressed uncertainty about how to answer most of the OE questions. For instance, while Item #23 (My effectiveness in engineering teaching can influence the achievement of students with low motivation) was something our teacher candidates felt comfortable answering, Item #19 (When a student gets a better grade in engineering than he/she usually gets, it is often because I found better ways of teaching that student) was confusing to our teacher candidates who do not assign grades to the elementary students they worked with, or know students’ overall course grades. Given this confusion, we did not want the OE scores to skew the overall TESS scores. In the future, we may re-word these five questions to be more applicable to the 2nd year teacher candidates’ experience or provide additional explanation for how to answer the items. For instance, Item #19 could be reworded for teacher candidates to state, “When a student performs better academically in engineering than he/she usually does, it is often because I found better ways of teaching that student”.

In order to measure the candidates’ self-efficacy towards teaching engineering, each candidate completed the TESS twice: once at the beginning of the course, prior to exposure to the engineering classroom or curriculum, and again, upon completion of the course. Data were collected from nine candidates in year 1 and twenty candidates in year 2. We calculated descriptive statistics to measure the change in the candidates’ self-efficacy towards teaching engineering (See Table 2).

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Teaching Engineering Self-efficacy Scale (TESS) Pre-test and Post-test Scores Over Two Years

In order to expand on the survey data, qualitative data were collected through an ungraded writing reflection at the end of the course that asks the teacher candidates to reflect back on the beginning of the semester and how their TESS responses and ideas have changed – such as new understandings or realizations about engineering and engineering education – if at all. The assignment also asked them to consider what has most contributed to the changes. Additionally, the second author conducted semi-structured interviews with candidates after the end of the course each year to further probe candidates’ ideas, understandings and beliefs. The following response is typical of what we found in written reflections and interviews over the past two years:

“I do notice many significant changes. Before this class, I was not one hundred percent certain on what engineering was. I knew it was a very diverse career field, but I did not know how to bring that into an elementary setting. I was not confident in the beginning of the semester on going into an engineering classroom, and was very nervous. Coming out at the end of the semester, I feel very confident in my ability to conduct an engineering activity with students and help them through the engineering design process.”

The overwhelming majority remark on how they were unsure of their understandings and nervous about the prospects of teaching engineering to begin with, but emerge with great – perhaps even inflated – confidence at the end of the semester. Inflated perhaps since our research suggests that candidates still hold some misunderstandings and misconceptions about engineering and its interaction with science at the end of the course (Smetana & Nelson, 2018), a challenge that we continue to explore and attend to in the design and implementation of each subsequent course.

Conclusion

Our approach to introducing elementary teacher candidates to engineering and promoting their comfort with and efficacy for teaching engineering in the elementary grades highlights the value of a) capitalizing on partnerships, b) immersing candidates as learners who, like their students, benefit from teaching and learning experiences across different educational settings and with expert educators, c) providing opportunities to observe, enact and analyze the enactment of high-leverage instructional practices and d) incorporating opportunities for independent and collaborative reflection. These elements resonate with those emerging from other studies that describe characteristics of practice-based and participatory approaches to teacher preparation (Forzani, 2014; Grossman et al., 2009; Lampert et al., 2013) as well as initiatives that successfully introduce educators to engineering education and pedagogies (Goldman & Zielezinski, 2016). When asked about their course experiences, candidates consistently rank the time in the elementary engineering lab as most influential on their ideas and beliefs about engineering and engineering education at the end of the semester. This is not unexpected given the amount of time spent in the classroom and the timing of the question, which comes at the end of the semester when candidates have just completed the school-based experience and said their farewells to the elementary classes. However, these findings reinforce the value of the field-based experiences and the collaborations between the university instructor and engineering lab teacher whose educational practices are consistent with current science/engineering standards and align with the rest of the course content and strategies. As Zeichner (2012) argues, it is not just being in a P-12 classroom that makes for a meaningful teacher preparation learning experience. Rather, a coherent and participatory learning experience focuses on the work of teaching and involves observing and participating in practice, as well as acquiring ones’ own skills in specific core practices through enactment and reflection (Forzani, 2014).

Although fewer candidates cite the influence of the museum in the end of semester essays and interviews, their early semester reflections illustrate how impactful the visit is on candidates’ understanding of engineering practices and habits of mind, but also structured yet flexible and self-directed learning environments, and strategies for scaffolding intellectual risk-taking. These findings suggest that the museum-based session laid the groundwork for the elementary engineering lab experience. That is, the visits provided an introduction to focused inquiry, through examining influences on the processes and conditions for learning that exist within the informal setting and that also have relevance for the classroom setting. Additionally, our experience and findings suggest that the museum session, with its behind the scenes look at the exhibition spaces and programing as well as the chance to personally experience them, helps candidates attend to both the learner and educator perspectives (Grossman et al., 2009).

Critical to the success of the course and partnerships with the museum and engineering lab is the museum educators, engineering lab teacher and the university professor all being positioned as co-teacher educators who share in the responsibility of preparing the teacher candidates. Each brings a unique set of experience and expertise, and each guides candidate learning in complementary ways. These collaborations and professional relationships have developed over several years, during which time tremendous energy and time have gone into meeting, planning and reflecting upon course sessions and activities. Along the way, we have all learned from one another, adding to our own professional repertoires.

Going forward, we are eager to continue to innovate in our practice, reviewing candidate outcomes and further improving upon the learning experiences we provide. Future longitudinal research in this area needs to consider how candidates progress into student teaching and beyond, and the extent to which the interest and efficacy demonstrated at the end of the course is indeed associated with high quality engineering instruction in their own elementary classrooms.

 

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

Introduction

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.

Context

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

Introduction

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).

Discussion

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.

Conclusion

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

Introduction

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.

 

Personal Science Story Podcasts: Enhancing Literacy and Science Content

Introduction

I think my science teaching methods courses must feel like “drinking from a fire hose” for teacher candidates at times. These preservice teachers are often balancing a full course load, a field placement, and a job or two; meanwhile, I am trying to give them opportunities to practice teaching science as inquiry, when they might still be struggling with their own grasp of the science content. Many of the elementary preservice teachers in my methods classes struggle to see the connection between their lives and science. On the other hand, many of the secondary preservice teachers in science methods classes struggle with the need to teach literacy while they teach science. One assignment that has given me an opportunity to enhance these connections– between students and teachers’ lived experiences and science, and literacy, and between themselves– is the personal science story podcast. This assignment can be used with elementary or secondary preservice teachers, and a modified version is available for students.

Stories are “at the heart of how we make meaning of our experiences of the world” (Huber et al., 2013, p.214). As a teacher explains in Lisa Delpit’s (2005) Other People’s Children, “teaching is all about telling a story. You have to get to know kids so you’ll know how to tell the story…” (p. 120). The stories we tell can show others who we are and what we value, and giving our students opportunities to tell their own stories shows them that we value them and their stories, and that we want to learn more. In modeling teaching methods for my preservice teachers, I seek to show them that their stories matter, so that they may do the same for their own students. First, however, I need to help them figure out how to tell their stories, and why their stories are worth sharing. The stories come first, and then they connect the science.

Digital Storytelling

Digital storytelling is the process of using multimedia to tell a story, and is used in many different fields, including education, public health, and law. As Dip (2014) wrote, digital storytelling is useful for “giving a voice to the vulnerable and enabling their story to be told,” (p 30). In science methods courses, we seek to empower our teacher candidates to share their lived experiences and seek to learn from others’ experiences. As a way of learning about teacher candidates, modeling methods by which these candidates can learn about their own students, and giving candidates an opportunity to practice connecting science to a real-life context, I designed the personal science podcast assignment. In collaboration with other methods colleagues, I have used the assignment with both preservice elementary and secondary teachers. These teacher candidates have used the assignment to reflect on their connections to science, and how they use language with their students (Frisch, Cone, and Callahan, 2017).

Engaging in the process of creating a digital story can help students collect information, organize their conceptions, and become more motivated to learn (Burmark, 2004; Hung, Hwang & Huang, 2012; Robin, 2008). Much of the research on digital storytelling includes an approach of integrating photos, videos, and other images along with audio narration to tell a personal story (e.g., Couldry, 2008; Robin, 2008), and the approach detailed in this paper has a primary focus on the audio narration. This focus was intentional: observations during other technology-related studies have provided evidence that students spend a great deal of time and effort on finding and editing the “perfect” image when presented with a digital storytelling assignment, and writing the script and polishing the narration were given much less attention. One focus of this assignment is to encourage teacher candidates to think about the language they use: written and spoken. This led to the podcast vehicle to frame the assignment. Despite the auditory focus, the assignment can still be placed under the umbrella of digital storytelling because it includes each of the seven “elements of digital storytelling” (Lambert, 2002): point of view, dramatic question, emotional content, gift of your voice, pacing, soundtrack, and economy.

To frame lessons in methods courses, we refer to Social Justice Standards developed by Tolerance.org and based on Derman-Sparks’ (1989) four goals for anti-bias education: identity, diversity, justice, and action. The personal science story podcast assignment provides teacher candidates an opportunity to engage with and reflect on the domains of identify and diversity as they relate to science teaching. The digital storytelling skills of remembering, creating, connecting, and sharing are interwoven within the assignment, and each of these practices can help teacher candidates deepen their understanding of their own cultures and identities as well as give them an opportunity to learn about and show respect for the stories of others (Willox, Harper, & Edge, 2012).

Academic Language

Much as teacher candidates feel time pressure to “cover” large amounts of science content when they teach, those of us who teach science methods courses feel pressure to discuss a wide variety of topics in a limited amount of time. My own efforts to meet teacher preparation standards and make sure that my candidates are equipped with a wide variety of research-based best practices for teaching science inquiry has sometimes meant that I have not given my candidates much of an opportunity to think about how they will support science literacy and language development in their classrooms. The widely-used teacher candidate assessment, edTPA, as well as efforts to give teacher candidates more tools to support English Learners in science classrooms, have made me more aware of the need to provide opportunities to think about academic language and science literacy.

We want our teacher candidates to feel prepared to let their students do science; equally important is that they are ready to support their students in writing, reading, speaking, and listening to science talk (Pearson, Moje, and Greenleaf, 2010; Silva, Weinburgh, and Smith, 2013). Science reform efforts can sometimes result in a de-emphasis of these literacy skills, but reading and writing about science does not have to mean less time for inquiry. The type of science inquiry that involves doing science– making predictions, designing investigations, and collecting and analyzing evidence—can be enhanced by conceptualizing science literacy as a form of inquiry (Pearson et al., 2010). The process of composing an appropriate, science-based question to ask and reading through and paraphrasing science texts and journals to communicate what is already known about the answer can be thought of as components of science inquiry (Frisch, Jackson, and Murray, 2017).

Academic language includes both the vocabulary and the syntax that we use primarily in a school-based setting, rather than conversational language. Scientific language is not the same as academic language, though there is some overlap in that both forms of communication require formality, conciseness, and a “high density of information-bearing words” (Snow, 2010, p. 450). Preservice teachers initially focus on these information-bearing words—the vocabulary of science—rather than on the words and concepts that are still academic in nature but not strictly science-based. For example, teacher candidates might make the assumption that their students already understand the difference between “analyze” and “interpret” rather than explicitly teaching these ideas. By giving teacher candidates a chance to analyze their own language use, both academic and conversational, we can model the process of explicitly teaching academic words and skills like “analyze” and how analyzing data is different from simply displaying data. The language analysis component of this assignment supports this kind of reflection.

Teacher-created podcasts are one way to use the assignment; once created, teacher candidates can use the podcasts with their students. Audio podcasts can be an effective way to reinforce academic language, both in terms of vocabulary and in language function and fluency. Putman and Kingsley (2009) found that fifth-graders who used teacher-prepared podcasts that focused on science vocabulary performed significantly better on vocabulary tests than students who received classroom instruction alone. Student responses indicated that students both enjoyed the podcasts and found them helpful in terms of reviewing words they had forgotten. Borgia (2009) found that fifth-grade students who were given access to teacher-created podcasts as a supplementary tool were able to increase their vocabulary retention.

An extension of the assignment, in which teacher candidates give their own students opportunities to create podcasts, has the potential to be even more powerful, both for learning language and inquiry. Dong (2002) observed that effective biology teachers provide English Learners (ELs) with assignments that offer authentic practice in speaking, reading and writing in the context of biology learning, and this additional practice (especially if done in groups) can reduce speaking anxiety and enhance students’ ability to communicate about science. Another goal of the assignment is to give teacher candidates skill in creating the kind of podcast that can enhance understanding of both scientific and academic language, and to gain self-efficacy in supporting their students to make literacy gains.

In this podcasting assignment, teacher candidates are encouraged to use their own language, in the context of their own stories. We want to value the story as we value the person that tells it (Hendry, 2007). Transitioning between the conversational and the academic in a podcast requires a kind of code switching, and teacher candidates can use this assignment to reflect on different uses of spoken and written language, how they are useful, and what they might miss. The process of using the kind of “real life” language to think about more academic topics can be useful to help students increase understanding and skill in how they use language (Amicucci, 2014), and possibly how they go on to teach language use.

Procedure for Facilitating the Personal Science Story Podcast

Engage: Listen to Some Podcasts

To introduce the assignment to the audience (whether that audience is teachers, teacher candidates, or K-12 students), engage them by giving them an opportunity to listen to an example personal science story podcast. I have produced two podcasts to use as examples: one is 5 minutes (http://bit.ly/ISTE_worms) and another is 10 minutes (http://bit.ly/ISTE_helicopter). These examples are available on SoundCloud for public use, and the accompanying teachers’ guides (discussed later) and podcasting resources are available on this website: http://storiesandatoms.weebly.com. Each semester, we ask our teacher candidates for permission to post their podcasts on the SoundCloud channel, and we now have several other example podcasts available with permission (https://soundcloud.com/jennifer-frisch).

Another option is to share episodes from The Story Collider (http://www.storycollider.org/podcasts/), a podcast that allows scientists to share personal experience stories and connect these back to science. We note, however, that this podcast series was designed for adult audiences, and as such, some episodes are labeled “explicit” (usually for language and sometimes content). StoryCorps is another podcast that can be used in a variety of ways with students or teachers to demonstrate the idea of personal story podcasts; it uses an interview format to tell stories, and there are some examples of stories that reflect on personal science as well.

Explore: The Story Circle

The “story circle” is a small group discussion in which students share ideas for their stories, listen to other students’ stories, and provide constructive criticism. When we started doing this assignment, we noticed that many of our teacher candidates (particularly elementary preservice candidates) were struggling with connecting their real lives to science, and their stories started out either heavily expository (explaining a science concept in somewhat stilted language) or without any connections to science (e.g., a personal story without explicit connections to science concepts). Using a structured story circle early in the process has helped strengthen both the science and the narratives in candidates’ story podcasts, while also increasing their collaboration skills and sense of their class as a scientific community.

Students come prepared to participate in the story circle by bringing two ideas for stories from their lives that they want to tell; encouraging candidates to think of a story or stories that tell the audience something about their identity (who they are as a person, where they come from) can be helpful. Some prompts from the “Digital Storytelling Cookbook” (Lambert, 2010) may be provided for those students that are struggling to think of a story. Although students can write down some notes if they wish, the objective is to have them tell the stories, briefly, in a conversational tone to the group. For example, a teacher candidate participated in the story circle by saying, “I was thinking about two different things, but I’m not sure. One story was about this time when I got sleep paralysis, but then I have another story when I broke my arm falling out of a tree.” The other participant-listeners in the story circle then asked questions about the stories, helping her to tell a little more about each incident, and giving her feedback on which story they wanted to hear more about. As a natural part of these discussions, other candidates started coming up with ideas about the science concepts that might be connected with each story.

An important rule of the story circle is that each participant comes prepared to listen to colleagues’ stories and ask respectful questions. A facilitator should be present in the story circle to help remind participants to be respectful of others’ stories and work, and be receptive to suggestions of others. The guidelines posted by Roadside Theater found at https://roadside.org/asset/story-circle-guidelines?unit=117 (Roadside Theater, 2016) can be helpful to review with students before the circle begins.

After participating in the story circle, teacher candidates begin writing the script for their story. Although this process should be iterative, with opportunities for feedback and revision, some teacher candidates may need some initial support in constructing the backbone of their stories. To this end, one could use Ohler’s expansion of Dillingham’s (2001) “Visual Portrait of a Story” (Ohler, 2013; also available online at http://www.jasonohler.com/pdfs/VPS.pdf). The Visual Portrait of a Story diagram can help the writer map out her story’s problem, conflict, and conclusion. For some students, having this structure in place will lead to writing a full draft of the story, but others will prefer to begin working on the science portion before fleshing out the rest of the story.

Explain: Researching the Science

Once students have begun to map out the general structure of their stories, the next step is to decide on a science concept they would like to research and connect to the story. This step typically comes much easier for secondary science teacher candidates and those elementary candidates who are already enthusiastic about science content: in fact, these candidates often have to be cautioned to focus on just ONE science concept to connect to their story, rather than turning their podcast into a lecture on the science concepts and their connections. I reinforce the idea that the language function for the podcast is primarily to ENGAGE the audience, and secondarily to EXPLAIN the science. This reminder serves several functions: 1) to help explain and reinforce the idea of language function; 2) to help students who might be more inclined to write more exposition remember that an engaging story is the more important part of the podcast; and 3) to reassure those students who do not have strong self-efficacy in their own abilities to learn and explain science that the personal story itself is valuable and important.

Teacher candidates identify one or two ideas that their story makes them wonder about. I ask the teacher candidates to stretch themselves and think about a connection they would like to learn more about, rather than a science concept that they already feel comfortable explaining. For example, if a teacher candidate has decided to tell a story about how she broke her arm, she might feel comfortable relating that story to a description of the names and sizes the bones in the arm. With some guidance, an instructor could help her think of some connections that she will have to do some research to answer: how much force would have to be applied to break a bone? How do bones repair themselves? The focus of this part of the assignment is on questioning: find a question you want to know more about, and then research the answer to the question. This is a good time to discuss (or review) the difference between science questions that can/should be answered using experimentation and science questions that are better answered with library-based research.

During this part of the project, talk about how to identify valid and reliable internet sources to help with research, and how to cite sources appropriately. As the candidates conduct their research, they often find more information than they need to answer their question. The next step is to add the science to the story podcast script. Examine the Next Generation Science Standards and identify standards that fit the science focus– these could be disciplinary content standards, science and engineering practices, or integration. Then the candidates can do their research on the science ideas, and work on putting their findings into appropriate language for the grade level band(s) they are targeting. At this stage it is helpful to reinforce the idea that the primary language function for the podcast is to engage the audience. Although we want the science concept to be well-connected to the story, the podcast story itself will only introduce the concept, and the Teachers’ Guide will expand on the concept.

Elaborate: Language Analysis, Justification, and Teachers’ Guide

After teacher candidates have revised their podcast script to include both the story and the science, they analyze the language in their script in two ways: 1) they examine the vocabulary present in the script, and 2) they examine the reading level of their script.

The academic vocabulary is analyzed using AntWordProfiler (Anthony, 2014), an open-source program that is available for free at (http://www.laurenceanthony.net/). Students input their script as a text file, and the output is color-coded (Figure 1), showing the number and percentage of words that are Level 1, or in the first 1000 most common words (red font color) in the English language according to the General Service List (GSL, West & West, 1953); Level 2 words, or the second 1000 most common words (green font color) from the GSL, Level 3 words (blue font color), or words on the Academic Word List (AWL, Coxhead, 2000); and Level 0 words (black font color), which are not found on any of previously mentioned lists. AntWordProfiler also allows you to program your own lists of words, so if an instructor or candidate would like to target Dolch words or words from a particular science language list, that can also be done. A ten-minute script is short enough that we can ask teacher candidates to look through the words identified as “level 0” and select those words that they feel would be classified as “scientific” for the analysis (other “level 0” words could be proper names, slang, misspelled words, or other uncommon words: candidates have to determine which words they think are “scientific” and justify their responses).

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample output from the AntWord Profiler (Anderson, 2014) program after teacher candidate input her draft script.

The next part of the analysis uses readability-score.com to gather data on the readability of the script. Teacher candidates can copy and paste their text into the site (the free version will analyze the full text of a ten-minute podcast script, but one can only enter three files a day for free). The output includes readability grade level scores including the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, Gunning-Fog score, Coleman-Liau Index, SMOG index, Automated Readability Index, and an “average grade level” that takes each of the above indices into account. The site also provides assessment of text quality, syllable counts, adverb counts, and reading and speaking time (Figure 2). Although I note that students can often hear and understand text at a higher level than they can write or read, this step is helpful to get candidates thinking about some of their assumptions about what level of language they are using with students; secondary teacher candidates, in particular, often assume that students will understand complex words even if they are English Learners. The language analysis worksheet (Appendix A in the Appendices) guides teacher candidates in reflecting on the extent to which this language-based evidence reflects the grade level they are targeting with their podcast, and justify whether they think they should change some of their language. One goal of this portion of the project is both to get our teacher candidates to reflect on how they use language and to model the process of analyzing data and justifying reasoning. In this case, the data is in the form of the information provided by the software: percentage of words at each level, readability scores based on different criteria, text quality and syllable counts. Based on these data, candidates make decisions while editing their script, and they must also justify their decisions using data. For example, a candidate that noticed that her script had 6 sentences in passive voice and 27 sentences with more than 20 syllabus decided to re-write all sentences to be in active voice and break up her long sentences to make the language both stronger and more accessible to her target group of students. Making and justifying decisions based on data are skills we are also trying to teach candidates to support in their students.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Sample output from the readability-score.com website after candidate submits the text of a draft of her planned story.

The Teachers’ Guide is an extension of the podcast for teacher candidates. While the audience for the podcast should be a class of students, the audience for the Teachers’ Guide is the students’ instructor. If the podcast is used as an “Engage” activity, the Teacher’s Guide can guide the “explore,” “explain,” and/or “elaborate” portions of a lesson: it provides a teacher with activities connected to the concept (explore) that students could do as well as background information about the concept (explain). Throughout the methods course, candidates have been practicing how to teach science by incorporating aspects of the Essential Features of Inquiry, and this framework is used to guide candidates in creating or adapting an appropriate activity for students that could connect science concepts with their story. Additional guidance provided to preservice teachers through the course includes practice with language supports such as graphic organizers, sentence starters, and sentence frames that could be used to enhance their students’ developing science literacy. While developing their Teachers’ Guides, candidates apply their skills in planning both inquiry-based activities that allow students to collect and make sense of data and language supports in the context of their science story. Required components in the teachers’ guide include connections to Next Generation Science Standards, background and supplemental information on the science concept, vocabulary with definitions, and activities that could be used to allow students to explore and expand on the concept by collecting and/or analyzing data. Teacher candidates are asked to cite sources they used for enhancing their own understanding of the concept and any sources they used to develop the activities.

Evaluate: Assessment

For the final step in the project, candidates will record, edit, and ‘produce’ their podcasts, including (creative commons) sound effects or music to enhance the soundtrack if they wish to do so. Students are encouraged to use Audacity to edit their podcasts, because it is free and easy to learn with a variety of tutorials that are updated often on YouTube (one current favorite is http://wiki.audacityteam.org/wiki/Category:Tutorial). If students have the access (e.g., through university computer centers) and the desire to use different software such as Adobe or Garageband, they are encouraged to do so, with the caveat that they will have to find their own tech support, and that the school they teach in may not have access to the software they are gaining skill in using.

The rubric used to assess the personal science story podcasts (Appendix B in the Appendices) is designed to support both the product and the process. At each part of the process, candidates are given extensive feedback to use for revision of the final project. The assignment integrates a variety of skills and objectives, so it is spread out through the semester, in connection with other methods being taught: for example, the story circle can be connected to an introduction to culturally responsive pedagogy, the language analysis component is connected to talk moves, and the Teachers’ Guide construction is done in conjunction with practice with language and literacy supports. At the end of the semester, we have a “science story listening party” where students share their final podcasts in small groups, and those that are comfortable doing so can submit their podcasts and teachers’ guides for me to post online.

On Sharing Student Stories

Many teacher candidates that have completed the assignment have found it to be meaningful in helping them gain skill and self-efficacy in using technology, in learning about science concepts and the Essential Features of Inquiry, and in language analysis. In addition, the process of creating and reflecting on individual (rather than group-created) digital stories can help preservice teachers show increased evidence of self-awareness and emotional engagement (Challinor, Marin, and Tur, 2017), and we have seen this in candidates completing this assignment through their final self-assessments, in which students report increased understanding of their identities and those of some of their colleagues. For some projects in the course, candidates express a strong preference to work in a group, but the “personal” aspect of the story podcast encourages them to push themselves, while still giving them a group “comfort zone” when making use of the story circle idea.

It goes without saying that posting podcasts online should only be done with the consent of the authors. If doing this activity with K-12 students, you will also need parent permission. Although voice-only podcasts are less problematic than posting video, voices and the stories they tell can be individually identifiable so care should be taken to make sure that authors are aware of that possibility.

There are a variety of different platforms one can use to post a podcast series online, and these come with advantages and disadvantages. If you want to make your podcast episodes private (so that only the students in your class can listen to them), it is easiest to just use a learning management system (e.g., Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard, etc.). Universities that have an iTunes U account often have tech support for uploading class-created podcasts to that platform. Another option is to develop a website that you can use to host your podcast (e.g., WordPress, Weebly), although if you plan to upload audio you will generally need to pay an additional fee to accommodate the extra storage. Each website builder may have a media hosting service it recommends (e.g., Blubrry, SoundCloud) and these, too, will come with an additional fee. One newer app/service, http://anchor.fm, shows promise for creating and publishing story podcasts using phones or tablets, including unlimited storage of episodes, analytics, and transcription, and it is free.

The preservice teachers with whom we have shared this project have found it engaging and valuable. Different teachers enjoy different parts of the project: some like the process of constructing a story, some enjoy researching and communicating about a science concept, and some are most engaged by getting a chance to record and edit their stories. The listening parties give the teachers a chance to share their work in their story circle. I ask them to reflect on what they learned from the project: many students reflect on the extent to which the project has taught them something about their colleagues, something about their connections to each other and to science, and something about the power of story to enhance or bring these connections to light.

An Innovative Integrated STEM Program for PreK-6 Teachers

Introduction

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.

Integration

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).

Conclusion

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.

Supporting Science Teachers In Creating Lessons With Explicit Conceptual Storylines

Introduction

Lesson planning is a central activity for developing and enacting teachers’ instructional practices. A well-designed lesson plan concretizes the multiple decisions made by teachers to organize their instruction, based on their knowledge of teaching and student learning (Remillard, 2005). However, lesson plans–even detailed ones—do not necessarily convey the rationale behind choices made regarding teaching approaches, sequences of ideas, and specific activities and representations of content (Brown, 2009). In fact, teachers use a variety of lesson plan formats that require a variety of different components, often based on school or district priorities (e.g. connections to other content areas, integration of technology, etc.). Likewise, some lesson plans have teachers indicate the science standards that are aligned with the activities, while other lessons do not.

In our professional development program targeted to elementary science teachers and focused on physical science concepts (see more details of the PD model in van Garderen, Hanuscin, Lee, & Kohn, 2012), we support teachers in making the central features of a lesson plan more explicit. Given that the teachers who participate in our professional development program come from different school buildings and districts (and may use different curricula), we are interested in promoting their pedagogical design capacity (Brown, 2009) so they can apply and adapt the central features of lesson plan design into their particular contexts. We also use the 5E Learning Cycle (Bybee et al., 2006) as a model for guiding the organization of their lesson activities. A substantial body of research over past decades shows that lessons that utilize a learning cycle framework (Bybee, 1997) can result in greater achievement in science, better retention of concepts, improved attitudes toward science and science learning, improved reasoning ability, and superior process skills than would be the case with traditional instructional approaches (e.g., Bilgin, Coşkun, & Aktaş, 2013; Evans, 2004; Liu, Peng, Wu, & Lin, 2009; Wilder & Shuttleworth, 2005). During our professional development program, teachers learn first about physical science concepts, and then, they refine their understanding of the 5E Learning Cycle and select activities that are aligned to the purpose of each phase in their lesson plans. We know that learning to plan using the 5E Learning Cycle may be challenging for some teachers, as described in previous research studies (e.g., Ross & Cartier, 2015; Settlage, 2000). However, in our experience working with teachers, we noticed a new challenge for teachers’ lesson plan design: recognizing the sequence of concepts so that the lesson has conceptual coherence.

Although teachers were often adept at aligning particular activities with specific phases of the 5E Learning Cycle based on their intended purposes, the complete sequence of activities they chose did not always exhibit strong conceptual connections or align with the scientific concepts stated in lesson learning goal(s). Many teachers focused more on the activities in which students engaged than the science concepts that students should be developing through the activities. A similar finding was also described in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) video analysis study, which indicated that in the majority of US classrooms, “ideas and activities are not woven together to tell or reveal a coherent story” (Roth et al., 2011, p. 120).

In our experience, we found that even teachers who are provided lesson plans that have a coherent sequence of concepts may not recognize this key element of lesson design, and may make adaptations to lessons that are counterproductive to their intent and purpose (Hanuscin et al., 2016). We saw teachers struggled to select activities whose underlying scientific concepts were connected to one another and followed a coherent progression that helped students connect the different concepts to better support their learning. That is, the particular challenge we noticed was related to the creation of a coherent conceptual storyline.

What is a Conceptual Storyline?

We use Ramsey’s (1993) definition of conceptual storylines in our professional development program. The conceptual storyline of a lesson refers to the flow and sequencing of learning activities so that concepts align and support one another in ways that are instructionally meaningful to student learning. We focus on ensuring that the sequence of activities for a particular lesson plan is coherent; that means, the organization of the underlying scientific concepts allows students to develop a full understanding of the scientific concepts stated in the lesson learning goals. Therefore, we expect the conceptual storyline of a lesson to be coherent both in terms of activities and scientific concepts to help students build an organized understanding of a scientific phenomenon (McDonald, Criswell, & Dreon, 2007). Similarly, incoming research suggests that the use of some strategies related to building coherence in lesson plans can impact student learning (see Roth et al., 2011).

Conceptual coherence in lessons

The conceptual storyline of a lesson is often an implicit dimension of planning and, as such, teachers may lack awareness of storylines and how to develop them. Therefore, a key goal that we implemented in our professional development model was supporting teachers’ development of coherent conceptual storylines as an explicit element of lesson design. We have been working with several strategies to help teachers recognize conceptual storylines as an explicit and central component of a lesson plan. We begin by using a Conceptual Storyline Probe (Hanuscin et al., 2016), an example of which is shown in Table 1, to highlight differences in two teachers’ lesson plans. Showing these differences to teachers is the first step to help them recognize that lessons have storylines with different levels of coherence.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Two Lessons with Different Levels of Conceptual Coherence

After reading both lessons, teachers share examples of the criteria they used for evaluating the lessons. In doing this, it is very important that PD facilitators or instructors let teachers talk and provide all the criteria they consider relevant. For example, these criteria might include whether the lesson is hands-on, and whether or not there are connections to the students’ daily lives. Sometimes, during the discussion teachers make comments about the sequence of activities (see examples of teachers’ responses in Figure 1). When prompted about this, teachers mention that there is ‘something’ in the lesson activities that make them flow differently. To be clear, Diana’s lesson includes different ideas about bulbs that lack connections between each other, while Michelle’s lesson organizes its activities in a sequence by which students can build an understanding of a central concept (switches). Therefore, noticing the difference in each lesson’s conceptual coherence is the first step in recognizing conceptual storylines as a component of lesson design.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Examples of teachers’ initial responses to the evaluation of two lessons with different levels of conceptual coherence.

A Strategy to Supporting Teachers Plan Lessons with Coherent Conceptual Storylines

Given the challenging nature of identifying the conceptual nuances in lesson plans, we recognize the importance of providing teachers support in constructing lessons with coherent conceptual storylines. To help teachers recognize coherent conceptual storylines as essential for well-designed lessons and encourage them to plan lessons that are conceptually coherent, our team has developed a strategy that includes four distinctive steps, as illustrated in Figure 2. Although our prior work was situated in elementary science, awareness of conceptual storylines can extend to all grade levels.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Steps for supporting teachers in developing a coherent conceptual storyline.

Step 1. Building awareness of conceptual storylines

For teachers unfamiliar with conceptual storylines as a component of lesson planning, we help them build their awareness of what storylines are, how important they are for meaningful instruction, and how they may support student learning. We help teachers think about the storyline of an instructional lesson or learning cycle by making an analogy using two familiar television shows, Saturday Night Live (SNL) and Downton Abbey. While SNL has consistencies in structure between shows (e.g. musical guest, celebrity monologue, etc.) the storylines of sketches within an episode, and indeed from episode to episode lack coherence. This means that the viewer can watch a whole episode or pieces of a given episode in any sequence. In contrast, to make sense of the storyline of Downton Abbey, one needs to watch the episodes in sequence to connect the events and ideas. Thus, Downton Abbey exemplifies a coherent storyline within and across episodes. When discussing this analogy between TV shows, teachers easily recognize that lessons also need to organize their concepts sequentially so each activity is necessary and sufficient for promoting student understanding. Drawing on this analogy helps teachers realize that conceptual coherence is an important feature of a lesson and that planning with conceptual storylines allows students to build science concepts within a larger arc and in connected ways—rather than as disconnected pieces.

Step 2. Analyze the coherence of the conceptual storyline of existing lessons

Once teachers recognize the importance of conceptual coherence in a lesson, they can use conceptual storylines for analyzing existing lesson plans. Some teachers examined their own lesson plans and others focused on district-provided lesson plans or lesson plans from commercial curricula. To help teachers learn how to identify and evaluate conceptual storylines, we provide them with two contrasting lesson plans, similar to the lessons presented in Table 1. One lesson has a coherent set of activities focused on a single concept (coherent conceptual storyline), and the second lesson includes activities that address multiple concepts loosely related to a topic (incoherent conceptual storyline). As teachers compare and contrast these lessons, they identify key considerations of different types of conceptual storylines. For example, the coherent conceptual storyline would sequence a key concept in such a manner that one concept builds to the next and allow students to develop the scientific concepts of the lesson learning goal, scientific phenomenon, or big idea.

We also provide teachers support in identifying the lesson’s main scientific idea and the key concepts that students should develop in each phase of the 5E Learning Cycle. For example, we use a card-sorting activity to help teachers make connections between the specific key ideas in a lesson and the phases of the 5E Learning Cycle. Before introducing this aspect of lesson plan design, we have teachers sequence the activities of a lesson based on their own understanding of a good instructional sequence. After learning about the 5E Learning Cycle and conceptual storylines, teachers sort the cards again and provide a rationale for their choices. To illustrate this we include responses of Anne, a fourth grade teacher, to the card sorting activity about a lesson focused on identifying characteristics of conductors and insulators (See Figure 3). At the end, Anne was able to justify that the activity in which students test a mystery box for electrical connections was not adequate for the Engage phase of the lesson, because this activity did not provide enough evidence for students about the components of an electric circuit that would serve as a foundation for the following activities through the lesson. We recognize that the process of learning about conceptual storylines is often slow, and needs to be fostered through several activities.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Responses to a card sorting activity before and after learning about conceptual storylines.

Overall, these learning opportunities allow for the teachers to examine different lesson plans and engage in discussions about what a coherent conceptual storyline looks like, as well as potential implications for student learning when using coherent or incoherent lessons.

Step 3. Creating an explicit conceptual storyline as part of the planning process

Once teachers were able to identify a lesson’s conceptual storyline and assess it for coherence, we engaged them in the design of a new conceptual storyline for their own lesson plans. We scaffolded this process by helping teachers break down a main concept, a scientific phenomenon, or big idea into more specific key ideas. Similarly, the use of the NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas can help teachers identify key scientific concepts to organize the conceptual storyline. The example presented in Figure 4 shows how the main concept about magnetic poles is ‘unpacked’ in several sub-concepts. The teacher began the sequence by anticipating a student misconception and used it to build the storyline.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Examples of specific concepts about magnet poles organized by teachers in the creation of a conceptual storyline.

To support teachers in making explicit connections among those key ideas, we introduce teachers to a Conceptual Storyline Map, an instructional scaffold adapted from Bybee’s (2015) work (see map in Appendix A). By using this map, teachers sequence the specific concepts and are able to connect two concepts through a linking question, while making connections to the phases of the 5E Learning Cycle. For example, one third grade teacher created a lesson plan to help her students understand how magnetic objects interact. When articulating the conceptual storyline she linked two important key ideas: 1) that magnets can attract, repel, or have no interaction with other objects, and 2) that magnets attract or repel other magnets, attract some metals (ferromagnetic), but have no interaction with other materials. In this case, the second idea builds on the first one and supports the construction of a conceptual storyline. The teacher included a linking question to make the connection between both ideas explicit, “What types of interactions do magnets have?”.

We note this process may be frustrating for some teachers who are not as familiar with the content knowledge or struggle to articulate the links between key concepts in a conceptual storyline. We recommend that PD instructors or facilitators do not provide the connections between the key concepts of the conceptual storyline, because these connections are not necessarily explicit for teachers. In our experience, having teachers create the conceptual storyline in collaborative teams has been helpful for addressing these potential problems.

Articulating concepts in a coherent conceptual storyline as an explicit component in lesson planning provided the teachers’ with a basis for the selection of activities and content representations. Therefore, the storyline acts as a backbone for the lesson. That backbone is a necessary foundation for the lesson, but does not provide a complete lesson plan; teachers must still select the particular activities and content representations to complete the lesson. In this way, the activities and content representations become the ‘connective tissue’ to the backbone of the lesson.

Step 4. Promote conceptual coherence throughout the storyline

Following teachers’ identification of the big idea or main concepts for the storyline, as well as the specific key ideas targeted during each phase of the learning cycle, the last step in teachers’ construction of conceptual storylines involves the ‘fine grain’ work needed to secure conceptual coherence in a lesson. In this step, teachers select activities and content representations (e.g., models, diagrams, analogies), and make any adjustments to their lessons to retain the conceptual coherence.

As teachers select activities and content representations, they must attend to the ‘big idea’ they developed in Step 3 that encompasses the various activities in the lesson. Likewise, these activities might provide opportunities to explore a scientific phenomenon and engage students in tasks related to the NGSS performance expectations. Whether teachers use curricular standards for their big idea or independently identify the main concepts, the main ideas guide the development of the lesson storyline. To assist teachers in planning a lesson with a coherent conceptual storyline, we provide teachers with a lesson plan form that designates the first column to the main concept that students are developing in that particular phase of the 5E learning cycle. Consequently, those concepts help teachers select and organize the activities of a lesson. For example, one fifth grade teacher created a lesson plan named “What is matter?”, in order to help students develop a scientific definition of matter and an understanding that matter can take multiple forms (see Appendix B).

The process of selecting particular activities and representations is iterative, and multiple adjustments can and should be made to ensure conceptual coherence across the big idea, the key concepts of the storyline, the concept representations, and activities. Because lesson plans are not created in isolation, we encourage teachers to make connections with ideas that were developed in previous lessons or relate to prior knowledge and students’ ideas.

Concluding Thoughts

Designing lesson plans with a coherent conceptual storyline may take more time initially because of the added layer of complexity in aligning concepts and activities. However, every lesson plan is based on a storyline—coherent or incoherent. If teachers do not plan for coherence, the result may be a set of disconnected concepts and activities.

In our professional development experience, we have noticed that teachers not only use conceptual storylines to select activities and content representations, but also for assessment purposes. In the last iteration of our program, we started supporting teachers in making connections between the concepts included in particular storylines and the ways to assess these concepts—either formatively or summatively (see matrix on Appendix C). We decided to include this component because we noticed teachers struggled to select topic-specific assessments strategies throughout the lesson. Given that many lesson plans require the inclusion of the assessment strategies, the use of conceptual storylines may help teachers identify what concepts need to be assessed during the lesson and when. The use of conceptual storylines may become an important tool to gather students’ evidence, especially to guide students in developing main scientific ideas.

In addition, the use of conceptual storylines is key towards building conceptually coherent lessons and thus, helping students build foundational science concepts. In our work, participant teachers are able to recognize the importance of planning lessons with conceptual coherence as an explicit component of lesson plan design and as a guide for the use of activities and representations. As one participant teachers stated:

When we planned our entire learning cycle we really did go over what the storyline would be…I think [PD facilitator] really helped us understand what may be a huge piece of what’s missing with a lot of instruction…the storyline of each of the learning cycles really built upon the previous one.

Conceptual storylines are just one tool that teachers can use to create coherent lesson plan designs. In emphasizing the importance of conceptual coherence, we do not mean to imply that content has greater importance than the process by which students learn the content—indeed, careful consideration should be given to the kinds of activities that will support students in building new understandings, developing facility with new skills, and developing confidence and competence as learners. We recognize that to create conceptual storylines, teachers need strong foundations in content knowledge to identify the key scientific concepts and the ways they are connected to each other. Therefore, in our professional development program, learning about conceptual storylines is embedded as part of a comprehensive curriculum that integrates content knowledge about physical science concepts and pedagogical lenses. For professional developers interested in adapting this strategy in their contexts, we recommend that learning about conceptual storylines be embedded in a larger professional development program rather than included as an isolated feature of lesson design.