Addressing Social Justice in the Science Methods Classroom through Critical Literacy: Engaging Preservice Teachers in Uncomfortable Discussions

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Bautista, N.U., & Batchelor, K.E. (2020). Addressing social justice in the science methods classroom through critical literacy: Engaging preservice teachers in uncomfortable discussions. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 5(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/addressing-social-justice-in-the-science-methods-classroom-through-critical-literacy-engaging-preservice-teachers-in-uncomfortable-discussions/

by Nazan U. Bautista, Miami University; & Katherine E. Batchelor, Miami University

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to exemplify how teacher candidates can be engaged in discussions around social justice and equity in science methods courses while also learning about and practicing essential science teaching strategies and skills. Our aim is that science teacher educators who do not feel confident enough to explicitly address these important issues in methods courses are encouraged to think creatively about how they can modify or alter their current practices in a way to prepare science teachers for the changing demographics of science classrooms. We present an engineering design activity that is coupled with critical literacy skills, called ‘Build a Child.” Upon identifying the problem, we introduce the context of the preservice teachers’ science methods course and reason for this work, followed by defining critical literacy and how it pairs well in science education. We then share the “Build a Child” engineering project and how we asked preservice teachers to critique and reflect on their creations, thus bringing in a critical literacy framework to the curriculum. Next, we share three findings based on our data analysis, and we end with the importance of science methods courses implementing social justice education and suggestions on how to reexamine our science curriculum to make it more culturally relevant and equitable for all students.

Introduction

In 2016, a white, female, science teacher in an 8th grade classroom in Baltimore, Maryland grabbed a black male student by the hood of his jacket and told him he was a “punk a** n***** who is going to get shot” as she hauled him out of the classroom. She then turned to the rest of the students, most of whom were students of color, and called them “idiots” and “stupid” (Green, 2016). In March 2018, a white, female teacher in Crystal River, FL was fired after her white nationalist and racist podcast unearthed (Stevens, 2018). In December 2018, another white, female, science teacher in South Fresno, California was caught on camera forcibly cutting a student’s hair in front of his peers as she sang the U.S. national anthem loudly (Hutcherson, 2018). In March 2019, a white, male, science teacher was suspended after allegedly using the “n-word” during a science class in Pens Groove, New Jersey (Brown, 2019).

A quick Internet search will show that the aforementioned incidents are hardly unique. As science teacher educators we have seen more than a dozen of news stories like these in the media over the last decade. We could not believe that a teacher would behave in such a deplorable way and possibly blame them for not acquiring the required dispositions to teach, especially in a context that is racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse. What we ignore, however, is the role we, as science teacher educators, play in these teachers’ inability to understand and interact with students who are culturally different from them. It is about time we revisit our complicitness with teacher candidates’ stereotypes of people from other cultures and races different than their own.

Over the last three decades, science educators’ agendas have heavily focused on changing classroom science teaching practices from traditional lecture and cookbook labs format to constructivist and inquiry-oriented teaching and learning approaches. We have focused on developing teachers’ (both prospective and inservice) and students’ scientific argumentation skills and improving their understanding of scientific ways of knowing. While emphasizing these issues are important, teacher educators rarely, if at all, center instruction on social justice and equity, and thus, fall short in preparing teachers for the changing demographics and needs of their classrooms.

Teacher candidates’ perceptions of preparing to become a science teacher are not any different from ours. They come to our courses with the expectation that we will address the science content knowledge they need to know and teach the strategies and techniques necessary to “deliver” the content (Ball & McDiarmid, 1990; Feiman-Nemser, 2012). Rarely teacher candidates find concepts, such as understanding the needs of their culturally diverse students, practicing culturally relevant teaching practices, or learning to properly integrate reading and writing in science instruction to help their students develop their language literacy skills as important and relevant as learning to teach science (Silverman, 2010). The news stories we shared above provide evidence that science teacher preparation is and should be indeed more than just preparation of teachers for the content expertise.

Scholars (e.g., Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2014; Nieto, 2005; Sleeter, 2005) recommend increased emphasis on culturally relevant teaching pedagogy in teacher preparation courses. Preservice teachers are in need of preparation that places culturally relevant teaching at the forefront in order to prepare future teachers with issues that may arise regarding race, culture, and gender, for example, in their classrooms, and culturally relevant pedagogy provides ways of centering the cultures, languages, and experiences that diverse learners bring to classrooms (Villegas & Lucas, 2002). However, too often science teacher educators themselves are not knowledgeable about how to cater to the unique needs of culturally diverse students of science or what culturally relevant teaching approaches should look like in science classrooms. Considering the lack of science teacher educator knowledge and experience with culturally relevant teaching, our goal is to exemplify how teacher candidates can be engaged in discussions around social justice and equity in science methods courses while also learning about and practicing essential science teaching strategies and skills. Our hope with this article is that science educators like Nazan, who do not feel confident enough to explicitly address these important issues in methods courses are encouraged to think creatively about how they can modify or alter their practices in a way to prepare science teachers for the changing demographics of classrooms.

We want to clarify, however, that we do not claim that this single activity that spans over a couple of days makes big changes in the worldviews preservice teachers have developed over their lifetime. However, it is through engaging and thought-provoking activities such as the one we explain below that both science teacher educators and preservice teachers will engage in conversations that they may find difficult and uncomfortable. For real change to happen, more of these conversations and engagements must happen in the entire curriculum of a program.

We begin by introducing the context of the preservice teachers’ science methods course and reason for this work, followed by defining critical literacy and how it pairs well in science education. We then share an engineering design project and how we engaged preservice teachers in critical conversations by critiquing and reflecting on their creations. Next, we share conversations preservice teachers had among themselves and with us, and the themes that emerged from these audio-taped conversations. We end with the importance of science methods courses implementing social justice education and suggestions on how to reexamine our science curriculum to make it more culturally relevant and equitable for all students.

Context

In 2016, the Department of Teacher Education at this Midwestern university adopted a mission statement which highlighted our commitment to preparing teachers for confronting social injustices in all educational settings. This commitment required a shift in what was in the center of our curricula. As we revised our course curricula by centering it on learners and focusing on culturally relevant pedagogical approaches, it became obvious that Nazan’s lack of expertise and experiences in these approaches were obstacles in effective implementation.

Nazan is an international scholar who was born and raised in a non-English speaking and Muslim country. She was one of the eight female students out of 60 who studied and earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics prior to pursuing a graduate degree in the U.S. Her personal and academic experiences and worldviews have been shaped by her perceived minority identities (ethnic, religious, and gender).  While she could empathize with injustices that other minority groups (e.g., LGBTQ+ and people of color, or POC) faced with and became allied to related causes such as Black Lives Matter, she failed to recognize her dominant white identity and its impact on the communities in which she was engaged. Through the process of critical introspection in faculty meetings, learning communities, and audited courses with social justice foci, she started to acknowledge her white identity and the need to address issues of social justice in her science methods courses.

Sharing scholarship at the faculty meetings and ideas during hallway conversations enabled us to identify the exemplary work already been done by colleagues. Katherine, for example, had her English Language Arts education majors select print and nonprint linked texts, centering on a social justice theme (e.g., Black Lives Matter) and then critique their texts through a critical literacy lens to address their implicit biases (Batchelor, DeWater, & Thompson, 2019). What attracted Nazan to this work was that Katherine was able to meaningfully weave the new mission with the content of her course (ELA), which her students were expected to teach.

The question for Nazan was, How could the same be done in a science methods course? This is how the idea of integrating engineering design and critical literacy came to coexist for us. Early Childhood Education majors in Nazan’s science methods course had just learned engineering design principles as addressed in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, NGSS Lead States, 2013). The critical literacy infused engineering design activity, called “Build a Child” mentioned below, would create a context for the preservice teachers to apply principles of engineering design they previously learned while enabling us to engage them in uncomfortable discussions and identify any implicit bias preservice teachers might have about their future students. In a study conducted with a comparable sample of preservice teachers, Bautista, Misco, and Quaye (2018) found that preservice teachers often “have submerged epistemologies (e.g., implicit biases) about the world that may or may not show themselves in teacher preparation classes and the schools in which they may teach” (p. 166). Batchelor (2019) research also revealed that preservice teachers’ sociocultural experiences and intersectionality awareness influenced their thinking about bias. Therefore, engaging preservice teachers in an explicit discussion about their child creations using a critical literacy lens would encourage this engineering design activity to become a platform for culturally relevant teaching.

Critical Literacy Paired with Science in Preservice Teacher Education

There is a disparity between children’s diversity and the standardizations and curricula associated with them (Genishi & Dyson, 2009). With 80% of teachers identifying as white, middle class, monolingual females, it’s not hard to see why (Nieto, 2000; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).  Children need to see themselves in the curriculum, but without the pedagogical backbone of culturally relevant teaching, this can become a roadblock to curricular choices for some teachers, especially future teachers. One way to combat this void is through the practice of critical literacy. Critical literacy provides pathways for teachers who are seeking to engage in culturally relevant teaching practices since it is rooted in democracy, injustice, and considered a lens of literacy as well as a practice engaged to encourage students to use language to question their everyday world experiences. In particular, it centers on the relationship dynamic between language and power, positing that text and education are never neutral. It is a sociopolitical system that either privileges or oppresses, especially regarding race, class, and gender. Critical literacy meshes social, cultural, and political worlds with how texts (in the broadest sense) work, in what context, and discusses who benefits and is marginalized within the boundaries of these text uses (Lewison, Leland, & Harste, 2014), which is one of the tenets of culturally relevant teaching: developing a critical consciousness (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995), meaning, students are able to critique cultural norms and values society has deemed worthy.

There is no set “how-to” on how to enact critical literacy in the classroom. This is because each experience is contingent upon the students’ and teachers’ power relations and the needs and inquiries of each child. However, the most commonly used practices that support critical literacy in the classroom include: reading supplementary texts; reading multiple texts; reading from a resistant perspective; producing counter-texts; having students conduct research about topics of personal interest; and challenging students to take social action (Behrman, 2006).

Critical literacy practices and inquiry-based science pair well since both encourage instructional strategies that build on students’ curiosities of the world around them and enhance literacy skills. Additionally, scientific literacy requires the ability to critique the quality of evidence when reading various media, including the Internet, magazines, and television. Moreover, providing opportunities for students to question and ponder what students find meaningful is important to promote an inquiry-based classroom, whether it be in science or language arts.

Both critical literacy and science education encourage students to meaningfully and actively participate with others in a global society. For example, DeBoer (2005) suggests, “Science education should develop citizens who are able to critically follow reports and discussions about science that appear in the media and who can take part in conversations about science and science related issues that are part of their daily experience” (p. 234). Therefore, the many benefits of including critical literacy practices in science education should be examined with preservice teachers as well as practicing teachers.

Preparing Preservice Teachers for the Critical Conversations

In the days leading to the engineering design and the critical conversations, preservice teachers read articles by Montgomery (2001), Moll et al. (1992) and Yosso (2005) focusing on creating culturally responsive and inclusive classrooms and students’ funds of knowledge. They conducted a diversity self-assessment adopted from Bromley (1998).  They shared their self-assessment responses in small groups and discussed the ideas that emerged from these small groups as a whole class. Perhaps the most important aspects of these discussions was that most preservice teachers initially shared their own stories of being stereotyped. For instance, identifying herself as feminine, Bekah expressed that people often assumed she could not use power tools, such as a drill press, or do physical hard work (e.g., putting up a drywall). Yufang, the only international student in the methods class, explained how she felt silenced and invisible in most of her college courses by peers and professors as she could not speak English fast enough during her freshman and sophomore years. Nazan, then guided preservice teachers to consider their future students experiencing similar or other biases (e.g., racial, religious, etc.) and what actions they might take to reach out to these students. Using Moll’s (1992) funds of knowledge and Yosso’s (2005) cultural wealth model, preservice teachers compiled ideas to make their future students feel included in their classrooms and were encouraged to add new ideas to the class list for the rest of the semester. These classroom discussions set the stage for the “Build a Child” engineering design activity, which they started in the following class meeting.

“Build a Child” Engineering Design Challenge

We called the activity, composed of three phases, “Build a Child” because of both its literal and symbolic meanings. While constructing a product using cardboards and Makedo tools as part of the engineering design process in the first phase, we asked preservice teachers to imagine who they were building and who the child was as a whole with his/her/their background, race, ethnicity, struggles, communities he/she/they lived, etc. (second phase). Through these reflective and critical discussions, preservice teachers would become more aware of the stories their future students would bring to their classrooms and the ways in which they needed to build strong relationships with these students (third phase).

Phase 1: Engineering Design

Preservice teachers first practiced engineering design principles as they built a child using cardboards and MakedoTM construction toolkit[1]. Engineering design is the method that engineers use to identify and solve problems.  What distinguishes engineering design from other types of problem solving is the nature of both the problem and the solution. The problems are open-ended in nature, which means there is no single correct solution. Engineers must produce solutions within the limitations of their context and choose solutions that include the most desired features. The solution is tested, revised, and re-tested until it is finalized, and different groups of engineers can end up with different valid solutions. See Figure 1 for the tasks and rules we provided to the preservice teachers to complete this task successfully.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Rules and Criteria Provided for the “Build a Child” Engineering Design Activity and Used to Evaluate Preservice Teachers’ Creations

Once the designs were ready, Nazan, as the instructor, tested each of them to verify whether the designs followed the rules provided in figure 1. Based on the results, preservice teachers either moved on to the next section or revised their design based on the feedback provided until their design was re-tested and approved.

Phase 2: Essays

In the next phase of the lesson, the cardboard children came alive. Preservice teachers individually wrote a background story about their children, detailed enough for the class to get to know each child well. We provided some questions to guide them as they wrote the stories (see figure 2). Since the class time was not long enough to finish these essays, they finalized them and submit them to the instructor prior to the next meeting, which would start with everyone presenting their stories.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Guiding Questions for the “Build a Child” Essays

Phase 3: Critical Conversations

The next phase, critical conversations, began when we asked preservice teachers to imagine that the children they built and narrated would be the children in their future classrooms. We provided the questions in figure 3 to engage them in the critical conservations. We reassured our students before discussion began that acknowledging our own privileges is never easy, and talking about them is even harder, especially when it comes to unpacking implicit biases we all hold. Tensions will arise, but it is through these tensions that we outgrow our thinking. Both Nazan and Katherine shared personal experiences with implicit biases they carried in order to build trust and share that even though they are “seasoned teachers,” they too were challenged with personal biases they carried. By revealing these moments and prefacing the conversation on tension producing reflection, preservice teachers were more willing to share beliefs about their children in small group settings.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge)
Critical Conversation Questions Used to Guide Explicit Discussions

During these small group discussions, both authors sat in on conversations and listened. When conversations were in lull, they would pose questions to extend and nudge students to provide more thinking behind their decisions to create a child with a particular race or gender, for example, and ask them to delve deeper into their own experiences as a student and what they witnessed in school, and more importantly, build empathy toward their created child’s story.

Critical literacy and culturally relevant teaching empower students and teachers to be risk-takers, for voices to be shared and heard. Therefore, when small group discussions concluded, both authors gathered the class back as a whole and asked them to share the highlights of their conversations; question and critique who is in power in making curricular decisions, and generate ideas as to how they would address some of these issues as they make curricular decisions in the future.

Effectiveness of Preservice Teachers’ Critical Conversations

Following the tenets of culturally relevant teaching (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2014; Nieto, 2005), modeling it with and for our students, we engaged in instructional conversations based on meaningful topics, such as systemic issues in education, making the conversation more student-based than teacher-based, and we used open-ended questions to elaborate meaningful discussion. Nieto (2005) discussed ways to support future and practicing teachers by assisting them to “reflect deeply on their beliefs and attitudes” (pp. 217-218), which will hopefully over time, provide opportunities to engage in sustainable culturally relevant pedagogy. We are fully aware that changing students’ beliefs or what Gay (2010) called “ ideological anchors” can be challenging at best, even recognizing that some of our preservice teachers will walk away with some of the same preconceived notions as when they started our courses. However, both authors assert that this doesn’t mean we stop trying. We work through the initial resistance, confusion, and assumptions with which students enter our courses, and offer opportunities to unpack them in a space that supports deconstructing implicit biases.

As stated in the introduction, our university division committed to teaching for social justice, thus providing numerous opportunities for guest speakers, professional development, and collaboration supporting this endeavor both for faculty and students. Because of this commitment, educators better prepare future teachers to talk about issues of race, privilege, and marginalization, for example, because they themselves are also practicing it in their courses. Preservice teachers in the program now experience the overarching theme of social justice woven into each of their courses through dialogic practice, readings, and modeling culturally relevant pedagogical tenets. It is because of this overarching thread that Katherine’s students were prepared and even eager to engage in complicated conversations centering on their created children.

For the purpose of this article, we gathered the “Build a Child” essays written by the 12 preservice teachers and the audiotaped small-group and whole-class conversations. These data sources allowed us to check how effective we were in bringing submerged beliefs to the surface for open dialogue and how well the instruction worked in engaging preservice teachers in meaningful conversations about social justice and equity issues.  Based on our analysis, the following three themes emerged from the thematic review of the data sources: 1) emerging awareness of various forms of diversity; 2) blindness to identity; and 3) stereotypes about gender and gender binary.

Emerging Awareness of Various Forms of Diversity

Overall, preservice teachers’ designs included children from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups, children with physical and learning disabilities, and children who were in different points of the gender spectrum. However, gender far outweighed the other forms of diversity represented. For example, six of the 12 designs were girls and five were boys. Katie initially described her design as a boy, but later in the essay identified him as non-binary gender queer and changed her gender identifier from “him” to “them.”

Regarding racial identity, one of the child designs was Black, one was multi-racial (Latina and White), and one was an immigrant (born in China), while the rest were White. Not surprisingly, the Black, female child was built by a Black, female preservice teacher, Brianna, and the Chinese child (boy) was built by a Chinese preservice teacher, Yufang. Children designed by Debi and Yufang were bilingual.

Looking at living situations, the cardboard children had very supportive families and communities, with the exception of one child who “came from an abusive family.” All children were identified as living in middle class neighborhoods, while one lived in an upper, middle class town with a low unemployment rate.  Two were in lower, middle class communities with both parents working or a single parent working multiple jobs. Only one preservice teacher, Brianna, mentioned that their cardboard child attended a “diverse school.” Three of the children lived with only one parent along with their siblings and grandparents, and only one preservice teacher mentioned divorce as part of their child’s family situation.

As for physical and mental disabilities, one child was identified as a “struggling student,” “having ADD” and another child had an amputated leg. Maddie’s child had an illness called “cardboard-itis,” which affected his ability to memorize, and Luna’s child had severe allergies, which prevented him from attending school. One child struggled with social and emotional needs and was labeled as “Gifted.”

We asked students to assume that the 12 children they created were in their classroom and to reflect on how the created classroom demographics looked similar or different from our current class group. Regarding gender identity (9 female, 1 male, and 2 non-binary gender queer in the classroom versus 6 female, 5 male, and 1 non-binary gender queer with the cardboard child creations), the cardboard children leaned more toward a “traditional” elementary science classroom and less resembled the preservice teachers’ class.  However, regarding racial identity (10 White preservice teachers, 1 Black preservice teacher, and 1 Chinese preservice teacher versus 9 White cardboard children, 1 Black cardboard child, 1 Chinese cardboard child, and 1 multiracial cardboard child), the resemblance was almost identical and is also reflective of the teacher population in the United States currently with 80% White teachers.

Blindness to Identity

Classroom conversations revealed that preservice teachers’ awareness of forms of diversity did not mean that they had an informed understanding of how to interact with or approach students with these identities. They expressed the desire to learn about the differing needs of students in order to provide appropriate support and opportunities; yet, they stated they would treat all students the same regardless of differing needs and opportunities. Identified by the authors as problematic, the conversations among preservice teachers eluded to how their future students are equal no matter their identity, which led to the naive notion of “colorblindness.”

Specifically, we called out the students’ misconception that it is not appropriate to acknowledge differences, especially regarding race. We shared with them our noticings of how each preservice teacher when sharing their child’s background did not identify the child’s race, with the exception of Brianna, the single Black preservice teacher in the course. It was only when asked specifically what the child’s race was that they addressed it. This viewpoint combined with an attitude of “everyone is equal” is problematic since race provides meaning, context, and history, just to name a few (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012).

Stereotypes About Gender and Gender Binary

Interestingly, preservice teachers felt comfortable enough to construct a child representing the opposite sex (e.g., male student built a female child or vice versa) but those who considered themselves straight were not comfortable in building a child who identified on the LGBTQ spectrum. Additionally, regarding gender equity in science education, it was refreshing to witness how evenly distributed the children’s gender was in the science classroom, especially regarding their cardboard children’s attitudes and proclivity toward science. For example, one preservice teacher stated their child wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up (albeit a male child), and another preservice teacher’s female child claimed to be “good at math and science,” while a third, female, cardboard child stated math was her favorite subject.

However, conversations also revealed additional stereotypes about gender roles. For instance, when asked why she built a boy, Kim said her child had short hair and as a result, she imagined the child being a boy. She then turned to Luna who had short hair and identified as gender fluid and apologized. Similarly, the cardboard male students built by Jackie and Kim assumed traditional male roles in their essays. Jackie, stated that her cardboard child was the only boy in the family and he got to be the king while his three older sisters were princesses. Kim stated that her cardboard child had to “step up for his mother and younger sisters after their father walked out on them.”

Discussion

The ultimate goal of this three phase instruction was to push preservice teachers out of their comfort zones by engaging them in critical conversations around issues of social justice. Although the results may not have produced any unordinary instances, we believe that we were able to achieve this goal. Overall, our findings revealed that preservice teachers who state they have the best interests in their future students’ education while appreciating the diversity students bring to their future classrooms have biases about students who have identities that differ from their own. Furthermore, considering societal norms and expectations as “normal” (e.g., heterosexuality), some expressed feeling uncomfortable to openly talk about their students’ gender and racial identity when the students do not exhibit the identities that are “normal.”

Science methods courses provide the necessary context and the opportunity to address preservice teachers’ implicit biases about their students and the communities these students belong to. Science teacher educators must explicitly address that teachers’ values and beliefs influence the way they teach content and curriculum and how they interact with their students. Content mastery cannot be ensured without “seeing” and “understanding” the whole child, which is more than knowing his or her favorite color, game, or animal. It is, in fact, part of their “job” to understand how to effectively teach the content by making it culturally relevant to their students.

To start, science teachers can examine their curriculum through a critical literacy lens, noting whose voices are marginalized and left out of the science conversation. This includes providing a variety of role models in science who represent diversity in all its senses: gender, race, sexuality, ability, age, etc. For example, if examining a unit on inventors and inventions, use Alan Turing’s computer responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma code during World War II, and provide his background and how he identified as gay. When studying space exploration, mention Sally Ride’s, the first American woman in space, female life partner. Look at how diverse (or nondiverse) the scientists represented in the science textbook or supplementary texts are and provide numerous non-White, examples. For example, show clips of the Oscar-winning movie Hidden Figures (2017), to showcase the life work of four, Black, female pioneer NASA scientists. Promote Indigenous science role models by reading The Girl Who Could Rock the Moon (Cointreau, 2019), an inspirational story of the first Native American female scientist, Mary Golda Ross. Talk about the possible barriers and tensions these scientists overcame in order to open the doors for conversations surrounding social justice in science.

Our first implementation of this activity was toward the end of the semester.  These conversations were extended into their final project, titled Community Asset Map for Science Teaching and Learning. Preservice teachers were encouraged to consider ideas generated from these conversations as they developed the asset maps for the partner schools where they completed their clinical experiences. However, Katherine has now altered the course curriculum to include this activity at the beginning of the semester so continued conversations can unpack preservice teachers’ implicit biases surrounding their created children as well as use this experience as an “A-ha!” moment for students to return to throughout the semester, connecting it to future readings and discussions. We have also thought about pairing this activity with students taking an implicit association test (IAT) (see Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) to acknowledge various biases, such as gender and race. We could then have students match their implicit bias test results to their created-child’s story, thus, making a deeper connection.

Most importantly, we believe our future teachers need to have continued support throughout the rest of their program and into their beginning years of teaching in order to make culturally relevant teaching a realization in their future science classrooms. We need to ask repeatedly, “What does culturally relevant teaching look like and feel like in the science classroom?”

Conclusion

Our research revealed that more needs to be done regarding preparing future science teachers to be culturally relevant practitioners. Science education must address social justice, which means, science teachers must learn how to disrupt the current curriculum, create nurturing and supportive learning environments that are conducive to all children, and how to engage in critical conversations. This effort starts with the future of education: Preservice teachers. Teacher educators must teach them to question and examine their preconceived notions of gender, race, sexuality, able-ism, etc. Moreover, there is a need for more research to examine power relations and how culturally relevant practices are enacted in the classroom, especially science classrooms.

Overall, children need to see themselves in the curriculum, and when practicing teachers as well as future teachers are given the opportunity to examine curriculum in this manner, more voices can be included. Modeling culturally relevant science teaching approaches for future teachers as well as engaging them in “difficult” conversations about race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender in the context of science teaching are first steps toward proper preparation of teachers for the increasingly diverse classrooms.

Notes

[1] Makedo Tools are child-friendly (3 years and up) tools specifically designed so as to not cut or punch skin (as described at https://www.make.do/).

Supplemental Files

APPENDIX-A.docx

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A 20-year Journey in Elementary and Early Childhood Science and Engineering Education: A Cycle of Reflection, Refinement, and Redesign

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Sandifer, C., Lottero-Perdue, P., & Miranda, R.J. (2020). A 20-year journey in elementary and early childhood science and engineering education: A cycle of reflection, refinement, and redesign. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 5(4). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/a-20-year-journey-in-elementary-and-early-childhood-science-and-engineering-education-a-cycle-of-reflection-refinement-and-redesign/

by Cody Sandifer, Towson University; Pamela S. Lottero-Perdue, Towson University; & Rommel J. Miranda, Towson University

Abstract

Over the past two decades, science and engineering education faculty at Towson University have implemented a number of course innovations in our elementary and early childhood education content, internship, and methods courses. The purposes of this paper are to: (1) describe these innovations so that faculty looking to make similar changes might discover activities or instructional approaches to adapt for use at their own institutions and (2) provide a comprehensive list of lessons learned so that others can share in our successes and avoid our mistakes. The innovations in our content courses can be categorized as changes to our inquiry approach, the addition of new out-of-class activities and projects, and the introduction of engineering design challenges. The innovations in our internship and methods courses consist of a broad array of improvements, including supporting consistency across course sections, having current interns generate advice documents for future interns, switching focus to the NGSS science and engineering practices (and modifying them, if necessary, for early childhood), and creating new field placement lessons.

Introduction

Over the past two decades, science and engineering education faculty at Towson University have implemented a number of course innovations in our elementary and early childhood education content, internship, and methods courses. Some of these changes were the result of external factors – such as the switch in national standards to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013) – while others were enacted to address internal challenges.

The innovations in our content courses can be categorized as changes to our inquiry approach, the addition of new out-of-class activities and projects, and the introduction of engineering design challenges. The innovations in our internship and methods courses consist of a broad array of improvements, including supporting consistency across course sections, having current interns generate advice documents for future interns, switching focus to the NGSS science and engineering practices (and modifying them, if necessary, for early childhood), and creating new field placement lessons. These modifications are described in detail in this comprehensive overview of our science education courses from 2001 to the present day.

The purposes of this paper are to: (1) describe our course revisions so that faculty looking to make similar changes might discover activities or instructional approaches to adapt for use at their own institutions and (2) provide a comprehensive list of lessons learned so that others can share in our successes and avoid our mistakes.

Institutional and Historical Context

Institution, department, and program structure

Towson University (TU) began as a teachers college, and the tradition of developing highly qualified teachers continues as our institution graduates the largest number of education majors among all universities in our state. Currently 1,274 undergraduate and 1,286 graduate students are enrolled in TU teacher education programs. Over 1,100 of those undergraduate students are working toward an elementary education (ELED) degree, early childhood education (ECED) degree, or dual degree involving one of those specialties. ELED certification is for grades 1-6, and ECED certification is for birth through grade 3.

TU is one of the few universities nationwide to have a significant number of education faculty housed in its science content departments. For example, our home department – the Department of Physics, Astronomy & Geosciences (PAGS) – includes six tenured and tenure-track education faculty members, all of whom teach science and engineering education courses for early childhood and/or elementary programs. These positions are not joint appointments with education departments, but positions solely within our content department. These education faculty have the same qualifications as science education faculty in any college of education, including a doctoral degree in science education, curriculum & instruction, or a closely related field.

Each year, the PAGS department offers approximately 50 sections of elementary and early childhood science/engineering content, methods, and teaching internship courses. Typically, 48% of sections are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, 10% are taught by other full-time faculty (lecturers and coordinating staff), and 42% are taught by part-time faculty.

Science coursework in the elementary and early childhood programs

Table 1 shows the required science content, internship, and methods courses for elementary, early childhood, and dual education majors at TU.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge)
Required Science Content, Internship, and Methods Courses at Towson University

ELED and ECED majors are competitive (“screened”) majors, so interested students initially enroll as pre-ELED and pre-ECED majors. Physical Science I and Biology: The Science of Life are taken during the pre-major period. Later in their academic careers, junior-level ELED majors complete a “mathematics and science” semester, which is a semester solely dedicated to the content and methods of mathematics and science instruction. The science courses taken during this semester are Earth-Space Science, Life Sciences, and Teaching Science in Elementary School (a teaching internship). Instructors of the ELED internship and content courses collaborate during the mathematics-science semester in cases where the elementary interns teach science content that is concurrently being learned in the life science or Earth-Space courses. The only science course taken by ECED majors after the pre-major courses is a junior-level methods course: Teaching Science in Early Childhood. The ELED and ECED junior-level courses are taught in a cohort format, meaning that the same group of students takes all of their courses together.

Table 2 shows how many sections of each science education course are offered by PAGS. The life sciences courses are offered by another department, so they are not discussed here.

Table 2 (Click on image to enlarge)
Number of Sections per Semester for Each Science Education Course

Physical Science I (4 credits, 6 hours of weekly class time). Students investigate topics in physics and chemistry. In this active learning course, students increase their understanding of science concepts via hands-on and computer-based investigations, connections to prior knowledge and everyday experience, and small-group and whole-class discussions.

Earth-Space Science (3 credits, 4 hours of weekly class time). This is similar to Physical Science I in pedagogical style and structure, except that it focuses on light, geology, astronomy, and climatology, and includes a component in which students engage in engineering challenges that are connected to each of the science content units.

Teaching Science in Elementary School (3 credits, 4 hours of weekly class time). This is an internship course with embedded teaching methods that meets once per week at an elementary school site. Typically, each section of the course is placed in a different school. The course helps preservice elementary teachers (“interns”) learn and practice methods of standards-based science teaching and engage in self-reflection and improvement. Course activities include the weekly teaching of a 45-to-60-minute science and/or engineering lesson, coaching from the classroom mentor teacher, lesson planning under the supervision of the course instructor, and methods/content discussions and activities. The planning sessions and methods/content activities are typically conducted in a central meeting space (e.g., an unused classroom) provided by the school.

Teaching Science in Early Childhood (2 credits, 2 hours of weekly class time). This methods course for preservice early childhood teachers meets once per week. There is a limited internship component, in that the interns teach three different science and/or engineering lessons (e.g., Lottero-Perdue, Bolotin, Benyameen, & Metzger, 2015; Lottero-Perdue et al., 2016; Lottero-Perdue, Sandifer, & Grabia, 2017) in local pre-school, kindergarten or first grade classrooms.

Historical background: Guiding principles of instruction

From 1970 to 2000, the pedagogies in TU’s science content, internship, and methods courses were largely based on a three-part learning cycle borrowed from the Science Curriculum Improvement Study (Karplus, 1964): exploration, concept development, and concept application. At that time, the course philosophy was such that lessons were only lightly guided by the instructor as students engaged in an open-ended exploration of science equipment and ideas. Classroom activities were typically adaptations of lessons from the well-known science curricula developed in the 1960s, such as Elementary Science Study (Elementary School Science Project, 1966) and the Conceptually Oriented Program in Elementary Science (Center for Educational Research, 1967).

Course Innovations Over the Past 20 Years

One purpose of this paper is to focus on course-level improvements occurring after year 2000 that help our preservice teachers better understand science and engineering content and teaching methods. Thus we describe here the major instructional innovations that have been implemented in four of the core ELED/ECED science education courses offered by the PAGS department:

  • Physical Science I: We switched to a more structured/guided form of scientific inquiry and introduced at-home experiments, field trips, and video projects.
  • Earth-Space Science: We incorporated science-integrated engineering design challenges (i.e., challenges that reinforce and apply science content knowledge).
  • Teaching Science in Elementary School: We ensured consistency across all course sections, introduced peer advice documents (see below), and switched focus to the NGSS
  • Teaching Science in Early Childhood: We added a field placement component, switched from an inquiry focus to an emphasis on NGSS practices, and distilled and reworked those practices into a smaller subset appropriate for early childhood.

Physical Science I 

Switching to a more guided/structured form of scientific inquiry. In its early years (1970s to early 2000s), in its low-guidance open inquiry format, this course had been a common source of complaints from students, part-time faculty, and education department chairs. In overhauling the course from 2003 to the present day, hundreds of hours have been spent writing and rewriting a new course text and accompanying teacher’s manual (Sandifer, 2019). Overall, the text was transformed from a loose set of investigative guidelines into an active learning workbook representing a structured/guided inquiry format (Banchi & Bell, 2008), which has been successful in improving student learning and reducing course complaints.

Appendix A shows “before” and “after” versions of a specific activity on area and volume, demonstrating how densely packed statements, questions, and guidelines were transformed into a more structured activity that provided more blank space on the page for student notes and results.

Comparing student grades prior to the curriculum change (1998-2003) to grades immediately afterwards (2003-2005), over one-quarter of the students (28.2%) regularly received a D or F in the physical science course before the curricular change and fewer than one-tenth of students (6.8%) received a D or F in the course after the change. Some of the class instructors from 1998-2000 also taught during 2002-2004, so the differences in grade distributions cannot be solely attributed to differences in instructors, grades, or expectations.

The revised curriculum is still in use by some Physical Science I instructors. Other instructors use Next Generation Physical Science and Everyday Thinking (Goldberg et al., 2018), which is similar in its structured approach.

At-home experiments. Nationwide, science education faculty have a strong commitment to helping students connect science content and investigations to their everyday lives. At our institution, we’ve modified our courses over time to meet this goal in a variety of different ways.

In Physical Science I, one real-life connection has been the addition of at-home experiments. In these experiments, the class is presented with a focus question (aka inquiry question or essential question) that individual students must investigate on their own over an extended timeframe: from one to two weeks to a full month. An at-home experiment involves classroom pre-discussions (including relevant safety issues), obtaining the necessary equipment (from our STEM Education Resource Center, if needed), conducting the experimental procedures, a brief write-up of procedures and results, a sharing of data with group members and the entire class, and a final whole-class consensus on the valid scientific conclusions that can be drawn from the students’ collective data.

Early iterations of the at-home experiments were not as successful as we hoped, so the at-home portion of the course text has been augmented with increased pre-experiment support. For instance, in our at-home experiment on the factors affecting evaporation, we initially left it up to the students to determine how to operationally define and measure evaporation rate, which meant that different students ended up with very different measurement procedures—which made it difficult to draw valid conclusions during the consensus discussion. In the latest version, a comprehensive in-class discussion occurs prior to experimentation so that students can agree on acceptable procedures (among other issues) before the experiments begin.

Appendix B is an excerpt from the course text that illustrates the pre- and post-experiment discussions and final expected write-up.

Field trips. To help make Physical Science I more realistic and relevant, some course instructors take students on field trips to local science centers, nature centers, or local attractions (e.g. bowling alley, laser tag facility, indoor skydiving facility, railroad museum). Over the years, different group assignments (three to four students per group) have been associated with these trips:

  • Critiquing the field trip site by making a PowerPoint photo journal that describes 10 attributes of the site and 10 challenges or downsides of the site.
  • Writing a two-page paper about how they would plan/conduct a trip for early childhood or elementary students to the site, including recommendations for parent chaperones.
  • Creating a brief video that makes connections between the course content and the local science center/museum or attraction. For example, one course instructor takes students to a local bowling alley and asks students to create a six-minute infomercial video which explains how course content (e.g. motion, interactions, and forces) can be related to bowling.

To ensure field trips run smoothly, faculty members have students complete liability waiver forms for both the university and field trip site (if needed) prior to the trip; the forms are brought along since they contain emergency contact information. If students drive to the site on their own, it is helpful for faculty members to provide students with the meeting location and parking information.

Earth-Space Science

Although we continuously improve all aspects of the Earth-Space Science course and its associated course text (Sandifer & Lottero-Perdue, 2018), the most significant change over the last decade has been the incorporation of “science-integrated” engineering design challenges, which are engineering challenges that reinforce or apply science content knowledge. This effort began in 2008 when the second author, having received training at the Engineering is Elementary (EiE) Teacher Educator Institute, incorporated a geotechnical engineering unit into her instruction: A Stick in the Mud: Designing a Landscape (EiE, 2011a).

Unlike the National Science Education Standards (NSES, 1996), the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013) explicitly include engineering as a part of science education for kindergarten through grade 12. With the release of the NGSS, it became clear that engineering learning experiences for early childhood and elementary majors at our institution (a) shouldn’t be limited to a single instance and (b) should be available to all students, no matter who their instructor might be. To accomplish these goals, we incorporated a science-integrated engineering design challenge into each unit: using mirrors to cause a laser beam to hit a target in the light unit; building and using a quadrant to track the height of the Moon (Lottero-Perdue & Sandifer, in press) in the astronomy unit; and identifying the best build site for a TarPul transportation system (a modified EiE geotechnical activity, used with permission) in the geology unit. Additionally, we created a short unit to be taught during the first week of class to introduce students to engineering and an end-of-semester project in which students create a video presentation (see Appendix C) to describe their design.

Teaching Science in Elementary School

As much as we value our science teaching internship, this course has faced significant problems over the years. From 2001-2005, instructor and intern complaints about the course had been steadily increasing, prompting us to tackle different challenges to provide a better experience for all parties involved. Follow-up investigations revealed that different sections of the course were no longer uniform in terms of the number of lessons taught, the number of interns per classroom, feedback on the interns’ science teaching, and the degree to which each section focused on the national standards. We were awarded a Physics Teacher Education Coalition grant to address these significant issues (Sandifer, Lising, Tirocchi, & Renwick, 2019). The project team, including a full-time elementary teacher-in-residence, engaged in a number of activities to improve the course. The grant-related modifications and subsequent changes led to the creation of a unique course unlike most other science teaching internships. The grant ended in 2007, but all course innovations have been sustained to the present day.

Course logistics. The Teaching Science in Elementary School course is not a methods course, but a teaching internship in which our junior-level ELED students (“interns”) learn to teach by teaching. The course meets once per week for 3 hours and 50 minutes. The first two to three weeks of class take place on the university campus; after that, class meets at the elementary school site. When the interns enter the course, they possess general knowledge about planning, teaching, and assessment in the context of literacy and reading – but nothing related to science and engineering instruction in particular.

During the on-campus sessions, the instructor has the interns engage in methods activities pertaining to specific instructional topics (e.g., the NGSS scientific practices), observe videos of real-life science instruction, experience NGSS-aligned science lessons (usually related to the science content that the interns will be teaching), and participate in pedagogical discussions about all of the above.

When the interns’ elementary school teaching begins, the class becomes a blend of preparation, teaching, reflection and methods. Table 3 shows a sample schedule for a class meeting.

Table 3 (Click on image to enlarge)
Sample Daily Schedule for Teaching Science in Elementary School

One key innovation is that we place multiple interns in the same classroom at the same time, with each intern (or pair of interns) teaching science to his or her own small group of four to six students (Sandifer, Hermann, Cimino, & Selway, 2015). For some teaching sessions, interns in the same classroom teach the same lesson in parallel to their own groups; for other teaching sessions, the interns plan a stations-based lesson in which students rotate from station to station (i.e., from intern to intern) to participate in different activities related to the same general topic (e.g., forces). To foster collaboration and the creation of high-quality lessons, all interns sharing a classroom plan their science lessons together with the help of the course instructor.

The benefits of a multiple-interns-per-classroom teaching structure include:

  • For each course section, it is only necessary to recruit three to five classrooms at a single elementary school.
  • Since all interns are placed at the same school, it is possible to mentor every intern every day and observe each intern regularly.
  • Interns who are new to teaching are less intimidated when instructing a small group of students, as opposed to an entire class.
  • By the end of the course, most interns have learned that collaborative lesson planning is a useful process that results in better lessons than what any one intern could produce individually. Ideally, the interns continue to plan lessons collaboratively during student teaching and after graduation.
  • In a small-group setting, the interns get to know their students’ thoughts, strengths, and personalities in a deep and meaningful way, and are able to focus squarely on the pedagogical issues that are relevant to inquiry-based science teaching (idea development, questioning, etc.).

The burdens placed on the host schools and mentor teachers are minimal. Each school provides a single meeting space, and the mentor teachers are responsible only for briefly observing 1-2 interns per school visit. The primary benefits to the teachers and students are: (a) the mentor teachers are paid $35 per supervised intern (from our college budget) and (b) the elementary students receive high-quality science instruction that they might not otherwise receive because science is sometimes omitted in local K-5 classrooms in favor of additional mathematics or literacy instruction.

The science curriculum. The course instructor provides lesson outlines to the class for all teaching sessions. These are modified versions of lessons from the school district’s science curriculum, and are provided 1 to 2 weeks in advance of the interns’ actual instruction. Parts of each lesson outline (“lesson template”) are filled in by the instructor and parts are left blank. (See Appendix D for an example.) During planning, the interns work together to fill in the missing portions of the lesson outline; missing sections might include key science concepts, focus questions, lesson engagement, or specific lesson activities. As the semester progresses, the fraction of each lesson plan that must be filled in by the interns is gradually increased.

The science lessons provided by the school district are modified by the course instructor to fit into the allotted teaching time, to ensure a smooth conceptual flow from one lesson to the next, and to more fully align with the NGSS scientific practices. In this manner, we aim to close the theory-to-practice gap by ensuring that the teaching methods taught in the internship are actually implemented in schools. Similarly, we emphasize throughout the course that standards-driven lesson modification is expected and encouraged after graduation, as long as the key science concepts are preserved.

On-site methods instruction. Once the class shifts to teaching at the school site, discussions about effective instruction continue whenever instructional issues arise; these discussions are typically in person, though they are occasionally over email. As appropriate, ongoing methods discussions take a variety of different forms: one-one-one discussions between the course instructor and the involved intern, small-group discussions between the instructor and the intern group assigned to a particular classroom, and whole-class discussions regarding common instructional issues. The discussion topics might include active learning, the scientific and engineering practices, the 5E lesson format, pedagogical content knowledge, safety, or class management.

Typically, interns are officially observed four times per semester: twice by the course instructor and twice by their mentor teacher. The interns receive a written report after each observation. As their schedule allows, each mentor teacher will also meet with their intern group to provide feedback, share words of wisdom, and take questions from the interns about specific students, science instruction, or teaching in general.

Faculty from other institutions are sometimes surprised to learn that our institution does not have a science methods course for ELED majors, per se, but it is a 50-year-old feature of our elementary program that we appreciate and value. The immersive structure of our internship allows instructors to organically and spontaneously address issues “in the moment” as they arise via reflections, post-teaching debriefings, and observations from mentor teachers and university instructors. The internship in this manner resembles an apprenticeship model of learning within a community of practice (Lave and Wegner, 1991) in which the interns learn by doing and through scaffolding by the university instructor, mentor teacher, and curriculum.

Maintaining a consistent focus on inquiry- and standards-based science and engineering instruction. When concerns about our internship course first arose, it became obvious that there was insufficient attention given to the mentoring of full- and part-time instructors in the different course sections. Prior to our improvement efforts, the only support provided to new instructors was a course syllabus, which unsurprisingly led to dramatic differences in course implementation. Once the deeper organization and oversight issues of the internship course were unearthed, faculty became motivated to rein in the course by reestablishing course goals, teaching certain course sections themselves, and providing instructor and mentor teacher workshops.

Three years of data collected from teaching observations, end-of-semester surveys, and course assignments revealed that, as a result of our course improvements: the interns spent more time teaching and less time observing; the interns’ science lessons focused more frequently on scientific investigations and the communication of ideas rather than scientific demonstrations and lectures; and the interns’ attitudes and beliefs about science and science teaching shifted in a more positive direction (Sandifer, Lising, & Renwick, 2007; Sandifer, Lising, & Tirocchi, 2006).

The sustainability aspect that has proven to be most effective in maintaining our successes and innovations has been the hiring of a full-time Elementary Science Internship Coordinator. This staff member’s job duties include teaching one section of Teaching Science in Elementary School per semester, conducting the instructor and mentor teacher workshops, ensuring that mentor teachers are paid for their course participation, observing new instructors, serving as liaison with our College of Education, negotiating with schools about the science units to be taught, helping instructors obtain access to the district science curricula, and other key components of course management.

The instructor workshops consist of two 90-minute sessions that cover all aspects of the course (assignments, course logistics, the philosophical underpinnings of the course, interfacing with schools, the campus- and school-based course meetings, and so forth), whereas the mentor teacher workshops are single-session, 90-minute overviews that cover general course goals, connections between the interns’ science lessons and the national standards, and the responsibilities of the course instructor and mentor teachers. Teaching Science in Elementary School is a mid-program internship that is significantly different from student teaching, so the responsibility for the course activities rests primarily on the shoulder of the university instructor rather than the mentor teachers. As such, the only requirement for being a mentor teacher is having at least three years of teaching experience.

Introduction of peer advice documents. As a means of making the internship course more meaningful and authentic, a novel assignment was introduced into the course. The assignment requires each semester’s interns to write an end-of-semester advice document directed at the following semester’s interns. The purpose of the document is to provide direct but friendly guidance about the internship’s teaching activities and the course in general. This is the brief “advice document” question that each intern answers independently as part of the final exam:

What general advice would you give next semester’s interns about effective elementary-level science teaching? (I will compile all of your advice into a handbook and distribute it to next semester’s interns.)  [500 words minimum]

 The interns take the assignment seriously, often writing far more than the suggested 500 words – in part because they received a similar advice document at the start of the semester and appreciated its honesty and usefulness.

A detailed analysis of four years of advice documents (Sandifer, 2010) found that the interns’ advice statements tend to fall into four categories: emotional support and encouragement, teaching tips, expectations and tips related to the research context, and philosophical and motivational advice about professional growth. Only two percent of advice documents contain what might be construed as “bad” advice. Ultimately, the advice document has been deemed a success, both as a summative reflection for current interns and help and support for future interns.

Recently, we have implemented a change that the advice documents are not only reflected upon at the beginning of the semester – they are also revisited in mid-semester. During the first few weeks, the interns are just starting their journey and the lessons that they take away from the advice documents are extremely broad: that everything will be all right, that the course instructor is an important source of support, and that they will survive and grow as a science instructor. As the semester progresses, the interns are eager for more detailed bits of wisdom, such as strategies for encouraging discussion and managing equipment. Thus re-exposing the interns to the advice document halfway through the semester has proven to be an invaluable source of inspiration and insight for our preservice teachers.

Including science-integrated engineering design. Since the 1970s, the units taught by the interns to local elementary students had always been pure science units (e.g. geology, astronomy, and the physics of motion). This changed in 2012, when some sections taught integrated science and engineering. Currently, in each course section, the decision to use a pure science or blended science/engineering unit is based upon the school system’s curriculum and the interests of the host teachers and university instructor.

A recent science/engineering unit integrated rocks and minerals science with the materials engineering from the EiE unit A Sticky Situation: Designing Walls (EiE, 2011b; Lottero-Perdue, 2017). Other blended units taught by interns include pollination and agricultural engineering (EiE, 2011c), light and optical engineering (EiE 2011d), and environmental engineering challenge related to weathering and erosion (Lottero-Perdue, Haines, Baranowski, & Kenny, in press). Altogether, over 155 interns total have taught a science-engineering unit in the internship since 2012.

Switching focus to the NGSS scientific practices. As mentioned previously, the advent of the NGSS caused us to move our language away from “inquiry” toward scientific and engineering practices. To help our students grasp this new approach, we devised a document (see Appendix E) that summarizes: 1) the three-dimensional structure of the NGSS and 2) how scientists and elementary children engage in each of the science and engineering practices.

Throughout the semester, individual practices are addressed as they arise in particular lessons. In any given semester, there are approximately 10 teaching visits and thus 10 lessons, leaving ample room to address most or all of the practices. For each lesson, the internship instructor selects a relevant practice to highlight, and then the interns describe in their lesson plans the ways in which the lesson addresses different aspects of the chosen practice. For example, for a lesson in which the elementary students make sense of an experiment and explain the results, the interns may have to describe in their lesson plans how students will be Engaging in Argument from Evidence (Practice 7). A lesson in which elementary students create and test a design to solve a problem would likely involve the interns describing how their students will engage in Designing Solutions (Engineering Practice 6).

Teaching Science in Early Childhood

Throughout its history, the two biggest challenges with the ECED methods course have been that 1) we have so little time to teach it (only two hours per week) and 2) this single course is the entirety of science and engineering methods education for these future teachers, partly because ECED majors are unlikely to teach science or engineering during student teaching.

Adding a field placement. One of the earliest changes was to add a field placement to the course. We wanted to make the teaching methods more authentic, enabling the interns to see how the larger ideas are relevant to real children’s science learning. We began by having the interns teach at an on-campus childcare center, but as the program grew and we desired to focus on a slightly older student population we switched to kindergarten and first grade classrooms.

Our placement involves three teaching visits. As with our elementary science internship course, we typically have four or five interns per classroom, with each intern teaching a small group of children. The field placements are sufficiently important that we dedicate over one-fifth (6 hours) of the 30 semester hours to the placements.

Including and modifying the NGSS practices. Older versions of the ECED course emphasized the principles of inquiry (see Appendix F) that we created and refined over the years, which were aligned with the National Science Education Standards in effect at the time (National Research Council, 1996, 2000). With the release of the NGSS, we shifted from our inquiry principles to the NGSS practices.

Our early attempts to address the practices taught us that it is not feasible to address all eight scientific/engineering practices with equal depth and attention in a meaningful way, particularly given the time constraints of the course. So we chose to emphasize a subset of practices that serve as the basis of most high quality hands-on investigations for early childhood: Making Reasoned Predictions, Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, and Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

Technically, reasoned predictions fall under “Engaging in Argument from Evidence” in the NGSS, but we split off predictions into a separate practice to more strongly encourage our interns to prompt students for predictions and reasons. Experience has shown that, when implementing science lessons at the field placements, interns frequently forget to ask for predictions at all – and when they do they often forget to request that students share their reasons.

With regard to the engineering practices, we emphasize the need for children to be able to articulate the problem, constraints, and criteria in their own words. For kindergartners and younger students, we refer to the latter two constructs together as the “rules” for a challenge (Lottero-Perdue et al., 2016). We also emphasize the importance of children designing solutions in a systematic, iterative way through the use of a design cycle. In this way, we are addressing the Defining Problems and Designing Solutions within the NGSS practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013). A critical piece was the creation and inclusion of a simplified engineering design process for early childhood: Ask, Imagine, Try, and Try Again (Lottero-Perdue et al., 2016), which is a modification the EiE design process (Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve) used in our ELED courses. The ECED engineering design process is introduced via a tower design challenge (Lottero-Perdue et al., 2015). We also include two science-integrated design challenges that illustrate how engineering challenges can reinforce and apply science content learning (Lottero-Perdue et al., 2016; Lottero-Perdue, Sandifer, & Grabia, 2017).

Student-centered science instruction. When we switched the course focus from our home-grown inquiry principles to the NGSS practices, certain methods topics got lost in the transition. To reintroduce these important topics, we identified two key “rules” of student-centered instruction: 1) let students figure “it” out first (where “it” is the answer to the focus question, their claims and supporting evidence, etc.); and 2) give students time to discuss and reflect. Prior experience taught us that the term “student-centered” is vague and that our interns consider any hands-on activity to be necessarily student centered. While we value hands-on instruction, the two rules stretch our students beyond the idea that hands-on = student-centered into a more robust understanding of student-centeredness and effective science instruction.

Analysis and reflection tools. To help interns refine their understanding of teaching methods and high-quality science instruction, we developed tools for interns to critically analyze the extent to which our classroom lessons, lessons found on the internet, and potential field placement lessons are in alignment with our practices and rules for student-centered instruction. The tools include alignment matrices and sliding scales (e.g., to place an X on a line between “students are told first” and “students figure out first”). Students have time to discuss their matrix and scale analyses in small groups, with the whole class, and with the instructor throughout multiple class sessions. They also complete a lesson analysis homework assignment and describe alignment to practices and/or rules within their lesson plans.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

As course innovations are shared and adapted across institutions, it is not only important to share descriptions of the innovations themselves, but also to provide implementation advice, describe potential challenges, and outline any lessons learned. Sharing this information is the purpose of this section.

Switching to the NGSS scientific practices: Addressing common confusions and improving lesson implementation

As a result of restructuring our methods and internship courses to be better aligned with the NGSS science practices, we discovered preservice teachers struggle to develop technically accurate, yet robust understandings of certain practices – none of which are as straightforward as they first appear. Based on our experience, 30-60 hours of class instruction isn’t sufficient to help interns develop anything approaching an expert understanding of the eight scientific practices unless they become the sole focus of the course.

The following are examples of practice-related questions that our interns continue to struggle with, even after participating in comprehensive methods activities (Sandifer & Lottero-Perdue, 2014).

  • I went outside and drew the Moon on different nights. Do my drawings count as models?
  • What counts as an investigation, exactly? Only scientific experiments? What about classroom demonstrations and researching data online?
  • Is there a difference between data and evidence? Do classroom observations, past experiences, prior knowledge, and common sense all count as data and/or evidence?
  • What is the difference between analyzing data and interpreting data?
  • Is any spoken or written answer an explanation? If so, why? If not, why not? What exactly counts as an explanation?

A successful tactic in dealing with confusion about the scientific practices is to not only make explicit what the practices are, but what they are not. Negative counterexamples typically result in “light bulb” moments for the preservice teachers. Consequently, we have incorporated numerous counterexamples into our course texts (e.g., “these are examples of this practice… and these are not examples of this practice, for these reasons… “) to help the interns better understand the practices’ trickier aspects.

Being explicit about what something is not is a powerful method of helping people develop deeper understandings of the more confusing aspects of science and engineering instruction. Similarly, in helping interns avoid lesson implementation that is in conflict with the NGSS practices, it helps to provide explicit guidance on what interns should not be doing in the classroom – not just on what they should be doing. For instance, we discuss in detail “things to avoid” in teaching a 5E science lesson (see Appendix G).

Mentoring new science education faculty to teach our courses

General strategies. Learning to teach a new content, methods, or internship course can be overwhelming, and the mentoring of new tenure-track faculty, lecturers, and part-time faculty is critical for ensuring a positive course experience. Although the development and implementation of a mentoring plan is a time- and effort-intensive process, it reaps great rewards in terms of instructor retention and the satisfaction of all stakeholders: students, parents, instructors, department chairs, and other administrators.

For our content courses, we have an initial meeting with new instructors in which we go over the course syllabus in detail and address various topics, including:

  • Noise control. Calling on students by name; group rotation.
  • Tests. Expected exam content and style; rearranging tables; make-up tests.
  • Logistics. Making copies; teaching supplies; faculty office space; support meetings; parking; online records and class communication; teaching observations; projecting video.

Once the semester has begun, the course coordinator meets weekly or biweekly with the new instructor to review upcoming course activities, making sure that the new instructor is aware of the purpose of each activity, the relevant scientific concepts, where to find the experimental equipment, common student difficulties, and connections between the current activities and upcoming activities.

The mentoring of newly hired internship and methods instructors is even more dramatic than content course mentoring, as pedagogy courses have a large number of moving parts and potential pitfalls. There are so many topics that our “single meeting” orientation has now been split into two meetings: one meeting before the start of the semester and another meeting a few weeks into the semester, which is after the instructor has started experiencing challenges and problems and is seeking specific help.

In mentoring, we have learned the valuable lesson that the most effective approaches are proactive rather than reactive. Having new instructors contact experienced instructors on an as-needed basis can be useful, but it doesn’t always lead to uniformly positive outcomes. This is because new instructors are reluctant to interrupt their busy colleagues, their requests tend to be last-minute, and they typically don’t know enough about the course to know which vital questions to ask.

Learning to teach engineering education. Science educators new to engineering instruction often express the opinion that the disciplines of science and engineering are extremely similar, and that transitioning from teaching science methods to engineering methods will be a painless exercise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many engineering educators would disagree, arguing that doing and teaching engineering is uniquely different than doing and teaching science (Cunningham & Kelly, 2017; Lottero-Perdue, 2017a). We have discovered it doesn’t take weeks or months, but years of mentoring to help university colleagues understand (a) how science and engineering education are fundamentally distinct and (b) how to effectively implement and design engineering education activities.

As a first step, we provide the chapter Engineering Design into Science Classrooms (Lottero-Perdue, 2017a) as a resource and offer mentoring and peer support to those who have questions about implementation of design challenges. Examples of key mentoring topics are: the idea that there is no one right answer (or one right design) in engineering; failure is a normal part of engineering design, and how students and the teacher respond to failure is important (Lottero-Perdue & Parry, 2019); and the use of design challenges that not only teach the engineering design process, but also reinforce the application and development of scientific knowledge.

Conclusion

There is more we could share about the changes in our content, internship, and methods courses over the years. These changes continue even today, such as our current attempts to determine effective methods of teaching online and hybrid courses, identifying ways that interns might interact with simulated student avatars and classroom environments to improve their teaching skills, and more frequently engaging our students in generating and answering questions via project- and problem-based learning.

This 20-year retrospective is a reminder that every course is in a constant state of iterative change. Worldwide, science education faculty continually revise their course activities, assignments and assessments, and when these revisions are grounded in a context of caution and reflection – with constant questioning about what is working and what is not – the experiences that we provide our students can be improved. Course activities and structural changes imported from an outside institution need to be adapted to fit one’s own local context, but our hope is that sharing a comprehensive history of innovations and lessons learned will assist faculty who share in our joyful and satisfying quest for course perfection – or something close to it.

References

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Lottero-Perdue, P.S. (2017b). Pre-service elementary teachers learning to teach science-integrated engineering design PBL. In Saye, J. & Brush, T. (Eds.), Developing and supporting PBL practice: Research in K-12 and teacher education settings. (pp. 105-131). West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Lottero-Perdue, P.S., Bolotin, S., Benyameen, R., Brock, E., and Metzger, E. (September 2015). The EDP-5E: A rethinking of the 5E replaces exploration with engineering design. Science and Children 53(1), 60-66.

Lottero-Perdue, P.S., Bowditch, M. Kagan, M. Robinson-Cheek, L., Webb, T., Meller, M. & Nosek, T. (November, 2016) An engineering design process for early childhood: Trying (again) to engineer an egg package. Science and Children, 54(3), 70-76.

Lottero-Perdue P.S., Haines, S., Baranowski, A. & Kenny, P. (2020). Designing a model shoreline: Creating habitat for terrapins and reducing erosion into the bay. Science and Children, 57 (7), 40-45.

Lottero-Perdue, P.S. & Parry, E. (2019, March). Scaffolding for failure: Upper elementary students navigate engineering design failure. Science and Children, 56(7), 86-89.

Lottero-Perdue, P. & Sandifer, C. (in press). Using engineering to explore the Moon’s height in the sky with future teachers. Science & Children.

Lottero-Perdue, P.S., Sandifer, C. & Grabia, K. (2017, December) “Oh No! Henrietta got out! Kindergarteners investigate forces and use engineering to corral an unpredictable robot.” Science and Children, 55(4), 46-53.

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Sandifer, C., Lising, L., & Renwick, E.  (2007). Towson’s PhysTEC course improvement project, Years 1 and 2: Results and lessons learned. 2007 Conference Proceedings of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Sandifer, C., Lising, L., & Tirocchi, L.  (2006). Our PhysTEC project:  Collaborating with a classroom teacher to improve an elementary science practicum.  2006 Conference Proceedings of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

Sandifer, C., Lising, L., Tirocchi, L, & Renwick, E.  (2019, February 28). Towson University’s Elementary PhysTEC project: Final report. Retrieved from https://www.phystec.org/institutions/Institution.cfm?ID=1275

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Introducing Preservice Science Teachers to Computer Science Concepts and Instruction Using Pseudocode

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Brauer, K., Kruse, J., & Lauer, D. (2020). Introducing preservice science teachers to computer science concepts and instruction using pseudocode. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 5(2). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/introducing-preservice-science-teachers-to-computer-science-concepts-and-instruction-using-pseudocode/

by Kayla Brauer, Drake University; Jerrid Kruse, Drake University; & David Lauer, Drake University

Abstract

Preservice science teachers are often asked to teach STEM content. While coding is one of the more popular aspects of the technology portion of STEM, many preservice science teachers are not prepared to authentically engage students in this content due to their lack of experience with coding. In an effort to remedy this situation, this article outlines an activity we developed to introduce preservice science teachers to computer science concepts such as pseudocode, looping, algorithms, conditional statements, problem decomposition, and debugging. The activity and discussion also support preservice teachers in developing pedagogical acumen for engaging K-12 students with computer science concepts. Examples of preservice science teachers’ work illustrate their engagement and struggles with the ideas and anecdotes provide insight into how the preservice science teachers practiced teaching computer science concepts with 6th grade science students. Explicit connections to the Next Generation Science Standards are made to illustrate how computer science lessons within a STEM course might be used to meet Engineering, Technology, and Application of Science standards within the NGSS.

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References

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A Framework for Science Exploration: Examining Successes and Challenges for Preservice Teachers

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Croce, K. (2020). A framework for science exploration: Examining successes and challenges for preservice teachers. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 5(2). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/a-framework-for-science-exploration-examining-successes-and-challenges-for-preservice-teachers/

by Keri-Anne Croce, Towson University

Abstract

Undergraduate preservice teachers examined the Science Texts Analysis Model during a university course. The Science Texts Analysis Model is designed to support teachers as they help students prepare to engage with the arguments in science texts. The preservice teachers received instruction during class time on campus before employing the model when teaching science to elementary and middle school students in Baltimore city. This article describes how the preservice teachers applied their knowledge of the Science Texts Analysis Model within this real world context. Preservice teachers’ reactions to the methodology are examined in order to provide recommendations for future college courses.

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References

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Introducing the NGSS in Preservice Teacher Education

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Hill, T., Davis, J., Presley, M., & Hanuscin, D. (2020). Introducing the NGSS in preservice teacher education. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 5(1). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/introducing-the-ngss-in-preservice-teacher-education/

by Tiffany Hill, Emporia State University; Jeni Davis, Salisbury University; Morgan Presley, Ozarks Technical Community College; & Deborah Hanuscin, Western Washington University

Abstract

While research has offered recommendations for supporting inservice teachers in learning to implement the NGSS, the literature provides fewer insights into supporting preservice teachers in this endeavor. In this article, we address this gap by sharing our collective wisdom generated through designing and implementing learning experiences in our methods courses. Through personal vignettes and sharing of instructional plans with the science teacher education community, we hope to contribute to the professional knowledge base and better understand what is both critical and possible for preservice teachers to learn about the NGSS.

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References

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Hanuscin, D., Arnone, K.A., & Bautista, N. (2016a). Bridging the ‘next generation’ gap: Teacher educators implementing the NGSS. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 1(1). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/bridging-the-next-generation-gap-teacher-educators-enacting-the-ngss/

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Partnering for Engineering Teacher Education

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Smetana, L.K., Nelson, C., Whitehouse, P., & Koin, K. (2019). Partnering for engineering teacher education. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 4(2).     Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/partnering-for-engineering-teacher-education/

by Lara K. Smetana, Loyola University Chicago; Cynthia Nelson, Loyola University Chicago; Patricia Whitehouse, William C. Goudy Technology Academy; & Kim Koin, Chicago Children's Museum

Abstract

The aim of this article is to describe a specific approach to preparing elementary teacher candidates to teach engineering through a field-based undergraduate course that incorporates various engineering experiences. First, candidates visit a children’s museum to engage in engineering challenges and reflect on their experiences as learners as well as teachers. The majority of course sessions occur on-site in a neighborhood elementary school with a dedicated engineering lab space and teacher, where candidates help facilitate small group work to develop their own understandings about engineering and instructional practices specific to science and engineering. Candidates also have the option to attend the elementary school’s Family STEM Night which serves as another example of how informal engineering experiences can complement formal school-day experiences as well as how teachers and schools work with families to support children’s learning. Overall, candidates have shown increased confidence in engineering education as demonstrated by quantitative data collected through a survey instrument measuring teacher beliefs regarding teaching engineering self-efficacy. The survey data was complemented by qualitative data collected through candidates’ written reflections and interviews. This approach to introducing elementary teacher candidates to engineering highlights the value of a) capitalizing on partnerships, b) immersing candidates as learners in various educational settings 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.

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References

Birmingham, D., Smetana, L.K., & Coleman, E.R. (2017). “From the beginning, I felt empowered”: Incorporating an ecological approach to learning in elementary science teacher education. Research in Science Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11165-017-9664-9

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Lampert, M., Franke, M. L., Kazemi, E., Ghousseini, H., Turrou, A. C., Beasley, H., & Crowe, K. (2013). Keeping it complex: Using rehearsals to support novice teacher learning of ambitious teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 64, 226-243.

Lottero-Perdue, Pamela (2017). Engineering design into science classrooms. In Teaching science to every child: Using culture as a starting point (pp.207-268). New York: Routledge.

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Smetana, L.K., Birmingham, D., Rouleau, H., Carlson, J., & Phillips, S. (2017). Cultural institutions as partners in initial elementary science teacher preparation. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 2(2). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/cultural-institutions-as-partners-in-initial-elementary-science-teacher-preparation/

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A Blended Professional Development Model for Teachers to Learn, Implement, and Reflect on NGSS Practices

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Dare, E.A., Ellis, J.A., & Tyrrell, J.L. (2018). A blended professional development model for teachers to learn, implement, and reflect on NGSS practices. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 3(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/a-blended-professional-development-model-for-teachers-to-learn-implement-and-reflect-on-ngss-practices/

by Emily A. Dare, Michigan Technological University; Joshua A. Ellis, Michigan Technological University; & Jennie L. Tyrrell, Michigan Technological University

Abstract

In this paper we describe a professional development project with secondary physics and physical science teachers. This professional development supported fifteen teachers in learning the newly adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) through integrating physical science content with engineering and engineering practices. Our professional development utilized best practices in both face-to-face and virtual meetings to engage teachers in learning, implementing, and reflecting on their practice through discussion, video sharing, and micro-teaching. This paper provides details of our approach, along with insights from the teacher participants. We also suggest improvements for future practice in professional development experiences similar to this one. This article may be of use to anyone in NGSS or NGSS-like states working with either pre- or in-service science teachers.

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References

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

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Allaire, F.S. (2018). Cobern and Loving’s card exchange revisited: Using literacy strategies to support and enhance teacher candidates’ understanding of NOS. Innovations in Science Teacher Education, 3(3). Retrieved from https://innovations.theaste.org/cobern-and-lovings-card-exchange-revisited-using-literacy-strategies-to-support-and-enhance-teacher-candidates-understanding-of-nos/

by Franklin S. Allaire, University of Houston-Downtown

Abstract

The nature of science (NOS) has long been an essential part of science methods courses for elementary and secondary teachers. Consensus has grown among science educators and organizations that developing teacher candidate’s NOS knowledge should be one of the main objectives of science teaching and learning. Cobern and Loving’s (1998) Card Exchange is a method of introducing science teacher candidates to the NOS. Both elementary and secondary teacher candidates have enjoyed the activity and found it useful in addressing NOS - a topic they tend to avoid. However, the word usage and dense phrasing of NOS statements were an issue that caused the Card Exchange to less effective than intended. This article describes the integration of constructivist cross-curricular literacy strategies in the form of a NOS statement review based on Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange statements. The use of literacy strategies transforms the Card Exchange into a more genuine, meaningful, student-centered activity to stimulate NOS discussions with teacher candidates.

Innovations Journal articles, beyond each issue's featured article, are included with ASTE membership. If your membership is current please login at the upper right.

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