Scaffolding Preservice Science Teacher Learning of Effective English Learner Instruction: A Principle-Based Lesson Cycle

Introduction

Learning to teach English learners (ELs) in content areas should be a priority for both beginning teachers and teacher educators, as the number of ELs in U.S. schools has increased 152% in the past 20 years (National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition, 2009). Indeed, across the U.S., over 11% of all students in K-12 settings are identified as ELs (Lee & Buxton, 2013). To teach ELs effectively, beginning teachers must be able to recognize and use the diverse cultures, languages, and experiences of ELs as resources for instruction in their discipline. Offering methods courses that attend specifically to ELs, including EL-focused methods courses for preservice secondary science teachers, is one way teacher education programs can attend to this pressing need.

The purpose of this paper is to share our approach to embedding best instructional practices for ELs in a secondary science methods course. We begin from the conviction that attending to the resources and needs of ELs is more complex than most of our preservice science teachers (PSTs) envision (Buck, Mast, Ehlers, & Franklin, 2005). We see our approach as innovative in that it reflects calls to move beyond lists of uncoordinated EL scaffolds (Bravo, Mosqueda, Solís, & Stoddart, 2014; Johnson, Bolshakova, & Waldron, 2016) focused on the teaching of vocabulary (Richardson Bruna, Vann, & Escudero, 2007) to promote implementation of coherent, principle-based instruction centered at the discourse level of language. Below, we present the framework we have developed for teaching reform-based science to ELs – four key principles of effective EL instruction and three levels of language – that informed both the larger course and the specific assignment presented here. We then describe how we integrated these key principles and language levels into a model lesson implemented during the second week of the course that served to anchor subsequent lessons our PSTs developed, implemented, revised, and reflected upon. We conclude with PSTs’ reflections on our principle-based framework and suggested steps for other such methods courses.

Theoretical Perspectives and Instructional Framework

Four key principles of effective EL instruction and three levels of language guided our work. This principle-based instructional framework grounded the planning of our methods course; the conversations that we, as instructors, had with PSTs about the teaching and learning of science to ELs; and the structure of our major assignment, the lesson development, implementation, revision, and reflection cycle. Figure 1 presents the framework we developed and used for teaching reform-based science to ELs in visual form. We next describe each element in detail.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Framework authors developed and used for teaching reform-based science to ELs. See text for specific citations for each of the four principles and for the construct of language levels.

Four Principles of Effective Instruction for ELs

As the first part of our instructional framework, we identified four key principles of effective EL instruction. These principles are understood as re-enforcing and overlapping with one another. They are:

  1. Building on and using ELs’ funds of knowledge and resources,
  2. Providing ELs with cognitively demanding work,
  3. Providing ELs opportunities for rich language and literacy exposure and practice, and
  4. Identifying academic language (AL) demands and supports for ELs.

The first principle, building on and using ELs’ funds of knowledge and resources (Lee, Deaktor, Enders, & Lambert, 2008; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992; Moschkovich, 2002), asks PSTs to identify, celebrate, and use the knowledge and skills students, their families, and their communities bring to the classroom. PSTs were encouraged to engage in such practices as recognizing and utilizing their ELs’ primary languages as resources for learning in addition to encouraging ELs to speak in multiple languages, use different dialects or registers, and/or work across varying levels of literacies in their production and display of ideas. PSTs were also expected to incorporate students’ home, cultural, and community resources into their instruction to make content relevant and meaningful.

The second principle, providing ELs with cognitively demanding work (Tekkumru‐Kisa, Stein, & Schunn, 2015; Tobin & Kahle, 1990; Understanding Language, 2013; Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018), demands that ELs have the opportunity to engage in the same kinds of activities and assignments often reserved only for non-EL students (Iddings, 2005; Planas & Gorgorió, 2004). This principle focuses on student sense-making and reasoning (Windschitl et al., 2018). PSTs were expected to provide analytical tasks that require students to move beyond “detailed facts or loosely defined inquiry” (Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013, p. 223) to focus on the science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; NGSS Lead States, 2013). Indeed, because the eight science and engineering practices emphasize students’ active sense-making and language learning (Quinn, Lee, & Valdés, 2012), PSTs were expected to foreground one or more of these practices in each lesson they designed and implemented.

The third principle, providing ELs opportunities for rich language and literacy exposure and practice (Bleicher, Tobin, & McRobbie, 2003; Khisty & Chval, 2002; Lee et al., 2013; Moschkovich, 2007), attends to the importance of engaging ELs in the language of science. PSTs were encouraged to address this principle by creating opportunities for students to receive comprehensible input through listening and reading and to produce comprehensible output through speaking and writing. In attending to this principle, PSTs were to facilitate their EL students’ participation in constructing and negotiating meaning to advance both their English language development and science learning.

The fourth principle is identifying academic language demands and supports for ELs (Aguirre & Bunch, 2012; Lyon, Tolbert, Stoddart, Solis, & Bunch, 2016; Rosebery & Warren, 2008). This principle asks PSTs to attend to the language demands in the tasks they provide ELs and to implement appropriate supports so that all students can read disciplinary texts, share their ideas and reasoning in whole class and small group discussions, and communicate science information in writing. PSTs could have supported students in learning the language of science by beginning with an anchoring phenomenon and/or driving question to provide context for key vocabulary, concepts, and practices; using gestures, graphic organizers, demonstrations, and other visuals; modeling target language (e.g., what engaging in argument looks like); including sentence starters and/or frames to use in discussions or writing tasks; fostering peer collaboration through think-pair-shares or groupwork; and encouraging use of students’ home language(s). (See Roberts, Bianchini, Lee, Hough, & Carpenter, 2017, for additional discussion of the first three of these principles.)

Three Levels of Language

As the second part of our instructional framework, to deepen PSTs’ understanding of effective EL instruction, we drew from and used Zwiers, O’Hara, and Pritchard’s (2014) three levels of academic language: vocabulary, or word/phrase; syntax, or sentence/structure; and discourse, or message. At the vocabulary level, doing and talking science requires understanding and using general academic and science-specific terms as well as common words that have technical meanings (Fang, 2005). At the syntax level, it entails navigating the lengthy noun phrases and complex sentence structures typical of formal writing (Fang, 2005); being able to control the vocabulary and grammatical resources necessary to perform academic language functions, such as predicting, explaining, justifying, and arguing (Dutro & Moran, 2003); and creating and deciphering graphs, tables, and diagrams (Quinn et al., 2012). At the level of discourse, it involves distinctive ways of structuring information; signaling logical relationships and creating textual cohesion; and setting up an objective, authoritative relationship among the presenters or writers, their subject matter, and their audience (Schleppegrell, 2004). (See Table 1 below.)

We emphasized to PSTs the importance of attending to these three levels of language across the four EL principles – the idea that the principles and language levels overlap and should be used in concert with one another. To use students’ funds of knowledge as resources, for example, PSTs could engage their EL students at each language level: They could ask ELs to define science vocabulary, construct sentences about a class topic, or communicate an argument in either or both their home language and English. We also emphasized the importance of including supports at all three language levels so that EL students could share their ideas and participate in sense-making discussions. We noted that most types of AL support, for example, a teacher’s modeling of target language, could be used to scaffold ELs’ learning at the vocabulary, syntax, or discourse level depending on its implementation. In short, we attempted to underscore for PSTs that while vocabulary is the easiest language level to assess, and syntax is key for building ideas, discourse is necessary for engaging in reasoning and communicating complex explanations and arguments.

Further, to demonstrate the overlapping nature of the principles and language levels, we implemented a model lesson on infiltration near the beginning of our methods course; we discuss this lesson in greater detail below. In this lesson, for example, to address the principle of cognitively demanding tasks, we asked PSTs to engage in a number of the NGSS science and engineering practices, including analyzing and interpreting data, developing and using models,  and engaging in argument from evidence. We supported PSTs’ participation in these science and engineering practices at each level of language: We included visuals, realia, a word wall, and a word bank as supports at the vocabulary level; sentence frames and starters, a conversation support card, and a graphic organizer as supports at the syntax level; and an anchoring phenomenon, a driving question, groupwork, teacher modeling of target language, and home language use as supports at the discourse level. (See again Table 1.)

Table 1
Definitions and Examples of Levels of Language (Adapted From Zwiers et al., 2014)

Methods Course Context

As stated above, this principle-based instructional framework structured our secondary science methods course. This course is part of a small, 13-month, post-baccalaureate teacher education program at a research university in Central California. It is the third in a series of science methods courses completed by PSTs, offered in their final semester of the program; there are typically 6 to 12 PSTs enrolled. PSTs complete their student teaching in a grade 7-12 science classroom while in this course. During the first half of the academic year, PSTs observe and help teach in classrooms as well.

Infiltration Model Lesson: Highlighting the Four Key Principles and Three Language Levels

To situate our course and major assignment (i.e., the lesson development, implementation, revision, and reflection cycle), we implemented an environmental science lesson on infiltration. This model lesson highlighted both our four key principles of effective EL instruction and three levels of language. (The lesson was adapted from Exploration 4 of the School Water Pathways curricular unit, part of a learning progression-based environmental science curriculum. See Warnock et al., 2012.) It was implemented during the second week of the methods course, taking the entire three-hour session. Our PSTs first completed this lesson in their role as students and then discussed its strengths and limitations in their role as beginning teachers.

Overview of the Infiltration Lesson

We began this lesson by introducing the PSTs to the larger School Water Pathways unit. The unit’s purpose is to understand the complexities of the water cycle by exploring relationships among multiple processes, pathways, driving forces, and constraining factors on a school campus. PSTs watched a brief video clip of an anchoring event – rain falling and then pools of water “disappearing” from a school playground – and then were introduced to the driving question – Where does the water that falls on our school campus go? We also asked them to engage in the science and engineering practice of developing and using models by constructing an initial model of the water cycle in small groups.

PSTs then moved to the infiltration lesson, the fourth lesson in the School Water Pathways unit. To situate their infiltration investigation, they first completed a formative assessment, drawing and labeling where water moves after it is poured into a tube, or infiltrometer, and pressed into the ground (see Figure 2). fter sharing their drawings with their elbow partner and then with the whole class, PSTs viewed both PowerPoint slides and physical samples of five surface types present on their campus (i.e., grass, asphalt, gravel, sand, and concrete) as well as made predictions about which surface they thought would be most permeable. They also viewed PowerPoint slides of scientists using infiltrometers; were reminded to consult a word wall of key vocabulary terms and their definitions related to the water cycle and a poster of groupwork norms; and were given a learning log with clear instructions, visuals, a conversation support card (i.e., question starters and response starters), and sentence frames to use for their investigation.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Infiltration formative assessment task. Adapted from Warnock et al. (2012).

PSTs were next put into small groups, assigned group roles (e.g., facilitator, reporter, recorder, etc.), and were asked to select two surfaces found at their campus to investigate. They gathered their equipment (e.g., a bucket of water, an infiltrometer, a graduated cylinder, and a mallet), and moved outside to test the rate of infiltration of these surfaces, recording their data in their learning logs (see Figure 3). After the small groups had collected their data and returned to the classroom, they determined which surfaces were more or less permeable, calculating average rates of infiltration and providing evidence and reasoning for their rankings. PSTs then engaged in a jigsaw, sharing their findings and reasoning with members of other groups. We provided PSTs with a word bank and additional sentence starters and sentence frames to help with these discussions, supporting their work at the vocabulary, syntax, and potentially discourse levels.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Preservice teachers collecting data on the rate of infiltration for grass.

As a summative assessment of understanding, PSTs completed a modified Frayer Model (i.e., a graphic organizer) of permeability that included four sections: definition, examples/representations, connections to the water cycle, and connections to the driving question of the unit. Given the contextualization of vocabulary during the investigation, in addition to a word wall and word bank, we expected PSTs to complete this Frayer Model using scientific terms. The lesson ended with a return to the science and engineering practice of developing and using models. PSTs reexamined their initial models of the water cycle and the driving question: How does this investigation help us understand water processes and pathways on our school campus? If we had additional time, at this juncture, we would press teacher candidates to ensure they bridged their initial ideas about infiltration from the formative assessment with the work they had completed during the investigation – to ensure they understood the concepts of water movement, evaporation, transpiration, infiltration, soil structure, gravity, permeability, and porosity.

Integrating the Four EL Principles and Three Language Levels in the Infiltration Lesson

Below, we briefly discuss how we used this model lesson on infiltration to highlight for PSTs the four principles and three language levels in our framework for teaching reform-based science to ELs.

EL principle funds of knowledge and resources. This lesson demonstrated how PSTs could build from their students’ funds of knowledge and resources in several ways. First, the larger unit was organized around a phenomenon, the science and engineering practice of developing and using models, and a question that connected to students’ daily experiences as members of a school community: the movement of water on their campus. Second, the lesson we implemented began with a formative assessment (see again Figure 2): PSTs were asked to describe what they thought it looked like underground and to use arrows and labels to show where they thought water would move as it drained out of the bottom of an infiltrometer. The purpose of the formative assessment was to learn what students already knew about water, soil structure, gravity, permeability, porosity, evaporation, transpiration, and infiltration from their everyday lives and previous science classes. Because the larger curricular unit was informed by a learning progression framework (National Research Council [NRC], 2007) on water processes and pathways, the instructors were able to align PTSs’ formative assessment responses with learning progression levels as well. Third, PSTs drew on their prior campus and community experiences to make predictions about the permeability of different surfaces before beginning their investigation. Fourth and finally, we encouraged PSTs to use any and all language(s) they knew – from their home language, to informal, everyday registers, to academic English – to complete the series of activities. For example, we reminded students as they worked in groups to record their observations and compose their arguments using whatever words and/or phrases came to mind, encouraging them through instructor questioning and modeling as well as use of the word wall and word bank to gradually move from everyday language to more scientific terms.

EL principle cognitively demanding work. The infiltrometer lesson met the requirements of cognitively demanding work. PSTs engaged in sense-making and reasoning (Windschitl et al., 2018) while completing an authentic, analytic task that allowed students both to actively and meaningfully participate in the work of science and to develop language at the same time (Lee et al., 2013): They explored an NGSS core idea related to the water cycle and engaged in multiple science and engineering practices (NGSS Lead States, 2013). More specifically, in this lesson, PSTs explored performance expectation HS-ESS2-5 (plan and conduct an investigation of the properties of water and its effects on Earth materials and surface processes) and disciplinary core idea ESS2.C (the roles of water in Earth’s surface properties). They learned about content related to water, soil structure, gravity, permeability, porosity, evaporation, transpiration, and infiltration. As part of the science and engineering practice of planning and carrying out investigations, PSTs made predictions, identified two different locations on campus to investigate, measured infiltration rates by recording time and amounts of water, and plotted their findings on a graph. As part of the practice of engaging in argument from evidence, they provided evidence and reasoning for their rankings of surfaces. They also used mathematics to calculate infiltration rates and engaged in developing and using models to inform the driving question of water processes and pathways in the context of a school campus.

EL principle language rich opportunities. Throughout the lesson, the instructors created multiple, purposeful opportunities for PSTs to produce appropriate comprehensible output – to engage in talking and writing science. They also provided opportunities for PSTs to receive comprehensible input through listening and speaking. As one example, PSTs worked in small groups to collect and analyze data as well as to share their tentative arguments, grounded in evidence, about the relative permeability of surfaces tested. Groupwork norms and roles were used to productively structure these small group interactions (Cohen & Lotan, 2014). As a second example, in completing both formative and summative assessments, PSTs conveyed their understanding of water processes and pathways using a diagram (formative assessment) and a graphic organizer (summative assessment); in the former instance, they were encouraged to use everyday language, and in the latter, academic language or the language of display (Bunch, 2014).

EL principle academic language demands and supports. The instructors identified the language demands of the tasks that they provided PSTs and created a range of supports appropriate for ELs to help move the PSTs toward participation in a science community of practice. Supports were organized into five categories: creating a meaningful context, making input comprehensible, helping students produce oral and written discourse, validating existing language and linguistic practices, and other (see Quinn et al., 2012, for a similar organization of supports). As one example, the instructors included realia (e.g., an infiltrometer and glass jars of different surface types) and visuals of the tasks that students would complete so that terms like infiltration and permeability would not serve as a barrier to participation. As a second example, the instructors modeled the use of science discourse, included sentence starters on a conversation support card and additional sentence frames in the learning logs (Zwiers et al., 2014), and implemented groupwork to facilitate productive classroom discussions – to help PSTs move beyond a focus on science terminology to encourage investigating, using mathematics, arguing from evidence, and developing and using models. Finally, as noted already under funds of knowledge, PSTs were encouraged to use multiple languages and registers across representations of and discussions about rich science content so as to advance their understanding of the science concepts.

Three levels of language. Across the infiltration lesson, as introduced under our discussion of academic language demands and supports above, we included systematic supports not only to facilitate PSTs’ practice of vocabulary terms, but their production of sentences and discourse as well. We explicitly reminded PSTs of the importance of attending to and including supports not only at the vocabulary level of language, but at the syntax and discourse levels as well. In the section Three Levels of Language and Table 1, presented above, we provide specific examples of supports present in our infiltration lesson at each of these three levels of language (see again Zwiers et al., 2014).

PSTs’ Lesson Development, Implementation, and Reflection Cycle

            In the weeks after participating in this model lesson, PSTs followed a seven-step process to develop, implement, revise, and reflect on their own lesson, using our four EL principles and three language levels as guides. As we explained above, the infiltration lesson implemented in Week 2 served as the backdrop for the PSTs’ own lesson development.

Step 1: Develop Initial Lesson Using the Four EL Principles and Three Language Levels

PSTs worked in partners to develop a science lesson that incorporated all four EL principles as well as at least one support for each of the three levels of language. Zwiers et al. (2014) emphasized the importance of moving beyond vocabulary and grammar rules to teaching students complex ideas through discourse. As such, we pushed our PSTs to support ELs’ development of discourse as well as vocabulary and syntax in their lesson. We note that we scaffolded PSTs in developing and implementing their lessons using supports they could use with their own ELs: We both modeled a lesson (discussed above) and provided them a lesson checklist (see Figure 4), organized by principles and including sentence starters (see also Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2018).

 Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). EL lesson plan checklist developed by authors to facilitate PSTs’ use of the four principles and three language levels in their design and implementation of a lesson.

Step 2: Interview an EL to Test Out Part of the Lesson

To begin the revision phase of this lesson cycle assignment, PSTs tried out part of their lesson in an interview with an EL in their student teaching placement. As with each pair’s lesson plan, each pair’s EL interview protocol was unique. We asked PSTs to select a part of their lesson for the interview that they thought was challenging, in order to give them a chance to see how a real student would respond before “going live” with a full class. We viewed the interview as an opportunity for PSTs to work one-on-one with an EL not only to get to know this student better but also to get to know more about what this student understood about the content. PSTs then shared what they had learned from this interview with the other PSTs in the class and wrote a one-to-two-page reflection. Through this process, the PSTs were able to see how well their content and language supports worked with an EL and to have the space for reflection and modifications needed before presenting their lesson to the whole methods class.

Step 3: Meet With and Receive Feedback From Instructors

Each pair of PSTs next met with the course instructors to discuss their revised lesson; this meeting occurred the week before the lesson was to be presented to the methods class. The PSTs walked the instructors through the content goals, the lesson activities and assignments, and how they intended to attend to the four EL principles and the three levels of language. Additionally, because the PSTs had already tried out a part of their lesson in the context of an interview, they shared what they had learned from their ELs and what subsequent revisions they had made. The PSTs then used the instructors’ feedback to revise their lesson yet again.

Step 4: Try Out Lesson in Methods Course

PST pairs presented their lesson to the full methods class; they were given approximately 40 minutes to do so. In the five minutes following the lesson, the PSTs and their peers filled out a self- or peer-assessment that focused on how well the PSTs attended to the four key principles and three levels of language as well as two plusses (things they liked) and two deltas (things they would change) more generally; they referred to the lesson plan checklist to do so. In the next five minutes, the PSTs who presented the lesson highlighted what they thought they did well and wanted to improve, again related to their implementation of the four EL principles and the three levels of language. This provided the foundation for the additional feedback and discussion that followed. At the end of this debriefing session, the PSTs’ peers and instructors provided their written feedback to the PSTs. The PSTs took this oral and written feedback to continue to improve their lesson for enactment in their student teaching placement. They were also encouraged to ask their cooperating teachers for insight and feedback prior to their implementation, based on the individual needs of their students.

Step 5: Enact Lesson in Placement

On the agreed upon day, PSTs taught their lesson in their student teaching placement. The PSTs were expected to take notes about how the lesson went and what they might have done to further adjust the lesson. Additionally, the PSTs collected student work during their enactment to analyze during the following methods course.

Step 6: Reflect on Lesson Using Student Work

Using the below prompts (see Figure 5), which we modified from the National School Reform Faculty (2014) to specifically address our principles and language levels, PSTs individually reflected on three samples of student work, at least one of which was from an EL. Using a structured student work reflection protocol such as this allows PSTs to focus on a specific aspect of instruction: to direct their attention towards students, including EL students, and how they responded to their instruction. Without such a tool, in their final reflections on their lesson, PSTs might instead focus on surface level aspects of their instruction, such as how often they used “um” or their ability to pass out papers with fluidity.

Figure 5 (Click on image to enlarge). Student work reflection prompts completed by PSTs. Adapted from the National School Reform Faculty (2014).

Step 7: Final Share Out of Process

Our final step was to bring all pairs of PSTs together in the methods class to reflect on the lesson cycle collectively. PSTs wrote a second one-to-two-page reflection and shared with each other what they had learned through this process, highlighting the four EL principles and the three levels of language, how they used each to support ELs, and what they learned from analyzing their students’ work. This collective reflection closed the lesson process by allowing PSTs to once again learn from each other.

Preservice Teachers’ Reflections. To summarize, we see our four key principles and three levels of language as useful both for teacher educators in designing and implementing a science methods course to support ELs and for PSTs themselves as they work with ELs in their science classrooms. In our methods course, we used the infiltration lesson to provide PSTs with an opportunity to see the four key principles and three levels of language in situ. The lesson also offered PSTs a shared context to begin discussions with colleagues about how these principles and levels of language could play out and interact with each other when teaching disciplinary content. Further, the principles and levels – as outlined in the lesson plan checklist – served to structure PSTs’ own attempts to craft science lessons responsive to ELs.

We have evidence from PSTs’ written reflections that they found the lesson cycle, framed by the principles and language levels, useful in thinking more deeply about how to teach ELs reform-based science. During our Spring 2018 methods course, we collected two written reflections from each of our PSTs related to the lesson cycle: one after interviewing an EL student about their draft lesson (interview reflections) and another at the close of the cycle (lesson cycle reflections). In analyzing the PSTs’ interview and lesson cycle reflections, we found that each used the four EL principles and at least two of the three two language levels to gain insight into the strengths and limitations of their lessons.

As one example, Vince and Savannah partnered to develop a middle school life science lesson about a wetland ecosystem (see performance expectation MS-LS2-3, where students are asked to develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem). Working in groups, students were to create a food web organized by trophic levels and use it to predict the effects of species loss. In his reflections, Vince discussed the strengths and limitations of this lesson in terms of cognitive demand, academic language demands and supports, language opportunities, and attending to students’ funds of knowledge. In particular, he viewed the cognitive demand of the lesson – targeted at the discourse level – as a strength:

Students were answering the question, “What is a food web?”, by developing their own model of a food web through peer discourse. . . . In the formation of their model, students analyzed and interpreted data on what each species in their food web ate. This information was used to decide which species belonged in which trophic level and also to model the flow of energy through the food web and ecosystem. . . . Students also used mathematical thinking to calculate the flow of energy from one trophic level to the next by using the 10 percent rule. . . . Lastly, students evaluated their information and engaged in argument using the evidence from their model to form a prediction as to what would happen to their food web if all the fish species were to go extinct.

Vince also noted ways he could further strengthen attention to this principle in future iterations of this lesson:

I would include more of an individual component [in addition to a group poster] to ensure all students are adequately being exposed to the concepts and are thinking critically about them. I also think that it could be interesting to add in a component of designing solutions to species loss or invasive species.

Vince identified strengths and limitations in his efforts to address academic language demands and supports at each level of language. At the vocabulary level, although he had provided students with a list of new vocabulary terms, he “felt that students could have benefited from a more explicit vocabulary acquisition activity” as they “either did not look at the list or immediately lost it.” He thought that “syntax was [adequately] support[ed] by sentence starters on the free response questions.” Further, while the lesson included visuals, peer support, chunking of the task, and student work samples to support students’ oral and written discourse, Vince thought he could have better supported “small and whole group discussions through differentiation of food web questions and providing students with some sort of discussion scaffolds.” He connected this last point to the language production opportunities he provided students:

To improve this lesson in the future, I would build in more discourse and differentiation of questions for the prediction aspect of the lesson and have the students present to the class their arguments [in addition to creating a group poster]. This would allow students to communicate their predictions using academic language.

Finally, Vince thought that attention to students’ funds of knowledge was the weakest aspect of Savannah and his wetlands ecosystem lesson. Although Vince drew from students’ previous understanding of food chains when introducing this lesson, he thought he could have done more. He elaborated, “[T]his lesson was very accessible to all students in the class but was most lacking in this principle. The food web was based on a wetland ecosystem but did not specifically connect with local resources or students’ home backgrounds.” Next time, Vince, continued, he would attempt to use a local wetland as the context for the lesson.

As a second example, Madison and Drew designed a high school chemistry lesson on equilibrium and Le Chatelier’s Principle. Students first participated in a paper-ball throwing activity to develop an initial model of equilibrium, then attempted to make sense of color changes in the reaction [Co(H2O)6]2+(aq) pink + 4Cl-(aq) ⇌[CoCl4]2-(aq) (blue) + 6H2O(l), and finally worked to revise their initial model of equilibrium. The lesson concluded with an assessment: modifying a methanol reaction to create more products. Like Vince, Madison thought Drew and her lesson “was cognitively demanding for students”:

This lesson sequence focused on creating and using models as well as being aligned to the DCI [of chemical reactions]. . . . The assessment is aligned to the performance expectation, HS-PS1-6, which reads: Refine the design of a chemical system by specifying a change in conditions that would produce increased amounts of products at equilibrium.

She noted that while she and Drew had connected the lesson to a performance expectation, disciplinary core idea, and science and engineering practice, they “missed an opportunity to include stability and change,” one of the NGSS crosscutting concepts as well.

Madison discussed the multiple intersections in their lesson between language opportunities and academic language supports at the vocabulary, syntax, and discourse levels. At the vocabulary level, during the assessment, students were provided with “vocabulary terms and definitions . . . so that there is no pressure on memorizing terms, but rather a focus on using them properly in a [written] argument.” At the sentence level, “sentence frames for both writing and speaking are addressing the syntax of this topic.” At the discourse level, students were encouraged to “code-switch” in their small group and whole class discussions, using everyday language to explain when initially engaging in the science and engineering practice of modeling but using academic language to argue why a particular variable (e.g., adding Cl- via KCl, adding heat) caused a color change in the reaction. She added that, next time, she would include “teacher modeling of conversation . . . especially if we are asking students to argue their ideas” as an additional academic language support.

Also, as did Vince, Madison acknowledged that she and Drew struggled to effectively connect this activity to students’ funds of knowledge. For the assessment piece, she positioned students as engineers tasked with producing methanol (CH3OH), because they “are all very eager to begin driving.” She elaborated, “I attempted to connect the assessment to their everyday lives . . . , however, I did not support this with context”: the information that methanol is a cleaner alternative to petroleum. “Moving forward,” Madison continued, “I would either provide more context for the methanol reaction or use the fertilizer reaction instead,” a reaction recommended by a preservice teacher colleague as a way to more directly connect to students’ lives.

Overall, Vince, Savannah, Madison, and Drew developed lessons enacting principles of effective EL science instruction and three levels of language. They thought they had provided their students with adequate opportunities to engage in the principle of cognitively demanding work. Additionally, they immersed their students in language opportunities and language demands at multiple language levels. The PSTs found funds of knowledge the most challenging of the four principles to incorporate and execute in their lessons. They also noted that going forward, they would use modeling as an additional academic language support at the syntax and discourse levels.

Innovations and Next Steps

We think our course and this assignment, in particular, are innovative for three reasons. First, we maintained a focus on ELs throughout our course; there are few science methods courses (or content methods courses, more generally) currently using such an approach. While many methods courses might attend to ELs on a single day, in a single lesson, or with a single reading, our course used a principle-based framework to organize instruction and types of support for ELs. Second, we used a model lesson built on a learning progression (NRC, 2007) to introduce our EL principles and levels of language to our PSTs. Using such a lesson is linked to one of our four key principles, funds of knowledge, which we have found is difficult for PSTs to attend to in their instruction (Roberts et al., 2017). Third, to further strengthen their instructional practice, we encouraged PSTs’ use not only of traditional supports for ELs, but of other research-based practices as well, including groupwork (Cohen & Lotan, 2014) and productive academic interactions (Zwiers et al., 2014), to elicit and build on students’ language.

As the population of ELs continues to grow across the U.S. (Goldenberg, 2008), there is a clear need for all beginning science teachers to be able to support ELs. In other words, as demographics continue to change, ELs are a student population that all teachers need to be prepared to attend to and engage in their instruction. To help PSTs learn to teach ELs effectively requires creating content methods courses that are systematically organized around principles and that focus specifically on how to meet ELs’ needs. In this paper, we attempted to provide insight into what is needed for science teacher educators going forward to better support beginning science teachers of ELs, as well as examples of what this work might look like when implemented in methods courses. Additional research is needed to understand how teacher education programs overall should be structured to support PSTs in working with ELs – so that all ELs have access to effective science curriculum and instruction, and to the larger science communities of practice.

Author Note

Sarah A. Roberts, and Julie A. Bianchini, Department of Education, University of California, Santa Barbara.

This researcher was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DUE-1439923).

Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Sarah A. Roberts, University of California, Gevirtz Graduation School of Education, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9490. Contact: sroberts@education.ucsb.edu

ORCID ID: 0000-0002-7191-9175

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

Introduction

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

Drawing Out Past Learning Experiences

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

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

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

 

Eliciting Initial Ideas

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

Using a Discrepant Event to Develop a Testable Question

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

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

Between Class Readings

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

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

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

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

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

Running the Great Ice Investigation

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

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

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

Bringing Density into the Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Class Readings

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

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

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

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

Finishing the Ice Investigation

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

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

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

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

Final In-Class Readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Framework

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

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

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

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

Concurrent Reflections as an Instructional Strategy

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

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

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

Discussing the Suggested Learning Strategy by an Example

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

Phase One: Doing and Reflecting on Science Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion and Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgment

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

Partnering for Engineering Teacher Education

Introduction

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

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

Defining Engineering in the Context of Elementary Education

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

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

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

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


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

Developing Working Definitions

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

Field-based Experiences

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

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

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

Children’s Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

Engineering Lab Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family STEM Night

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

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

Candidate Outcomes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Providing Clinical Experience for Preservice Chemistry Teachers Through a Homeschool Association Collaboration

Introduction

Quality clinical experiences, also referred to as field experiences, prior to student teaching are vital to preservice teachers’ learning and development as teachers (Darling-Hammond, Hammerness, Grossman, Rust, & Shulman, 2005; Grossman, 2010; NRC 2010).  However, for many teacher education programs providing sufficient, quality clinical experiences in K-12 classrooms for their preservice teachers is challenging (Fraser & Watson, 2014; Grossman, 2010) for reasons including finding qualified and available cooperating teachers and saturation of the local K-12 schools with preservice students from their programs. Due to the challenges, many programs have developed alternative clinical experiences for preservice teachers that are not in a traditional K-12 classroom to help them develop as teachers. Examples of alternatives include microteaching (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005) or peer-teaching rehearsals (Benedict-Chambers, Aram, & Wood, 2017), virtual classrooms (Kennedy & Archambault, 2012), and experiences in informal educational settings (Cartwright, 2016). While not a traditional K-12 classroom setting, alternative clinical experiences often have several characteristics research has identified as helpful to preservice teachers’ development as teachers (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2007; Grossman, 2010) allowing the preservice teachers to improve their teaching skills.     

Like many teacher education programs, our preservice chemistry teacher education program faces challenges finding quality local clinical experiences for our students. Within a 15-minute drive of the campus, there are only three high schools with approximately 1800 students each and a small laboratory high school all of which have a limited number of available chemistry teachers and are heavily used for clinical experiences in courses and student teaching placements. Thus, like many schools, we have looked for alternative ways to provide our preservice chemistry teachers in our two content-specific methods courses with high quality clinical experiences. We found one in the form of a collaboration with a homeschool association [HSA]. This article describes this alternative clinical experience for preservice secondary science teachers which simulates a traditional secondary science classroom in some aspects but is not in a 9-12 classroom. In this clinical experience, as described in detail below, preservice secondary chemistry teachers teach a chemistry course for homeschooled students offered on the university’s campus by the Department of Chemistry. While the number of preservice teachers who have participated in this form of clinical experience is small thus far, the research literature and evidence collected provides support for this as a clinical experience that helps the preservice chemistry teachers learn and develop as teachers. As the instructor of the content-specific methods courses which this clinical experience is paired, I also reflect on the benefits and challenges to using it as a clinical experience over a more traditional placement in a K-12 school.

Characteristics of effective clinical experiences

Often when referring to the characteristics which make clinical experiences effective in developing preservice teachers, the characteristics are described for the set of clinical experiences a preservice teacher has over the course of his/her entire program (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; Grossman 2010); any singular clinical experience will not have every characteristic. The design of the clinical experiences as a whole for a preservice teacher in a teacher education program should strive for the characteristics of effective clinical experiences (Grossman, 2010), however these characteristics also provide guidelines for developing individual clinical experiences as well.  Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden (2007) provide a concise list of characteristics of clinical experiences that have been shown to help preservice teachers develop their skills as teachers:

Successful clinical training experiences have the following characteristics:

  • clarity of goals, including the use of standards guiding the performances and practices to be developed;
  • modeling of good practices by more-expert teachers in which teachers make their thinking visible;
  • frequent opportunities for practice with continuous formative feedback and coaching;
  • multiple opportunities to relate classroom work to university course work;
  • graduated responsibility for all aspects of classroom teaching; and
  • structured opportunities to reflect on practice with an eye toward improving it (p. 124: Emphasis in original).

These characteristics of effective clinical experiences continue to be supported in the research literature (e.g. Grossman, 2010; Grossman et al., 2009). While the list suggest that the number of clinical experiences is important (‘frequent opportunities’), quality of those experiences is also very important. Research has identified that fewer high quality experiences have as much impact on preservice teachers’ development as a larger quantity of lower quality experiences (Boyd, Grossman, Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2009; Grossman, 2010; Ronfeldt & Reininger, 2012).

Not explicitly mentioned in the list above, but implied in the descriptions, is the importance of the mentor, co-teacher, cooperating teacher, supervisor, or whatever term is used for the experienced professional guiding the preservice teacher during the clinical experience. Preservice teachers need a supportive experienced professional providing them with ideas, guidance, and feedback as they develop (Darling-Hammond et al., 2005; Hollins, 2011; NCATE, 2010). As described below, when used as a clinical experience for preservice chemistry teachers, the chemistry course for homeschooled students has many of the characteristics of clinical experiences shown to make them successful. 

Homeschooling

The opportunity for this chemistry course for homeschooled students described in this article first developed in 2010 when a local homeschool association approached the Department of Chemistry to ask if there was a way for their high school aged students to perform some chemistry experiments on campus. As the number of homeschooled students in the United States has been steadily increasing since the 1990s (Redford, Battle, & Bielick, 2017), homeschool associations (HSAs) or networks have been established, many with a strong local presence, (Kelley, 2017) to “provide an easily accessible network of communication and resources which will better equip parents, enhance the experience for students, and educate local communities about the viability of homeschooling” (para. 1, CAHSA, n.d.). HSAs have approached local organizations like YMCAs or museums to offer courses for their students, or the organizations have begun offering the courses on their own when the population of homeschooled students in the local area is high enough for the venture to be successful (Wang, 2007). In the case of the course described in this article, the approach by the local HSA initially resulted in the department’s Chemistry Club hosting the students a few times a semester to perform some experiments.  After three academic years and a change in leadership in the Chemistry Club, the club was no longer interested in leading these experiments although the department appreciated the outreach the course provided. The methods instructor at the time initially said the preservice chemistry students could set in and provide the same experience the club provided for clinical hours as part of the methods courses. After a year of this, it was recognized that the preservice teachers could be more involved in the design, choice, and assessment of the activities providing a more authentic teaching experience. Thus, with the agreement of the HSA, the experiments shifted to a “class” for homeschool students which would cover topics typically taught in an introductory high school chemistry class. This is the current course, described below, which provides clinical experiences for the preservice chemistry teachers along with the educational opportunity in high school chemistry for the homeschool students.

The Homeschool Chemistry Course

Context

At Illinois State University, secondary teacher education programs reside within the content discipline department, i.e. the English teacher education degree is part of the English Department, chemistry teacher education degree part of the Department of Chemistry, etc. Secondary preservice teacher education majors take a core set of professional education courses from the College of Education, many of which include clinical experiences, but they also take content specific methods courses offered by their major departments. Preservice chemistry teachers have two chemistry specific methods courses prior to their student teaching semester. The first course (CHE 161), which can be taken as early as the second semester of their freshman year, provides an introduction to chemistry teaching and is designed, in part, to help students make an informed decision about their future careers. CHE 161 is offered in spring semesters and, depending on students’ schedules and timing of entrance into the teacher education major, has freshman to senior-level students in it. The enrollment in this course has ranged from 3 in one semester to 8 preservice teachers in another semester in the three spring semesters since the homeschool collaboration with preservice teachers began. Preservice chemistry teachers take the second methods course (CHE 301) during the fall semester just prior to their student teaching. This course is only taken by senior-level students. Between 3 and 6 preservice teachers have enrolled in CHE 301 since the collaboration began.

Logistics and Structure

Once university course times for the fall semester are set, the HSA sends an email to its listserv about “registering” homeschool students for a chemistry course at our university (Note: there is no official registration process through the university. It is simply generating a list of interested students and parent contacts in the spring.) This invitation email from the previous offering course is in Figure 1 and provides a good overview of the course.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Registration email from the HSA to parents about the chemistry course.


Thus far the number of homeschool students registering for the course, several of which register just before school starts, has ranged from 8 to 12 students each year. From the contact list generated, parents are emailed specific details about the course two weeks before the fall semester begins. The course begins the second week of each semester to allow the preservice teachers a week of class before beginning the clinical experience. This week allows the preservice teachers to learn the expectations for the course in terms of assignments and clinical experiences and get organized for their semester and their teaching of the homeschool class in light of their other courses. The homeschool students and their parents arrange their own transportation to and from campus.

There is a parent orientation meeting usually the Friday of the first week of classes during the fall semester. During this meeting, the preservice teachers and homeschool students are introduced to each other, tours of university facilities to be used are given, and laboratory safety regulations and requirements are reviewed. Parents are asked to sign waivers and safety contracts to allow their students to be on the campus and in the laboratories [1]. Students also sign a safety contract.  The parents are asked to sign a waiver allowing the classes to be video-recorded so preservice teachers can watch and reflect on their teaching. They pay a small lab fee for the year (approximately $20), are provided with information on accessing the free learning management software (LMS) being used [2], and have the opportunity to ask questions.

As mentioned in the email to the parents, the fall semester is taught by the CHE 301 preservice teachers and the spring semester is taught by the CHE 161 preservice teachers. Figure 2 provides sample timeline for the academic year for the methods course and the homeschool courses. The times for the homeschool course are “the lab hours” of the CHE 301 and 161 class times, so preservice teachers register for the clinical hours as part of their course schedules, there is a room for the course in the university schedule and the HSA knows the time of the course.

Figure 2 (Click on image to enlarge). Methods course and homeschool course sample timeline. *First Semester: Methods course met twice a week for 3 hours total on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Homeschool course met for 2 1-hour classes on Tuesdays and Fridays ** Second Semester: Methods course met once a week for 2 hours  on Wednesdays, Homeschool course met for 2 1-hour classes on Wednesdays and Fridays.

 

 

As the methods instructor, I teach the first classes to the homeschool to give the preservice teachers time to lesson plan and prepare for teaching along with providing model science instruction. Figure 2 indicates how the teaching for the homeschool class is divided. In CHE 301 in the fall, during the time I am teaching, the preservice teachers use the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States, 2013), which are our state science standards, and other chemistry curriculum resources to decide what we should teach the homeschool students and in what order. They create a general outline of the year, along with lesson planning and teaching in cooperation with me as the methods instructor. In the fall semester, depending on the number of preservice teachers registered for CHE 301, they typically co-teach a set of lessons with a partner, then plan a set of lessons to teach individually (See Figure 2). Collaboration of content and teaching ideas/methods occurs among all the preservice teachers and myself, but lead teacher(s) are set for each course meeting. Preservice teachers who are not lead teachers observe, provide feedback, and may help individual groups of students if the lead teachers ask. In the spring semester with the less experienced preservice teachers in CHE 161, again I teach the first lessons of the semester on topics based on the course outline from the previous semester’s preservice teachers. Then the preservice chemistry teachers in CHE 161 meet with me individually, and we co-plan a single lesson to co-teach (See Figure 2). They then plan and co-teach a lesson with another preservice teacher in the course with strong guidance and feedback from me. Finally, they each plan and teach a lesson independently to the homeschool students. Depending on the number of preservice teachers in the methods course they might get to co-teach more than one lesson, but in this first semester methods course they are only required to independently teach one time.

During both methods courses, preservice teachers are required to submit lesson plans, which include learning objectives, student prior knowledge, instructional activities, assessment plans, and materials among other things, 48 hours prior to teaching. Each methods class, conversations occur about the homeschool course in terms of the previous teaching and what is upcoming. I always encourage them to use what they are learning in the methods course in their lesson planning. I also often meet with them outside of class time to discuss ideas and resources as they are planning before they turn in their formal lesson plan. All lesson plans are returned to students with feedback for implementation, changes to make it more student-centered, and other comments at least 24 hours before they teach. After teaching, the preservice have structured teaching reflection assignments due, one of which includes watching a video of their teaching. After they complete their reflection, they receive comments both on their reflection and their teaching specifically. (Note: As a methods instructor and the cooperating teacher for the homeschool class, I have found if I provide my comments on their teaching prior to their reflection, the opinions and ideas I get in the reflection are my own so I wait until the reflection is complete before providing my teaching feedback.)  The preservice teachers, when they are not teaching, have observations assignments asking them to identify aspects of the course we have discussed and to reflect on the effectiveness for student learning of the instruction. These observations assignments typically start the conversation in the next methods class period, discussing what they saw and what was reflected from our class in the homeschool course. One of the questions in the observation assignments explicitly asks them to connect what they saw to the class. There are other assignments for the methods course not directly related to the homeschool course, e.g. reading assignments and reflections. In addition, during the methods course, we use examples and actions from the homeschool class during discussions and class activities.  For example, when assessment is the topic of class, the preservice teachers analyze assessments they have used when they taught and develop new or alternative ones based on their experiences with the homeschool students.

Aspects of Effective Clinical Experiences in Homeschool Chemistry Course

From the nature of the collaboration and opportunities which arise from the course, the Homeschool Chemistry Course in design has numerous characteristics of clinical experiences shown to help preservice teachers learn and develop. Table 1 connects Darling-Hammond and Baratz-Snowden (2007)’s characteristics of “successful clinical experiences” discussed previously with the design features of the Homeschool Chemistry Course and its implementation just described.

Table 1 (Click on image to enlarge).
Alignment of the characteristics of successful clinical experiences with the homeschool chemistry course

 

As shown in Table 1 and as described above in the structure and assignments for the course, numerous characteristics of effective clinical experiences are part of the structure of this course which is a collaboration with the HSA. The main characteristic of this structure that provides many advantages is the shared experience of all the preservice teachers in the methods courses. Unlike more traditional clinical experiences for preservice teachers in which one or two students are assigned to a classroom and others assigned to a different classroom, the Homeschool Chemistry Course allows all of the preservice teachers in the same class. Though at times they have different responsibilities in the class as an observer or teacher, the context, events, and student reactions are the same for all the preservice teachers. With the shared experience, two aspects of successful clinical experiences become much easier to achieve as a methods instructor: 1) engagement with model instruction or instructional techniques and 2) connection of the content from the methods course to the clinical experience.

As the methods instructor I teach, co-teach, or co-plan lessons allowing me control of the type of instruction and instructional strategies the preservice teachers experience within the limits of the equipment, space, time, and number of students. This control for the methods instructor is often not present in more traditional clinical experiences when teacher education programs are in need of willing teachers and classrooms to host preservice teachers. Some of the preservice teachers might see model instruction, but since they are likely not all in the same class that is not guaranteed. Experiences with and models of good research-based effective science instruction as preservice teachers help them develop to use these skills in their classrooms (Darling-Hammond & Baratz-Snowden, 2007; Loughran, 2014).  In addition, as the supervisor for the course and as mentioned above in the assignment descriptions, I provide the preservice teachers with formative feedback and guidance on their lesson plans, as they teach, after they teach, and on their reflections, acting as the strong mentor or professional which is important to effective clinical experiences (Hollins, 2011; Loughran, 2014).

The shared experience of the homeschool class also allows for connections between the methods course content and the clinical experience to be made easily for all the preservice teachers. This important aspect of effective clinical experiences helps the preservice teachers connect theory and practice (Grossman et al., 2009; Hollins, 2011). In the methods course, I can say “remember when..” as an example of content from the methods class in action in a classroom and all the preservice teachers will have seen it. The preservice teachers do not need to describe examples from their independent clinical experiences to the entire class for us to have “real” examples connecting theory and practice. Also, the reverse can occur easily. When something happens in the homeschool class, in the methods part of the class we can make connections to the theory to explain it or to help find solutions for it.

Limitations   

While many aspects of this clinical experience align with the desired characteristics for clinical experiences for preservice science teachers, there are some characteristics of this clinical experience that not ideal. As suggested earlier, I, the methods instructor, can provide model instruction to the preservice teachers to the degree the environment allows, but the environment has a few constraints. The number of homeschool students has been twelve at its highest, which is not your typical high school chemistry size, and the students do not represent a diverse population in terms of race or socioeconomic status. All preservice teachers at our university are required to have 50 hours of diverse clinical experiences out of a minimum 100 hours prior to student teaching, which this experience then does not fulfill. We do a lot of student-centered instruction and inquiry using reform-based practices and curriculum materials, but meeting only twice a week, it is not a “typical” high school class. It is more akin to a collegiate model of chemistry instruction. The course does not meeting every day of the week, and when it meets it is only for 50-60 minute classes rather than hour and a half block periods which some high schools use if a class does not meet every day.  If we do not ask the students to do some learning on their own time, as collegiate level courses are often structured, then we would not get far in the content. And the students do not necessarily have access to each other to form study groups or have conversations outside of class like college students do or even traditional high school students. Because of this significant independent work is assigned between classes, which often involves watching lectures or other less active learning instructional methods. These difference from the high school model are discussed directly with the preservice teachers often throughout the methods course; we have discussions about how lessons  might  be different in high school setting rather than a homeschool course setting.

Another challenge for me as the instructor is that I have become the instructor of two courses, the methods course and the homeschool course. I am not only the preservice teachers’ instructor teaching their methods course, but I am also the instructor of the homeschool class or the ‘cooperating teacher’ in a traditional clinical experience. I am responsible for the homeschooled students’ learning in that class also. While this can be a benefit because I can demonstrate model instruction and use it during the methods courses to make connections between the theory and my teaching practice, I am also responsible for another course. I communicate with parents (which I don’t do for college students), make sure waiver forms are followed, safety rules are enforced, resources are available, assignments completed, the learning management software for the homeschool students is working, etc.  I am the only constant between the fall and spring semester for the homeschool students. When they sign up for the course, as Figure 1 shows, the parents and students know the preservice teachers will be instructing the course, but they still expect chemistry to be taught and learned, and I am the teacher responsible for it, so in some ways it has increased my teaching load without credit for teaching another course.  

Initial Supporting Evidence

The Homeschool Chemistry Course described here (for both methods courses, with the class meeting two days a week) has only occurred in two academic years (2015-16 and 2016-17), and we have a small program. Thus few preservice chemistry teachers have had the opportunity yet to experience two semesters with the homeschool course as their clinical. However, since the collaboration did evolve over time, some current student teachers and some recent graduates of the program had experiences teaching the homeschool students. As described below, their responses to the Homeschool Chemistry Course as a clinical experience provide additional support for its use as an effective clinical experience beyond the support from the research literature described above.

Teachers Reflections on Homeschool Course as Clinical

As reported elsewhere (Boesdorfer, 2018) when asked to reflect on their clinical experiences as preservice teachers during a phone interview, five current teachers had mainly positive things to say about their experiences teaching the homeschool students.  Through interviews, they were all asked to reflect generally on their clinical experiences as preservice teachers. All five discussed their teaching of the homeschool students as a positive experience that helped them develop as teachers.  Below are a few comments about the homeschool teaching experience which are representative of at least 3 out of the 5 current teacher comments if not all of them (also described in Boesdorfer (2018) in more detail):

  • the continuity of the semester with them, and um, I don’t know, it just seems more representative of what I experienced as a teacher [than clinicals in other courses]
  • It’s really the only time in our, in our clinicals where we got to have some sort of ownership over the class.
  • It was very helpful in terms of lesson planning and actually teaching a lesson…..I think that it is a great opportunity to learn

These former students who are now teaching mentioned frequent contact (quote 1), the graduated responsibility of the clinicals (quote 2), and the experiences the class (quote 3); all of these align with Table 1 and aspects of successful clinical experiences. All five recommended keeping the homeschooling course as a clinical experience. The interviews were part of an exploratory study looking at the perceptions of those who participated in the homeschool course as part of their initial teacher preparation (Boesdorfer, 2018).

Current Student Teachers Reflections on Homeschool Course as Clinical

During their student teaching semester, two preservice chemistry teachers who had taught the homeschool course for at least one semester prior to student teaching were surveyed about their clinical experiences overall. Like the teachers described above, these student teachers also indicated that the experience with the homeschool class was useful to them.  The graduated responsibility was an aspect they both focused on heavily in their responses. For example, one said: “It provided a nice transition between being in another teachers’ classroom as an observer and being a student teacher where you are completely in charge of the classroom. We were in charge of the Home School Group, but it was a shared responsibility plus a Professor present just in case.”  Not surprisingly though, they also though both focused on how much they were learning in student teaching. For example,

I’m continuing to grow through my student teaching position but in new ways then I was able to with the Home School Group. I’m developing more classroom management and interacting with students more whereas during the Home School Group I was developing my teaching and lesson planning more.

As they are supposed to, the homeschool clinical experiences prior to student teaching helped prepare the preservice teachers for student teaching by giving the graduated responsibility in a structure environment where they continued to develop as teachers (Castle, Fox, & Souder, 2006; Darling-Hammond, 2005; Grossman, 2010). When asked directly, both recommended continuing the homeschool course for clinical experiences. Other than the positive course evaluations which cannot be used for research purposes, data has not been collected from current preservice teachers as yet.

Conclusions and Future Directions

There are positive and negative aspects to using a homeschool course as a clinical experience for preservice science teachers, but as a program we find the benefits described above outweigh the negative aspects and is worth the effort for our preservice chemistry teachers. We continue to collect data on graduates and feedback from current students to continually assess the effectiveness of the clinical experiences and improve or modify it as needed. With the limited availability of clinical placements around our university in high school chemistry classes and other clinical experience requirements for the chemistry preservice teachers’ other courses, this is one of our best options to provide an experience that helps develop skills to be an effective high school chemistry teacher. We address some of the challenges to using the homeschool course, for example, the lack of diversity among the homeschool students, through other clinical experiences in the professional education sequence of courses and other program requirements.  

Of course, the ability to offer this clinical is highly dependent on the HSA, and its help organizing and contacting potential students. If the number of homeschool students in the area were to decline significantly or parents are no longer interested in maintaining the HSA, this clinical experience would likely end. Using the homeschool course as a clinical experience is a work in progress, but one which the initial analysis suggests is an effective clinical experience; it might be an option for other programs looking for alternative forms of clinical experiences to meet their preservice teachers’ needs.  


[1] With a new university minors on campus policy, the future permissions will also include a permission for minors to be on campus along with our previous waivers. All waivers, including the working in the laboratory, were created under consultation with and approval by university legal counsel.

[2] Since the homeschool students are not university students, they cannot use the university’s LMS and parents need access to it as well. Recently, Schoology has been used as the LMS to share materials and grades. 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Course Design

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

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

Using Children’s Books

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

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

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

Designing their own NOS Books

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring Quality

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

How Well Do Children’s Books Include NOS?

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

Tentative NOS

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

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

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

Observation and Inference

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

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

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

Empirical NOS

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

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

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

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

Creativity and Imagination

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

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

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

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

Subjective NOS

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

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

Sociocultural NOS

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

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

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

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

Theory and Law

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

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

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

Assessing the Children’s Books, and Implications

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

The Content of Learning and the Learning of Content

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

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

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

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

Pedagogical Content Knowledge

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

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

Professional Learning Community

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

Early Childhood Teacher Candidates

Case 1

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary Teacher Candidates

Case 2

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

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

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

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

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

Case 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elementary and Middle Level Teacher Candidates

Case 4

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

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

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

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

Case 5

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

A Toolkit to Support Preservice Teacher Dialogue for Planning NGSS Three-Dimensional Lessons

Introduction

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) on which they are based, require a shift in preservice science teacher (PST) preparation. NGSS aligned instruction calls to engage K-12 students and new teachers in the use of authentic science and engineering practices (SEPs) and crosscutting concepts (CCCs) to develop understanding of disciplinary core ideas (DCIs) within the context of a scientific phenomenon (Bybee, 2014; NRC, 2015). Therefore, it must be modeled for PSTs how to weave together these three dimensions in the classroom, as they will be expected to align instruction with these goals as they begin their teaching careers.

At the university level the instructional shifts required to align teacher preparation to meet the vision of the Framework and NGSS are most likely to happen within teacher credentialing programs by revising or replacing some of the components of the science teaching methods courses (Bybee, 2014). Yet to accomplish this, science education faculty leading these efforts require tools or supports that assist PSTs to explicitly unpack standards and illuminate their underlying components (Krajcik, McNeill, & Reiser, 2008). Tools that have undergone systematic analysis and field-testing in real education contexts are required for facilitating such understanding (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015; Lewis, 2015). The Next Generation Alliance for Science Educators Toolkit (Next Gen ASET) presented in this paper was designed to provide such scaffolds to prompt discussion and lesson planning that align with the goals of the NGSS. The toolkit and examples of its integration into science methods courses are featured here.

The Next Generation Alliance for Science Educators Toolkit (Next Gen ASET)

Science educators, scientists, and curriculum specialists worked collaboratively over the course of three academic years to develop the Next Gen ASET Toolkit and integrated these tools into science methods courses across six universities. The Improvement Science (IS) framework (Berwick, 2008; Bryk et al., 2015; Lewis, 2015) informed the design of this study in developing and revising the toolkit in methods courses over this 3-year period. This approach allowed for an iterative design process that involved feedback from both the practitioner and end-users as well as for revisions of the tools as they were implemented as part of instruction.

The Next Gen ASET Toolkit is designed to support science methods course instruction to shift towards NGSS-alignment. This includes consideration of how to effectively integrate the three dimensions outlined in the Framework (NRC, 2012) while still considering other effective instructional practices in science education that are commonly addressed in methods courses. The toolkit consists of a one-page overarching graphic organizer (3D Map) and a set of eight tools with guiding criteria to support understanding of the individual SEPs (SEP Tools). A digital version of the toolkit was created to further support its use in methods courses (https://www.nextgenaset.org). The website provides access to the most current versions of the 3D Map and SEP Tools as well as descriptions and supports specific to the use of each. The tools are not meant to be used in isolation, but with peers to promote discourse for understanding the goals and aligning instruction for the NGSS. When used as part of a science methods course with direction from the instructor, these tools can support PSTs to align instruction to the NGSS vision. The following sections further describe the 3D Map and SEP Tools, followed by examples of how these have been used in methods courses.

3-Dimensional Mapping Tool (3D Map)

The 3D Map (Figure 1) was developed as a one-page graphic organizer to help ground discussions of curriculum and instruction in the dimensions of the NGSS, while linking these to larger topics generally discussed as part of instructional planning in a science methods course. The inclusion of topics outside the three dimensions of NGSS as part of the 3D Map extended beyond simply identifying the standards being used in a lesson, and to make connections of how these can be effectively aligned with instructional practices in the science classroom. The 3D Map was not intended to replace the use of more traditional lesson planning templates or other supports, but instead complement and provide a structure for making explicit the ways in which a lesson or unit integrates the components of NGSS. The 3D Map allows enough flexibility in its use to accommodate consideration of existing teaching strategies typically included in a methods course.

The structure of the 3D Map

The 3D Map is arranged with four rows of boxes, each labeled with an instructional component to be considered with room for notes or description of how each of these elements is addressed in a given lesson or unit. The top two rows of boxes on the 3D Map link to larger topics generally discussed as part of lesson planning in a science methods course and arose from consideration of how this tool would integrate with the other course topics. The bottom two rows of boxes include each of the three dimensions of NGSS and spaces for describing how these three dimensions are connected within a lesson or unit. The individual boxes are connected with arrows to indicate relationships between elements with respect to lesson or unit planning.

The top row of boxes includes elements to help orient PSTs and identify the context, goals, and boundaries of a lesson or unit. From left to right this top row has boxes for “Grounding Phenomenon/Essential Question,” “Conceptual Goals,” and “Performance Expectations.” The placement of the “Grounding Phenomenon” box in the upper left corner of the map was intentional, to prompt users to explicitly consider phenomena at the beginning of the planning process, and to promote anchoring lessons to a natural phenomenon while examining existing science instructional segments or planning for new ones. Given that a phenomenon serves as the driver of the science lessons (NRC, 2012), teacher preparation programs need to include a focus on developing teachers’ abilities to engage their students in explanations of natural phenomena (Kloser, 2014; NRC, 2015; Windschitl et al., 2012). The separate box for “Conceptual Goals” was included to allow users to translate this visual phenomenon they planned to explore into a scientific context. The third box, “Performance Expectation(s)” was included to prompt consideration of these larger learning goals as defined by the NGSS.

The second row of boxes prompts the identification of “Learning Objectives” and “Assessments.” The inclusion of a box labeled “Learning Objectives” separate from the “Performance Expectation(s)” (PEs) box was purposeful.  The intent was to signal PSTs to consider the relationships and differences between this larger benchmark for proficiency in science (i.e., PEs) and the smaller lesson-level learning goals in an instructional segment (Krajcik et al., 2014). Current literature indicates that PEs as written in the standards are not meant to be used as lesson-level learning goals (Bybee, 2013; Krajcik et al., 2014); “many lessons will be required for students to develop skills to reach proficiency for a particular NGSS performance expectation” (Houseal, 2015, p. 58). The separate box “Learning Objectives” was therefore included to prompt PSTs to write more specific learning goals based on, but more narrow in scope than, the PEs. The “Assessment” box was included to align with the structure of backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2001), an important component of many methods courses, and utilized within the course the 3D Map was originally developed. Consideration of assessment was intended to support PSTs to develop understanding of how to effectively assess learning goals for a lesson or unit, a key component of planning effective instruction (Davis, Petish, & Smithey, 2006). While the assessment box has an arrow connecting with the box for learning objectives, it does not make a connection with the larger PEs since the goal was to include assessments specific for the lesson or unit level, not these larger goals defined by the NGSS.

The bottom two rows of this graphic organizer consist of boxes for PSTs to list specific components of each NGSS dimension present in the lesson or unit, and then to describe how connections among the dimensions were made explicit (NRC, 2012). This design mirrors the integration of the three dimensions provided in the Framework and the NGSS and is consistent with literature providing the rationale for explicating connections among the dimensions for both content and learning objectives (Houseal, 2015; Krajcik et al., 2014). The structure includes color-coding to match the representation of SEPs in blue, DCIs in orange and CCCs in green. The colors of the boxes for the three dimensions of the NGSS and associated connecting arrows were chosen to align with the colors used by Achieve in the NGSS (NGSS Lead States, 2013) to provide a visual connection back to the standards. The visuals and discrete boxes in the 3D Map promote a constructivist approach to co-creating a group understanding of the shifts in pedagogy and curricular structure necessary to implement the integrated and complex components of the NGSS.

Figure 1 (Click on image to enlarge). Three-dimensional mapping tool.

Science and Engineering Practice Tools (SEP Tools)

The SEP Tools (see Figure 2 for example) were developed for use in conjunction with the 3D Map to help PSTs identify specific components of a SEP to hone objectives in a given lesson or unit. At first glance the eight SEPs outlined in the NGSS appear straightforward to many PSTs. However, the description of each SEP in the Framework (NRC, 2012) presents a much more complex vision. The goal of the SEP Tools is to make this complexity more explicit. A brief description is provided at the top of each SEP tool as defined in the Framework (NRC, 2012).  Below this description, the tool lists separate subcomponents that classroom students should experience in structured opportunities across the 6-8 grade band in order to completely engage in that SEP. These components are arranged on the left side of a matrix with columns to the right where PSTs may indicate which of these components from a given SEP are present in a lesson. There is also space on the tool to describe evidence of each component, including the actions a teacher takes to facilitate these components as well as how the students are engaging in each.

This matrix for completion by the PSTs detailing the SEP subcomponents is formatted to fit on 1-2 pages depending on the number of subcomponents. The criteria included on the last page of each SEP Tool is meant to be a reference for each component, defining for PSTs what students should do to have a structured opportunity to develop an understanding of each component by the end of the 6-8 grade band, as described in the Framework (NRC, 2012).

Figure 2 (Click on the following link to view). Science and engineering tool example.

Implementing the Next Gen ASET Toolkit in Science Methods Courses

In this section, we describe examples of how the tools have been implemented within science methods courses at two different public universities. Each of these courses enrolls PSTs who are completing requirements to teach science at the secondary level (grades 6-12). The two scenarios demonstrate the flexibility of the tools as each instructor implemented them in different ways but with the same overarching goal of promoting PSTs’ discussion and understanding of three-dimensional lessons. (Note: some of the 3D Map samples differ in their labels from one another as they were used at different stages in the three-year process of designing the 3D Map).

Example 1: Starting with the 3D Map

This first example describes how the Next Gen ASET Toolkit was incorporated into a yearlong science methods course. The instructor had previously explored ways to incorporate the three dimensions of the NGSS into her course but reported that her students lacked the support to make connections across the dimensions, particularly within the context of a phenomenon. The course maintained its existing pedagogical strategies such as the 5E learning cycle, backward design, and science literacy approach (Bybee et al., 2006; Lee, Quinn, & Valdes, 2013; Wiggins & McTighe, 2001), but then focused the NGSS themed discussions via the toolkit. In this case, the instructor began with the 3D Map to frame the larger picture of the NGSS, and then introduced the SEP Tools later to explore the complexities of the practices within a three-dimensional context.

During the first few weeks of the course, the PSTs were introduced to the following overarching phenomenon: consider the yearly weather and temperature differences between two cities residing on the same latitude approximately 150 miles apart. One city is inland, the other on an ocean coast. The instructor then modeled lessons which could be used in a middle or high school classroom to explore this phenomenon.  Throughout this process, the instructor referred to a large, laminated version of the 3D Map. As the PSTs learned about the 3-dimensions of the NGSS (PEs, SEPs, DCIs, and CCCs), and related concepts of phenomena and essential questions, the instructor noted how these are integrated using the 3D Map. As new phenomena were introduced (such as ocean acidification), PSTs were challenged to add their own ideas of how model lessons incorporated components of the NGSS by gradually adding colored sticky notes into the related sections of the 3D Map on the wall (See Figure 3). This allowed PSTs to engage in making their own connections between sample activities and lessons modeled in the methods class to the boxes on the 3D Map. Throughout the course, PSTs continued to add other sticky notes to the 3D Map to illustrate the multiple layers and interconnectedness characteristic of a larger instructional segment aligned with the goals of the NGSS.

Figure 3 (Click on image to enlarge). Course example 1 classroom 3D map.

Using the 3D Map in this way was also beneficial in that it allowed the instructor to understand where her PSTs struggled with NGSS. For example, regarding the phenomenon of the two cities described above, the PSTs identified the following performance expectation as relevant: MS-ESS2-6. Develop and use a model to describe how unequal heating and rotation of the Earth cause patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation that determine regional climates. However, when pressed to modify their own statement of a phenomenon related to this instructional segment, the PSTs overwhelmingly responded with “properties of water.”  The instructor noted in her reflections with the research team how this demonstrated PSTs’ focus on content with little connection to the larger phenomenon intended. In addition, she cited that the PSTs struggled to indicate how the lessons engaged in specific components of a SEP including data collection, identifying patterns, creating flow charts as descriptions of energy flow, and identifying connections between climate and location of cities. Therefore, she found they required prompting in a more specific manner; this is where the SEP Tool for Analyzing and Interpreting Data became useful for focusing specific student actions aligned with unit objectives and therefore relevant assessments.

A unit plan was used as a culminating assessment for the PSTs to demonstrate their ability to utilize the tools. Teams used the 3D Map to plan an interdisciplinary unit related to climate change topics where specific data collection activities were highlighted with emphasis on the SEPs: Analyzing and Interpreting Data and Constructing Explanations.  For instance, one group designed a unit to investigate the phenomenon of coral bleaching (See Figure 4). As PSTs planned, they utilized the 3D Map to guide the structure of their unit: identifying a particular phenomenon, choosing relevant conceptual goals related to that phenomenon (e.g., ocean acidification, pH changes, carbon cycles, impact of acidification on shelf-forming animals), associated and bundled Performance Expectations; related SEPs that would support the concepts and phenomenon (e.g. collecting and analyzing data from live and archived online estuary stations); chose DCIs that integrated life and physical sciences (LS2.B: Cycle of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems; PS3.D: Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life; LS2.C: Ecosystem Dynamics, Functioning, and Resilience) and applied appropriate, transcending connections found in at least one CCC (i.e. Cause and Effect) – all of which translated into various formative and summative assessment opportunities aligned to unit objectives.

Figure 4 (Click on image to enlarge). Course example 1 coral bleaching student map.

Example 2: Starting with the SEP Tools

This second example describes how the Next Gen ASET Toolkit was incorporated into a 1-semester (16 weeks) science methods course. While the course had previously emphasized curricular methods that were hands-on and followed the inquiry approach to teaching science, inclusion of NGSS beyond simply stating the architecture, which provided a surface level introduction, had not yet happened. The course instructor decided to use the SEP Tools in class during the first few weeks to facilitate reflection and discussion, and then introduce the 3D Map later in the semester.

During the second week of class, PSTs engaged in a traditional lesson around scientific inquiry, working to construct a model of what might be happening inside an opaque box. During this lesson, the PSTs worked in small groups to investigate what was inside a given set of black plastic boxes. After completing the activity, the PSTs were given the SEP Tool for Constructing Explanations. They selected which of the subcategories this activity engaged them in and used this tool to guide discussion in small groups and then as a larger class. After using this SEP Tool, during the following class meeting PSTs were given a brief overview of the NGSS architecture and vision for connecting three dimensions in learning. Focus was given to the SEPs when first introducing the NGSS. It was also discussed how some of these traditional lessons around inquiry do not truly integrate elements of each dimension and how these might be modified to allow for exploration of a DCI using these SEPs.

In the following weeks the instructor went into more depth with these PSTs about the other dimensions of the NGSS as well as overarching instructional goals. During the eighth week of class PSTs were shown the 3D Map. At this point in the course they were familiar with the NGSS and its dimensions. They had also spent time learning about how to write learning objectives and instructional strategies in science aligned with inquiry methods.

At this point, the instructor spent two hours in class engaging the PSTs in a model lesson on genetics. The PSTs participated as the students would in the lesson. Groups of PSTs were given various family histories based on genetic counseling interviews. The PSTs were provided some instruction on how to construct a pedigree and then tasked to use the information provided about their given family and construct a pedigree to determine what information they would tell this family if they were a genetic counselor working with them. Within the context of the pedigree sample lesson, the SEP tool for Analyzing and Interpreting Data (see Figure 5 for example) was used to help guide discussion of what is considered data in science and how scientists work with data. The instructor first prompted the PSTs to read the subcomponents listed and indicate which of these they felt the lesson included, supported with evidence of these components in the lesson. The instructor pointed out multiple times that although each SEP had multiple subcomponents, the goal of a given lesson was not to include all of these but instead to practice and assess one or two of them.

Figure 5 (click on image to enlarge). Course example 2 student SEP tool.

After this discussion of the SEP, a laminated version of the 3D Map was revealed to the class. The instructor reviewed how each box on the map related to the NGSS or larger ideas around lesson planning in science. The PSTs were then given sticky notes (each group a different color) and told to use these to put their group’s ideas for each box onto the map. The instructor had put notes for the NGSS standards and PE to focus students’ time on discussion of how these were connected in the lesson as well as related ideas on the map.  At the end of this class period the laminated 3D Map was full of sticky notes indicating each group’s contribution by color (Figure 6).

Figure 6 (Click on image to enlarge). Course example 2 classroom 3D map.

The following class period, approximately 90 minutes were spent discussing the different groups’ responses on the 3D Map. Much of the discussion centered on the phenomenon, conceptual goals, and how the three dimensions of the NGSS were linked in the lessons (bottom row of boxes). The use of the 3D Map guided the PSTs to think about how different elements of the NGSS and lesson planning needed to be considered when planning instruction. While no “best response” was given by the end of the discussion, PSTs expressed consideration of how multiple ideas presented from the sticky notes might help connect dimensions as well as increased confidence in understanding the vision of designing lessons to explore content around a given phenomenon.

Following this discussion using sticky notes, the 3D Map was placed on the wall in the classroom and referred to as the class continued to explore exemplar lessons and dimensions of the NGSS. As in the first scenario, PSTs in this course completed a culminating assessment of a lesson sequence that included completion of a 3D Map. The PSTs in this course completed this assignment individually, with some time in class given to share ideas and critique phenomenon identified for their lessons.

In a written reflection at the end of the course, when asked about the experience of implementing the Next Gen ASET Toolkit, the second instructor reported:

“Before ASET, my approach to the NGSS was almost exclusively through my students engaging in the SEPs – basically, for me, equating having students engaged in learning through the SEPs was equivalent to engaging them in learning science through inquiry. […]  Having done the ASET ‘prompted’ explicit work introducing my students to the DCIs and CCCs, and continuing with the SEPs.  The use of the 3D map as an integral component of my culminating assignment has 1) Supported my own understanding of what 3D planning can really look like in actual classroom practice and thus 2) given me the confidence that using the ASET tools with my students will truly support their understanding of the NGSS and their implementation of authentic and engaging science lessons for their future students.”

This quote suggests that integrating the Next Gen ASET Toolkit into this course not only supported PSTs’ understanding of the NGSS, but supported the faculty instructor in making his own teaching strategies related to NGSS more explicit.

Discussion

While the two examples described start with the use of different tools, they each demonstrate the flexibility of these tools for their use with a variety of model lessons. The promotion of discourse was inherent in the purposeful design of the 3D Map and the SEP Tools. Without the visual scaffold and the ability to make notes on a large laminated 3D Map, or on large handouts in the methods classroom, the complex conversations around planning for the NGSS would be lost in a disconnected set of activities and course assignments.

In the first scenario, the larger vision of NGSS represented by the 3D Map was presented first and then followed with exploring the complexities of the practices through use of the SEP Tools. For instance, activities related to the ocean as a heat reservoir (activities and lessons including models of ocean currents, wind patterns, weather patterns, thermal expansion of water, etc.) initially were perceived by PSTs as isolated activities to illustrate a limited number of concepts. However, conversations guided by the 3D Map framed the phenomenon of temperature differences between a coastal and an inland city at the same latitude; PSTs began to understand the connections instruction should make to connect a series of lessons to support this phenomenon.

In the second scenario, focus was given to the complexity of the SEPs first and then expanded to the 3D Map, including the larger picture of how to align science instruction with the NGSS. In this case, the SEP Tools helped to demonstrate how the practices can be used in different ways depending on the lesson. For example, in the pedigree activity, at first many PSTs did not think of qualitative data as data that students would use for analysis. However, through their discussion, framed by the SEP Tool for Analyzing and Interpreting Data, PSTs were able to focus on the various ways that they engaged with data in this way.

The visual 3D Map and the SEP Tools allowed for discussion of the various ways to make these connections clearer, made assessment possibilities more salient, and reinforced the relationships between doing science (SEPs) and understanding the concepts (DCIs) through specific lenses that link the domains of science (CCCs) serving as ways to assess overarching connections related to a given phenomenon. As is demonstrated in the examples, the role of the instructor was essential to guide this discussion for PSTs. As the instructor highlighted essential elements and relationships on the tools, PSTs were supported to make connections between course activities and the vision of the NGSS. Previous attempts to make broad and unstructured connections between model lessons and the NGSS dimensions were not as successful for either instructor. The first instructor lacked the support to make these explicit connections and the second instructor had only made surface level connections to the architecture with no depth to the vision for instruction aligned to the NGSS.  Integration of these courses with the Next Gen ASET Tookit made elements, which had been implicit, much more explicit to PSTs. They provided the structure and support needed to prompt meaningful discussions with appropriate scaffolds.

The Next Gen ASET Toolkit is not meant to be separated into stand-alone tools but are meant to be used as part of a larger course that together with exemplar lessons and dialogue, support understanding of the complexity of planning for the NGSS, guided by the course instructor.  These tools should not simply be handed to an instructor without support since they may not know how to effectively integrate these tools to support discussion or themselves may be unprepared/untrained in how to align instruction to the NGSS.  The current website provides some support for implementing these tools. These limitations show the importance of using the Next Gen ASET Toolkit while also participating in discussion with other methods course instructors and other individuals who understand how to effectively align instruction to the NGSS.

Next Steps

This paper reports on the first three years of our five-year study as the Next Gen ASET Toolkit was developed and implemented.  The toolkit is currently being implemented in science methods courses across five of the original six university campuses.  The faculty member at the sixth campus, due to commitments on other projects, is not currently able to teach the methods course at the university.  Each of these courses includes a culminating activity for PSTs to generate a lesson sequence or unit plan, using the 3D Map to help guide the development. In each course, the SEP Tools and 3D Map are utilized to help promote and support discussion around the NGSS. Instructors from each campus meet via videoconference monthly and discuss the progress of instruction via use of the tools by sharing data collected on student artifacts and course activities. The project team is currently expanding this network to include more campuses to engage in research using these tools. This expansion includes exploring the use of these tools with inservice teachers as well as with university supervisors to support the reflective dialogue happening as they observe PSTs’ field-experiences.

The instructors currently implementing the Next Gen ASET Toolkit report that these tools assist their PSTs in developing lessons that integrate the three-dimensionality and complexity of the NGSS. During monthly videoconferences these instructors share results from their courses and suggestions for how to improve instruction. These instructors are also involved with considering any further improvements to the tools based on results from their use in the courses.  The toolkit shows promise to be an example of the tools that have been called for to assist PSTs in explicitly unpacking these standards and illuminate their underlying components (Krajcik, McNeill, & Reiser, 2008).

Conclusion

The university courses currently implementing the Next Gen ASET Toolkit are shifting instruction within methods courses to align their teacher preparation program to meet the vision of the Framework and the NGSS (NRC, 2012). Integration of these tools into a methods course alongside exemplar lessons allows for the instructor to make explicit connections to the NGSS. The 3D Map allows for a visual scaffold and dialogue of how the lesson or lesson sequence integrates dimensions of the NGSS. The 3D Map also allows PSTs to visualize the variety of components necessary to consider in creating effective lessons aligned to the NGSS. The SEP tools provide explicit ways for the instructor to convey the complexities of each of these practices as well as guiding PSTs to consider how they will best include these in their own lessons. While this toolkit is not meant to be used in isolation, when used to promote discussion and reflection alongside model lessons it has shown promise to allow instructors to shift their instruction to support students understanding of the NGSS.

Acknowledgements

We thank the National Science Foundation who supported the research reported in this paper through a Discovery Research K12 grant, Award No. DRL-1418440.  Thank you to our faculty partners who implemented this toolkit in their courses and support the research efforts:  Jennifer Claesgens, Larry Horvath, Hui-Ju Huang, Resa Kelly, Jenna Porter, Donna Ross, David Tupper, Meredith Vaughn, Lin Xiang.  Thank you also to the many preservice teachers who provided feedback on the tools as they were implemented in their instruction.

An Integrated Project-Based Methods Course: Access Points and Challenges for Preservice Science and Mathematics Teachers

Introduction

It has long been understood that our abilities to transfer knowledge to new situations depend on the context in which the knowledge was acquired (Barab, 1999; Boaler, 2002b, 2016; Dewey, 1939). As the nature of jobs continue to change, there is a greater recognition that educational systems must also adapt to keep pace with shifting job markets (Markham, Larmer, & Ravitz, 2003; Pink, 2005) and changing understandings of the skills that will be required by the demands of the 21st century (Bell, 2010; Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), 2009; Pink, 2005). Recently, reform efforts have responded to this shift by redesigning the school experience around learning contexts that promote 21st century skills (Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), 2009). As state and national organizations continue to advocate for instruction that emphasizes conceptual understandings, connections, and problem solving (Berlin & Lee, 2005; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000, 2014; NGSS Lead States, 2013; Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), 2016, 2017)—particularly in mathematics and science—it is becoming even more essential that teacher preparation programs reconsider how they are preparing graduates to teach within this new educational landscape.

Interdisciplinary science and mathematics education may support calls for preparing students for a workforce that demands the application of diverse content and skills to solve challenging problems and design innovations (McDonald & Czerniak, 1994). These transferable connections between disciplines allow for real-world applications and transcend the fragmentation that occurs when subjects are taught in isolation (Hough & St. Clair, 1995; NCTM, 2014). Learning in this manner may simultaneously increase student achievement, autonomy, and motivation—and result in deeper, more connected learning (Barab, 1999; Berlin & White, 1994; Hough & St. Clair, 1995; Huntley, 1998; McGehee, 2001). Researchers have found that interdisciplinary STEM teaching has been shown to positively affect student attitudes and interests in these subjects (Berlin & White, 1994; Yasar, Maliekal, Little, & Veronesi, 2014).

Despite benefits for K-12 students, many teachers experience apprehension when being tasked with connecting mathematics with science in interdisciplinary teaching due to little to no experience with this type of learning (Frykholm & Glasson, 2005). Research suggests that when preservice teachers (PSTs) are prepared within mathematics and science interdisciplinary collegiate teaching methods course(s), they value interdisciplinary teaching and are more likely to emphasize content integration (Frykholm & Glasson, 2005; Koirala & Bowman, 2003). Thoroughly integrating science and mathematics education is challenging (Huntley, 1998), but can be paired with inquiry-based methodologies—such as project-based learning (PBL)—to foster sustained integration.

PBL has been defined in a myriad of ways (e.g., Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006; Markham, Larmer, & Ravitz, 2003; Moursund, 1999; Thomas, 2000). For the purpose of this article, PBL will be defined as “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” (Buck Institute for Education (BIE), 2018d, para. 1). Utilizing PBL as an instructional framework may reinforce content integration as it highlights the partnership between knowledge and its application (Markham, Larmer, & Ravitz, 2003). Students who learn through PBL approaches are found to efficiently construct and connect knowledge concepts (Blumenfeld et al., 1991; Boaler, 2001; Braden, 2002; Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015) which can then be transferred outside of the classroom (Boaler, 2002b; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006).

Moreover, PBL has been shown to provide more equitable instruction to students across socio-economic classes (Boaler, 2002a), and to lower-achieving students (Han, Capraro, & Capraro, 2014). Secondary students who learned through project-based methodologies demonstrated increased engagement (Braden, 2002; Merlo, 2011), motivation (Bell, 2010; Boaler, 2002b; Krajcik & Blumenfeld, 2006), independence (Yancy, 2012), and an awareness of educational purpose (Larmer et al., 2015) compared to those who learn subjects independently. For example, longitudinal comparative studies find that high school students who learned through PBL had higher mathematics and science gain scores, increased problem solving abilities, had higher levels of enjoyment of mathematics, and completed more advanced mathematics courses than students learning through non-PBL approaches (Baran & Maskan, 2010; Boaler, 2002b; Boaler & Staples, 2008).

Although PBL does not require the use of interdisciplinary partnerships, researchers find that mathematics and science PSTs who are trained to teach through interdisciplinary PBL approaches are able to communicate real-life applications to students (see Wilhem, Sherrod, & Walters, 2008). Further, interdisciplinary PBL training of PSTs increase efficacy in content and pedagogy (Frank & Barzilai, 2004). While more research is needed on the effect size of PBL as an instructional approach, Hattie, Fisher, and Frey (2017) found that numerous components of interdisciplinary PBL instruction (e.g., formative evaluation, feedback, goals, concentration, persistence, engagement, second/third chance programs, cooperative learning, integrated curricula programs, inquiry-based teaching) have positive effect sizes in relation to their impact on student achievement. Given the research-based support and positive outcomes of both interdisciplinary STEM teaching and PBL, we merged these two approaches to implement an interdisciplinary mathematics and science methods course for secondary PSTs that utilized the PBL framework described above. This work describes the outcomes of its pilot implementation.

Context

This instructional methods course was part of a one-year teacher preparation program at a liberal arts university in the mid-Atlantic region. Prior to this pilot study, there were two sections for secondary mathematics and science PSTs, respectively, in which PSTs engaged in aligning national and state standards with instructional strategies and appropriate assessments. In the mathematics course, PSTs planned and implemented lessons aligned to state standards as well as those put forth by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 2000) while learning about various instructional theories, manipulatives, and instructional models. Similarly, the science planning course required science PSTs to develop 3-dimensional (NGSS, 2013), 5-E lessons (Bybee, 2009) that utilized the NGSS science and engineering practices in relation to disciplinary core ideas and performance expectations. The respective courses were required for science and mathematics majors who were pursuing licensure in secondary science or mathematics teaching and occurred before a 10-week, full-time clinical field experience (e.g., student teaching). This study describes how an interdisciplinary planning course was designed, the initial implementation of this course, and how PSTs utilized and perceived this experience. Prior to this experience, the mathematics and science PSTs had few opportunities to plan and teach together.

The interdisciplinary course was developed as part of a university teaching fellowship that the science educator participated in to diversify innovative experiences and non-traditional teaching approaches for university students. The science educator collaborated with the math educator to co-construct an opportunity for preservice math and science teachers to reflectively apply their skills and knowledge about co-teaching science and math in a PBL course. The instructors designed the course to build on the aforementioned students’ knowledge and experiences in their disciplinary-specific methods course that they had completed the previous semester.

The interdisciplinary course was designed to build on these understandings and refine PSTs’ ideas about teaching, co-designing math and science curriculum using technology and engineering design for students to investigate science and math problems, adapting instruction for the diverse needs of learners, developing inquiry-based lesson plans, working collaboratively, and engaging in sustained reflection throughout the course. Further, the instructors aimed to facilitate horizontal alignment and instructional collaboration between future teachers in science and mathematics. This goal is in accordance with the Virginia Mathematics Standards of Learning Framework (2009) which states that “science and mathematics teachers and curriculum writers are encouraged to develop mathematics and science curricula that reinforce each other” (p. v). Related to these goals, the instructors required preservice teachers to co-design an integrated science and mathematics unit that incorporated technology and adaptations for diverse learners.

Participants

A total of nine secondary PSTs participated in the interdisciplinary mathematics and science planning course, seven of whom would receive a license in a science teaching discipline, one who would receive a mathematics teaching license, and one who intended to be certified in both disciplines. Seven of the PSTs were pursuing their master’s degree in secondary education, and two undergraduates were working towards their secondary teaching license. The instructors of the course were the co-authors, one a math specialist and a Ph.D. student in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership, with vast experiences in project-based and inquiry-based curriculum design and implementation, and the other a professor of science education within the university with over a decade of experience supporting inservice STEM teachers and working on interdisciplinary and culturally responsive engineering designs that are used to inform teacher practice.

Description of Participant Experiences

In an effort to introduce the students to PBL and provide them with a foundational understanding of how PBL can be integrated into classrooms, PSTs observed PBL in action during their discipline-specific methods course the previous semester. These observations took place in a local high school that has partnered with the university. University faculty, including the science educator, worked closely with teachers in the local school to design and implement best practices in interdisciplinary teaching and PBL. Thus, the teachers that PSTs observed were innovative, vetted, and thoroughly immersed in professional development being delivered by institutional faculty. All students observed an interdisciplinary PBL-based physics and algebra class as well as a ninth-grade history-english class. These observations were arranged by the instructors, who accompanied the PSTs during the observations, and were followed up with classroom discussions to ensure that all PSTs had a chance to critically analyze and reflect on both the successes and challenges of PBL. As these observations preceded our instructional planning course, students entered the course with an understanding of how interdisciplinary PBL differed from traditional projects—a distinction we were keen to highlight from the start. Moreover, the PSTs came in with an understanding of how the shift to inquiry-based learning can transform classroom climate and classroom dynamics. Finally, the PSTs entered with an understanding of some of the struggles related to the implementation of PBL and were, therefore, expected to address many of these through the use of rubrics and standards-based intended learning outcomes.

The expectation of the instructional planning course was that the PSTs would work in interdisciplinary teams to develop projects that would engage secondary students in authentic learning (e.g., projects analyzing the impacts of real-world problems such as sea level rise in the local community). Three teams were created around areas of common interest. The first team included two PSTs who had backgrounds in chemistry, one of whom was seeking dual certification in mathematics. The second group included four PSTs—one PST with a mathematics background and three of whom had completed their major in environmental studies. The third group included three PSTs, all of whom had chemistry backgrounds and one of whom had a background in biochemistry as well. Ideally, we would have had more math PSTs in the course, which would have allowed us to make the groups more interdisciplinary. However, as that was not the case, we mitigated the problem by providing all groups numerous opportunities to consult with the instructors and other mathematics and mathematics education faculty members (as discussed later in the manuscript).

The instructors began the course by providing PSTs with a background into the research and history of PBL in order to allow them to ground their aforementioned observations in context and research. This was accomplished by incorporating selected readings (see Appendix A), presentations, and discussions—such as one focusing on the benefits and challenges of PBL-into the course. The instructors also required PSTs to read Setting the standard for project based learning, by Larmer, Mergendoller and Boss (2015), and engage with curriculum, resources, planning guides, and the “gold standard” PBL framework put forth by the Buck Institute. “Gold standard” PBL is a term coined by Larmer et al. (2015), and is comprised of eight research-based characteristics that support high-quality PBL: A focus on standards-based content and success skills, a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, authenticity, student voice and choice, reflection, critique and revision, and a public product. This framework scaffolded the design process for the PSTs and provided them with a common understanding of what high quality PBL is, and how to plan and structure effective PBL units. These resources were then supplemented with several banks of curated articles and support documents related to interdisciplinary education, project-based learning, collaboration, and on the effective use of rubrics in assessing student collaboration, communication, and learning (see Appendix A). These resource libraries were designed to allow PSTs to access resources as needed for support during the planning process.

After establishing a common understanding of the necessary components of high-quality PBL, PSTs were assigned the task of designing a PBL unit within their interdisciplinary teams. Due to the daunting nature of this task for those inexperienced with PBL, the instructors provided scaffolds by breaking the process up into smaller chunks—as described below—and by providing all groups with the project design template from the Buck Institute (BIE, 2018b). Furthermore, the instructors created a timeline of suggested due dates to allow groups to assess their progress throughout the course. The instructors met regularly with each group to provide feedback on their progress and formatively assessed PSTs throughout the course. These formative assessments were structured to provide feedback to both instructors and students by requiring various components of their units (e.g., driving questions and entry events), to be presented to the course. These presentations utilized the critical friends protocol (Bambino, 2002), thereby allowing PSTs to receive valuable critique from both peers and instructors within a safe environment.

The first task for each group was to create an authentic driving question and entry event that would engage future middle and high school students in the learning process. Our class used the definition of a driving question from Larmer et al. (2015) of “a statement in student-friendly language of the challenging problem or question at the heart of the project” (p. 92). We also defined an entry event as an intentional event planned by the teacher to stimulate student curiosity and engagement about the project topic (Boss, 2011). After receiving feedback from the instructors and peers, the PSTs used these driving questions to develop content-based and skill-based objectives for their future students that would be necessary to understand the driving question and develop well-articulated projects.

PSTs used blank calendars to align objectives to state mathematics and science standards and to include brief daily pedagogical plans for facilitating instruction. This activity was intended to have PSTs consider the pacing of their units. PSTs also included objectives to intentionally teach critical skills for PBL such as collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and citizenship (P21, 2009; VDOE, 2016) which were discussed and modeled in class and supported by providing the PSTs with copies of the rubrics from the Buck Institute (BIE, 2018e). The students created their calendars on Google Docs and instructors gave iterative feedback to support students in refining their ideas. These calendars provided an overview of their units and allowed the instructors to ensure that all intended learning outcomes were being met within a realistic pacing structure. A sample calendar from one PST group has been included in Appendix B as an exemplar of this process.

The instructors invited additional content experts to class to review entry events, driving questions, real-world connections, and to probe the PSTs to consider or reconsider strategies for building students’ skills. For example, a former practicing engineer and a multi-certified STEM educator came to support students in more thoroughly integrating mathematics in science-driven units. PSTs additionally connected with mathematics educators at the university. Additionally, at the midpoint of the course, the class virtually connected with two PBL experts via video conference to provide feedback on project ideas and driving questions—one of whom was an author of their textbook. The experts were provided with copies of their project ideas and driving questions in advance of the meeting, and spent an hour providing feedback, answering questions, and sharing experiential advice. The instructors facilitated this by reaching out to the author via E-mail, who then invited a second expert to the video conference. These experts drew on their own experiences with PBL to share key insights into designing effective PBL units and one expert even video conferenced in from a tiny-house that his students had built for him—thus making the experience more meaningful for PSTs by providing them with a vision of what is possible. Following this experience, the groups fine-tuned their questions and projects based on their new insights. Finally, PSTs also sought input from the teachers with whom they were working within the field to understand more about pacing and best practices to develop students understanding of selected science and mathematics content and skills.

In addition to unit planning, each peer group had to teach 30-45 minutes of an inquiry-based lab activity to their instructors and peers, clearly communicating expectations for group norms, collaboration, and communication for their students. At the end of the course, students gave a presentation to the class that narrated pedagogical decisions within the unit. Each group engaged their peers in the first day of their unit, presenting their entry event, driving question, and rubric for the project. The instructors asked PSTs to explain to their peers (as fellow colleagues) the learning goals of the project, a brief overview of the project calendar and timeline, and how their project taught 21st century skills while simultaneously covering requisite standards.

The final assignment was to have students complete a modified Buck Institute Collaboration Rubric (BIE, 2018a) for each member of the group. The rubric was adapted to an online format that utilized branching to tailor the questions to each group. Every PST was required to complete the rubric by reflecting on their own contributions as well as those of their peers. Doing so not only allowed for structured reflection on how well they collaborated with their peers, but also allowed for more holistic grading as these rubrics were then coupled with the project rubric to determine the final grades for each individual.

Data Sources and Analysis

The project design rubric from the Buck Institute (BIE, 2018c) was used to assess the quality of the three interdisciplinary PBL unit plans. The unit plans allowed us to see how PSTs operationalized this rubric to plan a small math and science project for future students. Data on the quality of the created units was generated by assessing the units and their subsequent presentations. Applying the Buck Institute Design Rubric (BIE, 2018c), we specifically assessed the following criteria: the inclusion of key knowledge and skills, a challenging, open-ended driving question that would allow students to look at myriad considerations in answering the driving question, multiple inquiry-based activities included in the unit that guide the understanding of the question and the development, the authenticity of the project in terms of its relevance to students’ lives within the contexts of their clinical field placements, the incorporation of opportunities to elicit student reflection into the unit, and opportunities for peer critiques and revisions.

Following the final presentation of the unit, PSTs formally reflected upon how the course prepared them to plan and teach through interdisciplinary, project-based learning, as well as their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the newly revised interdisciplinary teaching methods course. We followed-up with PSTs again approximately one year after the completion of the course. Students’ responses were read and discussed by both instructors. Each author applied in vivo codes (Creswell & Poth, 2018) to understand students’ perceptions of the course. The authors compared codes to ensure that all students’ experiences were accounted for. The codes were sorted into categories representative of course design, course implementation, and preparation for classroom teaching content. Two themes emerged across each category including “personal meaning and values in course learning outcomes” and “efficacy and practicality of PBL implementation.” These themes guided the discussion of students’ perceptions of the course, and key quotes were selected and presented within the “reflections from PSTs” section of this article to represent students’ perceived strengths and weakness of each theme. The authors elaborated upon quotes with observations that were documented throughout the course, specifically during group presentations, individual meetings, and the rationales of final products.

Quality of Interdisciplinary Projects

The three project units all focused on key knowledge and understandings that were aligned with clear standards-based learning outcomes, thoroughly integrating mathematics and science. All projects contextualized their projects through current issues taking place locally or in the media—organic products in grocery stores, water quality as it relates to health, and global warming. Here, we describe briefly the three units, areas of strengths, and areas that could be improved in terms of their alignment to the BIE Project Rubric (BIE, 2018b).

The first group created an integrated chemistry and personal finance project that focused on organic farming to teach standards related to bonding types, the use of lab equipment, the relationships between chemical properties and biochemistry, the economics of product pricing, advertising and decision making, the life functions of bacteria, protein synthesis, and the principles of scientific investigation. PSTs created the driving question of, “Should people in your community buy organic or traditionally farmed food?” PSTs planned for an opening peer-debate on students’ preconceptions of organic and inorganic foods. The PSTs showed how they would explicitly teach students to debate, teaching the skills of having to communicate and critique ideas related to organic farming. The PSTs developed research and inquiry-based activities for students to investigate the sources of organic and traditional foods in their neighborhoods, consider the extent to which genetic modification has played a role in the farming of these foods, and analyze the intended and unintended outcomes stemming from the use of antibiotics, pesticides, and bacterial growth. These labs were open-ended enough to allow for student voice and choice, but would have benefited from the intentional incorporation of time for students to reflect on their findings, reflect on the relevance of these findings to the driving question, and to critique and revise their work. The culminating experience of the unit was a presentation to members of the community and a mini-research paper.

The second group integrated chemistry, algebra II and English to address content standards related to solution concentrations, solubility curves, acids and bases, titrations, creating and conducting experiments, analyzing data, graphing and analyzing exponential and logarithmic functions, and persuasive writing. The group asked, “what are the actual differences between different types of water we drink?” Although this question is relevant to the lives of high school students who drink from water fountains at school, the question may have benefited from being modified into be more open-ended. The entry event demonstrated the Tyndall effect and compared water from the school fountain with a store-bought bottle of water. Students were then expected to assume the role of scientists by collecting water samples from various sources throughout the school and conducting several labs including creating their own purified water and determining the pH levels of water from different sources. Although these labs targeted key learning outcomes, they were structured with a degree of rigidity and with a narrow focus that limited the amount of student voice and choice, the intensity of the sustained inquiry, the amount of productive struggle (NCTM, 2014) that was encouraged, and the degree to which students would be able to critique and revise their work.

Finally, PSTs ended their unit with a jigsaw activity where students assessed the impacts that water quality can have on economic, health, and environmental considerations. Ultimately, students would share their purified water samples and then use marketing techniques to persuade their peers and school learners that their water was the best source. Throughout this process, PSTs planned for their students to have numerous opportunities to reflect on and share their findings by regularly documenting their learning on Instagram.

The final group created a unit that integrated Earth science, algebra 1, and English standards including conducting investigations, utilizing scientific reasoning, maps, the ocean, the impact of human activity on the earth, inferential and descriptive statistics, and oral presentations. These interdisciplinary standards can be seen in context in the project calendar in Appendix B and the project design overview (see Appendix C), which have been included to provide a more holistic picture of the unit. The group utilized a driving question of “how will sea level rise affect your community?” Their rationale for focusing on this topic was their belief that people are motivated to make personal changes when they are able to see the potential impact that rising sea levels will have on their own homes and communities. This topic was made authentic and meaningful for students because it was context-specific, exploring how sea-level rise affects the mid-Atlantic region in the future. PSTs engaged students by using the Maldives—a popular tourist destination which may be underwater in the coming decades. This entry event showed students how sea level rise could potentially devastate an entire nation in the near future. This sparked the impetus for local investigations of how sea level rise could affect students’ homes.

PSTs planned for their students to observe a variety of phenomena that included curated videos and images of thermal expansion and the ice caps. Additionally, students would observe and manipulate data through various modeling and mapping websites, and collect and analyze data to understand and predict the impact of sea level rise within a case-based model. The activities gave secondary students voice and choice in terms of allowing them to focus on their own neighborhoods, choose which sources they collected data from, and allowing the final presentation and infographic to be open-ended and uniquely creative. This final project and infographic was the culmination of sustained inquiry of the data, and showcased study analysis through charts, graphs, and images that displayed how sea-level rise could affect their hometowns. The PSTs planned a culminating event at which students would present their investigations and findings at a local oceanography seminar.

This project was chosen as an exemplar in part because of the intentionality the group showed in integrating key suggestions from the Buck Institute Design Rubric (BIE, 2018c) into their project. For example, as mentioned above, the groups entry event is one that would capture student attention and excitement in a way that would easily transfer to the driving question. Moreover, the group built in authentic, sustained inquiry by curating extensive lists of videos, websites, and sources of relevant data that students were then expected to synthesize and apply to a case-based analysis. Finally, PSTs planned for students to present findings at an oceanography seminar, allowing them to take on the role of scientists who are investigating this important issue. The only aspect of the project that necessitated further consideration was the degree to which independent learning opportunities were extended to K-12 students. Although several aspects of the project allowed for independent learning, we felt that more of the activities that were teacher-lead could have been more open-ended, allowing for a higher degree of student autonomy.

Reflections from PSTs

We asked the PSTs to reflect on the course outcomes immediately following the last class and then followed up with PSTs one year after the course to have them reflect on the aspects of the course that have been useful or not useful to them during their first year of full-time teaching. All PSTs wrote a reflection after the course and 5 of the 9 teachers emailed us a retrospective reflection. Following the course, students noted a more thorough understanding of what interdisciplinary PBL planning and implementation can look like. All PSTs felt more confident planning for a unit that incorporated two or more subject areas, and designing a small-scale project. Specifically, PSTs felt that the course prepared them to consider the logistics, need for communication between teachers, and pacing when implementing interdisciplinary PBL units. Moreover, the PSTs noted that the experience helped them become more creative educators and to value collaboration and peer feedback. PSTs perceived the size of the unit (2-3 weeks) as manageable, and a “great first look at the logistics of planning an interdisciplinary PBL.” One of our participants looks back as a first-year sixth grade teacher and notes that the class experience helped her to understand early PBL trainings that she is required to participate in through her school district.

This awareness developed the interest of some of the PSTs to begin implementing PBL into their classrooms. For example, one PST in the course actively sought out a PBL school to teach in during the course and was hired as a first-year science teacher following graduation. Currently, she works with other teachers across disciplines to thoroughly integrate standards and skills across thematic units to develop multifaceted projects. She shares:

Unlike most of my peers I would imagine, I teach in a school that operates through only PBL teaching, as well as mastery based grading with scientific skills, design thinking, and a set of core values. My current focus has been on building PBL projects that require students to work through several iterations using their design thinking while also developing their values. With a PBL, in my classroom, it has been less of a focus on content, but rather how you use skills to digest and interact with the content.

Other PSTs reported that they are either currently using PBL in their classrooms, using aspects of PBL to frame their instruction, or are hopeful that they will be able to use it in the future. For those who are beginning to incorporate projects in their classroom, a middle school mathematics teacher advises that “it is important to start small when first trying out PBL in your classroom… Don’t try to do all of it on your own and go for a really big and complicated project first time out.”

Prior to this course, the PSTs had no experience planning across disciplines, nor were they being mentored by teachers who collaborated in this way. PSTs noted the benefit of seeing the two methods instructors planning, culminating resources, and implement the course together. One PST said, “[the professors’] co-planning and organizational skills added to the overall effectiveness of the course.” PSTs enjoyed working with each other. This is evidenced by a mathematics PST who stated that their “favorite part [of the course] was getting to work with the science kids and hearing the different experiences they had in the classroom so I could learn from these experiences prior to student teaching.” PSTs hoped to collaborate with others in their future job, and viewed the course as “great practice collaborating with peers and different disciplines.”

Our analyses also supported the conclusion that PSTs wanted to learn more about the day to day routines and methods in the classroom. Evidencing this, one student shared that the instructors did “a phenomenal job in allowing us to plan on a larger scale…taking more time to identify what a day to day looks like would be more realistic for a classroom.” While we assumed PSTs felt confident in teaching methods from their experiences in the semester prior, it became evident that none of the PSTs’ cooperating teachers, and few of the positions that they secured post-graduation, utilized project-based learning and the ideas taught in instructional planning were new to the veteran teachers who were mentoring the PSTs. PSTs wanted more models and “more input from teachers that have actually implemented PBL in their units before.” Additionally, the PSTs felt that the course did not adequately prepare them for the difficulties of implementing PBL within schools that have not fully adopted it. As one PST noted, “a lot was left out in terms of actually implementing [the PBL units] and the roadblocks that occur during implementation.” The PST went on to suggest that the experience “revealed the importance of a whole school culture shift and support.”

Because PSTs were not placed within PBL schools with a focus on interdisciplinary planning and teaching, they felt that the course did not align to the actualities of their clinical field placement. While PBL units included a variety of instructional models to teach content and skills necessary for a culminating project, some PSTs had difficult with the overall practicality of the course. For example, one PST shared after the course:

While PBL mirrors the ideal teaching experience, it is not necessarily the reality of what
we will be facing in our 10 weeks of student teaching. I think that the overall course was effective and useful, but I do wish that the course scaffolded our 10 week student teaching experience a bit better.

This point was similarly made by an earth science teacher who looked back on the class:

The PBL lesson planning remained mostly theoretical and abstract. Since we were not expected to or could not implement them in our student teaching experiences, we could design the best possible PBL units—not the most realistic…Possibly designing a lesson for a school that has already made the switch to PBL rather than designing units for science classes that have had no to very little prior exposure to PBL would have been more practical.

PSTs felt that more practice developing and implementing more traditional lesson plans would have better prepared them for the normal classroom and for their current students, rather than for the ideal. One PST suggested that it would be possible to learn both PBL and traditional teaching methods if “PBL could be factored into the methods course with [the instructional planning] course focusing more on diverse teaching methods.

Despite these feelings, the PSTs valued the course and follow-up reflections suggest that they will continue to draw from their class experiences with their future students. They see interdisciplinary PBL teaching “as way of the future.” Most significantly, the teachers perceived the course with emphasizing the importance of making learning more meaningful and relevant to students. One teacher explains- “I have transferred a lot of the aspects of PBL to my everyday teaching style…Most importantly, the student directed learning, the importance of real, meaningful questions and data and impactful summative assessments.” Our practicing PBL science teacher explained that the class helped to shift her mindset from “grading on something other than content standards and the importance of that in creating well rounded students.”

Conclusion and Implications

The pilot implementation of an interdisciplinary mathematics and science PBL course produced promising outcomes that can continue to be developed through future iterations of this course. By students producing PBL unit plans, PSTs were able to conceptualize how collaborative planning can be achieved as well as interdisciplinary, real world contexts (Wilhem, Sherrod, & Walters, 2008). Importantly, the PSTs valued stepping out of their disciplinary silos and working with others outside of their expertise. The PSTs were able to observe integrating content areas in action, and many noted how integrating mathematics and science instruction enriches both content areas. Such activities are important for preservice teachers to consider what school can look like even when it is different from their own personal experiences (Frykholm & Glasson, 2005; P21, 2009).

A common challenge perceived by the PSTs during and after the course was the alignment of instructional methods courses with clinical field placements, a challenge frequently addressed in teacher education research (see Allen & Wright, 2014). Ideally, such placements would align with coursework to allow PSTs to apply new pedagogical knowledge, such as knowledge of integrated PBL, in the classroom (Zeichner & Bier, 2015). As this was not the case here, the PSTs in this study felt a disconnect between the pedagogical strategies learned in the course and the ones that they were observing from the mentors. The result of this disconnect was that the PSTs preferred a smaller sample of PBL, and more of an emphasis on diverse teaching methods. It is important for the PSTs to realize (and articulate to mentor teachers), that PBL requires a diverse array of pedagogical strategies, mini lessons, and formative assessments to prepare students to develop a final product. PBL is not a strategy, but rather an umbrella that can cover all of the strategies that teachers have learned. It is, therefore, important that PSTs realize that teachers using PBL still have to use diverse instructional strategies like modeling, investigating, and developing explanations to create a comprehensive interdisciplinary project.

As one of our participants noted, interdisciplinary PBL is best supported when there is buy-in from teachers and school leaders. For preservice teachers to realistically see how this method and mindset of planning and teaching plays out, it is important that they have clinical field placements in schools with teachers who have experience with cross-disciplinary planning and PBL (Zeichner & Bier, 2015). It is well-established that the mindsets, experiences, and practices of mentor teachers carry over to teachers-in-training (Carano, Capraro, Capraro, & Helfeldt, 2010). At the very least, methods course instructors should consider including mentor teachers in project development so that unit products can logistically be implemented in classrooms. We also note that a limitation of this study is that we only had one math preservice teacher. In addition to mediating this by having PSTs collaborate with professors in math, science, and engineering in class, it may also be beneficial to have science PSTs collaborate with mathematics mentor teachers (and math PSTs with science mentor teachers) to develop robust, interdisciplinary units.

The development and initial implementation of this interdisciplinary math-science planning course structure suggests benefits of this model to students. While not a focus of this study, the development of this course was a PBL experience for the instructors—a project that was continuously reflected upon and redesigned based on the formative feedback of the PSTs. We, therefore, recommend continuous planning sessions between instructors who desire to co-teach in a similar manner along with reflective sessions after each class to revise instruction for future iterations. We also recommend that instructors intentionally model key components of such structures to their PSTs. Such components include bringing in outside experts, co-planning, and engaging in active reflection throughout the process.

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Cobern and Loving’s Card Exchange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on The Card Exchange

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

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

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

Literacy Strategies for NOS Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NOS Statement Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion

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

Early Introduction: A Double-Edged Sword?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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