2061 Connections
An electronic newsletter for the science education community

July/August 2006

Big Ideas in Science and Science Learning

CCMS research conference explores new findings on students and teachers

[PHOTO] Dean Grosshandler and Cindy Passmore discussing a poster presentation at the 2006 KSI.
Dean Grosshandler of Michigan State University and Cindy Passmore of the University of California, Davis, at the 2006 KSI.

How do we know what students know about atoms and molecules, force and motion, and other core ideas in science? Do children take many different paths toward understanding science concepts or is their progress more predictable? What kinds of features make it easier for science teachers to get the most out of the innovative research-based instructional materials now being developed? These are just a few of the questions that were on the table as more than 120 researchers and educators came together in July on the campus of the University of Michigan for the fourth Knowledge Sharing Institute (KSI) hosted by the Center for Curriculum Materials in Science (CCMS). Funded by the National Science Foundation as a Center for Learning and Teaching, the Center is a partnership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Michigan State University (MSU), Northwestern University (NU), and the University of Michigan (UM).

With its mission to develop new knowledge and leadership that can contribute to more effective K–12 science curriculum materials, the Center uses its annual KSI to foster the exchange of information and experience among those involved in relevant areas of curriculum research and development, teacher development, education policy, assessment, and more. Building on the theme of last year’s Institute, which explored tools and frameworks for science curriculum materials research and development, the 2006 KSI focused attention on the Center’s research agenda to highlight the work of scholars both within and outside of the Center. Over the course of more than 25 different sessions—from “greenhouses” where new ideas and approaches could be discussed informally to featured research presentations by the Center’s new Ph.D.’s—the KSI provided participants with opportunities to learn from their colleagues, to strengthen existing collaborations, and to build new ones.

Research in Key Areas

Threaded throughout the meeting were sessions devoted to research in six areas of particular importance to the Center’s work. These major research strands provided a context within which to discuss a wide range of topics related to science teaching and learning. The 2006 KSI agenda includes links to many of the conference presentations, but for a sense of the meeting’s broad scope, here are brief summaries of a few of the sessions in each strand:

Teacher and Curriculum. Dealing with issues that are at the heart of the Center’s work, five sessions focused on the dynamic relationship between teachers and the materials they use. A session organized by Christina Schwarz (MSU), Betsy Davis (UM), and David Kanter (NU) explored how teachers’ knowledge and skills develop over the course of their careers, particularly in the context of curriculum materials. Acknowledging that teachers’ can be experts in one dimension of their learning and novices in another—for example, veteran teachers with many years in the classroom may not have had experience with a particular curriculum material or pedagogical strategy—the panel of researchers described how their work addressed different aspects of teachers’ learning and the questions it might eventually answer. Participants agreed that a framework for aggregating data from various studies of teacher learning would help in the development of a consensus on teacher learning trajectories and of more effective and timely pre- and in-service experiences for teachers. Another session in this strand—organized by Jo Ellen Roseman and Kathleen Morris of AAAS Project 2061, Hilda Borko (University of Colorado at Boulder), and Yael Shwartz (UM)—considered the use of videotaped classroom lessons in research and identified issues that affect data analysis. Researchers Jennifer Cartier (University of Pittsburgh) and Cory Forbes (UM) led a session focused on identity theory and its potential to help researchers understand the relationship between teachers and the materials they use. Models for incorporating curriculum analysis into methods courses was the topic of a session led by Jim Gallagher and Ed Smith (both of MSU). University of Michigan faculty members Joe Kracjik and Betsy Davis organized a session that explored the design, use, and study of curriculum materials intended to educate teachers as well as students. Participants considered issues of research methods, trajectories for teacher learning, and the difficulty of relating educative materials to effects on student learning.

Diversity. Two KSI sessions took up questions related to meeting the needs of diverse science learners. Results from a survey of leaders of Centers for Learning and Teaching conducted by David McLaughlin and Jim Gallagher of MSU, Mary Heitzman and Shawn Stevens of UM, and Su Swarat of NU helped to stimulate discussion. The study authors also produced an annotated bibliography of resources on diversity issues in science education. As the session discussion made clear, a key challenge—with implications for research, curriculum design, and teacher education—is how to develop materials for a national audience that also enable teachers to deal with diversity issues in their local contexts. Participants called for more precisely focused research, more efforts to document best practices that attend to diversity, and a variety of supports for teachers to help them deal with diversity issues at various stages of their careers. A separate greenhouse session on diversity considered how teachers make use of “diversity criteria” to evaluate curriculum materials and how teacher education and educative features in the curriculum materials themselves can contribute to improvements in student learning, particularly among students who have been left behind in the normal course of instruction.

Literacy. The literacy strand sought to lay out a research and development agenda for language literacy as it relates to science curriculum design and implementation. Danny Edelson (NU), Mary Heitzman (UM), and Joyce Tugel (Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance) led three sessions in which participants considered science as a context for learning to read and reading as a support for learning science. During the first session, participants had an opportunity to share existing research and development projects and to consider the state of the field. The second session was devoted to reaching consensus on a rationale that would address the meaning of literacy, its importance to science instruction, and particular challenges for literacy in a science context. Drawing on a bibliography of relevant research and other resources, participants used the third session to begin to articulate important research questions and goals. Work on the literacy research agenda will continue over the next few months; a draft will be shared with others in CCMS and in the field.

Student Learning. Tackling the complex and related topics of learning progressions and assessment, two sessions considered how students develop their understanding of “big ideas” in science over time and how best to evaluate and describe the nature of their progress. Organized by Joe Krajcik (UM), Ravit Golan Duncan (Rutgers University), Ted Willard (AAAS Project 2061), Jeff Nordine (UM), and Andy Anderson (MSU), the sessions brought together CCMS researchers and others to discuss their efforts to develop and test learning progressions for topics such as the nature of matter, environmental literacy, the carbon cycle, and chemical reactions. Within these contexts, presenters and participants articulated a number of key questions: To what degree do students’ learning progressions differ and how dependent are they on particular science contexts? How do learning progressions relate to learning performances and are there useful and quantifiable measures for learning outcomes that can inform work in this area? How can we track the development of students’ understanding of a “big idea” over time? What evidence demonstrates that students are moving toward more expert understanding of a particular concept?

Scientific Practices. Many CCMS-related projects make use of scientific practices—argumentation, explanation, modeling, and designing investigations, for example—in at least three different contexts: as a means for learning science content, as learning goals in themselves, and as demonstrations of what it means to understand a scientific idea. To help synthesize important theoretical approaches, trends in design, and empirical findings on the role of scientific practices in science curricula, the KSI featured two sessions led by Brian Reiser (NU), David Fortus (UM), Leema Kuhn (NU), and Kate McNeill (UM). Presenting researchers from within and outside of CCMS, an expert panel, and a poster session explored ways to design a coherent model of scientific practices, how to provide pedagogical support for particular practices, and how to assess students’ engagement in those practices.

Assessment. AAAS Project 2061 researchers George DeBoer, Arhonda Gogos, Cari Herrmann Abell, An Michiels, and Tom Regan and Paula Wilson of Weber State University organized two sessions to provide an overview of the assessment tools and resources being developed for their online collection of high-quality standards-based assessment items. In the first session, they demonstrated a prototype of the database and user interface and described the resources that will be accessible—assessment evaluation criteria, goal clarifications, summaries of research on student learning, and the test items themselves. The second session focused on AAAS’s use of student learning data throughout the item development process. Using example items for the topics of atoms and molecules, control of variables, and force and motion, the researchers explained their procedures for pilot- and field-testing assessment items with students and discussed how they use misconceptions identified in the research literature and in their interviews with students to revise the items.

Doctoral Research Featured

Since its inception in 2002, CCMS has produced eight new Ph.D.’s, and the work of two of them was highlighted at a special KSI session. Kate McNeill of the University of Michigan presented her doctoral research on “Supporting Students’ Construction of Scientific Explanation Through Curricular Scaffolds and Teacher Instructional Practices.” McNeil has accepted a position at Boston College. Virginia Pitts of Northwestern University presented her work on “Do Students Buy In? A Study of Student Goal and Role Adoption by Students in Project-Based Curricula.” Pitts is now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern.

Last Words

At the final plenary session, a panel of invited guests, representing different communities with an interest in CCMS and its work, offered their perspectives on the KSI. Among the panelists was Ron Marx of the University of Arizona, who noted the significant progress of the Center in several areas, such as teacher learning and the study of scientific practices. He commended the Center for having “broken out of [its] boundaries and creating networks with others.” In the related areas of diversity and language literacy, Marx argued for the need to allocate more of CCMS resources (along with those of many other institutions and organizations) to address significant education issues that result from the nation’s burgeoning minority population. Teachers Lori Agan of Maine and Gretchen Hahn of Michigan had the final word for the panel and used it to remind CCMS of the importance of its mission. “Curriculum materials are not just products,” said Hahn, “they are living, breathing things for teachers.” “Teachers know how much bad stuff is out there; help us find the good stuff,” she added. Agan urged CCMS to do more to disseminate its work beyond the Center, to facilitate outside contributions, and to not be limited by the constraints of existing policies or programs. “Research need not be an end in itself,” she suggested. “Try to change the status quo instead.”

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For more information about CCMS, please contact:

Co-Principal Investigator/Director of CCMS: Jo Ellen Roseman, (202) 326-6752

Visit the CCMS Web site.

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