Center for Curriculum Materials in Science

AAAS Project 2061, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, University of Michigan


Dissertations by CCMS Alumni

Please click on the title of the dissertation below to view the abstract. The dissertations are listed in alphabetical order by school and then by the last name of the author.

Northwestern University

Reasoning in Molecular Genetics: From a Cognitive Model to Instructional Design (2005)

Ravit Golan Duncan

Effective instruction strives to help students construct deep and meaningful understandings in a domain. A key component of designing such instruction is a good understanding of relevant aspects of student cognition in the domain. This entails understanding both the cognitive obstacles to learning and the knowledge elements that are crucial to successful reasoning in the domain. While understandings of student cognition are not a prescription for design, they can nonetheless help instructional-designers and design-researchers focus the design and suggest where and what scaffolding should be incorporated into the instructional sequence and activities. In this dissertation I first discuss my research of the cognitive aspects of reasoning in molecular genetics. By studying both high school and college level students’ reasoning about genetic phenomena, I have constructed a conceptual model of reasoning in this domain. The model depicts critical types of domain-specific knowledge, the relationships between them, and their role in facilitating reasoning about genetic phenomena. I then describe the design and evaluation of a high school project-based curricular unit in genetics. The unit was developed by a collaborative team of teachers and a researcher and was enacted in a local public high school. The design process was closely guided by our understandings of student cognition in genetics and the resulting instructional intervention was aimed at scaffolding student engagement with important disciplinary strategies and concepts.


Understanding the Composite Culture that Forms when Classrooms Take Up the Practice of Scientific Argumentation

Leema Kuhn


Traditional classroom practices communicate epistemic commitments and goals that might be contrary to those needed for meaningful participation in scientific inquiry practices. In this dissertation, I explore how traditional classroom practices influence students' participation in the practice of scientific argumentation. I address this through a two-pronged approach. First, given that students do not typically engage in collaborative knowledge-building through scientific argumentation, I used the best-practices put forth by relevant research to support teachers in facilitating this practice. Second, I worked with four classes as they enacted a unit designed to foster scientific argumentation. I observed the emergent class discussions and engaged in discourse analysis in which I related the interaction patterns found in non-argumentative class discussions to those that occurred in lessons designed to foster scientific argumentation. Examining the argumentative discussions reveals that each class transformed the practice in different ways. Comparing these interactions to those of the non-argumentative suggests that the epistemic commitments and goals communicated by the typical ways of interacting influenced the ways in which the students made sense of the practice of scientific argumentation. In this dissertation, I present a research methodology for understanding the relationship between typical classroom practices and student adaptations of new scientific practices; design strategies for supporting scientific argumentation;

and a framework for understanding how and why classroom communities adapt the practice of scientific argumentation.


Understanding Reflection-in-Action: An Investigation into Middle-School Students' Reflective Inquiry Practices in Science and the Role That Software Scaffolding Can Play (2005)

Eleni Kyza

Recent calls to reform science education propose changes in the content and structure of the learning of science. At the classroom level, these calls emphasize investigations that are inquiry-based and parallel the nature of scientific work. Research on students' inquiry practices has suggested that engaging in inquiry is difficult, as students need to approach inquiry reflectively and assume more responsibility over their learning than has been traditionally expected from them. This dissertation presents the results of an empirical study investigating the following questions: (a) What elements of reflective inquiry do middle school students engage with when asked to conduct complex investigations, and what kind of challenges do they face? (b) What role can software-based learning environments play in supporting students' reflective inquiry practices?

These questions were investigated by studying six pairs of middle-school students as they problem-solved a software investigation involving the analysis of complex data. The findings are presented in the alternative dissertation format of two research papers. The first paper, entitled "Reasoning with scientific data: middle-school students' processes of theory-evidence coordination", investigates the process through which three pairs of students coordinated their theories with the evidence in the data, describes the variability in the ways that students coordinated theory and evidence, and discusses the challenges the groups faced. The findings suggest that students engaged in reflective inquiry to varying degrees and that they needed further scaffolding to address the challenges they faced. The second paper, entitled "The role of the Progress Portfolio tool in scaffolding middle-school students' reflective inquiry in science", investigates the role of a software-based intervention designed to support students' engagement in four reflective inquiry practices: attending to evidence, interpreting data, evaluating hypotheses against the interpreted data, and constructing evidence-based explanations. The findings suggest that introducing a tool that allows students to record their progress and prompts them to articulate their understanding can support reflective inquiry practices. These findings also inform the design of learning environments by providing descriptions of how students interact with software-based scaffolding and how software design can contribute to middle school students' reflective inquiry practices.


Getting the Picture: A Mixed-Methods Inquiry Into How Visual Representations Are Interpreted by Students, Incorporated Within Textbooks, and Integrated Into Middle-School Science Classrooms

Victor Lee

Modern-day middle school science textbooks are heavily populated with colorful images, technical diagrams, and other forms of visual representations. These representations are commonly perceived by educators to be useful aids to support student learning of unfamiliar scientific ideas. However, as the number of representations in science textbooks has seemingly increased in recent decades, concerns have been voiced that many current of these representations are actually undermining instructional goals; they  may be introducing substantial conceptual and interpretive difficulties for students. To date, very little empirical work has been done to examine how the representations used in instructional materials have changed, and what influences these changes exert on student understanding. Furthermore, there has also been limited attention given to the extent to which current representational-use routines in science classrooms may mitigate or limit interpretive difficulties.


This dissertation seeks to do three things: First, it examines the nature of the relationship between published representations and students’ reasoning about the natural world. Second, it considers the ways in which representations are used in textbooks and how that has changed over a span of five decades. Third, this dissertation provides an in-depth look into how middle school science classrooms naturally use these visual representations and what kinds of support are being provided.


With respect to the three goals of this dissertation, three pools of data were collected and analyzed for this study. First, interview data was collected in which 32 middle school students interpreted and reasoned with a set of more and less problematic published textbook representations. Quantitative analyses of the interview data suggest that, counter to what has been anticipated in the literature, there were no significant differences in the conceptualizations of students in the different groups. An accompanying qualitative analysis probes further into why this was the case. In addition to the interview data, a corpus of graphic representations from 34 science textbooks (published between 1943-2005) was catalogued and examined for compositional trends and changes.


This historical textbook analysis of images and illustrations reveals that, consistent with expectations, there has indeed been an overall increase in the number of representations in a given instructional unit. Yet, despite the increase, there is very little shift in the instructional functions that those representations serve. Where the most dramatic changes appear are with the individual representations themselves and how they are used to relate scientific ideas to middle school students. Finally, a set of video-recorded

classroom observations with three different teachers was collected in order to study representational-use routines. A numerical analysis of classroom episodes suggests that it is fairly common for the majority of representations that are used to appear fleetingly and not be discussed again. When representations are reused or reintroduced, a qualitative analysis reveals that they are often accompanied by interpretive support from the teacher, which may steer students away from misinterpretations.

 Do Students Buy In? A Study of Student Goal and Role Adoption by Students in Project-Based Curricula (2006)

Virginia Pitts

In project-based curricula, students develop content understanding through the investigation of authentic problems. In participating in these curricula, learners are expected to take on a particular goal and play a particular role (as part of the overall project scenario). The goal involves solving a problem (such as predicting temperature on a newly-discovered planet or ridding the Great Lakes of the Sea Lamprey) or answering a driving question. The role embodies an expected way of interacting, and is sometimes explicit (scientific researcher, special task force member) and sometimes implicit (inquirer, knowledge creator). An underlying design assumption behind these curricula is that the goal and role will motivate the learning of content, and that learning the content in pursuit of the goal leads to better content understanding. However, research to-date has not explored the extent to which the goal and role actually motivate student participation in practice.

This dissertation research addresses that gap, through examining the ways in which an overall scenario goal and role influence students' experiences of day-to-day activity in project-based curricula. Specifically, this research begins to explore the research questions of (1) To what extent do students adopt the project role and goal as they participate in project activities?, (2) What are the individual and contextual factors that influence the nature of role and goal adoption, and what is the process through which such role and goal adoption occurs?, and (3) What are the ways in which role and goal adoption influence the nature of participation and engagement?

This mixed-methods study focused on two 7th-grade science classrooms, where students were participating in the What Will Survive life sciences curricula. Data collection methods included student interviews, classroom observation, and use of frequent "mini-surveys" to explore students' experiences of the curriculum over time. The analysis combined qualitative analysis of the interview data with quantitative analysis of the self-report survey data.

The findings indicate that the potential is there for the scenario to influence student motivation, participation, and engagement, and that such potential was partially realized for this particular implementation. These findings also indicate that the scenario may have been especially influential on days where the task was not particularly engaging on its own. Furthermore, these findings indicate that the influence of an overall project scenario on student motivation is mediated by students' understandings of the scenario (including its perceived plausibility), their scenario-related attitudes and beliefs, their perception of the alignment of project activities with the overall project scenario, and the relative salience of other sources of motivation.

Ultimately, this research is intended to contribute to our understanding of motivation and engagement in project-based learning environments, our “toolset” for analyzing such motivation and engagement, and our knowledge of how to design project-based learning environments to maximize motivation and engagement.

Describing Content in Middle School Science Curricula (2005)

Jennifer Schwarz

As researchers and designers, we intuitively recognize differences between curricula and describe them in terms of design strategy: project-based, laboratory-based, modular, traditional, and textbook, among others. We assume that practitioners recognize the differences in how each requires that students use knowledge, however these intuitive differences have not been captured or systematically described by the existing languages for describing learning goals. In this dissertation I argue that we need new ways of capturing relationships among elements of content, and propose a theory that describes some of the important differences in how students reason in differently designed curricula and activities.

Educational researchers and curriculum designers have taken a variety of approaches to laying out learning goals for science. Through an analysis of existing descriptions of learning goals I argue that to describe differences in the understanding students come away with, they need to (1) be specific about the form of knowledge, (2) incorporate both the processes through which knowledge is used and its form, and (3) capture content development across a curriculum. To show the value of inquiry curricula, learning goals need to incorporate distinctions among the variety of ways we ask students to use knowledge.

Here I propose the Epistemic Structures Framework as one way to describe differences in students' reasoning that are not captured by existing descriptions of learning goals. The usefulness of the Epistemic Structures framework is demonstrated in the four curriculum case study examples in Part II of this work. The curricula in the case studies represent a range of content coverage, curriculum structure, and design rationale. They serve to both illustrate the Epistemic Structures analysis process and make the case that it does in fact describe learning goals in a way that captures important differences in students' reasoning in differently designed curricula. Describing learning goals in terms of Epistemic Structures provides one way to define what we mean when we talk about “project-based” curricula and demonstrate its “value added” to educators, administrators and policy makers.

Describing Content in Middle School Science Curriculanquiry Science as a Discourse: New Challenges for Teachers, Students, and the Design of Curriculum Materials (2005)

Carrie Tzou

Science education reform emphasizes learning science through inquiry as a way to engage students in the processes of science at the same time that they learn scientific concepts. However, inquiry involves practices that are challenging for students because they have underlying norms with which students may be unfamiliar. We therefore cannot expect students to know how to engage in such practices simply by giving them opportunities to do so, especially if the norms for inquiry practices violate traditional classroom norms for engaging with scientific ideas. Teachers therefore play a key role in communicating expectations for inquiry. In this dissertation, I present an analytical framework for characterizing two teachers' enactments of an inquiry curriculum. This framework, based on Gee's (1996) notion of Discourses, describes inquiry practices in terms of three dimensions: cognitive, social, and linguistic. I argue that each of these dimensions presents challenges to students and, therefore, sites at which teachers' support is important for students' participation in inquiry practices.


I use this framework to analyze two teachers' support of inquiry practices as they enact an inquiry-based curriculum. I explore three main issues in my study:

1. What is the nature of teachers' support of inquiry practices?

2. How do teachers accomplish goals along multiple dimensions of inquiry?

3. What aspects of inquiry are in tension and how can we describe teachers' practice in terms of the tradeoff spaces between elements of inquiry in tension?


In this talk I first present my analytical framework for describing teachers' support of inquiry practices and then describe how I applied this framework to an analysis of two teachers' enactments of an inquiry unit. Finally, I will outline what this study reveals about major challenges for teaching science through inquiry. The findings from this study have implications for curriculum design and professional development. By understanding which aspects of inquiry teachers provide the most support for and how, this study can inform the design of curriculum materials by highlighting which aspects of inquiry may be most important to provide support for students. This study can also inform the design of professional development by understanding the costs and benefits of emphasizing one aspect of inquiry over another.

University of Michigan

Using Reform-Based Criteria to Support the Development of Preservice Elementary Teachers' Pedagogical Design Capacity for Analyzing Science Curriculum Materials (2009)

Carrie Beyer

Effective science teachers use curriculum materials as a guide in their planning, critiquing and adapting them to promote inquiry-oriented, standards-based teaching and address specific contextual needs. Unfortunately, many preservice teachers

encounter difficulties with these design tasks, making changes that are inconsistent with science education reform efforts or failing to make much-needed modifications. To help them

become well-started beginners in analyzing curriculum materials, preservice teachers need opportunities to develop their pedagogical design capacity—that is, their ability to use their knowledge and beliefs, along with resources within curriculum materials, to design instruction for students. However, how teacher educators can support preservice

teachers in developing this capacity has been largely unexplored in the literature.


This dissertation addresses this gap by investigating the use of reform-based criteria in scaffolding the development of an analytical stance toward curriculum materials. Twenty-four preservice teachers from one section of an elementary science

methods course participated in this study, with a subset of seven followed into their student teacher semester. In learning about and applying criteria during the course, the preservice teachers developed aspects of their pedagogical design capacity for curricular planning. Many of them adopted a criterion-based approach to analysis, expanded their analysis ideas, and refined their beliefs about curricular analysis. However, the preservice teachers struggled with engaging in authentic analysis tasks during the course and maintaining a principled, reform-based approach to analysis during student teaching. This may have occurred, in part, because the scaffolds within the course were faded before the preservice teachers could develop the capacity to engage in curricular planning on their own using curriculum materials from their field placements, which tended to be poorly aligned with reform-based science teaching goals. This finding may also have occurred because their cooperating teachers expressed different reasons for adapting materials than what was presented in the course. The methods course emphasized the importance of modifying materials to make them more consistent with reform-based practices, but few preservice teachers observed teachers make adaptations for this reason. These findings have important implications for theoretical models on curriculum materials use and the design of science teacher education and curriculum materials.

Preservice Elementary Teachers' Development of Pedagogical Design Capacity for Inquiry: An Activity—Theoretical Perspective (2009)

Cory Forbes

Preservice elementary teachers need to begin developing their pedagogical design capacities for inquiry by learning how to translate their conceptions of inquiry into classroom practice through the adaptation and enactment of curriculum materials.  Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, I draw upon cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to investigate preservice elementary teachers’ curriculum design and development of pedagogical design capacity for inquiry during the final year of their teacher education program. This study involved analysis of curricular artifacts and survey data from 46 prospective elementary teachers in two sections of an undergraduate elementary science teaching methods course, as well as interviews, observational fieldnotes, reflective journals, and other artifacts from four preservice teachers from this larger group studied during the methods and student teaching semesters.  


Results show that preservice teachers were able to translate their espoused inquiry frameworks into planned and enacted science lessons. This involved adapting existing curriculum materials to better promote specific inquiry practices, but also to fundamentally shift the nature of classroom science. The preservice teachers’ curriculum design efforts were constrained, however, by features of their institutional contexts and subject to emergent tensions. In attempting to resolve these tensions through curriculum design for inquiry, the preservice teachers ultimately articulated a fundamental contradiction between two distinct and competing visions for classroom inquiry:  traditional classroom science, which promotes students’ reproduction of scientific explanations by objectifying students, and a novel form of classroom inquiry that repositions students as contributing community members involved in the co-construction of knowledge through lesson-specific shared problem-spaces. For each of the preservice teachers, this contradiction had important implications for the design of science learning environments and remained unresolved at the end of the study.


These findings have implications for practice and theory. While they illustrate the important role both formal teacher education and science curriculum materials play in supporting teachers to engage in inquiry-oriented science teaching, they also highlight the need for schools to foster inquiry practices in the classroom.  Findings also provide novel insights into the teacher-curriculum relationship, teacher learning, the nature and goals of inquiry-oriented science teaching and learning, and CHAT-based research on teachers.

Investigating Teaching Practices and Student Learning During the Enactment of an Inquiry-Based Chemistry Unit (2006)

Christopher Harris


Supporting Students' Construction of Scientific Explanation through Curricular Scaffolds and Teacher Instructional Practices (2006)

Katherine McNeill

Ultimately the goal of classroom science is to help all students become scientifically literate (AAAS, 1993; NRC, 1996). This type of literacy requires that students participate in scientific inquiry practices such as the construction of arguments or scientific explanations (Driver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000). Although scientific explanations are important, they are frequently omitted from classroom practice (Kuhn, 1993; Newton, Driver & Osborne 1999) and students have difficulty justifying their claims (Sadler, 2004). In this talk, I present the results from my dissertation study that examines how the language of written curricular scaffolds (context-specific vs. generic), teacher instructional practices, and the interaction between the two, support student learning of scientific explanations.

Classrooms are complex systems where many factors influence student learning including tools, teachers, and peers (Lampert, 2002). Tabak (2004) discusses the idea of distributed scaffolding where a collection of curriculum materials, instructional strategies, and activity structures work collectively to support learners. Specifically, I am interested in two different types of supports, written curricular scaffolds and teacher instructional practices. There is currently a debate in the literature about the relative importance of context specific or domain specific knowledge compared to more general cognitive skills in engaging students in inquiry tasks (Stevens, Wineburg, Herrenkohl, & Bell, 2005). In order to write a strong scientific explanation, students need to understand the content of the particular task as well as be able to justify their claims using evidence and reasoning. I am interested in whether incorporating written context-specific scaffolds or generic scaffolds in curriculum materials better support students in the construction of scientific explanations. Recent research (Reiser et al., 2001) also argues that teachers play a key role in structuring and guiding students’ learning. Teachers need to support students in making sense of these scientific practices (Driver et al., 1994).

This study focused on an 8-week middle school chemistry curriculum, How can I make new stuff from old stuff?. I worked with six teachers who enacted the curriculum materials with 578 students during the 2004-2005 school year. Each teacher taught classes that received the context-specific scaffold treatment and classes that received the generic scaffold treatment. To measure student achievement, I analyzed student explanations constructed during the unit as well as on identical pre- and posttest measures. To investigate the teacher instructional practices, I developed case studies based on my analysis of videotape from each teacher across three lessons and curriculum questionnaires that the teachers completed.

My findings suggest the curricular scaffolds and teacher instructional practices were synergistic (Tabak, 2004) in that the supports interacted and the effect of the written curricular scaffolds depended on the teacher’s enactment of the curriculum. I found that the teachers varied in which instructional practices they engaged in as well as the quality of their use of those practices. For three of the six teachers who provided their students with generic support through their instructional practices, the context-specific written scaffolds were more effective in supporting student learning of scientific explanation. Scaffolded tools may not necessarily have the same effect in all classrooms. Rather both the way teachers use those tools and students prior knowledge and experiences are important in considering the success of the tools in promoting student learning.

Evidence of System: A Network Model Case-study of Seventh Grade Science Assessment Practices from Classrooms to the State Test

Phil Piety

With science education in the United States entering a period of greater accountability, this study investigated how student learning in science was assessed by educators, asking what systemic assessment approaches existed and how the information from them was used.  Conducted during the 2006-2007 school year, this research developed and piloted a network-model case study design that included teachers, principals, administrators, the state test development process, and several state-level professional associations in a Midwestern state.  This design produced an empirical depiction of practice with a web of related cases.  This empirical model shows individual and organizational relationships that expand on the often hierarchical (nested) models used in the growing literature regarding how information, often from assessments, is used in educational contexts. 

Seven case study teachers, each employing methods largely unique and invisible to others in their schools, were the foundation of this study.  The only alternative to classroom assessments that could be documented was the annual state accountability test.  Seventh grade science in this state was unlike other subjects, including elementary literacy, where a range of assessment options existed.  These two assessment species were neither tightly coupled nor distinct.  Some teachers were partners in developing state test instruments, and in some cases the annual test could be seen as a school management resource.  Boundary practices, activities where these two systems connected, were shown to be opportunities for identifying systemic issues for science education that included standards, cognition, vocabulary, and classroom equipment.  These boundary practices, along with the web of connections, provided the outlines of potential (and often unrealized) synergistic relationships.

This study shows diverse indigenous practices and adaptations by actors responding to pressures of change and persistent historical tensions.  Particularly at play in this study are broadening instructional agendas and rapid deployment of information infrastructures for collection, dissemination, and analysis of student information.  Science education became a lens to view these changes.  This research model not only describes implementation paths that policy may take; it also provides a way to evaluate accountability policies to see how the models embedded within them may fit with educational practice.


Elementary Students Learning About the Apparent Motions of Celestial Objects (2006)

Julia D. Plummer

The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) recommend that students understand apparent celestial motion (patterns of motion of the sun, moon and stars visible from the earth’s surface) by the end of early elementary school. However, little information exists on students’ knowledge of apparent celestial motion and there is a lack of research on instruction in this area. Therefore, the goals of this dissertation were to a) describe children’s knowledge of apparent celestial motion across elementary and middle school and b) explore early elementary students’ ability to learn these topics through planetarium instruction. First, third, and eighth grade students (N=60) were interviewed using a planetarium-like setting that allowed the students to demonstrate their ideas both verbally and with their own motions on an artificial sky. Analysis of these interviews suggests that students are not making the types of observations of the sky necessary to learn apparent celestial motion and any instruction they may have received has not helped them reach an accurate understanding of most topics. Most students at each grade level could not accurately describe the patterns of motion though the older students were more likely to give answers closer to the actual description. Though the eighth grade students were, overall, more accurate in their descriptions than the younger students, in several concept areas they showed no improvement over the third grade students. The use of kinesthetic learning techniques in a planetarium program was also explored as a method to improve understanding of celestial motion. Pre- and post-interviews were conducted with participants from seven classes of first and second grade students (N=63). Students showed significant improvement in all areas of apparent celestial motion covered by the planetarium program and in most areas surpassed the middle school students’ understanding of these concepts. The results of this study suggest that students in early elementary school are capable of learning the accurate description of apparent celestial motion. The results also demonstrate the value of kinesthetic learning techniques and the rich visual environment of the planetarium to improve understanding of the apparent motions that learners are not able to observe on their own.

Text: AAAS Project 2061, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, University of Michigan
Text: Center for Curriculum Materials in Science