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Feb. 26, 2020

Creating wonder

Revolutionizing the way science is taught

For some people, memories of high school science lectures aren't filled with excitement and wonder. Today, when the need for skilled workers and critical thinkers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math is more crucial than ever, many students still deem science learning boring and stale.

MSU researchers have been asking why. And as a result, they're revolutionizing STEM education to make science exciting and interesting to students of all backgrounds and ages.

"Young people love Star Wars and science-related fantasies, but in science class they are distracted and daydream about anything except the subject matter that one day may help those science fantasies become real," says Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah University Distinguished Chair and renowned sociologist. "Is there a better way to teach science that will capture that imagination and create more interest, which will result in students being more successful in class?"

The problem

The world has changed during the past 50 years as the industrial era morphed into the information age. Assembly lines run by people have been replaced with robotic technology.

"Technology and science have made a huge difference in our lives, especially in the types of jobs created now," Schneider says. "We're in a time where we need to concentrate on what we should be teaching young people today in schools. The fact is that there are young people who might have an interest in STEM but get turned off about it in the classroom."

And the data proves this. Twelfth-grade science scores have remained unchanged since 1995, according to the highly regarded global Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Similarly, results from the Program for International Student Assessment show that science learning is stagnant and U.S. students perform just slightly above average when compared to their global counterparts.

"Scientists always wonder, 'Why is this happening?' or engineers ask, 'How can I make something better?'" says Joe Krajcik, Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education. "But for some reason in science classes, no matter what grade level — elementary, middle school, high school or college — the wonderment and the focus of how and why something works has been taken away. That's a problem."

The call for reform

Recognizing that the curriculum being taught in schools for the past 30 years was no longer effective for our global society, the scientific and policy community called for major reforms and created the Next Generation Science Standards that identify what students should know and be able to do in science by grade. Krajcik, recognized internationally for his achievements in science education, led development of the new standards for the physical sciences.

To meet these new standards, new class materials, assessments and professional development workshops need to be developed and tested. Stepping up to the challenge were Krajcik, Schneider and the team at the Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment and Teaching Environments for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Institute.

Scientists and science educators at MSU's CREATE for STEM Institute design, develop and test rigorous, innovative curricular materials, assessments and approaches to improve teaching and learning of STEM from kindergarten to the undergraduate collegiate level.

A new way to teach science

The institute's new curriculum centers on project-based learning. This teaching method allows students time to explore and investigate complex and engaging questions or challenges.

Rather than giving students information, teachers encourage students to reach their own understanding of how things in the world work by posing driving questions. Queries like, "How can I design a vehicle that is safer for a passenger during a collision?" or "Why do I feel colder at the pool when I'm wet than when I'm dry?" inspire creative and critical thinking skills applied to real-life situations students are familiar with.

The driving questions incite curiosity and the motivation to investigate. Students build models, collect and analyze data and test theories just like real scientists do, says Krajcik, who is the director of the CREATE for STEM Institute.

"Often people think of science as just a body of knowledge, but it's the practice of science that gets kids excited and builds deep learning and understanding," he says. "For example, in chemistry, kids learn about the periodic table, which is traditionally boring for most. But if you approach it with the question, 'How come sodium chloride — table salt — is safe to eat, but the stuff it's made of — sodium and chloride individually — isn't safe?' That's what gets kids interested and puts the wonder back in science learning."

Teaching the teachers

Not only is this new curriculum different for the students, but it's a change from the traditional way teachers work in the classroom. They're no longer giving explanations but helping the students develop them on their own.

"I feel more like a conductor of a symphony as opposed to just a person who has all the knowledge," says Danita Byrd, a science teacher at Mann Elementary in Detroit.

Before the new CREATE for STEM units are introduced in a classroom, the teachers participate in comprehensive professional learning to guide the science unit and lead the students to their own discoveries.

"I work with teachers all over the country to introduce this new curriculum and I hear firsthand how they feel empowered and relieved that they can be creative in a classroom," says Sandra Erwin, a physical sciences and chemistry teacher at Harper Creek High School in Battle Creek, Michigan. "They don't have to drive their curriculum using a textbook. They can be free to allow the students to express and understand science their way.

"I feel as if going to work now has a greater mission," says Erwin. "This idea that science is important not just to build future scientists, but to build future citizens that understand science, understand how their world works, and can now make informed decisions based on that knowledge."

But does it work?

CREATE for STEM is testing its new PBL-based curriculum through two research projects. The first, a $3.6 million National Science Foundation grant, is in partnership with the University of Helsinki in Finland to test new physics and chemistry high school curriculum to see if it better engages and ignites students' interests in STEM.

Though Finland is known globally for its high student achievement, its schools face the same challenges as in the United States — disinterest in science and fewer young people pursuing STEM careers.

The expansive research project involves 70 high schools — 7,000 predominately low-income and minority public high school students in Detroit, Los Angeles and San Diego, and additional schools in Finland.

In the second project, funded by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, CREATE is designing, developing and testing materials for third graders that integrate science with language arts and math to foster a deeper and more integrated understanding of science ideas.

"Learning about science in the early elementary years is important because we're not just teaching them facts about what happened," says Byrd. "We're actually teaching them thinking and problem-solving skills, which they'll use in all their other classes and well into adulthood."

Both projects are critical, Krajcik says, because understanding how people learn is a science in itself.

"Through investigations and exploration, we've learned much more in the past 25 years about how to craft classrooms and create environments where kids can really go about learning," he says. "That knowledge is the foundation of the new curriculum, but we had to test it to see if it really works for the kids."

The results

"We have extraordinary results," Schneider says. "We have been able to show through very rigorous methodology that students are engaged and enjoying what they're doing in science and wanting to study different ideas. We've also been able to increase interest of young people in pursuing science careers. We're turning science education on its head."

The research results have been vetted and published in conference papers and in the new book, "Learning Science." What they found is that students scored better on tests and reported higher interest in science than those taught with traditional learning materials. There also is strong evidence the curricula and teaching approach significantly impacts student science learning in a positive manner.

"They're doing the work of what a scientist does," says Krajcik. "They're also showing themselves that 'Hey, I can do this,' which is a powerful component that promotes confidence and learning."

And, the students like it much better.

"A lot of us are more hands-on learners," says Deja Thomas, senior at East English Village Preparatory Academy in Detroit. "It's hard for many of us to interpret something that we're just reading out of a book. So, instead of reading it, we're actually visualizing the phenomena and testing it in our classrooms."

Students also benefit from collaborating with each other.
"It's more interactive with other people and more projects," says Larenz Nelson, also a senior at East English High School. "I think it's a lot more beneficial than just reading books. I get to learn more and there's a lot of people I can rely on to help me whenever I'm lost, and I can help them whenever they get lost."

The program has increased interest in STEM for students and they're performing better.

"My interest in chemistry has gone up from one to a 100,000," says Sophia Brandt, junior at Harper Creek High School. "It's so cool how you can see everything work and when I observe something, I now know what's behind it and why it's happening."

Joseph Edmond, also a junior at Harper Creek, has seen improvement in his studies. "I did pretty badly in my last two science classes," he says. "I never truly grasped anything but this class, even with almost the same curriculum, I'm doing a lot better."

And, the curriculum works for all students.

"The beauty of what we're developing here not only engages students, but it provides equity of learning," says Schneider. "We've worked very hard to create materials that are motivating for all learners, no matter what environment they're from, and including special needs students."
The institute's new curriculum centers on project-based learning. This teaching method allows students time to explore and investigate complex and engaging questions or challenges.

The materials have been translated into Spanish and are being tested in a California school a mile from the Mexican border. Additionally, materials have been distributed and tested in large urban areas including Detroit and Los Angeles, and also in rural, poor areas. Often the children that come from those areas don't go further in school, and that's a real inequity, says Krajcik.

Now that the researchers are seeing such powerful results, they are ready to take the approach to more classrooms not only across the nation but around the world, preparing more teachers who can make a collective and profound impact on the next generation of science learners. Schneider and Krajcik have been invited to countries around the world, including China, Taiwan and South Africa, to share CREATE's work.

"CREATE for STEM is about all children, no matter what background they come from," says Krajcik. "We're working to help those kids develop the intellectual skills needed to live in our science- and technology-based world. That's what CREATE for STEM is all about."


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