It’s no secret that students in high schools across the nation struggle with learning science, even those with extensive resources and support. But students living in the U.S. rural South — where one in six live below the poverty line — face even more barriers to learning science.
Education researchers at Michigan State University are helping address this challenge by adapting their evidence-based high school chemistry and physics curriculum, Crafting Engaging Science Environments, also known as CESE, to be more culturally responsive to students across the rural South. Culturally responsive science learning draws from students’ lives and cultural resources to build connections between themselves and the scientific world.
This will be accomplished through a partnership with two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs — Alabama A&M University and Winston-Salem State University — and funded by the Education Innovation and Research grant program from the U.S. Department of Education, and evaluated by Elizabeth Tipton, professor of statistics and data science and co-director of the STEPP Center at Northwestern University.
“Through this project, more students will experience engaging, culturally responsive science instruction which encourages them to sustain an interest in STEM and pursue higher education and careers in science fields,” said Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah University Distinguished Chair and principal investigator.
A new way to teach science
“As the pandemic has magnified the importance of health and science, it has exposed the great need to motivate and engage students in STEM,” said Joseph Krajcik, Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at MSU and co-principal investigator. This is particularly relevant for students in the rural South who often encounter STEM education that does not relate to their lived experiences. The key to engaging these students and sustaining their interest in STEM professions is developing culturally responsive approaches, said Clausell Mathis, assistant professor of physics at MSU’s Lyman Briggs College and co-principal investigator on the project.
“The significance of this project, which focuses on culturally responsive instruction in physics and chemistry through a project-based approach, provides students with enriching classroom experiences where they can see the relevance of science in their own lives,” Mathis said.
The CESE curriculum, which applies project-based learning and aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards, will be made more culturally responsive in collaboration with researchers and practitioners in the rural South. This will allow students from diverse backgrounds to explore and investigate complex questions and challenges from their communities, collect and analyze data and test theories like scientists.
Why this matters
Recent reports show that U.S. students are not keeping pace with the knowledge, skills and technology identified as critical for their future careers. The latest National Assessment of Education Progress Report Card showed that the scores of 8th and 12th graders were not significantly different than in 2015 and the majority of 12th grade students are at or below proficiency.
The situation for students in the rural South is even more problematic. A recent report on our nation’s rural schools shows that in Alabama, although nine out of 10 students from rural districts graduate from high school, fewer than 5% of students earn college credit compared to rural students in other states. In North Carolina, rural students are at or below the national median on estimated graduation rates, dual enrollment and taking college admission tests. All these estimates were produced prior to the pandemic, which means the situation is likely more troubling today.
Working with communities
To examine if this innovative curriculum enhances science achievement in the rural South, a rigorously designed, randomized control trial will include 4,000 students and 90 teachers over a five-year period from Alabama and North Carolina school districts serving low income and underrepresented populations living in rural areas. This will be conducted with partners at Alabama A&M University and Winston-Salem State University who currently work with the districts.
Sheneka Williams, chair of MSU’s Department of Education Administration, co-principal investigator and rural expert on the project, shared, “I look forward to collaborating with school district leaders in Alabama and North Carolina who lead schools with students who have been placed at a disadvantage because of their locale and race. This work has the potential to change the trajectory of families and school communities in rural Alabama and rural North Carolina.”
The project will include professional learning for teachers, honorariums for participants, curricular materials and science equipment. Because technology is needed to learn science, the project team will work with companies to provide the scientific and technological tools necessary to prepare students to enter the workforce.
“The funding received provides our institutions with an opportunity to collaboratively solve pressing issues in science classrooms,” said Samantha Strachan, associate professor, program coordinator of secondary education and principal investigator at Alabama A&M University. “The partnership our institutions have developed serves as a foundation for transforming how science is taught in secondary classrooms. This not only benefits the research landscape but, more importantly, it will benefit the children of Alabama.”
Lei Zhang, principal investigator and professor of physics at Winston-Salem State University affirms the benefits of this partnership, saying, “WSSU is pleased to be a partner on this innovative project and excited to begin working with teachers and students across rural North Carolina.”
Goals and hopes
CESE has been tested and shown to be effective in Michigan and California, but will it work in the rural South?
“CESE has had extraordinary results. Tested by rigorous methodology, we’ve shown that students are more engaged, enjoy science and have higher science achievement scores with this curriculum. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of students wanting to pursue science careers. This is advancing science education, and with the collaboration of our partners, we believe it will in the South as well,” Schneider said.
Overall, students scored better on tests and reported higher interest in science than those taught with traditional learning materials. There is also strong evidence that the curricula and teaching approach have a significant positive impact on student science learning.
“They’re doing the work of what a scientist does,” Krajcik said. “They’re also showing themselves that ‘Hey, I can do this,’ which is a powerful component that promotes confidence and learning.”
Schneider added, “When students in the rural South find solutions to meaningful challenges in their communities through science learning, we hope to see their increased engagement in STEM and desire to pursue science careers.”