Helping science teachers find new ways to reach students is at the core of a National Science Foundation grant Dr. Lin Xiang received last semester as part of her work with the Alliance for Science Educators. The grant was awarded to a lead institution, California State University, East Bay, and Xiang received funding to complete a portion of the project at UK.
In all, eight universities are partnering with Cal State East Bay. The project, called Aligning the Science Teacher Education Pathway (A-STEP), is designed to help bridge gaps in training and development for teachers as they develop and implement science curriculum that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
The standards, released by the U.S. Department of Education and adopted in Kentucky in 2013, call for teachers to foster three-dimensional learning in the classroom. The term refers to the three components that should go into every science lesson – science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas. The grant focuses on implementing a common set of tools, the Next Gen ASET Toolkit, to producescience teachers who are knowledgeable about and can effectively enact the new standards. It targets students in college who are studying to become science teachers, as well as practicing teachers who are in the process of updating their methods to meet the new standards.
“When students learn science, they should not just be memorizing facts,” Xiang said. “But they also should not be doing all this hands-on work and not be exposed to the content behind it. Alone, neither is a good way to learn science, so the new standards create a balance by stressing that science is both the scientific knowledge and the practices that produce the knowledge.”
There is not much existing curriculum for the lessons the new standards call for, Xiang said. Teachers cannot just pull out a lesson plan and teach from it, so they need to dive in and understand the three dimensions and what it takes to enable students to engage in this style of learning.
“For example, school-aged children often learn about the needs of plants,” Xiang said. “The core idea of the lesson is that plants need water and light to grow. But we cannot just tell the students to remember that. They learn best when they figure it out themselves. They could start with asking what would happen if plants were given various levels of water and light.”
Then, teachers work with students to design an investigation where plants in the classroom are grown under various conditions. For example, some plants are not given water, while some are given a proper amount and others are given too much water. The students analyze the collected data on the plant growth and draw conclusions. They learn a cross-cutting concept in the lesson by observing the plant growth patterns and exploring the cause and effect. Next, they may apply the knowledge to other types of plants.
“Teachers were often not taught in this way when they were students, so they may have a hard time designing a course in this way,” Xiang said. “This grant creates an opportunity for us to introduce a set of instructional tools they need to design and enact these kinds of lessons.”
The university faculty collaborating on the project first developed a graphic organizer to help teachers design three-dimensional lessons. It gives teachers a systematic way to analyze a lesson to ensure it includes the components recommended by the news standards. The toolkit also includes a set of tools that help teachers support each of eight practices highlighted in the standards. These tools were introduced to students at the UK College of Education in science teaching methods courses, which have been reformatted to more closely match the standards. The tools have also been rolled out to teachers at schools in Kentucky that have become involved in Xiang’s grant work.
Now Xiang is partnering with other Kentucky universities that have teacher training programs to include faculty and their students in grant projects. She is also working with teachers in various Kentucky counties to help them have access to the tools and professional development trainings she will conduct. The teachers provide valuable feedback about the tools to the researchers, which will help determine future versions of the tools.
“We are excited to expand this NSF-funded project in Kentucky and look forward to working with more partners in the years to come,” Xiang said.