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$3M Grant Supports Methods in Teaching 'Big Ideas' of Science

December 5, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- On the heels of a National Research Council (NRC) report calling for major changes in the way science is taught in America's classrooms, Northwestern University and the University of Michigan have received a $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to improve elementary and middle school science learning.

“Studies of science classrooms show that we try to teach too many disconnected ideas and concepts, too superficially,” says Northwestern researcher Brian Reiser, the grant's principal investigator. “Learning opportunities too often are missed because students are viewed as cognitively unable to understand 'the big ideas' of science until a certain grade or age.”

A co-author of the NRC report titled “Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8,” Reiser says that even the youngest children arrive at school with intuitive understandings of the natural world. “Our job is to carefully build on their understanding by introducing the 'big ideas' of science early on and, over time, revisit those 'big ideas' in new contexts and with increasing complexity.”

To do that, Reiser and University of Michigan educational researcher Joseph Krajcik are heading a research effort that will develop a “learning progression” to teach one of science's fundamental practices -- scientific modeling.

Reiser, professor of learning sciences at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy, argues that in the first few years of school, children can become involved in science modeling by learning how to test their ideas by gathering data. With proper support, he says that fourth or fifth graders can begin to represent their ideas as explicit scientific models that they can compare, evaluate, test and refine.

Reiser and Krajcik's three-year research initiative -- Modeling Designs for Learning Science or MoDeLS -- will develop curriculum materials to teach the central ideas of physics, chemistry, earth science and biology using modeling. In addition, it will investigate ways to support teacher learning and, across time, conduct studies of elementary and middle school students' growth in understanding scientific modeling.

MoDeLS collaborators also include researchers at Michigan State University, University of Illinois, Wright State University and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Topics: University News