Science for All

Michigan State University researchers Joe Krajcik (center) and Deborah Peek-Brown (left) observe a science class in Helsinki, Finland as part of an international teaching experiment focused on improving student engagement.

How will American educators prepare students to compete in a world demanding more advanced math and science knowledge? Researchers at Michigan State University say we can’t answer that question without answering another: how do we get students excited about learning the subjects in the first place?

Renowned scholars Joe Krajcik and Barbara Schneider have teamed up to tackle that question in a pair of grant projects across the K-12 spectrum. One is a teaching experiment in partnership with Finland focused on promoting optimal high school learning environments. Another project, funded by Lucas Educational Research, integrates science with language arts and mathematics in elementary schools through project-based learning.

The cutting-edge research is intended to pinpoint the ingredients that truly engage students in what they are learning about science.

“We want to know how we can create zones where students feel empowered by learning science, know why it’s important and how they can use it in their lives,” said Krajcik, director of the CREATE for STEM Institute and Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at MSU. It is clear that simply knowing content does not predict high achievement or a desire to pursue science,” he says. “Knowing how to use that knowledge is more important.”

Joe Krajcik and Barbara Schneider
Joe Krajcik (left photo) and Barbara Schneider (right photo) are principal investigators on the Crafting Optimal Engagement in Science Environments project funded by the National Science Foundation.

Imagination for the future

Even students in Finland, who outperform most of the world on international tests, do not report greater levels of interest in science, or in pursuing scientific careers. That’s why researchers there are partnering with the MSU team to test whether teaching strategies based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) contribute to more engaging classrooms in both the U.S. and Finnish education systems.

The $3.6 million project, Crafting Engagement in Science Environments, is the first ever focused on education research to receive funding from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) program—competing with a wide range of scientific experiments around the world.

Participating chemistry and physics teachers in Helsinki and Michigan are collaborating with the researchers to design and enact problem-based learning curricula in which students find solutions to meaningful questions. Students start with a driving question and work with others—using the practices of scientists and engineers—to make sense of phenomena in the world.

krajcik-quoteThe project started during the 2015-2016 school year, and so far the findings are promising. For example, students say they need to use their imagination significantly more when participating in the new units.

Building on previous work led by Schneider, the researchers are using the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), which uses smartphones to prompt students to answer real-time questions about their learning experiences from social and emotional, as well as academic, perspectives.

Students reported using their imaginations 23 percent of the time during science class before the research started, compared with 30 percent of the time while participating in the new units. The data represent responses from about 200 students.

Encouraging creativity is an important component for helping students feel engaged. It’s also critical if we expect students to solve problems in more innovative ways—part of the scientific practices emphasized in NGSS.

“If we think about some of the most interesting and beneficial scientific contributions within the last decade, the basis has been individuals working together and looking for different ways to solve problems,” said Schneider, John A. Hannah Chair and University Distinguished Professor at MSU. “Students must be willing to test ideas, willing to fail and able to recognize it takes a lot to succeed. These kinds of skills have not often been emphasized in science classrooms.”

Barbara Schneider observing science lesson planning
Barbara Schneider (far right) joins high school science teachers from both the U.S. and Finland during a professional development session.

Transforming teaching

Teachers participating in the research have reported that their students, regardless of background and ability, show greater enthusiasm about their class activities. And the teachers do, too. As educators, they feel they are being challenged to change their teaching methods in meaningful ways, with opportunities for professional development built into the project.

“I now teach with a clear focus of the unit objective,” said Sandy Erwin, a chemistry teacher at Harper Creek High School in Battle Creek, Mich. “Each lesson is strategically placed at the right time to set up for making the timely conceptual connections that lead up to figuring out the unit driving question.”

After starting with 13 teachers in five urban schools in the U.S. the first year, the research team is expanding the project each year. The physics and chemistry units will be improved based on the research and implemented in up to 40 classrooms in 20 U.S. high schools.

Meanwhile, partnering researchers from University of Helsinki are replicating the project in Finnish schools. Schneider recently joined a panel of experts invited to speak during FinnSight 2016, a national event in Finland focused on factors for success in the workplace.

Student engagement in STEM will not increase in the U.S. or abroad, unless we change our teaching practices, say Krajcik and Schneider. The teachers participating in their research are forming professional learning communities with each other, and across nations, that will help to share the project findings more broadly and make a difference in practice.

In the past, Erwin says, students have said, “How does this have anything to do with me?” and “I like you as a teacher, but this is really boring.”

“I haven’t been getting those types of comments during the new units.”