FSU researchers collaborate on NSF-funded science education project

A research team led by faculty from the Florida State University College of Education is helping science educators teach their students to think like scientists.

Findings from the first phase of their project “Learning through Collaborative Design — Professional Development” were published last month in the journal Scientia.

“Science, like many disciplines, has specific ways of working through problems and questions,” said Ellen Granger, director of the FSU Office of STEM Teaching Activities (OSTA) and co-director of the FSU-Teach program. “The project focuses on engaging students in learning science by thinking like scientists and figuring things out for themselves with some teacher guidance. We know this results in deeper, longer-lasting learning than when students are just told how things work.”

The team is researching how incorporating collaborative design — a practice in which educators help develop curriculum materials — into professional development workshops can give teachers the skills and tools needed to facilitate productive conversations in their classrooms. Researchers hope to understand if and how teachers’ engagement in the collaborative design of science lessons shapes their own learning and teaching.

The goal is to help students engage with challenging questions about the natural world, participate in hands-on activities, and have discussions that lead to a deeper understanding of scientific concepts. By shifting the focus of science teaching from telling students the correct answers to the process of generating and evaluating ideas, students also develop transferable skills, such as critical thinking.

“We are supporting our teacher participants’ learning by having them first participate in exemplar science lessons and then reflect on the pedagogy that underpins those lessons,” said Todd Hinton Bevis, OSTA director of professional development programs and a project collaborator. “They first experience research-based best practices and then focus on teaching strategies and skills that enable them to effectively engage their own students in rich, knowledge-building discussions.”

The first phase of the project involved the design, implementation and refinement of professional development in two school districts in the southeastern U.S. across two academic years. The research team developed collaborative design sessions aimed at helping teachers ensure lessons moved beyond traditional lectures to classroom activities that engaged students with productive discussions and making sense of what they were learning. These design sessions were then incorporated into a workshop structured around current best practices for teacher professional development.

“Findings from the first phase indicate the beliefs a teacher holds about learning influence their teaching practices,” said Granger. “This means that while a teacher must introduce rigorous tasks early in the lesson, the teacher’s beliefs about how students learn science must be aligned with the tasks to achieve most effective student learning. This is what we’re investigating: What is it in professional development activities that helps teachers shift their beliefs about how students learn so we see changes in their classroom practice? Does collaborative design of lessons better facilitate this shift or not?”

In the next phase of the project, a field study will compare the professional development model created in the first phase with two other treatments. Researchers hope the professional development activities developed in this project may be offered to other teachers so the teaching strategies they advocate can be adopted by teachers across the country.

Other contributors to this research include FSU College of Education faculty Jennifer Schellinger, Sherry A. Southerland and Miray Tekkumru-Kisa, and FSU alumnus and current assistant professor of science education at Georgia State University Patrick J. Enderle. This project was funded by the National Science Foundation.