Science Education Research Paper

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The launch of Sputnik in 1957 almost single-handedly conferred on science education the status of an Olympic sport. A series of international comparison studies along with the increasing importance of science and technology in the global economy have nurtured this image (e.g., Schmidt et al. 1997). Stakeholders, including policy makers, natural scientists, textbook publishers, test designers, classroom teachers, business leaders, and pedagogical researchers, have responded with competing strategies for improving science education. In some countries, most notably the United States, powerful groups have mandated untested policies and unachievable educational goals—often driven by a single aspect of the problem such as textbooks, assessments, curriculum frameworks, peer learning, or technological innovation.

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Experience with failed policy initiatives and ambiguous research findings has highlighted the systemic, intricate, complex, interconnected nature of science education. Innovations succeed under some circumstances, but not others. Students regularly fail to learn what they are taught, prefer ideas developed from personal experiences, and make inferences based on incomplete information. Curriculum designers often neglect these aspects of learners and expect students to absorb all the information in a textbook or learn to criticize research on ecology by studying logic puzzles (Linn and Hsi 2000, Pfundt and Duit 1991).

International studies of science learning in over 50 countries raise questions about the complex relationships between achievement and curriculum, or between interest in science and science learning, or between teachers’ science knowledge and student success that many have previously taken for granted. This systemic character of science education demands a more nuanced and contextual understanding of the development of scientific understanding and the design of science instruction, as well as new research methods, referred to as design studies, to investigate the impact of innovations.

1. Developing Scientific Understanding

1.1 Knowledge Integration

Most researchers would agree that science learners engage in a process of knowledge integration, making sense of diverse information by looking for patterns and building on their own ideas (Bransford et al. 1999, Bruer 1993). Knowledge integration involves linking and connecting information, seeking and evaluating new ideas, as well as revising and reorganizing scientific ideas to make them more comprehensive and cohesive.

Designing curriculum materials to support and guide the process of knowledge integration has proven difficult. Most textbooks and even hands-on activities reflect a view of learners as absorbing information rather than attempting to integrate new ideas with their existing knowledge. Recent research provides guidance to curriculum designers by describing the interpretive, cultural, and deliberate dimensions of knowledge integration. Learners interpret new material in light of their own ideas and experiences, frequently relying on personal perspectives rather than instructed ideas. For example, science learners often believe that objects in motion come to rest, based on their extensive observations of the natural world. Learning happens in a cultural context where group norms, expectations, and supports shape learner activity. For example, when confronted with the Newtonian view that objects in motion remain in motion, many learners conclude that objects come to rest on the playground but remain in motion in science class, invoking separate norms for these distinct contexts. Individuals make deliberate decisions about their science learning, develop commitments about reusing what they learn, pay attention to some science debates but not others, and select or avoid science as a career. For example, some students desire a cohesive account of topics like motion and seek to explain new phenomena such as the role of friction in nanotechnology, while others report with pride that they have ‘forgotten everything taught in science class.’ The interpretive, cultural, and deliberate dimensions of science learning apply equally to pre-college students, preservice and in-service science teachers, research partnerships, and lifelong science learners. These perspectives help clarify the nature of knowledge integration and suggest directions for design of science instruction.

1.2 Interpretive Nature Of Science Learning

Learners develop scientific expertise by interpreting the facts, processes, and inquiry skills they encounter in terms of their own experiences and ideas. Experts in science develop richly connected ideas, patterns, and representations over the years and regularly test their views by interpreting complex situations, looking for anomalies, and incorporating new findings. For example, expert physicists use free body diagrams to represent mechanics problems while novices rely on the formulas they learn in class.

Piaget (1971) drew attention to the ideas that students bring to science class such as the notion that the earth is round like a pancake, or that heavier objects displace more volume. Piaget offered assimilation and accommodation as mechanisms to account for the process of knowledge integration. Vygotsky (1962) distinguished spontaneous ideas developed from personal experience such as the view that heat and temperature are the same from the instructed distinction between heat and temperature. Recent research calls for a more nuanced view of knowledge integration by showing that few learners develop a coherent perspective on scientific phenomena: most students develop ‘knowledge in pieces’ and retain incohesive ideas in their repertoire (diSessa 2000). Even experts may give incohesive views of phenomena when asked to explain at varied levels of granularity. For example, scientists may have difficulty designing a picnic container to keep food safe even when they have expert knowledge of molecular kinetic theory (Linn and Hsi 2000).

Science textbooks, lectures, films, and laboratory experiments often reinforce students’ incoherent views of science; they offer disconnected, inaccessible ideas, and avoid complex personally-relevant problems. For example, many texts expect students to gain understanding of friction by analyzing driving on icy roads. But non-drivers and those living in warm climates find this example unfamiliar and inaccessible. Similarly, research on heat and temperature reveals that difficulties in understanding the particulate nature of matter stand in the way of interpreting the molecularkinetic model. The engineering-based heat flow model offers a more descriptive and accessible account of many important aspects of heat and temperature such as wilderness survival or home insulation or thermal equilibrium.

Designing instruction to stimulate the interpretive process means carefully selecting new, compelling ideas to add to the views held by students and supporting students as they organize, prioritize, and compare these various ideas. This process of weighing alternative accounts of scientific phenomena can clash with student ideas about the nature of science and of science learning. Many students view science knowledge as established and science learning as memorization. To promote knowledge integration, students need to interpret dynamic examples of science in the making and they need to develop norms for their own scientific reasoning.

Students need a nuanced view of scientific investigation that contrasts methodologies and issues in each discipline. General reasoning skills and critical thinking are not sufficient. Instead, students need to distinguish the epistemological underpinnings of methodologies for exploring the fossil record, for example, from those required for study of genetic engineering. They need to recognize pertinent questions for research on earthquake-resistant housing, DNA replication, and molecular modeling. Effective knowledge integration must include an understanding of the ethical and moral dilemmas involved in diverse scientific areas, as well as the nature of scientific advances.

Research on how students make sense of science suggests some mechanisms to promote the interpretive process of knowledge integration. Clement (1991) calls for designing bridging analogies to help students make effective connections. For example, to help students understand the forces between a book and a table, Clement recommends comparing the experience of placing the book on a spring, a sponge, a mattress, and possibly, releasing it on air. Linn and Hsi (2000) call on designers to create pivotal cases that enable learners to make subtle connections and reconsider their views. For example, a pivotal scientific visualization of the relative rates of heat flow in different materials helped students interpret their personal observations that, at room temperature, metals feel colder than wood. To help students sort out alternative experiences, observations, school ideas, and intuitions, research shows the benefit of encouraging students to organize their knowledge into larger patterns, motivating students to critique alternative ideas, and establishing a taste for cohesive ideas.

1.3 Cultural Context Of Science Learning

All learning occurs in a cultural context where communities respond to competing perspectives, confer status on research methods, and establish group norms and expectations. Students benefit from the cultural context of science, for example, when they find explanations provided by peers more comprehensible than those in textbooks or when peers debate alternative views. Expert scientists have well established mechanisms for peer review, norms for publications, and standards for inquiry practices. Group norms are often institutionalized in grant guidelines, promotion policies, and journal publication standards. The cultural context of the classroom has its own characteristics that may or may not support and encourage the development of cohesive, sustained inquiry about science. Students may enact cultural norms that exclude those from groups underrepresented in science from the discourse (Wellesley College Center for Research on Women 1992, Keller 1983) or limit opportunities for students to learn from each other. Textbooks and standardized tests may privilege recall of information over sustained investigation. Images of science in curriculum materials and professional development programs may neglect societal or policy issues.

Contemporary scientific controversies, such as the current international debate about genetically modified foods, rarely become topics for science classes. As a result, students may develop flawed images of science in the making and lack ability to make a critical evaluation of news accounts of personally-relevant issues. For example, to make decisions about the cultivation and consumption of genetically-modified foods, students would ideally compare the risks from traditional agricultural practices such as hybridization to the risks from genetic modification. They would also weigh issues of economics, world hunger, and individual health. In addition, students studying this controversy would learn to distinguish comments from scientists supported by the agricultural industry, environmental protection groups, and government grants. Examining knowledge integration from a cultural perspective helps to clarify the universality of controversy in science and the advantages of creating classroom learning communities that illustrate the role of values and beliefs in scientific work (Brown 1992, Bransford and Brown 1999).

1.4 Deliberative Perspective On Science Learning

Students make deliberate decisions about science learning, their own progress, and their careers. Lifelong science learners deliberately reflect on their views, consider new accounts of scientific problems, and continuously improve their scientific understanding; they seek a robust and cohesive account of scientific phenomena. Designing instruction that develops student responsibility for science learning creates a paradox. In schools, science curriculum frameworks, standards, texts, and even recipe-driven hands-on experiences leave little opportunity for independence. Yet, the curriculum cannot possibly provide all the necessary information about science; instead, students need supervised practice in analyzing their own progress in order to guide their own learning.

Many instructional frameworks offer mechanisms leading to self-guided, intentional learning (Linn and Hsi 2000, White and Frederiksen 1998). Vygotsky (1962) drew attention to creating a ‘zone of proximal development’ by designing accessible challenges so that students, supported by instruction and peers, could continue to engage in knowledge integration. Vygotsky argued that, when students encounter new ideas within their zone of proximal development and have appropriate supports, they can compare and analyze spontaneous and instructed ideas, achieve more cohesive understandings, and expand their zone of proximal development. With proper support students can even invent and refine representations of their experimental findings (diSessa 2000). Others have shown that engaging students in guided reflection, analysis of their own progress, and critical review of their own or others, arguments establishes a more deliberative stance towards science learning (Linn and Hsi 2000, White and Frederikson 1998).

2. Designing Science Instruction

Design of science instruction occurs at the level of state and national standards, curriculum frameworks for science courses, materials such as textbooks or software, and activities carried out by both students and teachers. In many countries, a tension has emerged between standards that mandate fleeting coverage of a list of important scientific topics and concerns of classroom teachers that students lack opportunity to develop a disposition towards knowledge integration and lifelong science learning. As science knowledge explodes, citizens face increasingly complex science-related decisions, and individuals need to regularly update their workplace skills. To make decisions about personal health, environmental stewardship, or career advancement, students need a firm foundation in scientific understanding, as well as experience interpreting complex problems. To lead satisfying lives, students need to develop lifelong learning skills that enable them to revisit and refine their ideas and to guide their own science learning in new topic areas.

Recent research demonstrates the need to design and test materials to be sure they are promoting knowledge integration and setting learners on a path towards lifelong learning. Frameworks for design of science instruction for knowledge integration call for materials and activities that feature accessible ideas, make thinking visible, help students learn from others, and encourage self-monitoring (Bransford et al. 2000, Linn and Hsi 2000, White and Frederiksen 1998).

2.1 Designing Accessible Ideas

To promote knowledge integration, students need a designed curriculum that includes pivotal cases and bridging analogies to help them learn. Rather than asking experts to identify the most sophisticated ideas, designers need to select the most accessible and generative ideas to add to the mix of student views. College physics courses generally start with Newton rather than Einstein; in pre-college courses one might start with everyday examples from the playground rather than the more elegant but less understandable frictionless problems.

To make the process of lifelong knowledge integration accessible, students need some experience with sustained, complex inquiry. Carrying out projects such as developing a recycling plan for a school or researching possible remedies for the worldwide threat of malaria, engage students in the process of scientific inquiry and can establish lifelong learning skills. Often, however, science courses neglect projects or provide less knowledge integration intensive experiences such as a general introduction of critical thinking or hands-on recipes for solving unambiguous problems. By using computer learning environments to help guide students as the carry out complex projects curriculum designers can foster a robust understanding of inquiry (Driver et al. 1996).

Projects take instructional time, require guidance for individual students, bring the complexities of science to life, and depend on well-designed questions. Students often confuse variables such as food and appetite, rely on flawed arguments from advertisements or other sources, and flounder because they lack criteria for critiquing their own progress. For example, when students critique projects, they may comment on neatness and spelling, rather than looking for flaws in an argument. Many teachers avoid projects because they have not developed the pedagogical skills necessary to mentor students, deal with the uncertainties of contemporary science dilemmas, or design researchable questions. Research shows that computer learning environments can make complex projects more successful by scaffolding inquiry, providing help and hints, and freeing teachers to interact with students about complex science issues (Feurzeig and Roberts 1999, Linn and Hsi 2000, White and Frederiksen 1998).

2.2 Making Thinking Visible

Students, teachers, and technological tools can make thinking visible to model the process of knowledge integration, illustrate complex ideas, and motivate critical analysis of complex situations. Learning environments, such as WorldWatcher (http://www./, Scientists in Action (http:, and the Web-Based Integrated Science Environment (WISE—http: wise. guide students in complex inquiry and make thinking visible with scientific visualizations. In these projects, students successfully debate the causes of frog deformities, evaluate the water quality in local streams, and design houses for desert climates. Research demonstrates benefits of asking students to make their thinking visible in predictions, reflections, assessments of their progress, and collaborative debate.

Technological learning environments also make student ideas visible with embedded performance assessments that capture ability to critique arguments, make predictions, and reach conclusions. Such assessments help teachers and researchers identify how best to improve innovations and provide an alternative to high stakes assessments (Heubert and Hauser 1998, Bransford et al. 1999).

2.3 Helping Students Learn From Others

When students collaboratively investigate science problems, they can prompt each other to reflect, provide explanations in the language of their peers, negotiate norms for critiques of arguments, and specialize in specific aspects of the problem. Several programs, including Kids as Global Scientists ( and Project Globe (, orchestrate contributions from students around the world to track and compare extreme weather.

Technological learning environments support global collaborations as well as collaborative debate and equitable discussion. In collaborative debate, students research contemporary controversies on the Internet with guidance from a learning environment, prepare their arguments often using visual argument representations, and participate in a classroom debate where every student composes a question for each presenter. Teachers have a rich sample of student work to use for assessment. Online scientific discussions engage many more students than do class discussions and also elicit more thoughtful contributions (Linn and Hsi 2000).

2.4 Promoting Autonomy And Lifelong Learning

New pedagogical practices often implemented in computer learning environments can nudge students towards deliberate, self-guided learning. Projects with personally-relevant themes capitalize on the intentions of students and motivate students to revisit ideas after science class is over. For example, students who studied deformed frogs brought news articles to their teacher years after the unit was completed. Projects can offer students a rich context, such as the rescue of an endangered animal or the analysis of the earthquake safety of their school, that raises investment in science learning.

Students need to monitor their own learning to deal with new sources of science information, such as the Internet, where persuasive messages regularly appear along with public service announcements. Helping students jointly form partnerships where multiple forms of expertise are represented, develop common norms and criteria for evaluating arguments, and deliberately review their progress prepares for situations likely to occur later in life.

3. Research Methods

Researchers have responded to the intricate complexities in science education with new research methods informed by practices in other design sciences, including medicine and engineering. In the design sciences, researchers create innovations like science curricula, drugs, or machines and study these innovations in complex settings. In education, these innovations, such as technology enhanced science projects, build on increased understanding of science learning.

Research in a design science is typically directed by a multi-disciplinary partnership. In education, partners bring expertise in a broad range of aspects of learning and instruction, including technology, pedagogy, the science disciplines, professional development, classroom activity structures, and educational policy; collaborators often have to overcome perceptions of status differences among the fields represented. By working in partnership, individuals with diverse forms of expertise can jointly contribute to each others’ professional development.

Practices for design studies come from design experiments and Japanese lesson study (Brown 1992, diSessa 2000, Lewis 1995). Design studies typically start when the partnership creates an innovation, such as a new learning environment, curriculum, or assessment and have as their goal the continuous improvement of the innovation. The inspiration for innovative designs can come from laboratory investigations, prior successes, spontaneous ideas, or new technologies. Many technology-enhanced innovations have incorporated elements that have been successful in laboratory studies, like one-on-one tutoring or collaborative learning. Other innovations start with scientific technologies such as real time data collection (Bransford et al. 1999).

In design studies, partners co-design innovations and evaluations following the same philosophy so that assessments are sensitive to the goals of instruction. Partners often complain that standardized, multiple choice tests fail to tap progress in knowledge integration and complex scientific understanding. Results from assessment allow the partnership to engage in principled refinement of science instruction and can also inform future designers. Often, innovations become more flexible and adaptive as they are refined, making it easier for new teachers to tailor instruction to their students and curricular goals. Design studies may also be conducted by small groups of teachers engaging in continuous improvement of their instruction, inspired by the Japanese lesson study model. When teachers collaborate to observe each other, provide feedback, and jointly improve their practice, they develop group norms for design reviews.

Methodologies for testing innovations in complex settings and interpreting results include an eclectic mix of approaches from a broad range of fields, including classroom observations, video case studies, embedded assessments of student learning, student performance on design reviews, classroom tests, and standardized assessments, as well as longitudinal studies of students and teachers. When partnerships design rubrics for interpreting student work they develop a common perspective.

Design study research has just begun to address the complexities of science education. For example, current investigations reveal wide variation among teachers implementing science projects. In classrooms, some teachers spend up to five minutes with each group of students, while others spend less than one minute per group. In addition, some teachers, after speaking to a few small groups, recognize a common issue and communicate it to their whole class. This practice, while demanding for teachers, has substantial benefits. Developing sensitivity to student dilemmas when complex projects are underway requires the same process of knowledge integration described above and may only emerge in the second and subsequent uses of the project. The design study approach to science instruction succeeds when teachers and schools commit to multiple refinements of the same instructional activities, rather than reassigning teachers and selecting new curriculum materials annually.

4. Emerging Research Topics And Next Steps

Emerging areas for science education research include professional development and policy studies. The interpretive, cultural, and deliberate character of learning applies equally to these fields. Teachers may value lifelong science learning but have little experience connecting the science in the curriculum to their own spontaneous ideas and few insights into how to support this process in students.

Teachers taking a knowledge integration approach to instruction face complex questions such as whether to introduce genetics by emphasizing genotypes, phenotypes, the human genome, or a treatment perspective. They may discover that some students come to class believing that two unrelated people who look alike could be twins. Effective professional development should help teachers with these sorts of specific questions rather than providing general grounding in the science discipline or glitzy experiments that confuse rather than inform students. Inspired by the Japanese lesson study approach, more and more research groups are convening and studying collaborative groups of science teachers who face similar instructional decisions. Like science students, science teachers need opportunities and encouragement to build on their spontaneous ideas about learning, instruction, and the nature of science to become proficient in guiding their own professional development.

Science policy-makers may also be viewed through this lens of interpretive, cultural, and deliberate science learning. Policy-makers frequently hold ideas about science learning that might be at odds with those held by teachers. The status differences between policymakers, natural scientists, and classroom teachers can interfere with open and effective communication. Building a cohesive perspective on pedagogy, science teaching, and science learning has proven very difficult in almost every country. The popularity of high-stakes assessments that might be insensitive to innovation underscores the dilemma. Recent news reports that high-stakes assessments are motivating absenteeism, cheating, and unpromising teaching practices increases the problem (Heubert and Hauser 1998).

Science educators face many complex, pressing problems including the connection between science and technology literacy; the dual goals of excellence and equitable access to science careers; the tradeoffs between a focus on public understanding of science and career preparation; the role and interpretation of high stakes tests; and the challenges of balancing the number of topics in the curriculum with the advantages of science project work. If we form a global partnership for science education and jointly develop a cohesive research program on lifelong learning, we have an unprecedented opportunity to collaboratively design and continuously improve teaching, instruction, and learning.


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