Scintillating science

Researchers collaborate on engineering-based curriculum

Three groups of researchers will pool their expertise and work with 20 Boston-area elementary school teachers to test a new curriculum that uses engineering concepts to improve how third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students learn science.

“We want to address ways to make science education more interesting for the students, and incorporating engineering and technology into elementary science programs often motivates the students to learn the science,” said Chris Rogers, professor of mechanical engineering and director of Tufts’ Center for Engineering Education Outreach (CEEO).

Research on how kids learn suggests that weaving engineering and technology into basic science curricula can pique students’ interest in science—which is especially critical for young girls.

Rogers and Linda Jarvin, an associate research professor of education and deputy director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (PACE Center), will be the principal investigators on the five-year project, which is funded by a $998,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. G. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of science education and technology at Boston College, will serve as a co-principal investigator. Barnett is a member of BC’s Urban Sciences Research & Learning Group, which works with urban teachers and their students.

“It is quite rare to have engineering experts collaborate with researchers in social sciences and education on a project such as this,” Jarvin said. “We will be able to capitalize on each field’s methodologies and knowledge base.”

A win for girls
The research will focus on grades three through five and address a need in elementary schools for more science materials that incorporate engineering design. Most similar curricula are designed for older students, a gap that is particularly problematic for girls. “Previous research has shown that if by fifth grade, girls don’t find science interesting, then it’s probably not going to happen,” Barnett said.

During the first year, researchers will develop a series of curriculum modules that use science-specific content to solve engineering design challenges. One proposed module, “Cities in Motion,” has students build and program LEGO™ robotic models for a typical city’s fleet of vehicles, including cars, snowplows, bicycles, trains and buses. The students then program their vehicles to interact with other students’ vehicles to meet requirements for weight, speed and strength.

In “Expedition to the Rainforest,” students will build model habitats, vehicles and instruments for explorers and scientists to use in the Amazon rainforest by first researching the soil, rocks, bodies of water and the weather in the ecosystem.

Turning aside convention
The curriculum design will also be informed by the “theory of triarchic intelligence,” developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, dean of Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences and director of the PACE Center. Sternberg’s work has found that instruction that builds a combination of analytical, practical and creative skills improves student achievement compared with conventional instructional models.

Next summer, five Boston-area teachers will be invited to participate in a one-week training workshop where they will learn about the modules and how to teach the proposed curriculum. Researchers will then visit their classrooms once a month throughout the 2007-08 academic year to observe and offer feedback to the teachers.

Five other teachers will be observed as a control group before learning the curriculum themselves in the summer of 2008. This cycle will continue until 20 teachers are using the new curriculum to teach elementary school science. Participating schools include two in Boston, Gardner Elementary School in Allston, Garfield Elementary School in Brighton and St. Columbkille Elementary School, a private parochial school in Brighton.

The curriculum modules will align with the National Science Education Standards, the Benchmarks for Science Literacy produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum.

To assess the outcome of using the newly designed curriculum, researchers will use standardized tests, performance-based assessment measures and interviews to determine how well the students learned the content and skills the curriculum is designed to teach. In addition, students will be asked how satisfied they were with the teaching they received.

Researchers plan to administer the new curriculum and collect data through spring 2010 and announce their results in the fall of 2010.