Science Bowl Academic Competitions and Perceived Benefits of Engaging Students Outside the Classroom

 

Abstract

The National Science Bowl® emphasizes a broad range of general and specific content knowledge in all areas of math and science. Over 20,00 students have chosen to enter the competition and be part of a team, and they have enjoyed the benefits of their achievements in the extracurricular Science Bowl experience. An important question to ask, in light of the effort it takes to organize and participate in regional or national science competitions, is whether the event makes a difference to the student. And if it does make a difference, does it improve student learning or student attitudes about science? In a preliminary survey, students competing in a Regional Science Bowl Competition report that the event has a positive impact and fosters learning in science and mathematics. These data support findings for other forms of extracurricular academic competitions associated with science and mathematics.

Introduction

Since 1991, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Science Bowl® has been sponsoring annual regional and national competitions for high school students across the United States of America, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to seeing the pragmatic value of increasing the “feed” of science-educated personnel into DOE research facilities, the DOE recognized that the improvement of science education, broadly, would be of great benefit to the nation. Expanding its focus beyond formal science education at the college level, the DOE started the Science Bowl program to encourage high school student participation and interest in math and science. The idea was to increase science literacy in general and to encourage science- and mathematics-related careers specifically. The success of the high school competitions resulted in the expansion of the program to include middle schools in 2002.

The competitions feature teams of four to five students answering multiple choice and short answer questions in the areas of science, mathematics, energy, and technology. There are currently 67 regional high school and 36 middle school competitions. The high school competitions involve more than 15,000 students and the middle school contests more than 6,000. The winning team from each regional event is invited to Washington D.C. to compete with other winners.

Participation in Science Bowl involves working as a team, and a team’s level of success is determined not only by scientific knowledge, but also by teamwork and gamesmanship. The students’ engagement in group work directly benefits the individual team members, their social groups, and society as a whole (Greif and Ephross 2011, 6). The actual team formation and function is itself a model for both future community engagement and civic activism. In fact, creating teams is one of the three principal strategies for successfully placing students in service-learning opportunities within communities. (Harris 2009).

The National Science Bowl® emphasizes a broad range of general and specific content knowledge in all areas of math and science. Science Bowl experiences are independent of the classroom environment and generally occur because the students have volunteered to enter the competition and become part of a team. Each team must have a coach, who can be a parent or other interested person, but is usually a high school science teacher. The volunteer aspect of the competition as an extracurricular activity means that it is similar to robotics competitions, the Science Olympiad, and other interdisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, and applied endeavors. All of these programs stress the collaborative and communal nature of the projects over the content, a characteristic shared by other civic engagement and volunteer endeavors (Jacoby and Ehrlich, 2009).

An important question to ask in light of the effort it takes to run regional or national science competitions is whether the event makes a difference to the student. And if it does make a difference, does it improve student learning or student attitudes about science? The literature on science competitions is not extensive. Abernathy and Vineyard (2001, 274) asked students who competed in the Science Olympiad why they did so. The number one reason for participating in the Olympiad was that it was fun. The number two reason was that the participants enjoyed learning new things. These findings held for both male and female participants; they seemed to think learning science and math in this context was enjoyable. Abernathy and Vineyard suggested that competitive events “may be tapping into students’ natural curiosity and providing a new context for them to learn in, without rigid curriculum or grading constraints (2001, 274).”

Competitive events such as the National Science Bowl® may provide the “initial motivation” and catalyst for helping students to discover the joy of learning (Ozturk and Debelak, 2008). Academic competitions can provide motivation for students to study, learn new material, and reinforce previously learned material so that they will be ready to compete (and collaborate) with their peers from other schools both regionally and nationally—not just in games but also in academic and work environments. This type of motivation is difficult to provide in a normal classroom environment. While it can be argued that this is solely extrinsic motivation and that students should not be dependent on it, it can nevertheless serve as the spark that ignites a discovery of the joy of learning science and math.

One of the more important effective benefits of competitions like the National Science Bowl®, is that the participants, who may be the academic elite at their home schools (big fish in a little pond), must test their knowledge and skills against the students from other schools who will be their peers once they get to college and the workplace. Ozturk and Debelak (2008) note that students “learn to respect the quality of work by other children and to accurately assess their own performance in light of the performance of their intellectual peers. They achieve an accurate assessment of where their level of performance stands in the world of their intellectual capacity and, in turn, develop a more wholesome self-concept” (51) . Developing a more accurate and grounded self-concept is an important stage for children to go through on their way to becoming healthy and mature adults. This realistic and comparative self-assessment can be difficult to foster in the case of elite students who have never faced stiff competition or external challenges to their academic abilities in their home institution.

Students in academic competitions also benefit from learning not only how to succeed, but how to accept failure, learn from it, and, “subsequently, grow as a person and improve in performance” (Ozturk and Debelak 2008, 52). This, again, may be one of the most important aspects of intramural academic competitions, one that cannot be easily provided in a typical classroom environment; learning to fail and being able to cope with the emotional aftermath may be riskier in a classroom environment than in a games environment where the experience of failure is shared among the group. Being thrust into a situation where participants must deal with failure (even after they have prepared and done their best) promotes the healthy development of a student’s resilience and self-awareness. Academic competitions like the National Science Bowl® and its many regional competitions may provide the type of environment that helps students to reflect on their knowledge and abilities and self-evaluate their performance, promoting improved personal growth and development for the participants.

Certainly, extreme competitiveness can cause anxiety and undue stress (see for example Davis and Rimm, 2004). Many of us can remember learning in our Psychology 101 course about test anxiety and how it can negatively affect student performance and achievement and lead to low self-esteem. But Davis and Rimm also report that competition can increase student productivity and achievement. Some students seem to need to compete with others in order to push themselves to produce at a higher level. It would follow that socially organized competitions like the National Science Bowl® and its many regional competitions could help to promote high levels of achievement and productivity in the participating math and science students. Some of the increased levels of achievement and productivity may be due to the practice in teamwork and study skills promoted by participation in this type of academic competition. Bishop and Walters (2007) report that the students involved in competition increased their ability to be leaders and team players, especially in the areas of directed studying (“cramming”), communication, and stress management.

Most studies of this nature tend to be based on student reporting of their own perceptions, and Bishop and Walters also discuss the viability of using a self-report, Likert scale survey to investigate how the National Ocean Sciences Bowl (NOSB) influenced the participants’ choice of major and courses in college. They further triangulate their data using follow-up interviews, information on the colleges the students attended, and lists of the college courses the students took following their participation in the NOSB. Their longitudinal study, which took place from 2000–2007, establishes the credibility of the students’ self-reported data using this type of survey (Bishop and Walters 2007).

What Do the Students Get from This Competition?

A brief survey was developed for the students who compete in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition, for the purpose of gathering information about the students’ perception of the impact the competition has on them and other students. The questions were developed by the Regional Science Bowl coordinators and distributed to the students (also to coaches, volunteers, and audience) on the actual day of the competition, which takes place each year in late February or early March. The students in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition come from the three northernmost New England states, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The competition is an extracurricular activity; the students in grades 9–12 have self-selected to be part of a team that practices and competes during non-school hours. The students making up the teams tend to be academically successful. As might be expected, these students usually like mathematics and science and are predisposed to participate in activities involving these subjects. The teams of students compete in a one-day event at the University of Southern Maine, which culminates in a single elimination tournament round. The winning team is offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington D.C. to compete with other regional winners for the national championship. Students at the regional bowl are given the survey. Completing and returning the survey is voluntary, although the students and coaches are made aware that their responses will help improve the event.

The Instrument

The first part of the survey was designed to collect general background information about the students and their role in the day’s competition. This section was a simple checklist:

  • This is my first experience.
  • I’ve been at previous science bowls here.
  • I was a volunteer today.
  • I am a spectator/guest.
  • I was one of the student competitors today.
  • I am a coach of one of the teams.

The next set of items was intended to gain insight into the students’ perceptions of how the regional competition affected the students who were taking part in the day’s activities and events. The questions consisted of three Likert-type response choice items:

1. I think this competition had a positive impact on the students:

2. Quiz competitions foster student learning about science and mathematics:

3. Quiz competitions are stressful in a negative way:

Each of these questions had a five-choice scale that ranged from strongly agree to neutral to strongly disagree. There were also two open ended questions:

The thing I enjoyed most about today was:

What I would recommend for next year:

And finally a yes/no question:

I’d like to come back next year.

Findings and Discussion

Data collection began with the 2004 Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition and continued through 2009. (After this year the Bowl was restructured and focused exclusively on Maine students, although participants continue to be surveyed.) This six-year longitudinal study has provided data representing a constant mix of new and returning students. Throughout the course of the study, there was an almost equal distribution of first-time and returning students who responded to the survey. Although the survey was distributed to students, coaches, and other volunteers who took part in the events, only the results of the student surveys were used as part of this report. The voluntary nature of conducting the study produced an average of fifteen percent of the students per year completing and returning the survey. Interviews with coaches and students indicate that the low response rate is most likely a result of its collection at the end of a long, intense day, when many teams were eager to start their journeys back to homes throughout northern New England.

Of the students participating in the Northern New England Science Bowl who responded to the survey during the study period, 93 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that the competition had a positive impact on them (Table 1).

Campbell and Walberg (2011) suggest that this type of positive impact follows the students throughout their life. Willingness to participate in events on their own time, especially during the weekend, demonstrates a high level of positive engagement that would foster feelings of positive impact. Akey (2006,16) reports that “student engagement and perceived academic competence had a significant positive influence.” on achievement. The survey results also suggest that the students perceive themselves as academically competent in math and science, and that is why they participate. This mirrors the findings of Abernathy and Vineyard (2001) who report that academic competitions tap into the natural curiosity and inclinations of students and provide an arena for them to learn new things. The science bowl event could provide the platform for these students to excel and receive recognition. Further, Ozturk and Debelak (2008) report that academic competitions may provide the motivation to find the joy in learning. Curiosity and motivation are important aspects of learning that would presumably have a positive impact on the lives of the participants in academic competitions like the National Science Bowl®.

Most (91 percent) of the respondents reported either that they agreed or that they strongly agreed that the Regional Science Bowl Competition fosters student learning in science and mathematics (Table 2).

These data again appear to support the research done by Abernathy and Vineyard (2001), indicating that academic competitions provide a forum to stimulate the students’ natural curiosity about learning new things, as well as the work of Ozturk and Debelak (2008), who have concluded that academic competitions may motivate students to discover the joy of learning.

The high positive response rate of these two questions indicates that the student participants in the Regional Science Bowl Competition are developing a strong positive sense of self. These responses, reinforced by our interviews of participating coaches, indicate that the students are reflecting on their experiences and developing a more complete self-image and perhaps an increased sense of their personal competence. Bishop and Walters report that an enhanced and comparative sense of personal competence or capability “translates as a very high factor influencing career choice” (2007, 69). It may well be that academic competitions such as the National Science Bowl® and its associated regional competitions provide experiences that positively influence student career choices.

Interestingly, the same students who reported that the Science Bowl Competition had such a positive effect on them in general, and a positive effect on their learning, did not necessarily think the competition was unstressful. Only 61 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that the quiz competition was stressful in a negative way (Table 3).

Perhaps the wording of the question led students to equate “quiz” with “test,” which affected their response. It could also be that the students consider any kind of stress negative, and if they perceived that the competition created even a low level of stress, they would conclude that this was a negative effect.

In the open-ended question that asked what they enjoyed the most about the Science Bowl, the number one response was competition, the second most frequent response was meeting like-minded people, and the third was the hands-on nature of the activities. These students seem to be saying that they feel that testing their knowledge and skills in science and mathematics against other students of similar ability is fun! Maybe this is because they are beginning to form a deeper understanding of and respect for the quality of their work, as suggested by Ozturk and Debelak (2008). Academic competitions (such as the Science Bowl) may give students the opportunity to compete mentally the way athletic competitions allow them to compete physically (Parker 1998). Perhaps these students get the same kind of “high” that athletes get during competition, and the thrill of academic competition releases endorphins much the same way that athletic competition does.

The data indicate that a statistically significant portion of the students competing in the Northern New England Regional Science Bowl Competition report that the event has a positive impact on them and fosters learning in science and mathematics. These data support findings that have been reported for other forms of academic competitions that are involved with science and mathematics (e.g. Campbell and Walberg 2011). Self-reporting indicates that the students have a high level of perceived personal competence, a high level of engagement in mathematics and science activities, and a high level of motivation toward these academic subjects. In addition to increased involvement in the community, competence, engagement, and motivation are factors that have been linked to academic achievement, personal growth, and career choices. If the education community is seeking to increase student interest and participation in science and mathematics majors and in science and mathematics careers, and ultimately in complex science-related public policy discussions, then academic competitions like the National Science Bowl® may be an important part of the overall strategy bringing the nation closer to that goal.

A Proposal for Further Study

A key aspect of the Science Bowl competition is its role in building a social community of contestants, which leads one to wonder whether the competitions contribute to increased involvement in the larger community and whether they encourage participants to become more effective and engaged citizens. Participating schools are likely to return to the event, as are alumni who come back as volunteer officials. Further, with the release of recent studies, such as “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” (Lowell et al., 2009), we (the authors of this paper) feel an ethical responsibility to continue the investigation of whether science competitions represent meaningful contributions to the experience of students and their disposition towards science.

To better understand the impact of the Science Bowls on both STEM learning and civic engagement, we recommend that surveys be administered for all the National Science Bowl® middle school and high school competitions. The surveys should be standardized, with optional regionally based questions, and should be part of a well-designed study that can inform future science bowl decisions. An existing instrument, the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG, http://www.salgsite.org/), has survey questions that are geared towards formal academic courses but are a no-cost, accessible means to obtain data on students’ attitudes about science. Social media also provides opportunities for assessment and self-reporting of students. Surveys can be followed up by focus group interviews that could provide greater depth to our understanding of the findings. Such longitudinal studies could serve to verify whether or not these informal and volunteer learning experiences correlate with continued interest and involvement in science and mathematics, including choice of college majors, careers, and enhanced awareness and involvement in our most pressing science-related civic challenges, including climate change, public health, and technology.

About the Authors

Robert Kuech

Robert Kuech (Bob) taught middle and high school physics, chemistry, physical science, biology, ecology, computer programming for 20 years before returning to Penn State to work on a Ph.D. in science education. In 1999, when he finished his studies at Penn State, he came directly to USM and has served as the science educator in the Teacher Education Department since that time.

Robert Sanford

Robert M. Sanford (Rob) is Professor of Environmental Science and Policy and Chair of the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham, Maine. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental science from SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry. His research interests include environmental impact assessment and planning, and environmental education. He is a co-director of the SENCER New England Center for Innovation (SCI) and is a SENCER Leadership Fellow.

References

Abernathy, T., and R. Vineyard. 2001. “Academic Competitions in Science: What Are the Rewards for Students?” The Clearing House 74 (5): 269–276.

Akey, T.M. 2006. School Context, Student Attitudes and Behavior, and Academic Achievement: An Exploratory Analysis. New York: MDRC. http://www.mdrc.org/publications/419/full.pdf. (Accessed July 7, 2014.)

Bishop, K., and H. Walters. 2007. “The National Ocean Sciences Bowl: Extending the Reach of a High School Academic Competition to College, Careers, and a Lifelong Commitment to Science.” American Secondary Education 35 (3): 63–76.

Campbell, J.R., and H.J. Walberg, 2011. “Olympiad Studies: Competitions Provide Alternatives to Developing Talents That Serve National Interests.” Roeper Review 33:8–17.

Davis, G.A., and S.B. Rimm, 2004. Education of the Gifted and Talented. 5th ed. New York: Pearson.

Greif, G., and P. Ephross. 2011. Group Work with Populations at Risk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harris, J.D. 2009. “Service-learning: Process and Participation.” In Service-learning and the Liberal Arts, C.A. Rimmerman. ed, 21–40. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Jacoby, B., and T. Ehrlich, eds. 2009. Civic Engagement in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lowell, B.L., H. Salzman, H. Bernstein, and E. Henderson. “Steady as She Goes? Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline.” Paper presented at the Annual Meetings of the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management, Washington, D.C. http://policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/salzman/steadyasshegoes.pdf. (Accessed July 7, 2014.)

Ozturk, M., and C. Debelak. 2008. “Affective Benefits from Academic Competitions for Middle School Gifted Students.” Gifted Child Today 31 (2): 48–53.

Parker, S. 1998. “At Dawn or Dusk, Kids Make Time for This Quiz.” Christian Science Monitor 90 (116): 49–54.

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SENCERizing Pre-service K-8 Teacher Education: The Role of Scientific Practices

 

Abstract

Recent policy reports are calling for curriculum reforms to address problems about a lack of relevance and an avoidance of the core scientific practices in science courses K–16. One important cohort is K–8 teacher candidates who need courses in which they learn core ideas in science and participate in science practices. One promising approach is infusing SENCER courses into the science course sequence for future teachers. We report a review of select SENCER courses using an Evidence-Explanation framework to assess the type and levels of science practices introduced. Results on ‘Differences in Courses’, ‘Common Themes Among Courses’, and ‘Demographic Patterns’ are reported.[more]

Introduction

Recent U.S. policy reports express a growing concern for the supply of scientists, science workers and science teachers; c.f., National Research Council 2006 report Raising Above the Gathering Storm and the National Center on Education and the Economy 2007 report Tough Choices Tough Times. The STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) teacher and workforce shortages have two components (1) declines in attracting and retaining individuals into science/science education programs of study and (2) into places of employment. These recent reports show that uptake of STEM courses and careers are waning. Then there is the documented evidence that the development of youth attitudes toward science, both negative and positive, begins in and around middle school grades (ADEEWR, 2008). Thus, much of the focus for addressing the problems is on schools and schooling K–16.

Consensus review reports (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2009) are placing much of the blame on the curriculum models citing a lack of relevance and an avoidance of the core scientific practices that frame science as a way of knowing; e.g., critiquing and communicating evidence and explanations. The NRC K–8 science education synthesis research study Taking Science to School (Duschl, Schweingruber & Shouse, 2007) is another consensus report that makes recommendations about the reform of science curriculum, instruction and assessment. The TSTS report concludes that K–8 science education should be grounded in (1) learning and using core knowledge, (2) building and refining models and (3) participating in discourse practices that promote argumentation and explanation. The report also concludes that a very different model of teacher education must be put into place. That raises an important set of issues. Where in the undergraduate curriculum do future K–8 teachers engage in and learn to use the core knowledge, building and refining models and argumentation and explanation practices?

The typical introductory survey science courses taken by non-science majors and elementary education candidates focus more on the ‘what we know’ of science and less on the ‘how we know’ and the ‘why we believe’ dynamics and practices of science. Determining the level and degree of scientific practices in science courses is essential for shaping and understanding preservice/inservice teachers’ engagement and confidence in doing science when planning and leading science lessons in their own classroom. Science courses that focus exclusively on teaching what we know in science are inappropriate for future teachers.

Teacher candidates need courses in which they participate in science practices. One promising approach we have been considering is infusing SENCER courses into the science course sequence for future teachers (e.g., subject matter, SENCER, science teaching methods). Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities (SENCER) course frameworks offer a potential solution to both engagement in and understanding of science practices. The SENCER commitment is to situate science learning in civic or social problems to increase relevance, engagement and achievement in science content knowledge and inquiry practices. This article reports on an analysis of a subset of SENCER courses that take up environmental problems as the civic engagement issue.

The study investigates how the design of SENCER courses provides opportunities to practice science as inquiry. The premise is that teachers gaining experience in science practices are more likely to use these practices in their own elementary school classrooms. In turn, these teachers will be in a better position to understand and hopefully address the Taking Science To School recommendation that K–8 science education be coordinated around the 4 Strands of Proficiency:

Students who understand science:

  1. Know, use and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world.
  2. Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations.
  3. Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge.
  4. Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse (Duschl et al 2007).

One of the three TSTS recommendations for teacher professional development speaks directly to the issue:

Recommendation 7: University-based science courses for teacher candidates and teachers’ ongoing opportunities to learn science in-service should mirror the opportunities they will need to provide for their students, that is, incorporating practices in all four strands and giving sustained attention to the core ideas in the discipline. The topics of study should be aligned with central topics in the K–8 curriculum so that teachers come to appreciate the development of concepts and practices that appear across all grades. (Duschl et al, 2007, p 350)

Review of Literature and Analytical Frameworks

With respect to changing how and what science is taught, one important cohort of science students is preservice elementary (K–8) teachers who have low self-efficacy when it comes to science (Watters & Ginns, 2000). The K–8 education cohort’s lack of confidence and experience within the science experiences they had contributes to maintaining a cycle in which the students they teach lose interest and confidence in learning science due to poor teaching strategies, misdirected curriculum and weak teacher knowledge. (Wenner, 1993). Sadler (2009) has found that socio-scientific issues (SSI) affect learners’ interest and motivation, content knowledge, nature of science, higher order thinking and community of practice. Thus, it is not a surprise that SENCER courses have successfully demonstrated increases in student enthusiasm (Weston, Seymour & Thiry, 2006). However, more information is needed to determine how SENCER courses impact student achievement in core knowledge of science and with science practices that involve model-building and revision. The first step toward conducting research on the impact of SENCER courses on learning is to ascertain which SENCER courses are implementing scientific practices; e.g., raising research questioning, planning measurements and observations, collecting data, deciding evidence, locating patterns and building models, and proposing explanations. The driving question is can SENCER courses when placed between science courses and science teaching methods courses effect teacher thinking and practices.

Co-designed courses represent another model that brings science and science methods courses together. The co-designed courses are planned and taught by both science and science education faculty. Zembal-Saul (2009, 687) has found that co-designed courses that adopt a framework for teaching science as argument to preservice elementary teachers served “as a powerful scaffold for preservice teachers’ developing thinking and practice . . . [as well as] attention to classroom discourse and the role of the teacher in monitoring and assessing childrens’ thinking.” Schwartz (2009) found similar positive effects on preservice teachers’ principled reasoning and practices after using an instructional framework focusing on modeling-centered inquiry coupled with using reform-based criteria from Project 2061 to analyze and modify curriculum materials. What these two studies demonstrate and the SENCER model supports is the effectiveness coherently aligned courses can have on students’ engagement and learning. Such shifts in undergraduate courses and teaching frameworks will contribute to breaking the cycle that perpetuates low interest and high anxiety in the sciences at all levels of education, K–16.

Research shows that preservice elementary school teachers tend to enter the profession with inadequate knowledge of scientific content and practice. Preservice elementary teachers answer only 50 percent of questions correctly on a General Science Test Level II (Wenner, 1993). Stevens and Wenner’s (1996) surveys of upper level undergraduate elementary education majors are consistent with other research that 43 percent of practicing teachers had completed no more than one year of science course work in college (Manning, Esler, & Baird, 1982; Eisneberg, 1977). The lack of courses and experiences in science reflected the low self-efficacy in science among preservice elementary school teachers (Stevens & Wenner, 1996; Wenner, 1993).

If no changes are made to current coursework required of preservice elementary school teachers, they will continue to have low self-efficacy in science and therefore avoid teaching this subject (Stevens & Wenner, 1996). Thus, teachers are unlikely to use inquiry within their science lessons with the result that students are not exposed to scientific practices. The cycle of negative experiences with science does not have to be accepted as an educational norm; as the studies by Zembal-Saul and by Schwartz demonstrate. Changes can be made that coherently align science courses with methods courses.

SENCER courses can serve as a bridge to connect real-world issues and scientific knowledge with the positive impact of raising motivation and engagement among non-majors’ and preservice elementary teaches’ to learn science (SENCER, 2009). Evidence shows that learning science within the context of a current social problem helps to motivate preservice teachers and enables them to form goals that include learning scientific concepts and practices (Watters and Ginns, 2000; Sadler, 2009). Preservice elementary teachers who experience scientific practices and do investigations that build and refine scientific evidence and explanations can more informed decision makers about science and the teaching of science.

Evidence-Explanation Continuum Framework

While it is important that SENCER courses successfully motivate preservice elementary teachers to learn about science content, it is also essential that science courses provide opportunities to use scientific knowledge and practices. The targeted science practices for this review of SENCER courses are from the Evidence-Explanation (E-E) continuum (Duschl, 2003, 2008). The E-E continuum represents a step-wise framework of data gathering and analyzing practices. The appeal to adopting the E-E continuum as a framework for designing science education curriculum, instruction and assessment models is that it helps work out the details of the critiquing and communicating discourse processes inherent in TSTS Strand 4 — Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse. The E-E continuum recognizes how cognitive structures and social practices guide judgments about scientific data texts. It does so by formatting into the instructional sequence select junctures of reasoning, e.g., data texts transformations. At each of these junctures or transformations, instruction pauses to allow students to make and report judgments. Then students are encouraged to engage in rhetoric/argument, representation/communication and modeling/theorizing practices. The critical transformations or judgments in the E-E continuum include:

  1. Selecting or generating data to become evidence,
  2. Using evidence to ascertain patterns of evidence and models.
  3. Employing the models and patterns to propose explanations.

Another important judgment is, of course, deciding what data to obtain and what observations or measurements are needed (Lehrer & Schauble, 2006; Petrosino, Lehrer & Schauble, 2003). The development of measurement to launch the E-E continuum is critically important. Such decisions and judgments are critical entities for explicitly teaching students about the nature of science (Duschl, 2000; Kuhn & Reiser, 2004; Kenyon and Reiser, 2004). How raw data are selected and analyzed to be evidence, how evidence is selected and analyzed to generate patterns and models, and how the patterns and models are used for scientific explanations are important ‘transitional’ practices in doing science. Each transition involves data texts and making epistemic judgments about ‘what counts.’

In a full-inquiry or a guided-inquiry, students formulate scientific questions, plan methods, collect data, decide which data to use as evidence, and create patterns and explanations from the selected evidence (Duschl, 2003). Science engagement becomes more of a cognitive and social dialectical process as groups and group members discuss why they differed in data selected to be evidence and varied in the evidence used for explanations (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000). Students’ participating in these interactions tend to build new knowledge and/or to correct previous misconceptions about a scientific concept (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000).

Research Context and Methods

The research question asks to what extent do SENCER courses model and use scientific practices that are linked to obtaining and using evidence to develop explanations? SENCER courses were selected from the SENCER website and examined to determine the opportunities provided to engage in scientific practices. Only SENCER courses designed around environmental topics (e.g., water, earth, soil, rocks) were selected because these courses offer up integrated science opportunities. Next, course syllabi, projects and activities were reviewed to ascertain students use, or the potential for use, of data-driven E-E scientific practices.

SENCER courses were considered to emphasize planning and asking questions if students asked their own research question, designed their own experiment, or designed an engineering project. A course that stressed data collection showed that students went into the field and collected soil, water, or air, or they took measurements of samples. A SENCER course provided students practice in evidence if they decided which data to keep as inferred by students representing data or creating graphs. Practice in evidence was also inferred if students analyzed data later. Students could not complete this activity without deciding which evidence to use. A course gave students experience in patterns if students determined how the evidence was modeled as seen by analysis of evidence or running statistics on evidence. Lastly, a course allowed students to practice using explanation if students connected their project to previous research or theories as seen in library searches, if they made predictions for another phenomenon based off of their results, or if they discussed recommendations. Courses that included scientific content but focused on practices used in the humanities such as research and communication with another culture and were left out of this study. A summary of the criteria for evaluating the courses appears in Table 1,below.

Criteria for Evaluating SENCER Courses
Table 1. Criteria for Evaluating SENCER Courses

The names of the courses located on the SENCER website appear in Tables 2 and 3. Scientific practices identified were recorded as an X in Table 3 with further details on how the course fulfilled the criteria. Courses that did not meet the criteria received an N/R (no result). Each X was worth one point on the scale. Each scientific practice identified was worth one point on the scale. A scale from 1–5 was created to effectively compare scientific practices identified in each of the course modules. A score of 1 indicated that the course module only incorporated one portion of scientific practice, and a score of 5 indicated that the course emphasized all five portions of scientific practice within the E-E continuum. Therefore, a course with a score of 1 did not emphasize scientific practice whereas a course receiving a score of 5 heavily emphasizes scientific practice.

Selected SENCER Courses
Table 2. Selected SENCER Courses

Course demographics were also investigated from the SENCER website. Information researched included type of institution, class size, student year, major and class time (Table 2). Demographic information was then used to interpret any differences seen in level of scientific practice among SENCER course modules.

Results and Findings

The results and findings are reported in 3 sections: Differences in Courses, Common Themes Among Courses, and Demographic Patterns.

Differences in Courses

Differences in courses are presented from the highest emphasis on scientific practices (5) to lowest emphasis of scientific practices (1). Two courses, “The Power of Water” and “Chemistry and the Environment,” received a 5 because they provided students with practice in each aspect of scientific inquiry (Table 3). However, they approached various aspects of inquiry differently due to the nature of the problem being solved. “The Power of Water” took an engineering method in which students designed the most efficient micro-hydro-power turbine for a hypothetical small rural village whereas “Chemistry and the Environment” students formulated their own question to research about some environmental chemistry issue on their campus.

Most of the courses scored a 4 (Table 3), these included “Introduction to Statistics with Community-based Project,” “Chemistry and Policy”, “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods,” “Riverscape,” “Environment and Disease,” “Energy and the Environment,” and “Geology and the Development of Modern Africa.” These six courses differed from “The Power of Water” and “Chemistry and the Environment” because they did not allow students to explain their patterns or models. Two courses that received a 4 did expose students to explanation, but left out some other aspect of scientific practices in inquiry. Students in “Chemistry and Policy” did not create their own scientific question to study, and “Riverscape” did not provide students with practice in creating create patterns. The “Riverscape” course is a major source of interest because it was designed specifically for preservice elementary school teachers in the attempt to gain appeal in science and learn scientific practices.

Two courses provided students with the opportunity to use 3 out of 5 practices within scientific inquiry, giving them a score of 3. “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods” and “Science in the Connecticut Coast,” allowed students to collect data, provide evidence, and create patterns or models. However, students did not practice the planning and explanation stages of scientific inquiry.

Two courses that gave students experience in the fewest scientific practices scored a 2. There were no courses that scored a 1. “Science, Society, and Global Catastrophe” and “Math Modeling” differed in the inclusion of scientific practices. “Science, Society, Global Catastrophe” gave students training in finding evidence and creating patterns and models but not in the remainder of scientific practices. “Math Modeling” enabled students to practice finding evidence and creating explanations, but the course provided students with the remaining portions of scientific inquiry.

Common Themes Among Courses

SENCER courses with differing levels of scientific practices tended to have common themes for practicing scientific inquiry. One major theme was the use of collaboration as seen through group work on a scientific project. Most course modules shown on the SENCER website specifically state that students work in groups for their projects. Others such as “Riverscape” and “Chemistry and Policy” do not directly state that students do group work, although collaboration is emphasized within the course. The only course that did not emphasize collaboration was “Renewable Environment: Transforming Urban Neighborhoods,” although this information may have been left off of the SENCER website. While not specifically stated within the E-E continuum, collaboration plays an important role within inquiry. Students who are able to discuss scientific concepts with one another can articulate ideas and argue enabling them to reconstruct their own ideas of scientific meaning (Olson & Loucks-Horsley, 2000).

Another common theme among high practice SENCER courses was that students communicated their results with one another in various formats. Most courses incorporated formal presentations at the end of the project for the rest of the class. Others used formal presentations, although they were created for different audiences such as the general public or for a buyer of potential land for diamond extraction. Other course modules such as “Science in the Connecticut Coast” and “Environment and Disease” based communication more on discussion of scientific concepts. Despite differences in the means of presenting ideas in class, communication of results is an important skill essential to inquiry-based learning.

Scored Courses
Table 3. Scored Courses

Demographic Patterns

The SENCER courses differed in demographic information. The total number of students participating in class was widespread between 5 and 130 students (Table 2). Laboratories decreased class size to roughly 20 students. However, more information is needed for “The Power of Water” laboratory class size. Student year ranged from freshmen to graduate students within the course. Student type varied greatly from non-majors and preservice elementary school teachers to math or chemistry majors. Total class time differed among the courses in addition to the way the time spent was scheduled (Table 2).

None of the demographic information influenced the degree to which students gained practice in using science. Although class size is variable among courses, it had no impact on amount of scientific practices emphasized. Courses with large class sizes such as “The Power of Water” and “Energy and the Environment” provided students with similar practice in using science to smaller classes such as “Riverscape.”

Additionally, student major had little impact on scientific practices emphasized within SENCER courses. Majors used a varying number of scientific practices among the courses studied. Math students in “Introduction to Statistics with Community-Based Project” used more areas of scientific practice than math majors in “Math Modeling” as seen in Table 3. Majors also did not use any more scientific practices than non-majors in these courses. “The Power of Water” allowed students to use all 5 elements of scientific practice in inquiry whereas majors in “Math Modeling” were only given the opportunity to practice 2 aspects.

Class year also did not affect the ability to expose students to use scientific practices. As expected, SENCER courses enabled upperclassmen and graduate students to gain practice in conducting science as seen in “Riverscape.” However, many SENCER classes also provided underclassmen with a rich experience in practicing science. For example, “The Power of Water,” consisting of sophomores, provided students with practice in every area of scientific inquiry.

Lastly, class time did not affect student exposure to using scientific practices. Courses that received the same scores consisted of a wide variety of time scheduled. “Chemistry and Policy” devoted much more time toward class time than “Environment and Disease,” but students experienced the same number of scientific practices.

Conclusions

Distinctions in SENCER course characteristics have led to varying opportunities for students to gain experience in doing scientific practice as seen in this study’s scores. Those with the highest scores allow students to have the greatest amount of ownership over their own work. Courses with a score of 5 provide students with the ultimate source of ownership in allowing them to choose their own question to study. Modules with scores of 3 and 4 may not allow students to ask their own questions to study, but they do provide students with responsibility over the remainder of scientific practices in the E-E continuum. Courses with the lowest scores provide students with the least amount of ownership over their own work. Students are given a piece of someone else’s project and continue a small portion of that project. For example, students are given another project’s data set that they are expected to analyze. Future SENCER courses should consider giving students as much ownership over their work as possible to encourage student experience in using scientific practices.

The nature of data collection also had an impact on the level of scientific practices used within course modules. Courses in which there was easy access to collect soil or water samples of interest along with equipment to measure samples showed a higher level of scientific practices within the E-E continuum. Courses such as “Math Modeling” and “Science, Society, and Global Catastrophe” may not have allowed for easy access to gather water or soil samples. Therefore, the course was unable to provide students with the opportunity to gain practice in data collection. “Geology and the Development of Africa” found a loophole that enabled students to gather their own data by using a computer simulation. Students did not actually collect rock samples in this class, but were able to collect data from their computer simulation. Perhaps computer simulations could be used in other courses that do not have easy access to take samples from the environment.

While these characteristics provide critical information to increase a SENCER course’s use of scientific practices, traits that have no effect on level of scientific practices also offer great insight to increase student experience in performing science.

It is reassuring that SENCER courses can be flexible enough in incorporating inquiry for small as well as large class sizes. Future courses using the SENCER approach may be designed knowing that students can successfully learn scientific practices within a large classroom size. SENCER courses may cater to majors and especially to non-majors who have little experience in scientific practices. It is appropriate to use SENCER not only for upper level courses, but it is also critical to apply these modules to lower level classes.

SENCER courses provide a way to incorporate scientific practices within student learning. The integration of social issues with science builds preservice teacher interest in scientific practices. As these students gain experience in using scientific tools, they become more confident in incorporating science into their future elementary classroom. Perhaps our future teachers’ greater enthusiasm for science will spark student interest in the sciences.

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About the Authors

Amy Utz graduated from Bucknell University in 2005 with a B.A. in Biology. In 2007, she graduated from Drexel University with an M.S. in Biology. She currently is a graduate student within the Master’s of Education program at Penn State University. She is completing her student teaching and plans to become a high school biology teacher.

Richard A. Duschl, (Ph.D. 1983 University of Maryland, College Park) is the Waterbury Chaired Professor of Secondary Education, College of Education, Penn State University. Prior to joining Penn State, Richard held the Chair of Science Education at King’s College London and served on the faculties of Rutgers, Vanderbilt and the University of Pittsburgh. He recently served as Chair of the National Research Council research synthesis report Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K–8 (National Academies Press, 2007).

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