Carnegie Mellon receives grant to improve science instruction

October 09, 2003

PITTSBURGH--The U.S. Department of Education has awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant to researchers in the Department of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University to fund a project aimed at improving middle school science education.

The goal of the project is to train teachers to apply cognitive models of scientific reasoning to their lesson plans in order to raise students' performance on high-stakes standards tests. Carnegie Mellon is a world leader in cognitive psychology.

"Our Psychology Department has developed some very strong theories about children's thinking and learning processes, and we believe that these theories can now be used to help us create more effective science instruction," said Junlei Li, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon and one of the principal investigators on the project. The other principal investigator is Psychology Professor David Klahr.

The project will be conducted at the schools funded through the Extra Mile Education Foundation. The foundation's mission is to obtain financial resources to provide the opportunity for a quality, values-centered education for children in four urban Pittsburgh elementary schools: Holy Rosary in Homewood; St. Agnes in Oakland; St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District; and St. James in Wilkinsburg.

"The Extra Mile Education Foundation is delighted to be working with Junlei Li and David Klahr," said Ambrose P. Murray, executive director of the foundation.

"Extra Mile has been the beneficiary of Carnegie Mellon's expertise and assistance in other areas throughout the years. Their project will strengthen science instruction for our middle school students and we are grateful for this opportunity," Murray said.

Nearly all students at the four Extra Mile schools are African American and non-Catholic, and face numerous disadvantages. Low-income African American children have historically underperformed on science achievement tests, Li said.

"If we are successful in that kind of environment, our success is more likely to be reproduced in other environments," Li said.

The project will have three phases. During the first phase, researchers will spend six months observing science instruction in grades five through eight. The first phase is set to begin within the next few weeks. In the second phase, Carnegie Mellon researchers will develop and teach full-semester lesson plans.

"Very few researchers are willing to assume the role of classroom teacher for an extended period, in order to become familiar with real students in real classrooms. That's what makes this project so unusual," Klahr said.

During the final phase, Carnegie Mellon researchers will train teachers in lesson planning and instructional methods they have developed. Similar studies in the past often have been conducted in the artificial confines of the psychology laboratory, utilizing one-on-one instruction and tests that the researchers designed, Klahr said. The Carnegie Mellon project, however, promises to yield results that teachers can use in their actual classrooms to improve students' performance on the off-the-shelf standardized tests that most schools use.

"If teaching is fundamentally improved, students can do well," Li said.
The Department of Psychology is one of eight departments in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the second-largest academic unit at Carnegie Mellon. The college emphasizes interdisciplinary study in a technologically rich environment, with an open and forward-thinking stance toward the arts and sciences.

Carnegie Mellon University

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