Tufts experts combine efforts to improve elementary science programs

November 28, 2006

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. - The Center for Engineering Education Outreach (CEEO) at Tufts University makes engineering accessible to students from kindergarten through high school. The Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise (PACE) at Tufts focuses on how individuals learn. The Urban Sciences Research and Learning Group at Boston College trains teachers to teach science in elementary schools.

During the next five years, these three groups of researchers will combine their expertise and work with 20 Boston-area elementary school teachers to test a new curriculum that uses engineering 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," explains Tufts University Professor of Mechanical Engineering Chris Rogers, who is also the director of CEEO. Research on how people learn suggests that weaving engineering and technology into basic science curricula can deepen students' understanding of and interest in science, which can be especially critical for young girls.

Rogers and Linda Jarvin, an associate research professor in Tufts' department of education and deputy director of the PACE Center, will be the principal investigators in the research, funded by a $998,145 grant to the Tufts School of Engineering 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.

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

Educational benefits for girls

The research will focus on grades three through five to align with national and state standards and to address a need at that grade level for more science materials that incorporate engineering designs. Most such curricula are 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," notes Barnett.

During the first year, researchers will develop a series of curriculum modules that use science-specific content to solve engineering design challenges. One proposed curriculum module is called "Cities in Motion." 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, first researching the soil, rocks, bodies of water and the weather in the ecosystem.

Improvements compared with conventional instruction

Researchers expect that including engineering in science instruction in this way will help students deepen their understanding of the material. The curriculum design will also be informed by the "theory of triarchic intelligence," developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts and director of the PACE Center. Sternberg's work indicates that course instruction that builds a combination of analytical, practical and creative skills to improve student achievement compared with conventional instruction.

During the 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 next academic year to observe and offer feedback to the teachers. Also, student research fellows will be available weekly to answer teacher questions about the curriculum.

Five additional teachers will be observed as a control group before learning the curriculum themselves in the summer of 2008. This pattern will continue until 20 teachers are using the new curriculum to teach elementary science.

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 observe teacher performance and collect evaluations from the teachers. Researchers will use standardized tests, performance-based assessment measures and interviews to asses how well the students learned the content and skills the curriculum was designed to teach them. 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 research results in the fall of 2010.
Tufts University, located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville, and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's eight schools is widely encouraged.

Tufts University

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