Theme of the month

Theme of the Month

Join us each month as we focus on a topic of interest to STEM Teacher Leaders with a webinar panel, open discussion, resources and blog post. 

Synthesis Brief: How Science and Engineering Practices Enhance STEM Teaching and Further Teacher Leadership

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The Science and Engineering Practices which are a key strand in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) represent both a challenge and a significant opportunity for STEM teachers.  The Standards envision these Practices not as a separate body of content to be taught, but as integrated with the learning of both disciplinary and cross-cutting concepts.  Challenges arise from teachers' need to recast their curriculum to incorporate the Practices into the fabric of their teaching and the students' experience.  Moreover, teachers are often unfamiliar or have little experience with many of these Practices, so that learning them, and then incorporating them into their pedagogy seems a steep learning curve. 

Yet where the integration can happen, teachers and researchers report a real gain in children’s understanding of how knowledge is created, how investigations are designed and conducted, and how data and conjectures are represented, talked about, tested, and used for new insights. Consequently, educators are eager to find effective ways for teachers to learn and implement science and engineering education that integrates the Practices.’s Theme of the Month for November presents reports on one promising strategy being used to good effect for students' learning and for teacher professional development.

The facilitator for our expert panel was Arthur Eisenkraft, the Distinguished Professor of Science Education, Professor of Physics and Director of the Center of Science and Math in Context (COSMIC) at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  He was joined by a panel of four teacher leaders from California, Texas, Florida and Missouri, who are part of the Wipro Science Education Fellowship program, which is now active in seven universities and 35 school districts. Katy Canote teaches 2nd grade in Fulton, Missouri. Ileana Bermudez Luna has been a High School Chemistry teacher for the past seven years.  Amanda Lim  San Francisco Bay Area where she began teaching 6th and 7th grade math. Maria Louisa Soto has been a bilingual teacher in Texas since 2010. She teaches 3rd grade Bilingual, GT Math and Science.

The Wipro Science Education Fellowship is a two-year program, and the presentations to the panel drew on a one-semester project that they undertook as part of the course. In that semester each of these fellows worked with three or four other teachers at their grade level at their site from neighboring school districts. Each group chose a course of shared study, which was to include one science engineering practice and one research article about that practice. Each team member taught a lesson with a focus on both elements for the course of study. The other team members observed, provided feedback on the lesson using a specific feedback protocol, and examined student artifacts from the lesson. This pattern was repeated through the semester, so that each team member having a chance to teach a lesson and come back to the group. 

The panelists noted that the process itself — a group of teachers working with colleagues within a common framework to study a single practice, and design a lesson for their class that used that practice in conveying curricular content — was valuable in itself.  As Amanda Lim said,

This experience through Wipro gave me an opportunity to observe a variety of lessons. My lesson focused on individual models, but some of my group members focused on partner models or whole class models. And so even though we all focused on the same science and engineer practice, it's because my group members and I all teach different middle school grades, all have different science backgrounds. It was interesting to observe lessons with different aspects.... And then we continue to build upon each other's successes and mistakes.

The four stories highlighted different facets of the process they went through.

Choosing the practice to focus on. The teachers considered various factors in deciding which practice would be productive and interesting to work with for their shared project.  For example Katy Canote talked about the process which her group used to choose a practice to focus on.  One criterion was vertical integration, connecting a particular practice relevant to phenomenon-based, hands-on learning for young students with implications for workforce skills later in life:

The science and engineering practice that we chose to focus on was planning and carrying out investigations. We chose this because we felt with our young students it could be a great one to get them more hands on in science. Because especially at this young age, being hands on in science is always a little bit better. It helps them connect the concepts a little better....So for our research, we all kind of came together, looked at a lot of different options and ended up choosing an article that focused on workplace skills. The researchers from this article noticed that there was a bit of a knowledge gap with recent college graduates in the areas of teamwork, information processing, problem solving, and critical thinking.

Ileana Bermudez Luna, working with other high school teachers, focused on engaging in argument from evidence, because this seemed to be an area that could use more attention in the curriculum:

We all decided as high school teachers that a lot of our students come with a lot of misconceptions on how exactly I'm going to use the data and the evidence that I'm going to gather from an experiment.

Reading research together. The teachers drew on their experience and their "read" of their students' needs in choosing their focal Practice, but the program required them also to read at least one background article about the Practice.  This began the process of amplification of experience that the program entailed — reaching out beyond the immediate context to research literature, but doing it as a shared activity with other professionals, whose experience with the Practice would be available to all the others for their own enhancement.  As Ileana said,

The DRiVe (demonstrate, replicate, investigate, variate, evaluate) Inquiry Framework ... is the framework that we focused [on] for our project that semester working together. And we really focus on what the article explained about the importance of using this framework to develop lessons and activities in the science classroom that are going to foster students' critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Creating the lesson, testing it out, and learning from it. The next stage is actual classroom use of the new material — testing the material and the teacher's planning and preparation as well.  The planning included gathering data about how the lesson went, what impact it had on the students.  Maria Louisa Soto recounted her experience.

Our course of study was asking questions and question formulation technique.   For the lower grades it takes a lot more to scaffold than it does for the higher grades.   We write everything down exactly as its stated, and we change any questions, or statements into questions...then we actually talk about the value of closed questions versus open questions...At first I would get [questions from students] like, "What is that animal?" ...then they turned into more researchable questions like, "How can we figure out what that animal is?" really changed. Before we got a lot of statements and quite a few open-ended questions, but... it really switched to a lot of open ended questions, less statements, and more questioning, which for second and third grade was awesome.

Katy Canote added, in connection with the students' experience,

I feel like focusing on this one practice, planning and carrying out investigations was really helpful in that regard. Because if we had tried to focus on even just one other one, [the students']  minds would have been too clouded with all the things to remember.

Reflections on the teachers' process. Dr. Eisenkraft asked an important question about the learning process that the teachers experienced, in particular the focus on a single Practice: "Most teachers when they learn about the science engineering practices go to a three hour workshop and get all eight practices. You spent a whole semester on one practice. What do you think?"  The teachers spoke of the value of going deep — "less is more" for teacher learning just as much as for student learning: 

By focusing on one practice,  that really allowed my group to really unpack it, figure out what are these strategies that we can use, and then try these different strategies and not have to worry about, "Oh, we also have seven more to explore within a semester." And so it gave teachers enough time to flesh out a solid lesson... it also allowed students to engage in one skill, which really emphasizes the significance of like, "This is important. We're spending a whole lesson on this one thing."  (Amanda Lim)

Working in a team of teachers, all of whom are applying the chosen practice in their own contexts, drove the teachers' learning in a way that can be hard to achieve for a teacher who's working in isolation on changing his or her practice: 

Oh, how am I going to get this in there? How am I going to work it out?" And then through the collaboration with my team, we're like, "Oh, we could try this. Or hey, I tried this, what did you try?" And kind of exchanging ideas, which was nice.  (Maria Soto)

Strengthening their role as teacher-leaders. The work with the study group, and deep experience with their focal practice, gave these teachers a concrete body of experience and theoretical understanding which they saw was of solid value to other teachers. For example, Ileana said,

So to show this DRiVe framework to other teachers, regardless if they're teaching science or they're teaching math or their teaching English,  they can see that this can be modified in other content areas so they can plan their lessons..... Our district is focusing on accelerating instead of remediation. So I feel like we can put things together. We just had a new round of professional development, that administration is working on. So I have volunteered to offer the DRiVe framework so they can use it in their classroom as well.

Recommendations for Teacher Leaders
Teacher leaders can benefit from the kind of collaborative professional development  that the WISPRO teachers described.  The panelists' accounts make clear how important it was to their own growth in practice to be working as part of a "critical friends" group, which was studying together, experimenting in their variety of classroom settings, and then sharing and reflecting together about issues of implementation, design flaws, and outcomes.  The diversity of experiences in the group amplified each individual teacher's learning.

Recommendations for researchers
Knowledge transfer in children is a much-studied question, but knowledge transfer in teacher learning is a wide-open field.  Each of the teachers on the panel told of elements that made their experiments "work"  during this deep dive.  How does (or does not) this experience translate over time into teachers' practice in other areas? How do the consequences of such a deep experience  persist or change with time and further practice?  What difference does it make in the impact of such professional learning, if the collaborative study group does not persist?

Recommendations for administrators and policy-makers
Learning communities work, and take many forms in programs that stimulate teacher growth, increase their sense of self-efficacy and professional competence, and that result in changes in classroom experiences that inspire teachers' continued engagement.   As with all innovations in teacher practice, however, their persistence depends upon support from school culture, including the allocation of key resources to sustain them — especially time and space.   Such decisions are probably best made in collaboration with teachers and teacher-leaders.

Teachers who have experience with such capacity-building programs should be offered opportunities to make their learning available to other teachers in their district and beyond.  Policies should support a robust culture of teacher-driven professional development that engages not only with policy demands (e.g. standards) but also with current research in pedagogy and learning sciences, in tandem with a culture of teacher reflective practice.