CGRER’s Forbes nets grant to improve elementary science education teaching


From the University of Iowa News Services:

Cory Forbes
Cory Forbes

Elementary educators (grades K-6) are expected to be content experts in many different areas -– from math and literacy to science.

Yet few of them have the specialized training and support necessary to excel in this critical content area, according to Cory Forbes, science education assistant professor in the University of Iowa College of Education.

However, thanks to a grant of more than $250,000, Forbes is launching a project in the Davenport Community School District this fall that investigates how and why elementary teachers use existing science curriculum materials to teach science. The goal is to help educators teach science in ways that best promote student learning.

The district is one of Iowa’s largest high-needs school districts, Forbes said, and this project will engage 60 elementary teachers in evaluation, planning and instruction.

The project, titled “Promoting Inquiry-Based Elementary Science through Collaborative Curriculum Co-construction,” or PIESC3 (pronounced pisces), is funded through a two-year, $135,073 grant from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust of Muscatine, Iowa, to the UI Foundation. Additional funding comes from the Iowa Measurement Research Foundation (IMRF), the UI Vice President for Research and the UI College of Education for a total of $263,026.

“This is an integrated research and professional development project that will help elementary teachers be even more effective science educators,” said Forbes, who serves as principal investigator on the grant. “The teachers will learn to better use the science kits and curriculum materials that they have -– to help kids learn better, using inquiry-based science.”

Forbes said that inquiry-based science involves students participating in the practices of science, such as asking and answering questions, collecting and making sense of data, and using evidence to construct, evaluate and negotiate explanations about the natural world.

Forbes said the grant will help educators adapt their current curricular resources by learning about teaching and learning of science as inquiry as articulated in the National Science Education Standards and recently-adopted Iowa Core Curriculum.

Throughout the year, the teachers will use everything from magnets and different plants, such as beans, to help students learn science –- tied closely to teaching that helps students understand the concepts they’re learning about magnetism and life cycles.

“There are some well-identified issues with elementary science and teachers because of the way their jobs are structured,” Forbes said. “They’re expected to be content experts in six different subjects, which is incredibly challenging.”

A lot of elementary science in the past, Forbes said, particularly the science curriculum materials elementary teachers had to use, emphasized what has been called “activity-mania.”

“This is the approach where elementary students would do a lot of fun, hands-on science stuff, but it doesn’t really have a conceptual basis,” Forbes said, “and kids aren’t really connecting what they’re doing with what they’re supposed to be learning.”

Data will be collected from a total of 60 educators -– 30 of them engaging in professional development activities and another 30 participating in a research component only. This will provide a control group, Forbes said, so that they can compare differences in teaching methods.

At the beginning of each year, teacher assessments will be given to measure how well teachers understand inquiry-based teaching and learning. The teachers will also pick three science lessons to focus on during the year.

Videos will be taken of the teachers while they are teaching these science lesson projects for assessment and feedback, Forbes said. Prior to the videotaping, the teachers will fill out a document in which they explain how they are modifying their lesson plans to make them more inquiry-based.

UI College of Education science education doctoral students Mandy Biggers and Laura Zangori are assisting with the project. From the two groups of 30 educators, there will be four case-study teachers who will be followed in-depth. Biggers and Zangori will help interview and observe these teachers in their classrooms.

Forbes said it is important to build a strong foundation in science education for students’ future successes.

“By understanding science, it makes kids more competitive in the global work force,” Forbes said. “We live in a completely technology and science-based world, so you may think you’re not going into science, but 90 percent of the products you use on a daily basis have some really explicit basis in science and technology that’s pretty helpful to understand.”

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust was established by the estate of industrialist and philanthropist Roy J. Carver, Sr., of Muscatine. Carver died in 1981. The trust has been supporting the UI since 1987, and it has made gifts to UI programs every year since that time.
The UI acknowledges the UI Foundation as the preferred channel for private contributions that benefit all areas of the university. For more information, visit http://www.uiowafoundation.org.

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