Research institute ready to influence the future of science, math education

February 28, 2012

New director Joseph Krajcik lines up projects, priorities

By Nicole Geary

Science is about exploring and explaining phenomena – how food fuels the body and how new materials can be made from old.

Too often, however, today’s students aren’t able to use what’s presented in school to explain the world around them. Or understand why those ideas might be important in their own lives.

“Science classrooms have phenomena too,” says Joseph Krajcik, who recently came to Michigan State University to direct the promising new CREATE for STEM Institute (Collaborative Research for Educational Assessment and Teaching Environments for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The mysteries of teaching and learning – why some kids struggle to learn in science and others succeed – is what drove him to become a teacher and researcher. Krajcik has a passion for delving into ways to make science meaningful and engaging to all students, and for helping teachers and university instructors create learning environments that allow students to develop understanding of core science concepts and the practices of expert scientists.

He is “a classroom instruction person,” a former high school chemistry teacher who has been studying innovative teaching practices and curricula in schools for more than 20 years while on the faculty at University of Michigan.

He hopes that CREATE for STEM will have a positive impact in improving science learning and as such show that MSU is a prominent player in the nation’s movement to reform science and mathematics education, from kindergarten through college.

The institute was referred to as the Institute for Research on Mathematics and Science Education (IRMSE) during its first year.

Taking over for interim director William Schmidt this fall, Krajcik changed the institute’s name, refined the mission and outlined some of the first ambitious projects that will be associated with it.

“If our nation is going to prosper, we have to get our act together in mathematics and science,” said Krajcik, who has been a leader in the national effort to create new K-12 science standards, particularly in physical science. “My goal is to create new innovations based on what we know, try them in educational settings and obtain evidence about what really works in classrooms.”


Innovating, investigating and illustrating


CREATE for STEM, co-administered by the College of Education and the College of Natural Science, will accomplish that by bringing together faculty, K-12 teachers and resources from across campus and tackling issues from some of the most critical fronts.

In the undergraduate arena, for example, Krajcik is particularly concerned about the high percentage of freshmen nationwide who must take – and retake – remedial math classes before they can progress to credit-bearing coursework. So the institute is conducting a pilot study on improving instructional outcomes in Michigan State’s MTH 1825, which enrolls nearly 1,000 students each semester.

“I cannot name the profession that would not require a person to have at least that basic level of math involved in daily life,” said Krajcik. “Those courses need to have the best instructional practices in place.”

But it’s also extremely important for the research institute to focus its efforts in the K-12 community, he said.

“If we don’t tackle the problems in schools by working collaboratively with teachers, we are never really going to improve teaching and learning in college.”

The growing list of projects affiliated with CREATE for STEM includes a proposal to improve how middle school math and science teachers teach argumentation, a skill many students lack but need to be successful in all subject areas.

Krajcik’s current research interests involve helping high school students understand how materials are held together by forces at the molecular level, a concept that supports learning in many of the STEM fields. He also plans to explore how structured online communities can prepare teachers to implement the next generation of science standards.

Together with expertise, experience and creative ideas from faculty in education and the sciences as well as practicing teachers, the institute’s overriding ?mission will be to develop systematic research agendas that can be supported by collective efforts across the university and beyond.

The institute staff, including Assistant Director Robert Geier, will be planning events and meetings, cultivating new talent, offering help writing research proposals and more. They will also look for more opportunities to share findings with policymakers and to work with global partners; Krajcik is currently developing relationships with scholars in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan.

MSU is already known for improving teaching and learning in mathematics and science. With CREATE for STEM, Krajcik says, the university has great potential to impact the quality of education in future classrooms and, ultimately, position itself as a global leader in mathematics and science education.

“I hope five or six years down the line that we have tackled some important problems in mathematics and science education,” he said. “That we have improved teaching and learning locally, but also generated knowledge that can be used nationally and internationally.”


CREATE for STEM projects at a glance:

  • Investigate improvements for remedial math courses at MSU (MTH 1825)
  • Improve teaching in Integrated Studies (general undergraduate science) courses at MSU (ISB/ISP)
  • Develop instructional materials to help high school students understand forces at the molecular level
  • Develop middle school teachers’ knowledge and practice for teaching students to construct arguments
  • Create an online professional development model, with Michigan Virtual University, that could help teachers understand new national science standards