MSU, Finland partners receive $3.6M grant to study science learning

September 25, 2015

Science learningMore students need to feel motivated and excited about learning science if the United States is going to succeed in producing a more scientifically literate workforce.

Michigan State University researchers hope to make that happen by testing the best ways to improve learning experiences in high school. The team is using a $3.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and partnering with scholars in Finland, where students outperform most of the world on international tests.

“Our interest is really to enhance engagement in science,” said principal investigator Barbara Schneider, John A. Hannah Chair and University Distinguished Professor in the College of Education and Department of Sociology. “Not everyone will be a scientist, but all students need scientific knowledge to understand and contribute to the world. We want to develop a model where we can maximize their opportunities to learn.”

NSF announced the award as one of 17 projects to receive funding from the highly competitive Partnerships in International Research and Education program, which supports work expected to generate new discoveries through international collaboration. This is the first time a project focused on education research has been selected for the funding.

During the five-year project, science education researchers will work with teachers in the United States and Finland to design and implement curriculum units in physics and chemistry classes. These project-based lessons will allow researchers to study the impact of new science teaching strategies modeled after the Next Generation Science Standards, a voluntary set of guidelines now being introduced in schools in many parts of the United States.

Participating students will each receive smartphones to provide real-time data to researchers. The system prompts students to answer questions on the phones about their learning experiences from a social, emotional and academic perspective. Of particular interest are the classroom messages that may be discouraging underrepresented student groups from pursuing careers in science-related fields.

Like the United States, Finland is in the process of restructuring its science curriculum in an effort to increase overall interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – learning. Joseph Krajcik, Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at MSU and co-principal investigator, will oversee the creation of curriculum materials and professional development for teachers. He said it will be exciting to collect evidence across two very different education systems and learn about which classroom ingredients lead to success for all students.

“The Finnish students do well on global tests, but they are not necessarily more interested in science,” Krajcik said. “We want to know how we can create zones where students feel empowered by learning science, know why it’s important and how they can use it in their lives.”

Collaborating researchers in Finland, Jari Lavonen and Katariina Salmela-Aro, are based at the University of Helsinki. Also working on the project from MSU are Corey Drake, Melanie Cooper, Deborah Peek-Brown, Marcos Caballero and Laurie Van Egeren.