MSU scholars boost science student engagement with M-PLANS

March 5, 2024

Michigan State University College of Education scholars partnered with science education experts and middle school science teachers to enhance students’ interest and involvement in science.

Professors Jennifer Schmidt and Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia teamed up with scholars from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and Bay Area education non-profit WestEd to develop the Motivation – Planning Lessons to Activate eNgagement in Science (M-PLANS) Project, which supports science teachers in promoting student motivation and engagement.

Student sitting at table smiling at science-related object.

Funded by a $5.5m grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the idea for M-PLANS began in 2014 during a conference where Linnenbrink-Garcia met with UNLV scholar Gwen Marchand. Their brainstorming led to an innovative idea: to work with teachers in embedding motivational strategies into their lesson plans, which was far different from traditional student-targeted interventions.

Their objective was to develop a professional learning program for middle school science teachers that helped teachers design, modify and implement instruction to support students’ engagement in ambitious science instruction at the middle school level. One goal in their development work was to create a flexible professional learning approach so teachers could tailor lessons to their students’ experiences and the curriculum.

M-PLANS launched in 2014 just as many states were adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) – a nationwide effort to enhance science education through changes in curricula that focus on providing students with opportunities to participate in authentic or “real-world” practices of science.

“We noticed that the new teaching approach through NGSS required students to actively engage with science, beyond just reading textbooks and doing basic labs,” said Linnenbrink-Garcia. “This higher level of involvement doesn’t automatically ensure motivation. Therefore, it’s crucial to help teachers foster motivation in science learning, especially with the new standards in place.”

Responding to educators’ needs

M-PLANS was developed through a cyclical, collaborative design process involving motivation experts, science education researchers, middle school science teachers and district-level science coordinators. 

Schmidt highlighted the benefit of working directly with practitioners during the design process. She noted, “As the team presented some initial ideas that the co-design teachers tried out in the classroom, the teachers sometimes said: ‘This is not going to work.’ So, we scrapped some ideas and listened to their needs.”

Throughout the project, the M-PLANS team developed a set of professional resources for educators, which can be accessed through the M-PLANS website.

Essential resources for science educators

Drawing upon a more general framework developed by Linnenbrink-Garcia, the M-PLANS team developed five Motivation Design Principles (MDPs) science teachers can apply as they plan for instruction:

  • Belonging – Support feelings of relatedness and belonging within the classroom community and the larger science community by promoting inclusion and helping all students to identify with science.
  • Confidence – Support students’ confidence for science through instruction that includes clear expectations; challenging work calibrated to students’ knowledge, skills and abilities; and informational and encouraging feedback.
  • Learning Orientation – Emphasize growth in three-dimensional learning and understanding as the goal of science learning, rather than rote learning, grades, competition or social comparison.
  • Autonomy – Support students’ autonomy through opportunities for student decision making and direction during science instruction, such as in the context of investigations of phenomena and solving problems.
  • Relevance – Provide opportunities for learning science that students find personally meaningful, interesting and/or culturally relevant.

Working with teachers in two states

After developing the M-PLANS Professional Learning approach, the multi-state team worked with nearly 20 teachers across three school districts in Michigan and Nevada. Their research showed positive outcomes, indicating that the program effectively improved teacher practices and student motivation in science education. The findings suggest integrating motivational principles into science teaching can significantly enhance the learning experience.

As Linnenbrink-Garcia and Schmidt continue their project analysis, their aim is to expand the reach of M-PLANS to educators nationwide. They also aspire to create comparable content tailored for elementary school educators.