Approaches for conducting middle school science fairs: A landscape study

  • Education Development Center, Inc., Waltham, MA
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Although science fairs have been an institution of science education for decades in schools across the United States, little is understood about how students' science fair experiences vary and how these variations relate to student learning. Research on this topic is particularly imperative as new science standards increase emphasis on the teaching of science and engineering practices. Science fairs represent a potential opportunity to engage students in these practices, but may not be effective in supporting the learning of all students. As a fi rst step in a programmatic research agenda, this study employs a nationally representative survey of middle schools to describe the most commonly conducted , broad approaches to middle school science fairs. Using a framework based on teacher support for inquiry, three types of science fairs emerged: mandatory fairs with high levels of teacher support for students' project work, mandatory fairs with low levels of teacher support, and voluntary fairs. Mandatory fairs with limited teacher support were more common in schools with a high proportion of African American students and high poverty, but were also more likely to emphasize goals related to learning. Implications for the effectiveness and equity of science fairs are discussed.

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... It was clear that providing equitable access to the S&E fair opportunity was directly affected by teachers introducing S&E fairs at the local level and their readiness (and insider knowledge) for mentoring students in completing projects. McComas (2011) called for better teacher preparation to help educators make S&E fairs an effective and inclusive learning opportunity (see also Kook et al., 2020). There is limited literature around interventions focused on providing in-service teachers with the knowledge and skills to implement S&E fairs in their schools in order to diversify the students participating in fairs and therefore accessing this opportunity to experience authentic scientific inquiry. 1 The present research addresses this gap by studying the impact of a multi-year project focused on supporting teachers to implement a high-quality S&E fair process in their home schools. ...
... Our observation in the field was that students from low-resource schools or from minoritised backgrounds did not have the same opportunities to engage in meaningful S&E fair experiences and to benefit from the possibilities these fairs offer for success, recognition and even scholarships. This is consistent with prior research that suggests that both school participation in S&E fairs and students' project quality may be associated with socioeconomic status (Grinnell et al., 2020;Kook et al., 2020;Korkmaz, 2012;McComas, 2011). With the STEM-IQ program, our team sought to create a model of collaboration with teachers in low-resource schools that could be scaled to other contexts to support teachers implementing S&E fairs in these contexts to provide a quality S&E fair experience. ...
... Our first research question focused on the impact of the program on regional fair participation. There is scant research on the diversity of participants in S&E fair programs (cf., Korkmaz, 2012), and only recently initiated programs tracking their population (Kook et al., 2020), so we used baseline and follow-up data to explore the diversity of the regional fair. The program overall was successful in increasing the number and quality of projects that were presented at the regional fair. ...
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Science and Engineering (S&E) fairs are a valuable educational activity and are believed to increase students’ engagement and learning in science and engineering. However, due to differences in resources, many schools do not implement fairs to achieve these benefits for their students. This study reports the findings of a program intended to increase the participation of students from low-achieving and under-resourced schools in a regional fair program that feeds into the international fair competition. We found that the number of schools and projects participating in our regional fair increased dramatically since the start of the program. Teachers had mostly positive expectations for the project and expressed buy-in for the effort the project would take. They recruited a diverse pool of students to participate in the school fairs. Quasi-experimental methods allowed us to explore the impact of completing S&E fairs on student gains on science self-efficacy, interest and value perceptions. Controlling for pre-existing differences in these attitudes, we found that students not completing projects showed declines in their science attitudes during the year. Students who completed projects maintained similar attitudes, while those whose projects advanced to the regional fair had substantial gains on all three variables. It is unknown whether this gain can be attributed to the experience of engaging with a quality project, from being the kind of student who completes a quality project, or some other factor. Future research with greater experimental control could address these questions.
... This article reports on findings from the second phase of our study, which utilized a pre-post case study design to provide detailed description of science fair implementation in middle schools, especially students' enactment of the SEPs, teachers' scaffolding of students' investigations and associated outcomes for sixth-grade students. Based on our understandings of approaches to implementing science fairs (DeLisi & Pasquale, 2019;Kook et al., 2020), and using foundational research on student learning as a guide, we asked the following questions: ...
... Our study specifically focused on understanding the experiences and outcomes of sixthgrade students in the school science fair. We decided to focus on only one grade because the first phase of our study indicated that although schools engage students of varying grade levels in the science fairs, the goals for students and the structure of the fairs varied by grade level (Kook et al., 2020). Therefore, to reduce the possibility of confounding variables, we limited our sample of students to a single grade level. ...
Science fairs have a long history in the United States and internationally. Their implementation varies greatly (Kook et al, 2020), yet few empirical studies have examined the outcomes of these experiences for student learning. Research indicates that authentic scientific inquiry that focus on students' agency in investigations can contribute to students learning (e.g., Houseal, Abd-El-Khalick, and Destefano, 2014). However, teachers have been challenged with implementing inquiry-based investigations (e.g., Anderson, 2007; Harris & Rooks, 2010). As new science standards increase the demand for science investigations in classrooms that afford students opportunities to engage with science and engineering practices (SEPs; NGSS Lead States, 2013), research is needed to understand the role of teachers and how these experiences can contribute to student learning. In this article, we describe the results of a national study that included data from 21 middle school science fairs. Data included observations of 20 science fairs, pre and postscience fair assessment data from 343 sixth grade students, and interviews or focus groups with 131 students, 122 teachers, 16 administrators, and 29 science fair judges. These data enabled the exploration of features of science fairs, including opportunities for students to engage in SEPs and the teachers support for SEPs through the science fair investigations. Findings reveal that science fair implementation varies considerably across schools. HLM analysis indicates that teachers' support for critiquing practices, particularly when it included students' engagement in evaluating the work of their peers, are positively associated with students understandings of SEPs. Qualitative findings highlight the ways in which teachers structured students' experiences and supported their enactment of SEPs as they conducted their science fair investigations.
... The question of how science fair outcomes vary in relationship to the type of science fairs in which students engage has received little attention. For instance, recent research on middle school science fairs identified three major types: mandatory science fairs with high support (curriculum, class time, teacher engagement) (23% of students); mandatory with low support (57% of students); and voluntary with low support (20% of students) [12]. We found that 60-70% of students who participated in high school science fairs were required to do so [13]. ...
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In this paper, we report ethnicity trends in student participation and experience in high school science and engineering fairs (science fairs). Science fair participation showed significant ethnic diversity. For survey students, the approximate distribution was Asian-32%; Black-11%; Hispanic-20%; White-33%; Other-3%. Black students made up only 4.5% of the students who participated in science fairs beyond the school-only level, whereas students from other ethnic groups were more equally represented. The lower percentage of Black students resulted from a combination of lower science fair participation and lower percentage of students advancing to science fairs beyond the school-only level. Students who advanced to science fairs beyond the school-only level frequently received help from scientists, coaching for the interview, and were not required to participate in science fair. Black students received the least help from scientists and were most likely to be required to do science fair. They also were most likely to receive no help from parents, teachers, or scientists. Asian and Hispanic students (63.8% and 56.8%) indicated greater interest in careers in science and engineering (S&E) compared to Black and White students (43.7% & 50.7%). The most important experiences that correlated with students indicating that science fair increased their interests in S&E were getting help from the internet and/or books and magazines; getting help fine tuning the report; and overcoming obstacles by doing more background research, making a timeline, and perseverance. Black students did not report a positive effect of any of these strategies but experienced time pressure as more of an obstacle than did other students. Our findings identify a wide range of student experiences associated with positive science fair outcomes that could be enhanced for all students but especially Black students. More involvement of scientists in helping science fair students would be particularly valuable.
... Furthermore, as heterogeneity of students Keywords: OST, STEM, science fair, student research, diversity, science processes, SEP, phenomenology included in the category of "minority ethnic groups" is too great to be considered a homogenous group (Wong, 2016), individual perspectives become even more important when examining student experiences in research. Our approach will expand extant investigations of OST scientifi c research and, especially, the potential impacts of science fair participation (Kook et al., 2020). ...
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Out-of-school time (OST) science research can be an important part of a student's decision to pursue a career in STEM. This article reports on the fi ndings from a transformative phenomenological study of what secondary students experience while completing OST scientifi c research. The purpose of this study was to use an emic research lens to better understand the contexts and content of student experiences. We collected data from in-depth interviews with an ethnically diverse group of eight students who previously participated in science fairs, and fi ve sponsors who supported science fair students. Major themes were found to be consistent through the student experiences, including opportunities to explore their own interests, deeply learn and apply science, and being supported by mentors and other professionals. The interplay of these themes seems to be critical to the experience as a whole. These fi ndings hold implications for expanding out-of-school time science research opportunities for a more diverse group of learners.
... However, if students are required to participate in science fairs and are not provided adequate support, they may not have positive experiences with science and may perceive science negatively. This is often the case as science fair participation is most often nonvoluntary, and teachers typically provide minimal support to students in their investigations [19]. The support and encouragement students receive in noncompetitive environments also impacts outcomes. ...
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The number of physics bachelor’s degrees that are awarded in the United States annually is small compared to most other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, and only about one-fifth of these degrees are awarded to women. Understanding the influence of students’ science and engineering experiences on career choices is critical in order to improve future efforts to increase the number of physics majors and the participation of women. In this work, we use a physics identity framework to examine the impact of out-of-class science and engineering activities on three identity dimensions and the relationship between these dimensions and physics career choice. Through structural equation modeling of survey data from 5541 college students, we find that out-of-class science and engineering activities have the largest influence on physics performance/competence beliefs, but the association of performance/competence beliefs to overall physics identity and physics career choice is primarily mediated through recognition beliefs and physics interests. Furthermore, out-of-class science and engineering activities have a larger effect on recognition beliefs for men than for women, which is a challenging finding in light of the fact that recognition beliefs are the most influential identity dimension for women. The results of this work begin to highlight the need for out-of-class science and engineering activities that focus on not only enhancing students’ performance/competence beliefs but also students’ interests, particularly those students not previously interested, and women’s recognition beliefs with respect to physics.
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This study explores ways to support girls of color in forming their senses of selves in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) during the middle school years. Guided by social practice theory, we analyzed a large data set of survey responses (n = 1,821) collected at five middle schools in low‐income communities across four states in the United States. Analyses focus on the extent to which key constructs that inform girls’ development of senses of self and relations among those indicators of STEM identities varied by their race/ethnicity. Though the means of indicators sometimes varied across racial/ethnic groups, multigroup structural equation modeling analyses indicate no significant racial/ethnic differences in the relations of STEM identities, suggesting that similar supports would be equally effective for all girls during the middle school years. Girls’ self‐perception in relation to science was the strongest predictor of their identification with STEM‐related careers, and this self‐perception was positively and distinctively associated with their experiences with science at home, outside of school, and in school science classes. This study argues for strategically expanding girls’ experiences with science across multiple settings during middle school in a way that increases their positive self‐perception in and with STEM.
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Research on science achievement disparities by gender and race/ethnicity often neglects the beginning of the pipeline in the early grades. We address this limitation using nationally representative data following students from Grades 3 to 8. We find that the Black–White science test score gap (–1.07 SD in Grade 3) remains stable over these years, the Hispanic–White gap narrows (–.85 to –.65 SD), and the Asian–White Grade 3 gap (–.31 SD) closes by Grade 8. The female–male Grade 3 gap (–.23 SD) may narrow slightly by eighth grade. Accounting for prior math and reading achievement, socioeconomic status, and classroom fixed effects, Grade 8 racial/ethnic gaps are not statistically significant. The Grade 8 science gender gap disappears after controlling for prior math achievement.
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Evidence for the superiority of guided instruction is explained in the context of our knowledge of human cognitive architecture, expert–novice differences, and cognitive load. Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide “internal” guidance. Recent developments in instructional research and instructional design models that support guidance during instruction are briefly described.
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A s a science teacher educator and former science teacher, I've long known that the science fair should be part of my professional experience, but I hadn't given it much thought until recently. The school where I taught didn't participate in science fairs, and I had no experience as a mentor, though I have volunteered as a judge at local and regional science fairs for many years. I generally thought of science fairs as a time-honored part of science instruction, but one I knew little about in terms of process versus product. The Observations, reflections, and recommendations from our guest editor Then, one day last fall, my daughter came home from school and announced, "We have to do a science fair project this year, I have no idea what to do, and I need your help!" My daughter's request presented not only a wonderful parenting opportunity but also a unique window into the complex nature of the science fair itself. As we worked together on her project—examining the ecology and distribution of mistletoe—my basic awareness of these fairs gradually turned into passion and reflection. As her project progressed, I became increasingly convinced that it's time to reconsider the range of activities we call science fairs.
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Pediatric psychologists are often interested in finding patterns in heterogeneous cross-sectional data. Latent variable mixture modeling is an emerging person-centered statistical approach that models heterogeneity by classifying individuals into unobserved groupings (latent classes) with similar (more homogenous) patterns. The purpose of this article is to offer a nontechnical introduction to cross-sectional mixture modeling. An overview of latent variable mixture modeling is provided and 2 cross-sectional examples are reviewed and distinguished. Step-by-step pediatric psychology examples of latent class and latent profile analyses are provided using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 data file. Latent variable mixture modeling is a technique that is useful to pediatric psychologists who wish to find groupings of individuals who share similar data patterns to determine the extent to which these patterns may relate to variables of interest.
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Little research has examined whether the effects of race or socioeconomic status (SES) on educational attitudes differ by gender, limiting knowledge of unique vulnerabilities occurring at the intersection of multiple social statuses. Using data from 182 sixth-graders, interactions between gender, race/ethnicity, and SES in predicting educational aspirations, persistence, views of science, and educational self-efficacy are examined. African American and Latino boys express more negative attitudes relative to (1) higher-SES boys, (2) White boys, and (3) girls of any race/ethnicity or level of SES. The intersection of multiple inequalities in education across the early life course is discussed.
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There are continuing educational and political debates about ‘inquiry’ versus ‘direct’ teaching of science. Traditional science instruction has been largely direct but in the US, recent national and state science education standards advocate inquiry throughout K‐12 education. While inquiry‐based instruction has the advantage of modelling aspects of the nature of real scientific inquiry, there is little unconfounded comparative research into the effectiveness and efficiency of the two instructional modes for developing science conceptual understanding. This research undertook a controlled experimental study comparing the efficacy of carefully designed inquiry instruction and equally carefully designed direct instruction in realistic science classroom situations at the middle school grades. The research design addressed common threats to validity. We report on the nature of the instructional units in each mode, research design, methods, classroom implementations, monitoring, assessments, analysis and project findings.
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Spurred by concerns about an inadequately sized science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, there has been a growing interest in out-of-school time (OST) science activities as a means to foster STEM career interest. This study examines the association between OST science activities and STEM career interest in university through a logistic regression model and the calculation of prototypical odds ratios. The analysis addresses two main research questions: What is the correlation among different forms of OST activities? And, controlling for student demographic and background variables, what specific forms of OST activities are associated with STEM career interest in university? The study uses data from the ‘Persistence Research in Science and Engineering’ survey (n = 6882), which employs a nationally representative sample of university students enrolled in introductory English courses. Results indicate that students’ participation in OST activities, as well as their middle school interest in science and mathematics and their gender, plays a significant role in university career interest in STEM. Conclusions suggest that making OST clubs and competitions and the inclusion of non-fiction and science fiction within English Language Arts programmes may be beneficial to the development of students in STEM careers. Limitations include the paucity of research examining which students participate in these activities and what specific features or characteristics benefit them.
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Based on an analysis of teachers’ responses to a rated closed-ended survey on their inquiry practices, which was crosschecked with open-ended qualitative responses, they were using several different science research skills during instruction; however, teachers reported use of inquiry research skills likely occurred during guided inquiry projects with little evidence to support that they used full inquiry as suggested in theNational Science Education Standards (NSES) (NRC, 1996).
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In a study with 112 third- and fourth-grade children, we measured the relative effectiveness of discovery learning and direct instruction at two points in the learning process: (a) during the initial acquisition of the basic cognitive objective (a procedure for designing and interpreting simple, unconfounded experiments) and (b) during the subsequent transfer and application of this basic skill to more diffuse and authentic reasoning associated with the evaluation of science-fair posters. We found not only that many more children learned from direct instruction than from discovery learning, but also that when asked to make broader, richer scientific judgments, the many children who learned about experimental design from direct instruction performed as well as those few children who discovered the method on their own. These results challenge predictions derived from the presumed superiority of discovery approaches in teaching young children basic procedures for early scientific investigations.
This study adopts case studies using open-ended questionnaires, pupils' notes, teachers' journals, science fair projects, photos, videos, and other materials in order to explore the use of argumentation in promoting students' elaboration of their science projects. The participants in this study are seven sixth-grade pupils from four different classes, comprising five girls and two boys. The results reveal that the use of argumentation in the elaboration process not only helps the students to examine the validity of science projects but also guides them to reflect on the consistency of the projects' objective, experimental design, results, and conclusion. It was also found that rebuttals are not evident in scientific projects, and though the data claim that warrants are key elements of the elaboration process in a science fair, their meanings are not easily understood by primary-school students. Teachers are required to continuously explain the importance of argumentation. In addition, formulating conclusions based on empirical data is difficult for students. On the other hand, collecting and refining data as evidence to support or disprove a given temporary conclusion are less complicated tasks for the students.
Student-directed, open-ended scientific investigations and invention projects may serve to deepen and broaden students' scientific and technological literacy, and, in so doing, enable them to succeed in democracies greatly affected by processes and products of science and technology. Science fairs, events at which student-led projects are evaluated and celebrated, could contribute to such positive personal and social outcomes. Qualitative data drawn from a national science fair over succeeding years indicate (after analyses of largely qualitative data, using constant comparative methods) that, apart from positive outcomes regarding science literacy, there may be some significant issues about the fair that warrant critical review. It is apparent from these studies that there are issues of access, image, and recruitment associated with the fair. Qualification for participation in the fair appears to favour students from advantaged, resource-rich backgrounds. Although these students do benefit in a number of ways from the fair experience, it is apparent that science fairs also greatly benefit sponsors—who can, in a sense, use science fairs for promotional and recruitment purposes. These findings and claims raised, for us, some important questions possibly having implications for science education, and for society more generally.
Science fairs are held in many elementary, junior high, and high schools. Typically they are thought of as a competitive event where students display science projects. Publications occasionally print accounts of successful science fairs, but these articles are usually based on opinions rather than on research. The purpose of this study is to report desirable characteristics of a school science fair according to available research. The characteristics include: (1) type of project to be entered in the fair; (2) determination of students who should participate; (3) relative merits of competitive or noncompetitive fairs; (4) value of working individually or in groups; (5) motivators offered; and (6) amount of work expected to be done outside of the classroom. The document includes the summaries of 35 articles and a glossary. Several recommendations are stated: students should do experimental projects; students of all grade levels should participate; competition with clear goals can be an effective motivator in science fairs; the most effective structures include cooperative student projects; and better quality projects can be expected when children work on them outside of the classroom. (CW)
This exploratory study examined relationships among success in a regional science fair and self-concept, parental influences, motivation, anxiety, and selected demographic variables. The sample included 142 students in grades 7–12 who were enrolled in a district science day in Ohio. Confidence levels and parental influences were measured using scales developed by Campbell (1991). Motivation was measured with items asking who or what influenced students to enter the district science fair and whether they intended to attend college and major in a science-related field. The State-Trait Anxiety Indicator (STAI) (Spielberger, 1983) was used to measure anxiety. Success in the district science day was measured by the rating given by a pair of judges for the science fair project. Demographic variables examined were GPA, participation in a gifted/talented class, participation in a scientific research course, gender, ethnicity, and parents' level of education. Descriptive and discriminant statistical techniques were used to analyze the data. A discriminant function analysis determined one significant function which predicted rating in the science fair. This function, accounting for 77% of the variance, included five coefficients—parental help, parental pressure, science self concept, the science fair project counted as part of a science course grade, and the judges' rating on the science fair project determined the course grade. Implications are discussed for classroom teachers who enroll students in science fairs.
The goal of the Inquiry Synthesis Project was to synthesize findings from research conducted between 1984 and 2002 to address the research question, What is the impact of inquiry science instruction on K–12 student outcomes? The timeframe of 1984 to 2002 was selected to continue a line of synthesis work last completed in 1983 by Bredderman [Bredderman [1983] Review of Educational Research 53: 499–518] and Shymansky, Kyle, and Alport [Shymansky et al. [1983] Journal of Research in Science Teaching 20: 387–404], and to accommodate a practicable cut-off date given the research project timeline, which ran from 2001 to 2006. The research question for the project was addressed by developing a conceptual framework that clarifies and specifies what is meant by “inquiry-based science instruction,” and by using a mixed-methodology approach to analyze both numerical and text data describing the impact of instruction on K–12 student science conceptual learning. Various findings across 138 analyzed studies indicate a clear, positive trend favoring inquiry-based instructional practices, particularly instruction that emphasizes student active thinking and drawing conclusions from data. Teaching strategies that actively engage students in the learning process through scientific investigations are more likely to increase conceptual understanding than are strategies that rely on more passive techniques, which are often necessary in the current standardized-assessment laden educational environment. © 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 47: 474–496, 2010
Considerable evidence indicates that domain specific knowledge in the form of schemas is the primary factor distinguishing experts from novices in problem-solving skill. Evidence that conventional problem-solving activity is not effective in schema acquisition is also accumulating. It is suggested that a major reason for the ineffectiveness of problem solving as a learning device, is that the cognitive processes required by the two activities overlap insufficiently, and that conventional problem solving in the form of means-ends analysis requires a relatively large amount of cognitive processing capacity which is consequently unavailable for schema acquisition. A computational model and experimental evidence provide support for this contention. Theoretical and practical implications are discussed.
In the Adaptive Character of Thought (ACT-R) theory, complex cognition arises from an interaction of procedural and declarative knowledge. Procedural knowledge is represented in units called production rules, and declarative knowledge is represented in units called chunks. The individual units are created by simple encodings of objects in the environment (chunks) or simple encodings of transformations in the environment (production rules). A great many such knowledge units underlie human cognition. From this large database, the appropriate units are selected for a particular context by activation processes that are tuned to the statistical structure of the environment. According to the ACT-R theory, the power of human cognition depends on the amount of knowledge encoded and the effective Employment of the encoded knowledge.
This article shows the pattern of socioeconomic class differences in schooling outcomes and indicates some of the causes for those differences that lie within the public realm. Those causes include “nested inequalities” across boundaries of states, school districts, schools within a district, classes within a school, and sometimes separation within a class. In addition, urban public schools demonstrate a particular set of problems that generate differential schooling outcomes by economic class. The article also demonstrates ways in which class biases are closely entwined with racial and ethnic inequities. It concludes with the broad outlines of what would be necessary to reduce class (and racial) disparities in American public schools. The American dream will succeed or fail in the 21st century in direct proportion to our commitment to educate every person in the United States of America. —President Bill Clinton, 1995 (Clinton, 1995: 617) There is no greater test of our national responsibility than the quality of the education we provide. —Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, 2000 (Gore, 2000) Both parties have been talking about education for quite a while. It's time to come together to get it done, so that we can truthfully say in America: No child will be left behind. —President George W. Bush, 2001 (Bush, 2001)
Teacher practices are essential for supporting students in scientific inquiry practices, such as the construction of scientific explanations. In this study, we examine what instructional practices teachers engage in when they introduce scientific explanation and whether these practices influence students' ability to construct scientific explanations during a middle school chemistry unit. Thirteen teachers enacted a project-based chemistry unit, How can I make new stuff from old stuff? , with 1197 seventh grade students. We videotaped each teacher's enactment of the focal lesson on scientific explanation and then coded the videotape for four different instructional practices: modeling scientific explanation, making the rationale of scientific explanation explicit, defining scientific explanation, and connecting scientific explanation to everyday explanation. Our results suggest that when teachers introduce scientific explanation, they vary in the practices they engage in as well as the quality of their use of these practices. We also found that teachers' use of instructional practices can influence student learning of scientific explanation and that the effect of these instructional practices depends on the context in terms of what other instructional practices the teacher uses. © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Res Sci Teach 45: 53–78, 2008 Peer Reviewed
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