Dr. Eve Manz, Assistant Professor of Science Education, has been granted a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award to study how introducing “productive uncertainty” into elementary science investigations can help young students engage more meaningfully in science practices. The award recognizes early career faculty “who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” Over the next five years, she will work with small groups of educators from the Somerville Public School District to develop and test new investigations, then design materials that will support other teachers to try out the investigations and design their own investigations.
Wrestling with uncertainty is at the heart of scientific activity; for example, uncertainty about how to design an experiment, what to use as evidence, and how to interpret results. It is as scientists make these decisions, try out new methods, and defend their ideas to peers that they engage in scientific argumentation and develop new explanations. Yet elementary science investigations typically reflect little of the uncertainty that scientists grapple with. Instead, students usually engage in tightly controlled procedures that march them toward seeing what they are supposed to see in order to support a desired conclusion.
Dr. Manz’s research asks, “How can we engage students from the beginning of their formal experience in richer approximations of science activity, while providing the support that teachers need to orchestrate these learning environments?” She will work with teachers in Somerville to understand whether and when young students can productively discuss such issues as:
- How to design an experiment to understand a phenomenon: If we want to understand whether water shapes land, should we use our spray bottle to imitate rain or a river?
- What to count as evidence: To understand if a plant is getting what it needs, should we look at its color or whether it makes seedpods?
- How to define variables: What counts as a cricket hiding?
- What we learn, and don’t learn, from investigations: If the plants in our experiment only grew with lots of light, why do we see plants growing in the shade outside?
She will engage teachers in cycles of design-based research to select important questions to discuss with students, develop supports in the form of discussion structures and questions, and create curriculum materials and video-based examples for use by other teachers in Somerville and beyond.
This work grows from an existing research-practice partnership that Dr. Manz and Somerville Public Schools have developed. Dr. Manz connected with Somerville through a meeting of the Boston University Consortium, a consortium formed by BU SED and eight partner school districts. She began helping Somerville select and adapt curriculum materials in light of Massachusetts’ transition to new science standards, adapted from the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
This partnership grew into the development of the NSF proposal, as well as a teacher-led curriculum writing effort that Dr. Manz has supported. As Uri Harel, Somerville’s K-8 Curriculum Coordinator, describes the growth of the partnership: “before long, we were immersed together in developing science units and providing professional development to teachers. The benefits went both ways as Eve saw us as a perfect match for her research and we found ourselves craving more of her expertise and support.”
Lindsay Garofalo, a fifth grade teacher in Somerville and one of the initial group of teacher-leaders, stresses the importance of teachers being able to “pilot, discuss, reflect, and edit practices that are introduced. This gives us control in designing a curriculum that is cohesive, engaging, and rigorous.” This year, Somerville has introduced one new curriculum unit at each grade level from kindergarten to sixth grade developed by teachers working with Mr. Harel, Dr. Manz, and Andrea Wells (a BU doctoral student).
Over the next five years, Dr. Manz, Somerville teachers and instructional leaders will work together to choose and adapt high quality materials, study new opportunities for young students’ learning, and develop supports that allow teachers to take up and experiment with new teaching practices. Dr. Manz hopes to make substantial contributions to K-8 Science Education in Somerville, and to make progress on the agenda that drives her work: implementing science practices in classrooms as activities that empower students, are meaningful to them, and help them develop an “intellectually honest” understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed and used.