Faculty Research Spotlight: Dr. Eve Manz

Dr. Eve Manz is Assistant Professor of Science Education at Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. She is a former elementary teacher and earned her Ph.D. in Mathematics and Science Education from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Manz works with elementary teachers to design rich and rewarding learning environments– learning environments that capitalize on children’s curiosities, concerns, and ways of thinking to support disciplinary engagement. Much of this work focuses on science education, but with the understanding that children and teachers’ interactions around science take place in a multi-content area system and that productive and sustainable designs for teaching and learning must take account of the complexity of elementary teachers’ work across the content areas. Dr. Manz has recently been appointed to the National Academy of Science and Engineering’s Committee on Enhancing Science in Prekindergarten through Fifth Grade.

What recent research have you been working on?

The work I’ve been doing in my NSF- funded CAREER grant, Building Productive Uncertainty into Elementary Science Investigations, focuses on how to redesign the elementary school science investigation so that it affords students access to the uncertainty, excitement, and conceptual richness of scientists’ experiences with investigations.  Typically, when we engage young children in science experiments in the classroom, we simplify the investigation so that it demonstrates an understanding we want students to develop and ask students to practice skills such as controlling variables or supporting a claim with two pieces of data. The problem with this approach is that it removes the fundamental uncertainty that drives science. Scientists explain because they are unsure. They argue with, and about, evidence because they disagree. My research focuses on understanding how forms of uncertainty about how to design investigations, what to measure, what to use as evidence, and how to generalize from an investigation to a complex world can be productive resources for children and teachers in elementary classrooms.

Here’s an example that we’re excited about. Last fall, our design team (researchers and teachers in Somerville public schools) revised a second-grade investigation of seed dispersal that we’ve been working on for several years. Students become curious about where the seeds that they notice falling off plants are going. We support them to read a book about the way that seeds travel, but it doesn’t tell them about their seeds. So we need to investigate, but it takes way too long to just sit outside and wait for seeds to fall- so we do what scientists do – we figure out how to design an investigation inside that will help us understand how seeds travel outside. For example, to test which seeds travel by wind, students readily suggest using a fan. But then other questions emerge: What speed of wind? How can we remember how far the seeds went so we can compare? In addition, there’s another uncertainty: what height should we drop our seeds from? Should we control height (drop the berry, maple seed, milkweed seed, and Queen Anne’s Lace from the same height)? Milkweed seeds and maple seeds both travel by wind. But the maple seed’s helicopter mechanism depends on the tree’s height. We were curious to see how and when students would see the height of the tree as important. We found that, across three classes, students did not propose holding the maple seed up high during the first round of testing, but that once they saw that the maple seed did move with the fan, they were able to evaluate their investigation in light of the fit between the design of the investigation and the phenomenon and iterate, proposing ways to redesign the investigation. Through this process, they came to develop their thinking about ecological form-function relationships, focusing not just on the seed but the relationship between seed and parent plant as important to consider.

 

In another second grade investigation, students work to figure out how the ingredients of a cake become a cake, as a way to support the focus of the second grade standards on liquids and solids and changes due to heating and cooling. While the children make a cake with the teacher, they identify some of the ingredients as liquids and some of them as solids and they begin to wonder how heat changes materials, and how it can change a liquid substance (batter) into a solid (the cake). We then study several materials, including those found in the batter (chocolate chips, eggs, water) and other materials (butter, a rock), observing what happens when they are heated and then returned to room temperature. Generally, when students do this investigation, they engage only with materials that change unambiguously at the range of temperatures used in the investigation (e.g., they heat water or butter and then freeze it). We purposefully use materials like a rock that will not change at the temperatures at play or that will change ambiguously (chocolate chips will hold their shape until stirred). Here again, we find that children can make sense of the limits of the claims their investigation will support and that these moments support deep sense-making – as the teacher tries to claim that the class has discovered that heat does not change rocks, someone will always interject, “Yes it does! We just didn’t make it hot enough!” leading to conversations about what about rocks make them harder to melt, what lava is, and what temperature exactly different materials melt at. This conversation supports children to develop understandings of variables and scale that support them in later learning, and in making sense of the world around them. And it helps them understand that scientific activity always involves selecting and simplifying the world; deciding whether and how the range of conditions tested supports generalization is a key aspect of scientific reasoning and argumentation.

 

What is an implication of the work you do?

The project provides images of what young people are capable of in science and what it looks like for children to engage in sense-making about investigation design, data, and evidence. Further, it provides tangible design principles and structures that curriculum developers, other researchers, and teachers can use in their classrooms. I intentionally work with teachers in socio-economically, linguistically, and culturally diverse settings so that we can hold our work accountable to the resources and needs of children and teachers in these settings. And I engage teachers in co-design, where they are participating in scoping problems of practice, developing materials, analyzing the results, and developing professional learning experiences for other teachers in the district. The goal is to develop images of learning, principles, and curricular materials that are powerful and doable for other teachers.

A major implication is that we can design for young children to engage in science in meaningful and critical ways from the earliest years of schooling. I begin by seeking to understand the practices and conceptual resources they bring to instruction, then design for those to be predictably elicited (as in the maple seed and rock examples above), young children can begin their experience with science investigations as critical thinkers, designers, and sense-makers. It just takes careful work on our part.

The imperative to make the time for children to engage in science and develop materials that allow children and teachers to engage productively and critically in science has always been present, but we can see now more than ever the importance of this work. Over the past several months, we have witnessed in a way we haven’t before how scientists change their understandings as they design and critique investigations, and as new information comes to light. They argue over the implications of findings (whether fragments of mRNA on surfaces indicate that we should quarantine our mail) and which measures of test positivity rates should be used as the key public health indicator (see pages 2 and 8 of the daily mass.gov dashboard). And they make progress through this argumentation and revision. Developing scientific literacy involves understanding that this uncertainty and argumentation is the work of science and also being able to critique the way that scientific findings may be overgeneralized.