VCU researcher explores ways to improve science education in urban elementary schools

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As part of a $3.4 million study across three institutions, a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education professor will examine the mechanisms by which content and pedagogy learned by teachers in professional development lead to sustainable instructional improvement in science education.

Christine Bae, Ph.D.
Christine Bae, Ph.D.

“Researchers and policymakers have long focused on the seemingly intractable problem of science learning gaps in the United States,” said Christine Bae, Ph.D., assistant professor of educational psychology in the Department of Foundations of Education. “Reforming science instruction in high diversity urban contexts is critical to addressing science learning gaps and accomplishing national goals for science education.”

Bae’s study, which will take place in school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, is part of the larger National Science Foundation Discovery Research PreK-12 program that seeks to “significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science by preK-12 students and teachers,” through research and development of instructional innovations.

“Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts,” according to the National Science Foundation.

The Discovery Research PreK-12 program is led by researchers at California State University East Bay and is funded by a four-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The VCU School of Education sub-award totals $292,692.

Bae’s study is built on the understanding that communication among district teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators, along with a sense of ownership for improved instruction among teachers, can support sustainable change.

The study will test a model that fosters communication and ownership through three reciprocal communities of practice: one about district leadership including one teacher per school, coaches and university faculty; another about lesson study including teachers, coaches and faculty; and a third about instructional innovation including teachers and administrators, facilitated by coaches.

It will involve studying 72 third- to fifth-grade teachers and 6,500 students in four urban school districts. Mixed methodologies will be used to examine shifts in science teaching over three years.

“This project fits into my larger goal of supporting science learning among our highest needs student populations in urban school districts, conducting research that applies rigorous mixed methodologies and ventures into interdisciplinary spaces, and meaningfully engaging with educators in science classrooms to build authentic partnerships for sustainable change,” Bae said.

It builds on previous research by Bae and colleagues that was conducted as part of a $12 million National Science Foundation grant from 2012-16 that examined middle school science instruction.

“The project team builds on eight years of research conducted by the Science Partnership, a collaboration between the California State University East Bay, the Alameda County Office of Education, and now Virginia Commonwealth University, which provides innovative science [professional development] in the San Francisco Bay Area and rigorous interdisciplinary research to promote improvements in science learning in high poverty, diverse contexts,” Bae said.