VCU professor receives $1.03M grant to improve STEM learning in middle schools by focusing on ‘science talk’

A group of schoolchildren listening to a classmate talk while seated around a table.
Christine Lee Bae's five-year grant will take place at approximately 15 local middle schools and will employ a mixed-methods approach with a sample of approximately 18 teachers and 450 students. (Getty Images)

A Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education professor has received a $1.03 million National Science Foundation grant to strengthen science learning in urban middle schools by focusing on the scientific discourse that occurs in the classroom.

“This project is based on the idea that science talk is at the heart of science learning,” said Christine Lee Bae, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education. “Specifically, the project aims to support science talk that productively builds upon and integrates diverse students’ knowledge and experiences, that in turn will promote equitable access to engagement, motivation and learning in science.”

The five-year Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant, “Building on diverse students' funds of knowledge to promote scientific discourse and strengthen connections to science learning in urban classrooms,” will take place at approximately 15 local middle schools and will employ a mixed-methods approach with a sample of approximately 18 teachers and 450 students.

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

“The study will promote ‘authentic scientific discourse’ as a critical feature of students' participation in science practices,” according to the abstract. “In the context of this work, scientific discourse will refer to the spoken and written words, and gestures of students and teachers as they interact in science classrooms. This, in turn, would promote students’ science learning at higher levels defined in the Next Generation Science Standards.”

Middle school is a pivotal stage in students’ academic development, as the curriculum becomes more differentiated by subject and students begin to make decisions about their future line of study and careers. This project, Bae said, proposes that building on students’ knowledge creates equitable access to participation in authentic scientific discourse.

“Integrating students’ knowledge and experiences in science discussions will strengthen their cognitive, motivational and social connections to science learning,” she said.

The project’s focus on creating opportunities for equitable and authentic scientific discourse in urban classrooms, as well as understanding the specific ways in which diverse students’ knowledge can be productively built upon to promote science learning, contributes to the broader mission of providing equitable access to high-quality science education that supports all students in becoming scientifically literate — a critical imperative for increasing diversity in STEM fields and breaking the cycle of underrepresented students losing interest and opting out of STEM pathways, Bae said.

The project will take place from 2019 to 2024, over three phases.

The study’s first phase will focus on understanding the learning context to identify methods to promote authentic scientific discourse that relates to content and practices in the science curriculum.

The second will involve working with teams of middle school science teachers in lesson study to incorporate scientific discourse in their classrooms. Science kits will be provided to create opportunities for students to engage in authentic scientific discourse as they actively explore science phenomena, such as the creation of landforms from rivers, different densities of liquids, acceleration of objects, and the changing phases of matter. How to support opportunities for science talk, such as sharing observations and data from different stations, and supporting claims in scientific arguments using evidence during these activities, will be examined. In addition, the effects of scientific discourse opportunities on students’ engagement, motivation and learning will be examined.

The third phase will focus on disseminating findings through national and local organizations, such as the Metropolitan Education Research Consortium, which connects the VCU School of Education with seven local school divisions to plan and conduct research that addresses school and community needs. The findings also will be shared in manuscripts in journals and national academic presentations.

The study will aim to answer three research questions: What funds of knowledge — culturally-based resources, knowledge, and experiences of minority students — do students bring to bear, and how can these be productively integrated to support participation in authentic scientific discourse? What are the ways in which students connect cognitively, motivationally and socially to science learning when participating in authentic scientific discourse within urban classrooms? And what progress do students make in key aspects of scientific discourse and their science learning?

The grant was awarded through the NSF’s Discovery Research PreK-12 (or DRK-12) program, which seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.