Thursday, December 13, 2012

5 Techniques for Helping Young Minds Develop Innate STEM Skills: Don't Assume Too Little or Too Much  

Early identification and development of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills in young children has been hampered by two divergent strategies. The first strategy, which underlies conventional practice in early childhood education, assumes that young children cannot engage in scientific thinking until critical periods of brain maturation have been attained (National Research Council 2007).

This approach presumes that children achieve readiness for science learning through unstructured maturational processes (i.e., their brains become old enough to understand science). The influence of rich educational experiences on a child’s cognitive development and the guidance provided by knowledgeable adults is not factored in. Because the native sophistication of young minds is not recognized, conventional childhood education misses the opportunity to purposefully encourage the cognitive abilities underlying scientific thinking.

The second strategy is to push academic STEM instruction down to the pre-K and K levels. Such attempts at improving rigor may produce children who can parrot STEM vocabulary and methods, but are less capable of applying their natural tendencies to explore and test hypotheses (Gopnik 2012). Too much rigor discourages playful exploration, discovery of anomalies, and searches for explanations. Additionally, too much emphasis on rigor at the expense of play places children in highly stressful environments that undermine development of character traits such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. These traits have recently been lauded as critical to academic and career success (Tough 2012).

A third strategy honors the innate scientific thinking capabilities of young children. Young children are capable of sophisticated scientific thinking, including testing hypotheses against data; making causal inferences; learning from statistics and informal experimentation; and learning by observing and listening to others (Gopnik 2012). Embracing and developing these capabilities enhances preparedness for learning, and develops key character traits.

Techniques for engaging young minds include (Feldman 2011):
  • Appealing to varied learning styles with movement, music, and visualization;
  • Asking questions to develop critical thinking skills;
  • Encouraging creativity with improvisation;
  • Using breathing and relaxation to foster self regulation; and
  • Developing a positive self concept through affirmation.
Coupled with rigorous exploration of natural phenomena in a playful setting, the techniques are likely to empower children to enjoy and appreciate science throughout life.


  1. Feldman, Enrique. 2011. Living Like a Child: Learn, Live, and Teach Creatively. St. Paul, Minnesota: Redleaf Press.
  2. Gopnik, Alison. 2012. "Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications." Science, no. 337 (6102):1623-1627.
  3. National Research Council. 2007. "Foundations for Science Learning in Young Children." In Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science in Grades K-8, edited by Richard A. Duschl, Heidi A. Schweingruber and Andrew W. Shouse. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  4. Tough, Paul. 2012. How Children Succeed. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

About the Author

Steven Moore, Ph.D., is CEO of Science Approach and principal investigator on its VoxelDiscovery 5-8 project.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Believing Brain in Science Education  

False truths will fall like autumn leaves?
Science education theorists tend to believe that if we can only engage learners, help them grasp how to think critically, and let them interpret appropriate evidence, then misconceptions, misunderstandings, and acceptance of false "truths" will fall from stout trees of belief like so many autumn leaves. After all, humans are rational beings who, once confronted with fact, will critically evaluate cherished beliefs and follow a path to enlightenment by fact.

In his book, The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer presents quite a different view.

According to Shermer, beliefs come from a variety of "...subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large."

Many beliefs formed in this way—for example, beliefs about evolution or global warming—may be severely at odds with widely accepted scientific theory and observations.

The recently publicized speech by Paul Broun, a physician and member of the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is a good example of this type of belief. In his speech to Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia, Rep. Broun said that he believes the Earth is 9,000 years old and the Big Bang theory, evolution, and embryology are lies planted by the Devil to challenge faith in God.

Discovery-based lessons on Earth science, cosmology, natural selection, and development of organisms are not likely to change Mr. Broun's beliefs.

The problem, according to Shermer, is that believers—in particular, bright believers—"...after forming [their] beliefs...then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow."

In The Believing Brain, Shermer presents a wealth of neuroscience and evolutionary evidence that supports his view. Central to his thesis is evidence that natural selection has imbued humans with the propensity to see patterns in just about everything they encounter. Stars in the sky look like mythical beings. Clouds look like locomotives and cartoon characters. Patterns of light and color in a thicket look like a cougar ready to pounce.

Thus, according to Shermer, humans were "over-designed" in the wild to see patterns so that they can avoid discounting mortal threats that are really there.

However, pattern recognition alone is insufficient to protect humans from threats. Patterns must also be imbued with meaning, intention, and agency (recognized patterns have the ability to do something). The cougar-like pattern in the thicket may be a real cat eyeing its next meal.

This is where humans get into trouble. When patterns have been recognized and rational explanations are not readily available, humans fill the void with what is available. When young, in times of distress, or when revelatory experiences occur, religious explanations may suffice. If predisposed to fear, evilness and conspiracies become attached to the patterns. Likewise, liberals, conservatives, greens, and libertarians seek predictable explanations for the patterns they see.

Technological progress, itself, fuels how humans explain patterns. Where humans saw devils, ghosts, and sprites inflicting maladies a few centuries ago, they now see aliens in sophisticated spacecraft causing the same problems.

Roosting explanations get too big to kick out of the nest.
The kicker is that once an explanation for a pattern roosts in the human mind, it is remarkably resistant to change. In the face of contradictory evidence, the mind hosting the roosting explanation will pad the nest with confirmatory observations instead of recognizing truth and kicking the interloper out.

Shermer posits that science is the best tool humans have to confront our beliefs and separate fact from fantasy, reality from illusion, and emotionally preferred confirmatory evidence from data that challenges treasured beliefs.

The challenge for educators is to teach habits of scientific thinking while being sensitive to the emotionally charged beliefs of learners. This sensitivity may involve helping learners deal with the emotional resistance that comes from critically weighing the evidence that forms the foundations of one's beliefs.

Hypothesis development, data gathering, analysis, and submitting articles for peer review are not the only skills of thoughtful scientists. Submitting oneself to critical analysis and integrating the implications of scientific findings into one's concept of self and the world are central to the instruction of scientific habits of mind. Educators need to pay attention to creating the whole scientist rather than just teaching disembodied skills and concepts.

About the Authors

Steven Moore, Ph.D., is CEO of Science Approach and principal investigator on its VoxelDiscovery 5-8 project.

Mary Moore is an instructional developer on Science Approach's VoxelDiscovery 5-8 project.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

33 Reasons to Use Imaging-Based E-Labs: Student Feedback 

The benefits of inquiry-based learning experiences, which provide the foundation for Science Approach's e-labs, are highly touted by educators, theorists, and designers as the way to engage learners of all ages in science education. This week, Science Approach started posting testimonials from students about its inquiry-based e-labs.

We're happy to report that student feedback supports what educators and educational theorists have been saying for decades:
  1. Inquiry-based education is more memorable than textbooks or other forms of static content delivery.
  2. Data gathering and analysis helps students focus and work with the concepts being covered in a lab.
  3. Actually using technologies employed by scientists is valued by students.
  4. Doing science is more fun than reading about science.
  5. Doing science helps students feel as if they are scientists.
Scroll through the comments below to learn what students liked about our labs.

Other benefits of our e-labs included the convenience of doing a lab on one's own time and working with a system that provided support for all aspects of the learning experience, including writing essays. More on those aspects in a later post.

Visit Science Approach's website for more information about our e-lab offerings!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Addition to Wet Labs: Three Benefits of E-labs that Feature Technologies Not Available in Teaching Labs 

A scientist prepares a sample for imaging.
In high school and college life science courses, wet labs are the gold standard for student inquiry.  Students learn basic science process and data collection techniques that are used in analytical and basic science labs worldwide.

To most faculty members, online laboratories are another species all together.

Some faculty members may avoid using online labs because they typically only simulate experiences that  students can gain from hands-on labs. Transfer of skills from an online environment to real-life situations may be questionable. For instance, few patients would want to go under the knife of a surgeon who had only practiced surgeries in an online environment!

Online laboratories (e-labs) that feature 21st-century technologies that are typically unavailable in teaching laboratories offer a different kind of opportunity. In such labs, students get to apprentice with data collection and analysis techniques that involve human subjects studies, animal research, and/or employ expensive data collection technologies and software.

A good example of such an activity is Science Approach's Mapping the Yeast Mitotic Spindle e-lab. Designed to supplement a high school science course, students conducting the e-lab use images captured by an electron microscope and digitally compiled into a three-dimensional volume (called a tomogram). Using a specially constructed data analysis tool, students review the process of mitosis and study the role spindle microtubules play as they align and separate the cell's genetic material.

By working through the e-lab, students:
  1. learn current methods scientists use to study internal cellular processes;
  2. manipulate a model created by a scientist and retrieve data from that model; and
  3. learn how data retrieved from a model can be analyzed to postulate how an important cellular process works.
Learn more about Mapping the Yeast Mitotic Spindle by viewing this Webinar recording.


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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can Hybrid Professional Development Be Used to Get Teachers Started with Using GIS in their Classrooms? Three Strategies That Worked. 

The answer is a resounding Yes! 

Hybrid professional development—a format in which Internet-based professional development is integrated with face-to-face training—was successfully used for just this purpose by the CoastLines Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project.

CoastLines Format

2008 participants during a field trip to the Florida Everglades
CoastLines attempted to lay the foundation for sustained implementation of project strategies, materials, and technologies in schools by leveraging research conducted at three sites in the NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network: Florida Coastal Everglades LTER site (FCE LTER), Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER site (BES LTER), and the Santa Barbara Coastal LTER site (SBC LTER). The goal of the CoastLines evaluation program was to identify and organize best practices that could be improved from year to year and then offered as a teacher professional development model to the LTER program and K-12 education in general.

CoastLines began in January, 2008 and ended in December, 2010. Thus, the project year ran from January through December. Each year, a new cohort of 30 teachers was trained by the project, with the training schedule beginning in the spring and ending in the fall. As stipulated in the program requirements at the time of award, teachers participating in CoastLines completed 120 hours of professional development per year. Each teacher was required to implement a geographic information systems (GIS) project in his or her classroom during the fall term.

Eighty hours of the professional development were provided each year during a summer institute held near one of the collaborating LTER sites. In 2008, CoastLines was focused on the FCE LTER site and its summer institute was held in Miami, Florida. In 2009, the project focused on the BES LTER site and conducted its institute in Washington, DC. In 2010, CoastLines addressed the SBC LTER site and conducted face-to-face professional development in Santa Barbara, California. During the summer institutes, teachers attended GIS software workshops, learned how to gather georeferenced data during field studies, developed GIS-based lessons with students, and created a classroom implementation plan.

2009 participants in Washington DC
Each year, 40 hours of professional development were provided via Webinars. The Webinars were conducted with GoToWebinar, a turnkey Webconferencing system offered by Citrix Online LLC. Pre- and post-institute Webinars were chosen as an economically efficient and flexible method for providing professional development to teachers spread across a broad geographic region. A lecture-discussion model was used for the Webinars, supported by implementation of an online learning community via the project’s Joomla!-based e-Learning site. Support was also provided to the teachers via e-mail, forums, a chat room, GoToMeeting, and GoToAssist (a screen sharing support service offered by Citrix Online.

The pre-institute Webinars served to: (1) orient participants to Coastlines, its collaborators, the project’s goals, and the project’s technologies; (2) help participants determine whether the project fits their needs; (3) build a sense of community among participants and staff; (4) help participants install GIS software on their computers and at their home institutions; (5) introduce participants to GIS and how it can be used to explore LTER science; and (6) troubleshoot difficulties participants encounter with the GIS software. The post-institute Webinars focused on (1) following up on unfinished business from the summer institute; (2) introducing advanced topics not covered during the summer institute; (3) providing feedback to participants about their implementation plans; and (4) sharing challenges and successes experienced during the implementation phase.

What Worked

Overall, CoastLines experienced considerable success in encouraging faculty to implement GIS in their classrooms and the implementation rate increased each project year. In 2008, approximately 80% of the faculty implemented GIS in their classrooms. In 2009, the rate increased to 90%. In 2010, the final project year, 100% of the faculty implemented GIS as a classroom tool.

As the project matured, changes in the hybrid professional development model were implemented that appeared to foster increased implementation success:

Front Loading

2010 participants in Santa Barbara, California
A common characteristic of all GIS-based, face-to-face professional development conducted for CoastLines and its predecessor projects was high levels of anxiety about succeeding with the technology. Most often, such anxiety was social: affected teachers had a tendency to compare themselves to their peers and begin to feel that they were falling behind in their work. In the first year of CoastLines, as project staff had done in past professional development projects, social anxiety was addressed by moving through material slowly, creating canned explorations that built confidence, offering help sessions, and fostering a supportive environment.

During the first year of CoastLines, the project staff noted that anxiety levels among teachers at the face-to-face summer institute were much lower than had ever been experienced in similar projects. Conversations with the participants revealed that the software training offered during the pre-institute Webinars had helped them build confidence in privacy. When the teachers arrived at the summer institute and met their peers, they already felt somewhat confident about their GIS abilities.

In response to this feedback, CoastLines increased the amount of Webinar-based training provided before the summer institutes. In 2008, 16 hours of Webinars were provided before the summer institute and 24 hours of Webinars were provided after the institute. By 2010, 32 hours of Webinars were provided before the summer institute. The effect of front loading the online professional development was to greatly improve the preparation of the teachers at the summer institute, lower their anxiety levels, and allow them to work more on planning for implementation in the classroom. By the end of the project, the summer institute was considered by the project staff and directors to be a culminating experience rather than the beginning of professional development.

Outcomes-Based Delivery

A common complaint voiced during the first two years of CoastLines was that participants did not completely understand what was expected of them. This complaint was somewhat related to the constructivist model embraced by the project administrators. The administrators wished for the participants to choose from the tools and content being offered to them and develop unique approaches for using GIS in the classroom. The downside of this approach to professional development was that some teachers felt overwhelmed by the choices laid before them.

To help address this issue, during the 2009 project year, CoastLines implemented an online checklist that permitted teachers to see what was expected of them. Updated frequently, the checklist also provided teachers with a snapshot of how far they had come in the project.

In preparation for the 2010 project year, CoastLines and a team of program alumni advisors conducted a cognitive task analysis to determine, in fine detail, the cognitive and skill competencies required for teachers to accomplish all instructional goals for the year. As a result, an outcomes matrix was developed and the checklist was greatly expanded. Outcomes for each professional development activity were made part of session agendas, discussed in detail at the beginning of all Web-based and face-to-face sessions, and reviewed at the end of all sessions. Additionally, stipend reimbursements were tied to accomplishment of outcomes.

Use of the outcomes-based model, incorporation of specific outcomes into a published and frequently updated checklist, and connecting stipend reimbursements to the checklist greatly reduced anxiety about what the teachers were supposed to be doing and allowed them to focus on preparing themselves to effectively use GIS technology in the classroom. 

Synchronous Problem Solving

Face-to-face professional development workshops for teaching complex software programs like GIS typically feature a room full of teachers hunched over computers while they attempt to work their way through a lesson provided by the trainers. The trainers wander about the room fielding questions from the participants and helping them get unstuck. Many times, problems are solved individually and solutions are not shared with the group. Often, teachers who are afraid to reveal that they are having a problem with the software disengage and do not ask for help.

In GIS training Webinars conducted for the CoastLines project, problems were raised and solved synchronously. If teachers were having a problem with the GIS software during a Webinar, they could post a question to the trainers or raise a hand, virtually, so that they could be unmuted and ask their question verbally. Responses to the questions posted by the teachers were distributed to the group and were typically handled during the online presentation. Teachers who seemed reluctant to ask questions during face-to-face training were more confident in the online environment.

Hear Their Stories

During a public Webinar offered on 29 August 2012, six CoastLines participants—two from each cohort of the project—gave their impressions about what worked and what didn't regarding the CoastLines hybrid professional development model. Watch and listen to their presentation on YouTube.

Learn More About CoastLines and Science Approach

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How many newly born neurons?  

How many newly born neurons do you see in the image to the left? They are the brown, granular ones.

The image data is from an experiment originally conducted with adult male Sprague-Dawley rats by Elizabeth Gould at Princeton University. The goal of the research was to examine the effects of exercise and social living conditions on adult neurogenesis in rats.

The rats were housed in four groups, corresponding to two experimental variables that each had two conditions:

  1. Living alone or in groups; and
  2. Having access to a running wheel or not having access to a running wheel.
During the experiment, the rats were injected with a dye (bromodeoxyuridine or BrdU) that helps scientists identify neurons that have recently replicated. 

The experiment was run for 12 days, after which the rats were transcardially perfused and their brains were removed. The hippocampus of each rat was sliced very thin (40 μm thick) on a machine called a Vibratome, mounted on slides, and magnified 1,000 X.

The image featured in this blog post is from a rat that was housed with two other rats and had access to a running wheel. According to the scientists, eight newly born neurons are evident in the image (see the key above).

These images are from Science Approach's New Neurons for You After All, in which students learn the neuroscience methods and laboratory techniques by replicating Dr. Gould's research. In the e-lab, students count newly born neurons in hippocampal sections from four rats (36 images in all). Each of the four rats was exposed to one of the four experimental conditions. Students count neurons "in the blind," meaning that they do not know which experimental group a particular rat was assigned to.

After making counts from the 36 images, students add their data to an expert data set, graph the data, and interpret and discuss the results. Support built into the e-lab helps students conduct the neuroimaging portion of the research, write up the results, and think through the hypotheses Dr. Gould tested. 

To learn more about New Neurons for You After All, visit the Science Approach website and purchase the e-lab free with the coupon code provided on the site.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The CoastLines Hybrid Professional Development Experience: A Panel Presentation  

CoastLines Logo
On Saturday, July 21, Steven Moore, Carol Burch, Teresa Casal, Peggy Foletta, Catherine Laroche, Jim Liptak, and Nat Smith will present "The CoastLines Hybrid Professional Development Experience: A Panel Presentation" at Esri's Education User Conference in San Diego. Over a three-year period, Science Approach's CoastLines project provided online and face-to-face professional development to 90 middle and high school teachers. Funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF’s) Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, the project’s goal was to promote geospatial technologies as a tool for engaging middle and high school students in scientific explorations of coastal ecology at three sites in the NSF’s Long-Term Ecological Research Network. During the panel presentation, the six teacher participants will offer perspectives on what it was like to learn GIS in a hybrid professional development format. The purpose of the session will be to discuss changes that were made to the professional development format and identify the strategies that worked best.