New book helps bring evidence-based explanations to science classrooms

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The National Research Council’s newly released Framework for K-12 Science Education captures contemporary thinking about the role of core ideas, cross-cutting themes, and scientific practices in science learning. Traditional methods of teaching science have been replaced with an emphasis on engaging students in constructing, applying, and evaluating scientific explanations beginning as early as kindergarten.

While new approaches to science teaching engage students in authentic scientific practices and meaningful science learning experiences, it can be challenging for prospective and practicing elementary teachers who have never learned science in this way.

Carla Zembal-Saul, holder of the Kahn professorship in STEM education at Penn State, is co-author of a newly released book designed to support K-5 teachers in integrating explanation-driven science in their classrooms. "What’s Your Evidence? Engaging K-5 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science" (Pearson, 2012) examines the importance of scientific explanation in elementary science instruction.

Zembal-Saul’s co-authors are Katherine McNeill, faculty member at Boston College, and Kimber Hershberger, a third-grade teacher at Radio Park Elementary School in the State College (Pa.) Area School District.

The new book is designed to help prospective and practicing elementary teachers better comprehend the complex practice of engaging students in constructing scientific explanations. The authors frame teaching and assessment strategies introduced in the book around a Claims-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) Framework. The goal is to enhance students’ conceptual understanding of science ideas and improve their ability to reason and communicate like scientists.

The book introduces teachers to the CER framework, considerations for planning instruction that engages students in talking and writing explanations in science, research-based instructional strategies, and assessment techniques. Samples of student work and video clips from classrooms where teachers are using these approaches provide a vehicle for illustrating the main points from the book in ways that provide images of the possible to teachers.

The book’s release follows a five-year research project, headed by Zembal-Saul, that yielded the development of electronic research-based resources to support beginning teachers as they learned to give priority to evidence and explanation in their science teaching. The project, known as TESSA (Teaching Elementary School Science as Argument), was a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER grant is the NSF's most prestigious award for early-career faculty members.

“A major part of TESSA was to design and study the use of video-based cases that highlighted classroom discourse with beginning teachers,” stated Zembal-Saul. “The cases and associated research became the inspiration for the current book because we wanted to share our findings more broadly with teachers and professional development providers in ways that could actually have a positive impact on elementary science teaching.”

While she and her co-authors were writing the book, Zembal-Saul convened some local teachers in a study-group format to read and respond to the chapters, as well as implement the approaches described in the book in their own teaching. These teachers are featured in the final chapter of the book, where they share advice to others about integrating scientific explanation into classroom science teaching.

Zembal-Saul, McNeill, and Hershberger will be offering a workshop on engaging K-5 students in constructing explanations in science in March at the National Science Teacher Association annual conference. In addition, they are scheduled to work with teachers through a series of webinars.

“The book and associated videos took a long time to produce,” commented Zembal-Saul. “We are happy to have the resource available to use in our ongoing work with teachers.”

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Last Updated February 21, 2012