Methods by which students learn science undergoing revision with ACESSE Project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A high-profile, learning sciences project known as Advancing Coherent and Equitable Systems of Science Education (ACESSE) could be the impetus behind driving national change about how K-12 students learn science.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project brings together 13 member states, eight of which have adopted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and five that have not. Pennsylvania has yet to adopt those standards but ACESSE will examine systems of science education at the state level.

“The elements of bridging research and practices in support of ambitious and equitable science instruction and assessment and building coherence and capacity across state systems of education are both powerful and innovative,” said Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of science education who holds the Kahn endowed professorship in STEM education in the College of Education at Penn State. 

“We’re going to look at the coherence and infrastructure for implementing and the research-based framework that underlies the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)," said Zembal-Saul.

Pennsylvania’s ACESSE team consists of Zembal-Saul; Rick Duschl, the Kenneth B. Waterbury chaired professor in secondary education in the College; and Judd Pittman, special consultant to Pennsylvania State Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera.

ACESSE PA will examine the degree to which there is alignment of curriculum, instruction and assessment with the policies and practices in Pennsylvania science standards, or horizontal coherence. 

It also will explore the extent to which there exists shared understandings and consensus practices statewide in three-dimensional science learning goals and the purposes and uses of formative assessment, or vertical coherence.

The primary research is being conducted by Phil Bell at the University of Washington and William Penuel at the University of Colorado, and an organization called the Council of State Science Supervisors (CSSS), according to Zembal-Saul.

“State teams are partnering with researchers to provide support and co-designed resources,” she said. “Having a common vision across state systems of science education allows for coherence in messaging and resources necessary for large-scale change.” 

The project fits with the learning sciences and improvement sciences kind of model, according to Duschl. “This is functioning at the system level, this example of design-based research,” Duschl said. “What could be nice about it politically is that it would link the Department of Education and we all would like that.”

The Next Generation Science Standards, Zembal-Saul said, are based on a framework that was published first and based on a number of research syntheses. “One of the most important ones is a document from the National Research Council called ‘Taking Science to School,’ and Rick (Duschl) was one of the authors on that,” Zembal-Saul said.

“Decades of research provide strong support for a new vision for science learning that is ambitious and equitable. Transforming the vision into practice requires the integration of crosscutting concepts in science (cause and effect, systems and modeling, and patterns); scientific discourse and practices (arguing from evidence, constructing and interrogating scientific explanations); and what is traditionally known as the content of science (disciplinary core ideas),” she said.

That “three-dimensional learning” in the NGSS allows students to learn in more meaningful and lasting ways when using scientific practices to investigate natural phenomena while learning scientific content, Zembal-Saul explained.

“Unfortunately, 3D science instruction and assessment practices are uncommon in U.S. schools,” she said. “ACESSE is one attempt to co-design resources for teacher professional learning, as well as other important aspects of systems change, that stand to be coherent and consequential. 

“If we do this right, it will be the most important change in science education in our lifetimes,” Zembal-Saul said. 

To make that happen, specific objectives must be targeted, according to Penuel, professor of educational psychology and learning sciences at the University of Colorado.

“We have some ambitious goals to help create more equitable and coherent systems of science education in states,” Penuel said. “That means that teachers get clear and consistent messages about what and how to teach from everyone in their systems, and this message emphasizes the importance of inclusive instructional strategies that reach all kids.”

A key first step is getting state leaders in the network on the same page as to the vision and key ways to accomplish coherence.

“I feel like we have that, and in some states, they are also starting to track their states’ outcomes using a set of practical (easy to administer) survey measures,” Penuel said.

Zembal-Saul confirmed the need for coherent implementation of instructional and assessment practices. “Robust professional learning opportunities are central to systems change,” she said. “We need to consider teacher learning across the professional continuum, including the development of next-generation teachers who understand equitable student engagement in science.”

Zembal-Saul said there is a great deal of momentum around the learning sciences at Penn State. “It shows a genuine commitment to the kinds of work that are happening in the research–practice space. ACESSE is a pretty high-profile project in that it is driving national change,” she said.

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Last Updated October 25, 2017