Research projects help children have inquiring minds about science

Jim Carlson
October 02, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When it comes to learning about just how much preschool-aged children are capable of while attempting to grasp the concepts of astronomy, Julia Plummer likes to shoot for the stars.

The Penn State associate professor of education (science education) copies the same ambitious philosophies as far as teaching teachers how to teach science and endeavoring to improve spatial thinking among middle school students.

Each topic is its own interdisciplinary research project on a metaphorically crowded table in her Chambers Building office. Plummer is part of three ongoing ventures in conjunction with collaborators from Penn State and many others from coast to coast. 

Her research projects are the Earth and Space Science Partnership; ThinkSpace: Thinking Spatially about the Universe, in conjunction with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on which she is co-principal investigator (PI); and My Sky Tonight: Early Childhood Pathways to Astronomy, in conjunction with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, on which she also is a co-PI.

"We’ve learned more about what we need to do to support educators and children and families to engage in these science practices."

—Julia Plummer, associate professor of education, Penn State

ThinkSpace and Earth and Space Science Partnership are in their latter stages, and papers have been written from the Earth and Space project based on research on students’ understanding of the solar system and how astronomers investigate the solar system. But a new grant is being written to continue ideas on My Sky Tonight, according to Plummer, who is collaborating with colleagues to propose a symposium to bring people together with similar ideas for a conference.

“I suppose there’s something really special about working with preschool-age audiences and just seeing what they’re capable of and pushing the boundaries there. I think the other piece of it is I’ve always really been interested in doing work in informal settings and that’s where I always wanted to do research,” Plummer said.

“I’ve done research in formal settings, classrooms, K-12 and college students, but there’s something very intriguing about the open-ended, free-choice people coming to explore their own interests, the passion you see in informal settings that I think is really interesting and exciting. I enjoy some of the collaborations I get to explore in those settings, too.”

Plummer said the My Sky Tonight project started with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. “They had been developing curriculum and activities for educators in classrooms and informal spaces. Everything they’ve done had been done at the fourth-grade level up and never worked in early elementary and never worked in early childhood,” she said. 

“They thought, ‘let’s try to get a grant to develop some stuff for early childhood and get some partners who know something about early childhood.’ That’s when they contacted me and some of the other research partners because of our expertise in early education — astronomy education for younger audiences — and we built the collaboration from there.”

My Sky Tonight is in the third year of a $2.9 million grant with not only the Astronomical Society of the Pacific but also research collaborators at Cal Poly and UC-Santa Cruz, and museum partners including Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania in State College. 

“We’ve been working together to create products and knowledge,” Plummer said. “We’re creating curriculum or activities for educators to use but we’ve also created professional development for museum educators, park educators, anyone who works with young children — 3- to 5-year-olds — in spaces outside of schools. 

“They can attend our online professional development, learn how to work with children, learn how to run these activities and get the tool kit of activities to use with children and families.”

She said her particular focus has to do with helping the children engage in science as a practice, as an inquiry.

“They’re coming to learn science for themselves and not something that’s being told to them,” Plummer said. “It’s not just focused on facts and not just about being interested and excited — though both are important — but I’m interested in helping develop materials and curricula that helps young students doing science as a practice so that they are investigating, they’re asking questions, they’re making their own observations.”

In the museum setting, such as Discovery Space, as well as at some local preschools, children were able to do just that.

“With the materials we provided and with the support of an expert educator, (children were able) to start making claims based on their own observations,” Plummer said. “It would be things like relating the location of a light source to the length of a shadow. They were able to explain their understanding of how to produce different-length shadows.

"We were able to see some of the ways we can support young children’s first evidence-based explanations in these museum-type settings. We’ve learned more about what we need to do to support educators and children and families to engage in these science practices.”

Earth and Space Science Partnership

Plummer collaborates with professors Tanya Furman, Chris Palma and Laura Guertin (Penn State Brandywine) and associate professor Scott McDonald on this five-year (plus an extension), $9 million project about improving the quality of instruction and student learning of Earth and space sciences for Pennsylvania teachers and students. 

As part of the ESSP project, Palma and colleagues developed a series of summer professional-development sessions to support astronomy pedagogy for middle school teachers. 

“How do you teach astronomy well? What should you be teaching? How should be you teaching?” she explained. Based on the design of this professional development, and research they conducted on student learning, Plummer and Palma co-developed and teach SCIED 116, a class for pre-service elementary or middle-grade majors taken as one of three content science classes.

The course focuses on patterns in the solar system and how the model of the solar system’s formation explains those patterns. The course engages students in this content through a series of investigations, modeling pedagogy they can use with their own future students when they are classroom teachers.

ThinkSpace Project

Plummer’s colleagues on the ThinkSpace project are at the Harvard Center for Astrophysics, which is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and Harvard University. A number of Penn State graduate students also assist Plummer, who is a co-PI. The team is in its final year of development and research for two middle-school astronomy curricula, focusing on supporting spatial thinking as students learn to explain lunar phases and the seasons. Spatial thinking is a combination of content knowledge and a way of reasoning about concepts of space, Plummer said. 

“When you sit down with them and ask them to explain these phenomena, are they just giving you facts or are they really reasoning in deep ways that we hope will then transfer to new problems? We see them doing the kind of spatial reasoning that we want to see from somebody with deep spatial understanding, who is really thinking spatially,” she said.

“I think that our big finding, and one of the things I’m most excited about, is that our curriculum does seem to improve students’ spatial thinking. The studies we’ve done here show what is possible in ways that I don’t think a lot of people have done before,” Plummer said.

Researchers have found that after middle school students participate in the ThinkSpace curricula, their explanations for astronomical phenomena are more likely to show the type of sophisticated spatial connections that demonstrate spatial thinking.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 02, 2018