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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 18, 2009

UI, ISU professors garner $4.8 million grant to improve science literacy

More Iowa students will improve their science literacy thanks to a four-year $4.8 million U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grant received by two University of Iowa College of Education professors and an Iowa State University political science and statistics professor.

Brian Hand, principal investigator, and William Therrien and Mack Shelley, co-principal investigators, are working with the four-year-grant titled "Efficacy of the Science Writing Heuristic Approach."

The grant comes through the National Center for Education Research within IES. This is the first science goal level three grant funded for work with elementary students since IES' inception seven years ago.

"The goal of this grant is to help children better understand how they come to know something," said Hand (photo, left), a science education professor in the UI College of Education Department of Teaching and Learning. "So it's through argument strategies and language strategies that better help them learn science."

Hands' research interests include the development of scientific argument through the use of the Science Writing Heuristic (SWH), which is research that helps students learn about and use science argument to construct science knowledge. He also studies how educators can use language as a learning tool to improve students' understanding of science.

Therrien, an assistant professor who does research in special education, said this approach to teaching science literacy has shown positive results for students who have traditionally struggled with science.

"Many students with special needs are excluded from meaningful participation in science class because of their difficulties in reading and writing," Therrien (photo, rigth) said. "The Science Writing Heuristic approach provides an avenue for these students to be engaged in authentic science activities which results in dramatically improved performance."

The grant will field test the SWH approach with an estimated 7,000 fourth through sixth grade students in 48 Iowa elementary schools from across the state, including both rural and urban schools. The Loess Hills and Keystone Area Education Agencies and the Iowa Department of Education will work with the research team to help identify schools, schedule activities, and provide access to pertinent data regarding student performance.

Each participating school will receive an estimated $10,000 for its science budgets as well as training for teachers and professional development, "which is especially important during these tough economic times," Therrien said.

The research program will embed science arguments within typical inquiry lessons to improve students' understandings of science, directly addressing the critical national need for science literacy and improved science education.

"Fourth through sixth grade is a time to catch them before they start to lose interest in science," Therrien said. "As we all know, now more than ever, there really is a need for the country to have additional scientists."

Hand said that the business community and general public are also especially looking for employees with the skills this approach helps cultivate in students.

"The business community constantly wants people who can problem solve and people who can communicate and logically argue," Hand said. "This will improve the number of kids going not only into science, but in science-based careers, which includes everything from nursing to medicine and pharmaceutical fields."

Students will be asked to pose questions, make claims and defend their claims with evidence. For example, students might do an experiment to explore the ideal conditions in which plants thrive.

"So some kids might see if they can grow plants in lemonade or Pepsi or water or whether they need light," Hand said. "With this method, the students have to collect data to make claims and then to stand up publicly and negotiate that with the rest of the group."

Hand said that this is an argument structure that doesn't currently exist in most schools.

"Kids don't know how to argue. They know how to argue at home, but not within scientific inquiry," Hand said. "It's the construction and critique of knowledge. It's that social negotiation process of critique that requires deep, critical thinking and logical reasoning structure to be involved."

The project builds on previous quasi-experimental studies that demonstrate that using the SWH approach in the classroom results in significant gains in student performance on science components of standardized tests including the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, the Iowa Tests of Educational Development and the American Chemical Society tests.

Shelley (photo, left) is a professor of political science and statistics at ISU, where he also directs the Public Policy and Administration Program. He will lead the statistical analysis of outcomes resulting from the initiative. He previously was a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at ISU, where he also directed the university's Research Institute for Studies in Education from 2003-07. The new grant will extend work that Hand and Shelley began on this initiative with other researchers nearly a decade ago.

Much of this grant is built upon previous grants Hand has received, including a three-year, $400,000 grant titled "Helping Iowa Teachers Promote Critical Thinking and Inquiry in Science and Literacy in K-8 Classrooms" he received in 2007 as a Title II grant authorized by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Hand said this grant also builds upon work being done with a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $1.5 million grant which he received in 2005 to produce two books and a professional development manual for K-12 teachers as part of a project titled "When Science and Literacy Meet: Creating Support for Teachers Implementing Writing in the Science Classroom."

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Brian Hand, UI College of Education Department of Teaching and Learning, 319-335-5590,; William Therrien, UI College of Education Department of Teaching and Learning, 319-335-5606,; Lois J. Gray, University News Services, 319-384-0077,