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NSF grant supports justice-centered, ambitious science teaching

NSF grant supports justice-centered ambitious science teaching
Project Capitalizes on New COVID-19 Science Unit Developed by Rochester Educators

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the inequities of systemic racism in science classrooms and beyond school. But the pandemic also provides powerful opportunities to nurture science teachers who can lead and help students to better understand the science and advocacy around COVID and empower them to use science in meaningful ways. 

A $1.5 million Discovery Research PreK-12 (DRK-12) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded to the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education will allow science educators from the University of Connecticut Naeg School of Education and the University of Washington’s IslandWood Graduate Program in Education for Environment and Community to team up with a network of science teachers to confront the devastation and mistrust for science felt by communities, especially communities of color, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Equally important, it will also allow the team to address the challenges new science teachers face with developing science literacy and implementing the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for an increasingly diverse student population.

The three-year project, which began July 1, 2021 and is titled “COVID Connects Us: Nurturing Novice Teachers’ Justice Science Teaching (JuST) Identities,” is led by principal investigator April Luehmann, associate professor at the Warner School of Education, and co-principal investigators Todd Campbell, a professor at the University of Connecticut, and Déana Scipio, director of campus education programs at IslandWood.

The project team will implement a common kick-off COVID-19 unit, developed by Luehmann in 2020 in collaboration with teachers and doctoral students from Rochester, N.Y., to teach science concepts, aligned to the NGSS, to build students’ understanding of the science around the pandemic.

Grappling with racism, developing science literacy, using the range of NGSS science practices, and partnering with local doctors as medical mentors are a few of the lived experiences science classrooms, both teachers and students, will engage in through this work. This culture-setting unit will position youth as informed science advocates in their circles and their community, including but not limited to churches, extended families, neighborhoods, and peer groups, to help slow or stop the spread of the pandemic.

Read more about the “COVID Connects Us” classroom unit developed by Rochester educators.

“One of the many reasons that this project is so important is that COVID will always be a significant, relevant, and shared experience for all of us who have lived through this pandemic together,” says Luehmann. “Even after COVID restrictions ease, the pandemic will continue to be a puzzling phenomenon of interest for the foreseeable future as certain questions persist and vaccine access and distribution will continue to create critical questions about social justice issues.”

Luehmann adds that the anchoring COVID-19 science unit used to kick off this project will harness potential for change that the devastation of the pandemic offers.

“It will help us all to realize a new-better normal in science education by confronting racial injustices and engaging youth in ambitious science learning that positions them as engaged learners and community advocates,” she says. “These budding scientists will be able to make meaningful connections between the science that they learn and their lives and communities beyond school.”

The three-year project will generate new insights into the ways science education can be transformed to be a justice-centered, community-serving endeavor. The team will collect and analyze teacher narratives to study the impact of two core teacher supports — the culture-setting unit on the science of COVID and teachers’ engagement in a network of professional learning communities — on participating teachers’ professional identity development as practitioners of JuST practices.

During the first two years, the project will engage 20 learning communities each made up of four teachers at three different sites across the country who will engage in collaborative research of strategies and approaches that can improve and make more equitable the impact of their classroom instruction — an approach known as design-based implementation research (DBIR). Together, these learning communities of teachers will study videos of their practice and samples of student-centered work to understand and address the challenges of JuST practices. They will use their shared experiences to revise future instruction in ways that are justice-centered and engage students in meaningful science learning.

In the third year of the NSF project, the team will develop guidelines and resources, both digital and in print, to support justice-centered, ambitious science teaching. Resources will include the development and dissemination of research, a mini-course and conference, journal publications, local and national webinars for science teacher leaders, and a justice-centered science toolkit of videos and strategies that will be featured on a new website.

The NSF’s DRK-12 program seeks to significantly enhance the learning and teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by preK-12 students and teachers, through research and development of innovative resources, models and tools. Projects in the DRK-12 program build on fundamental research in STEM education and prior research and development efforts that provide theoretical and empirical justification for proposed projects.