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UGA researcher receives NSF grant to study modeling-based science instruction

Athens, Ga. – University of Georgia education researcher Ji Shen believes that an innovative approach to K-12 teaching called Modeling-Based Instruction can improve student learning in science education, and he is beginning a two-year study to determine how it can be implemented in classrooms across the nation.

Shen has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to provide the first comprehensive review and synthesis of the achievements and difficulties of the teaching method, then create a framework in which it can be scaled up.

“MBI encourages students to use, create, share and evaluate models to represent and explain scientific processes and phenomena,” said Shen, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s department of mathematics and science education.

Stagnant scientific education is imperiling U.S. economic leadership, according to an update of a 2005 report by leading business and science figures released at a congressional briefing last month.

The original report led to a doubling of federal research funding. Nevertheless, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited,” finds little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary technical education since then.

“Our nation’s outlook has worsened,” concludes the report panel headed by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine. The report “…paints a daunting outlook for America if it continues on the perilous path it has been following:”

* U.S. mathematics and science K-12 education ranks 48th worldwide.

* 49 percent of U.S. adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to circle the sun.

* China has replaced the United States as the world’s top high-technology exporter.

Although U.S. school achievement scores have stagnated harming the economy as employers look elsewhere for competent workers, the report says that other nations have made gains.

If U.S. students matched Finland’s for example, analysis suggests the U.S. economy would grow 9 percent -16 percent.

“As an innovative pedagogy in science education that can engender productive student learning, MBI fits the dual need of improving current U.S. science education as well as preparing the next generation of competitive science professionals,” Shen said.

Despite the accumulation of research on theories and applications of MBI over the last three decades, the effective application and scaling-up of MBI have been thwarted by incompatible theoretical frameworks, difficulties in applying modern technologies, and a lack of evidence regarding how various MBI factors work together to contribute to student learning, according to Shen. He hopes to provide a sound understanding of the potentials and challenges of MBI, while establishing coherent guidelines on the best practices of MBI that lead to students’ deep understanding.

Shen plans to build an analytic framework to conceptualize the landscape of MBI, recommend best design strategies of technology-enhanced modeling environments and identify the MBI elements associated with positive student learning in science.

“Findings from this project will provide a useful framework for the science education community to better understand MBI,” he said. “The findings also will shed light on the effective factors and successful strategies that can guide the design and implementation of MBI.”

According to Shen, when scientifically designed and appropriately implemented, MBI can help students better comprehend big ideas by engaging them in building scientific models via computer information technology as well as hands-on materials; employing multiple ways of representations to accommodate diverse learners; and facilitating a collaborative community as students build models together, communicate their models to others, and evaluate alternative models.

“Based on our findings, we also will provide recommendations on feasible programs and necessary resources needed for successful and sustainable MBI to agencies that produce national guiding documents, such as the National Science Education Standards and the National Science Teachers Association Standards for Science Teacher Preparation,” said Shen.

Shen has received a $248,610 grant from the National Science Foundation for this research. He is the project’s principal investigator and will collaborate with Jing Lei, an associate professor in the department of instructional design, development and evaluation at Syracuse University.