Tag Archives: science education

Types of science learners: What kind are you?

Post By Jessy Abraham, Philip Smith and Maree Skillen

To engage children with science at primary level, we need teachers who are confident and enthusiastic about teaching science. However, research shows that in general, Australian primary school teachers are not comfortable with teaching science. They often lack content knowledge and their low sense of teaching self-efficacy is well documented in international primary science education literature science (e.g. Fitzgerald, Dawson & Hackling, 2013).  The decline in confidence and interest in science is also evident when students enter primary pre-service teacher education courses.  Pre-service teachers (PSTs) acknowledge a lack of understanding of content essential to teach primary science effectively (Stephenson, 2018).

Students’ early interest in science begins at primary schools and therefore, poor science teaching at this level can lead them to losing interest in science and eventual discontinuation from the subject during their transition to senior secondary and tertiary studies. This decline in science enrolment has attracted much attention in Australia in recent times.

Several factors influence a student’s science learning and teaching self-efficacy. Personal beliefs are one of them. Bleicher (2009) asserts that the science learner ‘typology’ of a PST would be shaped from their earlier experiences with science, and this can influence their teaching self-efficacy. His research classified PSTs into four types of science learners, based on disclosure of their prior science learning experiences. These types were: fearful of science; disinterested in learning science; successful in science, and enthusiastic about science. His study concluded that each ‘type’ has a distinct effect on science teaching self-efficacy and confidence to learn and teach science.  For example, fearful science learners perceived themselves as substantially less confident to learn science than all other types. Interestingly, disinterested science learners did not demonstrate a lack of confidence to learn science.  As an extension to this study, Norris, Morris and Lummis (2018) identified a new type of science learner (not clearly identifiable), located in the middle of the other four categories.

At Western Sydney University (WSU) in the Primary Science & Technology program, we wanted to identify the type of science learners our PSTs are. The purpose of this being to optimise their science learning during the methods unit. Our expectation was that WSU PSTs would display a range of dispositions towards science as primary teachers are generalists, not specialists like their secondary counterparts.  The guidelines of Bleicher’s study (2009) were followed in classifying the types.  Pre-service teachers were informed that the types are not mutually exclusive categories and, although there might be overlap between the descriptions of categories, they were to identify the category that best describes them.

Our survey attracted 91 PSTs (82 females and 9 males) and revealed interesting results. The majority of the PSTs discontinued formal study of science either at Year 12 (39%) or at Year 10 (37%). Only 19% of the students who responded had studied some science subjects to a Degree level while 6% discontinued at Year 11.

Out of the 91 respondents, 13% identified themselves as disinterested in learning science (e.g. dislike or disinterest for science during secondary education/felt bored/not engaged during class/not interested in teaching the subject), while 26% identified themselves as fearful of science (e.g. afraid or have apprehension towards science/the subject content felt foreign and did not make sense/ ‘scared’ about teaching due to a lack of conceptual understanding). It was pleasing to note that 41% are enthusiastic science learners (e.g. highly interested in science/enjoyed or enjoy science classes/attended extra-curricular science type of activities or hobbies/not necessarily achieving highest grades in classes but looking forward to teaching science). Only 6% reported that they are the successful in science type (e.g. high achievers in the area of science/ have science hobby or hobbies/specific interest outside of school science/feel confident to learn and understand science concepts/ confident in teaching science). Interestingly, 14% of students were categorised into not clearly identifiable type (e.g. like some parts of science/ like one branch of science but not some other branches/does not like school science but like science fiction or movies/ will avoid teaching science if possible).

Further, PSTs were asked about the branch of science that they prefer with more than one option being possible to select. Biology was the most popular option (50%), followed by Earth Sciences/Geology (40%), Chemistry (20%), Physics (12%), and Astrophysics (10%). It was notable that 26% of PSTs did not like any branch of science. While a fearful science learner admitted “science is boring and I just can’t retain the information”, not clearly identifiable type felt “science is exciting but challenging at the same time”. Interestingly, enthusiastic science learners disclosed that they “love science, but nervous about teaching the subject”. A successful in science learner described that they “deeply madly fall in love with science”. In general, PSTs felt they lack confidence in certain areas such as Chemistry and Physics than Biology and Geology. Yet, they are all expected to teach a key learning area incorporating all these branches, namely Primary Science, once they qualified as a teacher.

Findings of our survey indicate that a science classroom can include various types of learners. For us this means that our PSTs need more time and learning experiences to reduce their nervousness about science learning and teaching. Furthermore, the areas in which they are less confident about teaching need to be more strongly scaffolded. Thus a knowledge of science learner types can transform the design of a methods unit and assist teacher education providers in building confidence and capacity of future science teachers. Likewise, while designing programs for in-service teachers’ professional development, the typology of science learners needs to be considered.

A knowledge of learner types in school science and integrated science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms can assist school teachers as well. Science programs can include learning experiences that inspire and engage various types of science learners. Engaged and inspired learners will be actively involved in higher-level discussions, critical thinking and problem solving (Tyler & Pain, The Conversation, March 15, 2017).  Focusing on building the various types of learners’ identity in relation to ‘Working Scientifically’ (Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus, 2017) can boost the longer-term success of STEM education which is at the core of the government’s science agenda.

About the authors

Jessy Abraham coordinates and lectures in Primary Science and Technology at Western Sydney University.

Philip Smith is a casual academic specialising in science education at Western Sydney University.

Maree Skillen coordinates and lectures in Primary Mathematics education at Western Sydney University.

 

References

Bleicher, R. (2009). Variable relationships among different science learners in elementary science methods courses. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 7(2), 293–313. doi:10.1007/s10763-007-9121-8

Fitzgerald, A., Dawson, V., & Hackling, M. (2013). Examining the beliefs and practices of foureffective Australian primary science teachers. Research in Science Education, 43, 981–1003. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9297-y

Hackling, M., Peers, S. & Prain, V. (2007). Primary Connections: Reforming science teaching in Australian primary schools. Teaching Science, 53(3), 12-16.

Stephenson, J. (2018). A Systematic Review of the Research on the Knowledge and Skills of Australian Preservice Teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43(4). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2018v43n4.7

Norris, C. M., Morris, J. E., & Lummis, G. W. (2018). Preservice teachers’ self-efficacy to teach primary science based on ‘science learner’ typology. International Journal of Science Education, 40(18), 2292-2308.

Tytler,R  & Pain, V.  (2015). Science curriculum needs to do more to engage primary school students. The Conversation, March 15, 2015. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/science-curriculum-needs-to-do-more-to-engage-primary-school-students-74523

Science and Technology K–6 Syllabus.  (2017). NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Retrieved from https://educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/k-10/learning-areas/science/science-and-technology-k-6-new-syllabus

 

 

 

Science Focused Makerspaces: Transforming Learning in Teacher Education

By Jessy Abraham and Philip Smith

“Now I feel like a man!” exclaimed a female pre-service teacher. For the first time in her life she had used an electric drill, when she was constructing an artefact for an assessment task in the Primary Science & Technology unit (PS&T). Although unwittingly entrenching the prevailing stereotypical gendered expectations about the use of physical technology tools, this comment flags one of the major challenges that these teachers – especially female teachers- face: namely, the lack of technological self-efficacy. The lack of teacher confidence in using physical technology tools and integrating the use of such tools in classroom teaching are recurring themes in science teacher education literature and may have future negative impact on students in classrooms.

Confronting and overcoming such fears cannot be dismissed as a ‘female problem’. However, gender has been shown to be one of the determining factors of technological self-efficacy. Although the overall findings regarding gender differences in technological self-efficacy are inconclusive, males tend to score higher than females on specific scales. This could be related to the gendered norms and expectations created by society which in turn enhance attitudes and eventually expertise in using such tools.

The science teaching team conducted an informal survey in 2017 among 106 pre serve teachers (90 females and 16 males) regarding their perceived expertise and confidence in using physical technological tools like power drills or soldering irons. The results showed that while females displayed a low rating of 2.9 on average; the males’ rating was 3.5 (scale mean 3). While 50 percent of the females were extremely negative or negative about using such physical technology tools in their classrooms, only 19% males were negative. Only 33% females reported that they were either positive or extremely positive in using physical technology tools, in comparison to 56% of the male cohort.

Bandura (1977) identifies four general sources of self-efficacy: performance accomplishments, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Studies suggest that there are differences in the way these sources influence both genders. For example, the most influential source of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) self-efficacy for men has been identified as the mastery experience, while for women vicarious experiences and social persuasion were the prominent influences (e.g., Zeldin & Pajares, 2000). This prompted the WSU science team to establish Makerspaces focusing on improving students’ self-efficacy through vicarious experiences and social persuasion.

Makerspaces are becoming more common in Australian universities (Wong & Partridge, 2016). They are defined as a creative physical space where students can explore, play, design, invent and build new projects and technologies (Blackley et al., 2017). In such an informal space, students have the opportunity to become involved with collaborative hands-on projects that promote experiential learning. Maker movements can also develop a mentality among participants leading them to realise that they could be a creator rather than just a consumer. By easily incorporating a variety of STEM topics, Makerspaces are a great means to engage students in STEM. For example, E-textiles and soft circuitry, (circuits that are sewn using conductive thread or fabric), have shown to be an engaging way to teach electronics and programming (Thomas, 2012).

The key purpose of PS&T unit’s Makerspaces are to create space for pre-service teachers to learn, play, make and explore in the teaching areas of science and technology in a flexible and supportive setting. The preferred way of learning is underpinned by a social constructivist perspective, where new knowledge was developed through collaboration, social interactions, and the use of shared classroom communication (Martinez & Stager, 2013). Our Makerspaces focus on Exploratory Fabrication Technologies (EFT): technologies centred on fabrication (activities oriented towards invention, construction and design) and those centred on exploration (activities oriented towards expression, tinkering, learning, and discovery) (Blikstein, Kabayadondo, Martin, & Fields, 2017). The EFT tools include hot glue guns, heat guns, soldering irons, wire solders, and power tools such as drills, sanders and saws.

Science teaching staff are on hand in our Makerspaces to facilitate learning, making and exploring. They assist participants with specific skills: training, investigation of materials and resources, and use of tools. Staff help participants to develop a product for use in their primary classrooms. These include solar ovens, slime, battery-operated cars, wax wraps, kites, magnetic circuits, crystal snowflakes and a cloth number-counting resource. Participants also investigate classroom resources such as science kits, a seed germination observation kit, and other botanical displays; and use common tools such as power drills, soldering irons, cutters and saws and 3D printers. For some, this is their first chance to learn how to use a soldering iron or a drill. Students also get involved in skill development of their peers. For example, those who had already learnt how to use the soldering iron teach other students how to solder. Participants are given resources related to the development of Makerspaces within educational settings and a small collection useful websites.

Students appreciate the opportunity to experience hands-on activities they can use in their own teaching. They acknowledge the importance of the trial and error approach, importance of peer-to-peer discussions and the relaxed environment while they acquire new skills.   A number of students said the event built their confidence to use tools, to experiment, and to do science. Some appreciate seeing what teaching and learning resources are available for teaching science and technology and some learn how to organise MS at their school.

The overwhelming student support for Makerspaces has implications for schools. ‘Making’ can happen in a variety of places other than STEM-related concepts and technology-based activities. Makerspaces can promote a ‘community of practitioners’ and transform the way students can collaborate and learn.

About the authors:

Jessy Abraham received her PhD in Education from the University of Western Sydney in 2013. She lectures in Primary Science and Technology.  Before joining UWS she worked as a science teacher in NSW schools.  Her research interests are in the area of student motivation, engagement and retention in sciences. Her research employs sophisticated quantitative analyses. Currently her research is focused on pre-service science teachers and practices that enhance their self-efficacy in teaching science in primary school settings.

Philip Smith is a casual academic specialising in science education at Western Sydney University.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215

Blikstein, P., Kabayadondo, Z., Martin, A. and Fields, D. (2017), An Assessment Instrument of Technological Literacies in Makerspaces and FabLabs. J. Eng. Educ., 106: 149–175. doi:10.1002/jee.20156

Blackley, S., Sheffield, R., Maynard, N., Koul, R., & Walker, R. (2017). Makerspace and Reflective Practice: Advancing Pre-service Teachers in STEM Education. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2017v42n3.2

Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing modern knowledge press.

Thomas, A. ( 2012) Engaging Students in the STEM Classroom Through “Making” https://www.edutopia.org/blog/stem-engagement-maker-movement-annmarie-thomas, Retrieved on 13 Feb,2018.

Wong, A., & Partridge, H. (2016) Making as Learning: Makerspaces in Universities, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 47:3, 143-159, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2016.1228163

Zeldin, A.L., & Pajares, F. (2000). Against the odds: Self-efficacy beliefs of women in mathematical, scientific, and technological careers. American Educational Research Journal, 37, 215-246.

Man enough to study Physics? What do New South Wales Physics students say?

by Jessy Abraham

The proposed Stage 6 Physics curriculum for New South Wales (NSW) has been lauded as a “return to science” and has been welcomed by science-education experts who regard the current curriculum as ‘soft’ and a ‘diluted’ version of physics (Robinson & Armitage, 2017).

In her 2017 Australia Day address, Professor Michelle Simmons criticised the “feminisation” of physics in NSW (Fitzpatrick, 2017). The use of the term feminisation refers to efforts whereby curriculum developers sought to make the current physics curriculum more appealing to girls by minimising rigorous mathematical problem-solving and replacing it with a qualitative approach. The new syllabus that will commence in 2018 will move away from this qualitative emphasis and the current ‘social-context’ approach to teaching physics and bring in a greater focus on content and quantitative rigour, including mandatory equation derivations and problem solving (Crook, 2017). Stronger emphasis will be given to learning scientific principles, theories and laws.

Topics with a descriptive nature, such as historical linkages and societal implications of scientific inventions will be largely eliminated (Physics Stage 6 Syllabus, 2017). While this has been applauded by critics of the current syllabus and University-based Physics educators, concerns about equity of access have also been raised. The concern is that an increase in quantitative rigour may perhaps lead to even sharper declines in physics enrolment numbers (Crook, 2017).

How valid are the perceived beliefs that the ‘dumbing down ‘of physics content by replacing mathematical focus with the life stories of scientists, historical development and societal impacts of their inventions, will appeal more to female students? Are male students naturally better at and inclined to problem solving, experiments and mathematical applications? Such perceptions exacerbate the ubiquitous gender stereotypes regarding the ‘masculinity’ of physics.

Results of my study conducted among 247 year 11 physics students (157 males and 90 females) from the Sydney metropolitan area did not support these claims. Male and female students who were continuing physics to Year 12 held high levels of interest value, performance perceptions and instrumental value (usefulness for personal career/study plans) in relation to physics, and there were no statistically significant differences for these values between the genders. Both genders displayed similar levels of high engagement with physics, and held low levels of stereotypes on the perceived masculinity of physics.

These observations were equally valid for students who were discontinuing physics, who possessed low levels of interest, performance perceptions and engagement with physics: they also held low stereotypical gender role beliefs. No significant gender differences were found. For the four modules in the current year 11 physics curriculum, in the majority of instances there were no consistent differences in how male and female students perceived the achievement motivational factors explored in the study.

When students were asked to rate various Year 11 physics topics based on their interest value, no significant gender difference was identified. Both genders indicated higher than average levels of interest in learning laws of physics, problem solving, experiments, relating to real life situations, contributions to humanity and the abstract nature of physics. However, regarding the much criticized topics such as ‘Lives of Scientists’ and ‘Historical Contexts of Inventions’, both genders displayed a marked lack of interest. This lack of interest was equally expressed by both genders.

Likewise, both genders described physics as “interesting, challenging, yet satisfying, and something that relates to everyday life” (male student, comprehensive school). Furthermore, participants’ qualitative responses tended to reinforce traditional views on the expected nature of physics. Students reported that they expected more mathematically oriented content, and ‘crazy calculations to experiments’ (female student, selective school) when they enrolled in senior secondary physics. Nevertheless, the enacted curriculum had ‘too much language orientation’ (male student, selective school). They wanted to see ‘less literacy, more scientific content’ (male student, comprehensive school). In relation to the historical and social contexts of inventions, and descriptive topics like The Cosmic Engine (a topic on Astrophysics), the majority found these  ‘boring, dull and not useful’ (male student, Catholic school). Interestingly students gave a strong emphasis to the instrumental value of physics and tended to view the subject as a preparation course of STEM courses at university.

The results of my study support the argument that senior secondary physics students may prefer the content and quantitative analytical rigour proposed in the new curriculum and the removal of certain sections in the current curriculum. This endorses the changes prescribed in new Stage 6 Physics syllabus. However, the popular misconception that ‘dumbing-it-down- for- females’ might increase its attractiveness was not supported. Issues around whether the new syllabus may aggravate equity of access to physics will need to be examined once the implementation of the new syllabus begins.

References

Fitzpatrick, S (2017, January 24). Feminisation of science a disaster, leading quantum physicist Michelle Simmons says. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/feminisation-of-science-a-disaster-leading-quantum-physicist-michelle-simmons-says/news-story/8a432da4bce81e4fb51d91da9bf7a98b

Crook, S (2017, February 22). New physics syllabus raises the bar, but how will schools clear it? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/new-physics-syllabus-raises-the-bar-but-how-will-schools-clear-it-73370

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Physics Stage 6 Syllabus (2017) NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA). Retrieved from http://syllabus.nesa.nsw.edu.au/assets/physics_stage_6/physics-stage-6-syllabus-2017.pdf

Robinson, N & Armitage, R (2017, February 21). New South Wales HSC syllabus gets overhaul with more complex topic. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-21/nsw-hsc-syllabus-gets-radical-overhaul-year-12-teaching-changes/8288000

 

Dr Jessy Abraham is a lecturer in Primary science and technology curriculum in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.