The science of learning about science

jbrehm2, July 1, 2014 | View original publication

The science of learning about science

The way you learn affects what you learn. That's a critical theme throughout Cory Forbes' work and research.

"Much of the K-12 science curriculum still emphasizes learning about discrete natural phenomena," said Forbes, associate professor of science education and science literacy coordinator in UNL's School of Natural Resources.

However, when it comes to learning about entire resource systems — like soil or water — students need to see, use and apply models in the classroom, Forbes said.

"Water systems, like other geosystems, demand that science learning environments afford students opportunities to envision large-scale relationships, produce and use various representation forms of these relationships and apply this knowledge to novel situations," he said. "All are critical components of systems thinking."

Backed by a National Science Foundation grant, Forbes is leading a project that uses model-centric science learning environments in elementary school classrooms to support, and ideally enhance, student learning on the topic of water systems.

"Water is a crucial resource system for which students need to develop science literacy," he said. "The project is yielding important findings from discipline-based educational research about how early learners use models to learn about water."

For example, Forbes has found that students tend to deemphasize groundwater and its role in the global water cycle, which describes the continuous movement of water on, above and below the Earth's surface.

"So this has emerged as a major focus of the project," Forbes said.

The research team includes Forbes; Christina Schwarz, associate professor of science education at Michigan State University; Laura Zangori and Tina Vo, two UNL doctoral students.

Over the past two years, they have worked with six third-grade teachers to refine and test a modeling-enhanced curriculum module focused on water. They will continue to work with these teachers next year, in addition to a second group of teachers using the non-enhanced version of the water unit.

"This will allow for a comparative study of the curricular intervention to assess its impact on students' model-based reasoning about water," Forbes said. "Classroom-based research is very exciting. It provides a wonderful opportunity to work with teachers and students in contexts where K-12 science teaching and learning is occurring."

Forbes joined UNL in September 2013 as part of an IANR hiring initiative, which aims to fill 36 new positions primarily in the areas of science literacy, stress biology, computational sciences, healthy humans and healthy systems for agricultural production and natural resources. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Kansas, in addition to master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan.

Forbes said this project is setting the stage for similar research at other educational levels.

"The project gives me an opportunity to work with K-12 teachers to improve elementary science teaching and learning," he said. "It will help lay the foundation for future work with partner schools in Nebraska to explore similar questions at the middle school level."