New ISU teaching method boosts student science scores on Iowa tests by 25 percent

AMES, Iowa -- A new method to teach science to Iowa's K-6 students -- designed by education professors in Iowa State University's College of Human Sciences -- has produced a 25 percent increase in science scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) for students in grades 3-6 who receive special education assistance, when compared to other students. A similar increase in both science and language measures was seen for students who live at the poverty level.

Called Science Writing Heuristic (heuristic means tool), or SWH, the new method mates writing and language arts to the teaching of science.

Recent data analysis on the program found that all students taught by SWH also showed marked improvement in language and reading scores. Its success led Pam Armstrong-Vogel, director of curriculum and instruction for the Woodward-Granger School District, to describe it as "Mental Velcro" -- learning that sticks.

Traditionally, science teaching for Iowa's K-6 grade students has been based on the memorization of materials outlined in a textbook. Students often missed the "whys" of what happened in the learning projects, focusing instead on the answers sure to be asked on multiple choice tests. In many cases, students rarely understood the purpose of the experiment, or considered the evidence to support the book's conclusions.

In response, the Iowa Department of Education in 2004 initiated a three-year, $600,000 research study in six Iowa school districts on the new SWH teaching method. Brian Hand, an affiliate professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State and professor of education at the University of Iowa; and Lori Norton-Meier, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Iowa State, have led the project, which focuses on active student participation in the learning process.

"We saw improvement across the board with all students who experienced a high level of (SWH) implementation," said Norton-Meier. "While we saw that overall improvement, what was powerful about the first-year data was that those students who receive special education assistance or live at the poverty level had a 25 percent increase in ITBS science scores compared to other student groups. As a nation, we're looking at how to close that achievement gap and allow these students to catch up to peers. We previously thought that was impossible, but SWH is allowing that to happen.

"While the teacher supports and guides the students in their experiments, it is the students who develop the questions, test the hypothesis or theory, make the observations, arrive at claims to what they have experienced, prepare a report on the evidence, read about how their results compare with others and reflect on what they have learned (through the SWH method)," added Norton-Meier.

For example, she said, one experiment used by the program has students test which will sink first in a tank of water -- regular or diet soda.

"The students begin by touching and 'feeling' the weight of both cans of soda," Norton-Meier said. "They are asked to then write down what they think will happen in the experiment and why. When the can of regular soda sinks quicker than the diet can (because of its sugar content), the students are asked to examine why that was the result. They are encouraged to talk to each other and suggest possibilities aloud. Then, they will make claims, examine the evidence, and prepare reports on the conclusions."

Norton-Meier said the goal of the program is to build on the students' critical thinking and problem solving skills.

"Students are encouraged to do what actual scientists do," she said. "The students prepare and defend an argument or position on an activity. They talk with their peers about it, they show what they have experienced and they write about it. The more writing and classroom discussions, the more intriguing the learning becomes. We also relate the experiments to the real world and stress how science and chemistry are important at home, too."

Armstrong-Vogel said that while the positive results on learning are significant alone, students also report having more fun in learning science.

"Just as important as the data is the fact that students are reporting to their teachers an increased enjoyment of science," she said. "Teachers using SWH say that students frequently ask, 'Do we get to do science today?' What better testament is there to learning than when students look forward to it?"

Norton-Meier reports that their findings reflect the first year of a three-year project. "This is an ongoing analysis we're going to study," she said. "We'll look at years two and three and see if this pattern continues."

Other groups working on the SWH project are the departments of curriculum and instruction, chemistry and biology at Iowa State; the Iowa Space Grant Consortium; Heartland Area Education Agency (AEA) 11, Johnston; and the Loess Hill AEA 13, Council Bluffs.