Iowa State, Iowa professors awarded $4.8 million grant to improve science literacy

AMES, Iowa -- A new four-year, $4.8 million U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences (IES) grant to improve science literacy among elementary students in Iowa has been awarded to an Iowa State University political science and statistics professor and two University of Iowa College of Education professors.

Principal investigator Brian Hand and co-principal investigators William Therrien and Mack Shelley are working with the four-year-grant titled "Efficacy of the Science Writing Heuristic Approach." Shelley is a University Professor of political science and statistics at Iowa State, where he also directs the Public Policy and Administration Program.

The grant comes through the National Center for Education Research Program, within IES, and is the first science goal level three grant funded for work with elementary students since IES' inception seven years ago. It extends work that Hand and Shelley began with other researchers at Iowa State nearly a decade ago -- building upon an educational method Hand developed called the science writing heuristic (SWH).

"The basic idea behind SWH is that students simultaneously learn principles of science and writing ability together," said Shelley, who directed the Iowa State's Research Institute for Studies in Education from 2003-07. "They (students) write out what they learn in much greater detail than what they previously had been taught -- putting what they have learned in more real-world terms."

The science writing heuristic method

Shelley says the SWH method both enhances students' literacy skill and improves their correct content knowledge in science principles. He reports that there has now been a decade of research validating SWH as an effective educational method.

"My particular role in this project was to develop an evidence-based research agenda to apply these SWH principles at a level of elementary science instruction," said Shelley, who will lead the statistical analysis of outcomes resulting from the new initiative.

"So the outcomes would be in terms of how it enhances student content knowledge -- as compared to students who don't go through this rigorous program -- and to connect teachers' modes of delivery of the content to student learning," he said. "The idea is that if teachers teach at a plane of higher comprehension, students will learn better and have more correct content knowledge about science."

The new grant will field test the SWH approach with an estimated 7,000 fourth through sixth grade students in 48 Iowa elementary schools from across the state, including both rural and urban schools. The Loess Hills and Keystone Area Education Agencies and the Iowa Department of Education will work with the research team to help identify schools, schedule activities, and provide access to pertinent data regarding student performance.

Each participating school will receive an estimated $10,000 for its science budgets and professional development for teachers.

Addressing the federal STEM mandate

The research program will embed science arguments within typical inquiry lessons to improve students' understandings of science. It directly addresses the federal mandate from the U.S. Dept. of Education and National Science Foundation to raise levels of science and mathematics education by 2010.

"The federal mandate particularly addresses the need for teachers to have the content knowledge to convey to students, and also addresses the need for students to internalize what they are taught," Shelley said. "It goes much deeper than the typical memorization students do to pass an exam and have them sort all the important aspects of science knowledge -- making them better consumers of correct science-based decision-making.

"I have been at National Science Foundation conferences where this (federal initiative) has become almost like a national security issue," he added. "The government has been worried for a long time that the U.S. is slipping behind others countries in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas and this (SWH) is one of a number of federal initiatives to increase the economic competitiveness of the United States by strengthening the support among the public for science-driven initiatives."

Shelley reports that IES grants are extremely competitive awards. "It's a real testament to the support that Iowa and Iowa State provide to science research that we were able to receive this award," he said.

Hand is a former professor of science education at Iowa State where he was director of the Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education. The new grant also builds upon work being done with a National Science Foundation (NSF) five-year, $1.5 million grant which he received in 2005. It created The Iowa Science Literacy Project, which also involves a three-year implementation and analysis of SWH through three area education agencies, six school districts, 32 elementary teachers, and over 700 students in the state. Lori Norton-Meier, an ISU assistant professor in curriculum and instruction, serves as co-director of the project with Hand.